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What Would Frodo Do? JRR Tolkien and Political Economy

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by: Jason Hamza van Boom. Crossposted from Tikkun Daily.

I recently posted on Tikkun Daily the following quote on JRR Tolkien vs Ayn Rand:

“There are two novels that can transform a bookish 14-year-kld’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood in which large chunks of the day are spent inventing ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel. The other is a book about orcs.” – “The Value of Nothing” by Raj Patel [Corrections: John Rogers, screenwriter, film producer, comedian and comic book writer, is the original author of this statement.  Raj Patel heard it from a friend without knowing it was published earlier, and quoted it in his The Value of Nothing. Like many others, I thought Patel was the author. I'm grateful for two Tikkun Daily readers who pointed out the need for a correction. You can find the original statement here:   http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com/2009/03/ephemera-2009-7.html <http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com/2009/03/ephemera-2009-7.html>]

It’s been somewhat of a hit with Tikkun Daily readers. This led me to wonder: Did Tolkien have a view on political economy?

We know what kind of economics John Galt and other Randian heroes espoused. And many more people get turned on to lassez-faire capitalism by Rand’s novels than by libertarian economics treatises. (The first history of libertarianism, by Jerome Tucille, is actually titled It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand). So, if fantasy novels can provide an ideological basis for the opposition, can progressives find inspiration from Tolkien, one of the greatest storytellers of all time?

In other words: What would Frodo do?

I’m not an expert on Tolkien. Whether he had a worked out view on economics is an open question for me. I do know that he was part of the great English reniassance of writers and thinkers from the first part of the 20th century, largely Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic. Tolkien was a member of the Inklings, a literary discussion group that included such luminaries as C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams, and was also a friend of the illustrious Dorothy Sayers. ( Alas, Albion, how far hast thou fallen!)

The milieu they inhabited was friendly to a movement called “Distributism” (also known as “Distributivism”), an alternative view on economics developed by Hillaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton. They were inspired by the encyclicals of popes such as Leo XIII and Pius XI, who took prophetic stances against both robber baron capitalism and totalitarian Communism. They taught about he need to find a balance between individualism and totalitarianism through a judicious blend of market processes, co-operative associations of labor and capital, and progressive legislation.

In response to these teachings, the Distributists proposed that there was an alternative to the extremes of laissez-faire capitalism and complete state ownership of the economy. In fact, they pointed out these two extremes shared a common feature: the means of production become concentrated in the hands of a few. The “choice” is between a corporate oligarchy and a governmental one. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.”

An alternative would be to have private property widely distributed throughout society, so that every adult person is an owner of capital, or productive property. They proposed a commonwealth of independent farmers, small proprietors, and worker-owners in co-operative firms and guilds. Each household would have enough to live a life of dignity, but not so much that they could tyrannize over others.

A nice vision, one that’s often been criticized as utopian and romantic. Recently, however, there’s been a Distibutist and “natural law” economics revival, with sharp thinkers such as John C. Médaille (website here and latest book here) working out the economic logic of a feasible Distributism.

But back to Tolkien. I knew that he wrote when Distributism was in its first heyday. And the Shire does seem like an ideal Distributist society. So, was Tolkien a Distributist?

Matthew P. Akers makes a case in St. Austin’s Review that Tolkien’s Middle Earth writings do exemplify the principles of Distributism–both as a positive model in the Shire and critically through showing the destructive processes of an inhuman, anti-natural regime (think of Mordor as the first BP!) St Austin’s is a conservative Catholic journal, but of a distinctly non-Ayn-Rand, non-neo-conservative kind, and progressives will find Akers’ remarks on economics, the environment, and imperialism to be very congenial.

Some selections:

In the modern world, we are accustomed to a highly-centralized industrial economy that engages in international trade and is controlled by the twin powers of “big government” and “big business”. In contrast, the Shire’s Distributist economy is a diffuse system based upon small farmers, small business, and local trade….

The two controlling powers of the modern industrial economy — big government and big business — are absent from the Shire. Bigness in any form is foreign to the Shire’s economy, which is localized, agricultural, and hobbit-sized in every sense.

After Sam, Frodo, Pippin, and Merry leave on the quest to destroy the ring, the Shire’s economy changes dramatically.

When the four hobbits return from their quest, big government and big business have encroached upon the former hobbitsized economy, industrializing it. A large bureaucracy comprised of outsiders now controls the Shire’s economy, and its principles of production have expanded well beyond what is necessary simply for maintaining the needs of the Shire and its inhabitants. Pimple and Sharkey, two aptly named villains who lead this attack upon the hobbits, buy up much of the Shire, concentrating land and resources in the hands of a few, which is antithetical to the Distributist insistence upon the necessity of widely distributed private property….

This environmental destruction has also destroyed the indigenous culture of the hobbits. They have become industrial serfs rather than agricultural freemen ( sic). Now, the hobbits depend upon the industrial work they perform at the new mill for their livelihood rather than enjoying the fruits of their agricultural labor. They also crouch in fear before the big government that has taken over the Shire, for this new government controls the mill, the hobbits’ source of livelihood. Once the hobbits are severed from nature, they are severed from their very essence: they are no longer free and fun-loving. Instead, they have become industrial slaves, both to their masters at the mill and to their bureaucratic masters in government. Ted Sandyman, the former owner of the mill, now works there as a wheel cleaner — a menial laborer — for the new owners. Once the hobbits’ reliance upon nature is destroyed, their self-sufficiency follows. The hobbits and their community are lost when the land is forsaken….

Like Sauron, Sam wishes to use the ring, but, unlike Sauron, Sam wishes to use the ring to promote freedom. He has a vision in which he sees himself brandishing a sword and using the ring to lead an army into Mordor in order to conquer it and to transform the industrial wasteland into a giant garden. While this vision is highly appealing to Sam, he ultimately realizes that “the one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.” Sam recognizes that he cannot make his agrarian vision a reality through imperialism, and he rejects this imperialistic and militaristic temptation.

I certainly recommend reading the whole article. (Link again here).

Now, I can anticipate some snarky comments from the pro-capitalist Right. I do not propose using magic rings or elvish charms to fix the economy (although I suspect those are less fantastic than supply-side economics, or certain forms of Keynesianism). The case for a progressive, “third way” economics must be made through the cold logic and dry prose of economic theory and empirical analysis.

But, to her credit, Ayn Rand did show us something. An economic policy will never gain popular support unless we show how economics relate to meta-economic principles of ethics and “the nature of things.” Literature is certainly an appropriate vehicle for this. And, to paraphrase E.F. Schumacher, Tolkien shows us that hobbit-sized is beautiful.

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