Michel Houellebecq on France’s Distributist Future

I recently listened to an audiobook of the German translation of Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel Soumission— which, as most readers will know, is about Muslim party taking power in France. I am working on a review, and have been checking my favorite passages in the French original. I hope to complete the full review soon, but in the mean time here is a  rough translation of some passages in which Houellebecq discusses distributism. The main objective of the new government is to strengthen the family, and for this purpose they turn to distributism:

Apart from this superficial agitation, France was in the midst of rapid development and profound change. It soon became clear that Mohammed Ben Abbes [the new Muslim president of France] had other ideas apart from Islam; in a press conference he declared to general astonishment that he was influenced by distributism. Actually he had already mentioned this multiple times during his campaign, but since journalists are very naturally inclined to ignore information that they cannot understand, these statements were not passed on to the public. This time he was the sitting president of the republic so that it was necessary for them to bring their research up to date. And so the public learned over the next few weeks that distributism was an economic philosophy that had been developed in England at the start of the 20th century by thinkers such as Gilbert Keith Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. It wanted to take a ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism (which it understood as state capitalism). Its basic idea was the overcoming of the division between capital and labor. The normal form of economic life was to be the family business. If certain branches of production required large scale organization, then everything was to be done to ensure that the workers were co-owners of their company, and co-responsible for its management.  […] An essential element of political philosophy introduced by Chesterton and Belloc was the principle of subsidiarity. According to this principle, no association (whether social, economic or political) should have charge of a function that could be assigned to a smaller association. Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, provided a definition of this principle: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

(Au-delà de cette agitation superficielle, la France était en train d’évoluer rapidement, et d’évoluer en profondeur. Il apparut bientôt que Mohammed Ben Abbes, même indépendamment de l’islam, avait des idées ; lors d’une séance de questions à la presse, il se déclara influencé par le distributivisme, ce qui plongea ses auditeurs dans un ébahissement général. Il l’avait à vrai dire déjà déclaré, à plusieurs reprises, au cours de la campagne présidentielle ; mais les journalistes ayant une tendance bien naturelle à ignorer les informations qu’ils ne comprennent pas, la déclaration n’avait été ni relevée, ni reprise. Cette fois, il s’agissait d’un président de la république en exercice, il devenait donc indispensable qu’ils mettent à jour leur documentation. Le grand public apprit ainsi au cours des semaines suivantes que le distributivisme était une philosophie économique apparue en Angleterre au début du xxe siècle sous l’impulsion des penseurs Gilbert Keith Chesterton et Hilaire Belloc. Elle se voulait une « troisième voie », s’écartant aussi bien du capitalisme que du communisme – assimilé à un capitalisme d’État. Son idée de base était la suppression de la séparation entre le capital et le travail. La forme normale de l’économie y était l’entreprise familiale ; lorsqu’il devenait nécessaire, pour certaines productions, de se réunir dans des entités plus vastes, tout devait être fait pour que les travailleurs soient actionnaires de leur entreprise, et coresponsables de sa gestion. […] Un des éléments essentiels de la philosophie politique introduite par Chesterton et Belloc était le principe de subsidiarité. D’après ce principe, aucune entité (sociale, économique ou politique) ne devait prendre en charge une fonction pouvant être confiée à une entité plus petite. Le pape Pie XI, dans son ency- clique Quadragesimo Anno, fournissait une définition de ce principe: «Tout comme il est mauvais de reti- rer à l’individu et de confier à la communauté ce que l’entreprise privée et l’industrie peuvent accomplir, c’est également une grande injustice, un mal sérieux et une perturbation de l’ordre convenable pour une organisation supérieure plus large de s’arroger les fonctions qui peuvent être effectuées efficacement par des entités inférieures plus petites.»  [Soumission, pp. 201-202, 210])

17 thoughts on “Michel Houellebecq on France’s Distributist Future

  1. Very interesting! It strikes me that there is a potentially huge barrier here, if Jacques Ellul is sufficiently correct in his The Subversion of Christianity:

        There is also another element that is intolerable for different reasons, namely, freedom. It is true that people claim to want freedom. In good faith attempts are made to set up political freedom. People also proclaim metaphysical freedom. They struggle to free slaves. They make liberty a supreme value. The loss of freedom by imprisonment is a punishment that is hard to bear. Liberty is cherished. How many crimes, too, are committed in its name? Impressive Greek myths tell the story of human freedom triumphing over the gods. In one interpretation of Genesis 3 Adam is praised as one who made a bold stroke for freedom, asserting his independence in face of a malignant, authoritarian, tormenting God who imposed prohibitions so as to prevent his child from doing wrong.
        Adam was bold enough to act as a free man before God, disobeying him and transgressing. In so doing he inaugurated human history, which is in truth, the history of freedom. How beautiful all this is! But this fervor, passion, desire, and teaching are all false. It is not true that people want to be free. They want the advantages of independence without the duties or difficulties of freedom.[5] Freedom is hard to live with. It is terrible. It is a venture. It devours and demands. It is a constant battle, for around us there are always traps to rob us of it. But in particular freedom itself allows us no rest. It requires incessant emulation and questioning. it presupposes alert attention, ruling out habit or institution. It demands that I be always fresh, always ready, never hiding behind precedents or past defeats. It brings breaks and conflicts. It yields to no constraint and exercises no constraint. For there is freedom only in permanent self-control and in love of neighbor.
        Love presupposes freedom and freedom expands only in love.[6] This is why de Sade is the supreme liar of the ages. What he showed and taught others is the way of slavery under he banner of freedom. Freedom can never exert power. There is full coincidence between weakness and freedom. Similarly, freedom can never mean possession. There is an exact coincidence between freedom and non possession. Freedom, then, is not merely a merry childish romp in a garden of flowers. It is this too, for it generates great waves of joy, but these cannot be separated from severe asceticism, conflict, and the absence of arms and conquests. This is why those who suddenly find themselves in a situation of freedom lose their heads or soon want to return to bondage. (166–167)

    [5] The only basic books on freedom are those by B. Charbonneau, especially Je fus (1980)
    [6] See J. Ellul, Éthique de la liberté, 2 vols. (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1973, 1975); ET The Ethics of Freedom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976)

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  2. Fr Edmund, thank you for posting this. Like so many today, I feel the attraction of distributism. I am curious, however, about the final line here (recognising that this a question about an Encyclical and not Houellebecq’s work). Is the “smaller organisation” meant to be a private or a public organisation? That is, are we talking about private businesses or local government or something else entirely? Do you have any insights into these questions of mine?

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    • That’s a really good question. I think he had not only local government in mind, but also non-territorial associations such as guilds. These would be different from private businesses—for one thing, membership would be compulsory. This was tried in the Austrian “Ständestaat,” and there is a remnant of it left in contemporary Austrian “Körperschaften öffentlichen Rechts.”

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      • That’s what I thought. I only asked because one could easily see a ‘conservative’ response to that statement being a pro-privatisation model, which is not, it seems to me, a right understanding of Catholic Social Teaching and distributism.

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  3. An essential element of political philosophy introduced by Chesterton and Belloc was the principle of subsidiarity.

    Little unclear what this means. Subsidiarity was a standard in most ancient cultures, as well as modern enterprises, just because it’s what works. It goes by other names. It’s today’s ‘on the ground’ concept. Decisions made at a distance lack data. Chesteron and Belloc enunciated it, is what I understand, but they did not create the idea. Is that right, and is that what the author is trying to say?

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  4. “Freedom can never exert power. There is full coincidence between weakness and freedom.” Isn’t this from the Vatican 2 playbook? The Catholic states did certainly exert power, and if we were fortunate to get that blessed state again, it would again. It would forbid abortion. It would forbid predatory lending. What else need I argue? Weakness is over-hyped.

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    • God did not allow the Catholic states to continue exerting power. Do you think perhaps this is because God did not approve of what they were doing? From here, we can discuss whether it was merely their technique which was wrong, or whether something in their fundamental philosophy was wrong. See, for example, Mt 20:20–28. An example of God’s power, which seems completely different from the kind you describe, can be found in Eph 1:15–23.

      By the way, I do not disagree that abortion and predatory lending are evils. Nevertheless, there are multiple ways to fight evil. Law seems, at best, only ever a stopgap measure. Without inculcating virtue, without inculcating zeal for God, without discipleship, interest in following the law seems to wane over a few generations. Either laws stop being obeyed, or they start changing. There is a reason law is treated as it is in 2 Cor 3 and Gal 3.

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  5. I think you have not learned about God permitting evil things to happen, not in His active will, but in His passive. The Catholic states were killed by protestantism, by sin, not by the will of God. To His great sorrow, I am sure, given the souls lost.

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    • What I said is perfectly consonant with God’s passive will.

      As to your explanation, I am very reticent to lay the blame 100% at the feet of Protestants, or 100% at the feet of Roman Catholics. Indeed, Isaiah 58 has something about “the pointing of the finger”. I am more interested in whether unity is predicated exclusively upon the person of Jesus Christ, or whether jots and tiddles are added on top of Jesus. I take seriously passages such as John 13:34–35 and 17:20–23. Furthermore, in sending Jesus, God refused to condemn the world, but instead extended grace. He did not blame, he saved. Right now, at this instant, the world seems to need Jesus-action. Part of that seems to be a refusal to use power to coerce. Again, I point to Mt 20:20–28.

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        • Thomas Pink: The Church was the only body with the right to coerce on behalf of religious truth: to issue directives, and to back those directives up by the threat of punishments.

          This confuses me; I don’t know how to reconcile it with:

          But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:25–28)

          To the extent that there is an authority structure, it seems destined to quickly pass away; we see this described in Eph 4:1–16 (see the ‘until’ of v13), and frustration that people are still “infants in Christ” in 1 Cor 3:1–4 and Heb 5:11–6:3. Anything else would appear to be a recapitulation of Deut 5:22–33 and 1 Sam 8, to the detriment of Jer 31:31–34 and Ezek 36:22–32.

          Is there perhaps a good resource to address this matter?

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          • Ahhh, but for how long are we expected to be “infants in Christ”? I’m extremely wary of pushing things to the eschaton when that isn’t the only reasonable interpretation of the text. Furthermore, the 7+1 instances of one who conquers in Revelation seem to require something other than infanthood. We also have Jeremiah’s complaint in Jer 12 and God’s response, including the famous: “If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, / how will you compete with horses? / And if in a safe land you are so trusting, / what will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?” It seems to me that the Bible expects us to exit infanthood earlier than the eschaton.

            It is not clear how Jesus can call infants, “friends” in Jn 15:12–15. Paul speaks of the law as a tutor in Gal 3, as our paidagōgos. But then we have 1 Cor 13:11, where Paul speaks of having been a child, but then: “When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” So, where is the scriptural support for us being “infants in Christ” up until the eschaton? Perhaps you are using the word ‘infant’ in a very different way than I am, and in a different way than my recollection of the OT and NT.

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          • It’s a good question. I do think think that the compete fulfillment is in the eschaton (which, lest we forget, is coming soon), but there is always a partial fulfillment before then. To the extent that persons grow in charity they do what is good of their own accord and no one needs to coerce them. But to the extent that a persons are not fulfilling their baptismal vows they are ipso facto still infants. St Benedict says at the beginning of the Rule:

            We are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord. In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of justice for the amendment of vices or the preservation of love, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14). For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love.

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  6. Pingback: My Review of Houellebecq’s Soummision | Sancrucensis

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