If I were to step away from my current work and try to make a living by writing a Substack newsletter, or by podcasting or becoming a YouTuber—none of which is likely to happen, I should add—I would be turning my back on three long-established institutions in which I have participated for many years: higher education, periodical publishing, and book publishing. I would therefore be contributing to a development Yuval Levin laments in his recent book A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream. Levin argues that “Americans have long been losing faith in institutions”—have tried to exploit those institutions for personal gain or have abandoned them altogether—and that this has led to a “degradation of our common life.” A kind of vicious circle has taken hold: People who mistrust institutions invest less of themselves in them, which weakens the institutions and makes them harder to trust.
In Levin’s reading of the situation, this can happen even when elements of the institutions in question are financially successful. American journalism is in a generally parlous state, and even though the New York Times is making plenty of money, it nevertheless experiences many of the institutional pathologies of the larger institution, as was recently documented by Reeves Wiedeman in a report for New York magazine. That kind of dysfunctional, fear-and-anger-driven culture is especially worrisome if, like Levin, you think that human beings “require moral and social formation, and that such formation is what our institutions are for.” And when respected writers like Charlie Warzel leave the Times for Substack, this can’t help the health of the newspaper—or of the larger institution of journalism, or anyway, journalism as we have heretofore known it.
I think, then, that it is perfectly reasonable to interpret the rise of services like Substack—a newsletter platform—and still more important, Stripe—a “payments infrastructure for the Internet”—as corrosive of institutions. But there’s another way to think of the current situation that is less troubled and more hopeful.
That way is to see the rise of podcasting and platforms like Substack and Bandcamp, a service for musicians who want to escape the tyranny of the record labels and streaming platforms—supported and enabled by other services like Stripe, Patreon, and Kickstarter—as a kind of “Distributism” for artists and knowledge workers.
A hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, among others, argued for a new economic system called Distributism, a system based on the Roman Catholic principle of subsidiarity. As explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”
In his 1927 book An Outline of Sanity, Chesterton wrote, “I am one of those who believe that the cure for centralization”—the concentration of economic power in the hands of the state or those of massive corporations, which he regarded as “two powers which are now one power”—“is decentralization.” The simple claim at the heart of Distributism is that “when capital has come to be too much in the hands of the few, the right thing is to restore it into the hands of the many.” The two-headed monster of statism and multinational capitalism requires an erasure, Chesterton and Belloc thought, of much of what makes life peculiar and therefore desirable. Again, from An Outline of Sanity:
It is perfectly obvious that the whole business is a machine for manufacturing tenth-rate things, and keeping people ignorant of first-rate things. Most civilized systems have declined from a height; but this starts on a low level and in a flat place; and what it would be like when it had really crushed all its critics and rivals and made its monopoly watertight for two hundred years, the most morbid imagination will find it hard to imagine. But whatever the last stage of the story, no sane man any longer doubts that we are seeing the first stages of it. There is no longer any difference in tone and type between collectivist and ordinary commercial order; commerce has its officialism and communism has its organization. Private things are already public in the worst sense of the word; that is, they are impersonal and dehumanized. Public things are already private in the worst sense of the word; that is, they are mysterious and secretive and largely corrupt. The new sort of Business Government will combine everything that is bad in all the plans for a better world. There will be no eccentricity; no humour; no noble disdain of the world.
In light of these ideas, I suggest that if it is reasonable to be concerned about the decline of institutions, it is also reasonable to think of the rise of service-based and institution-independent knowledge work as a kind of Distributism for intellectual and artistic creativity, and a salutary development insofar as it allows for eccentric individuals to find supporters for their peculiar visions, ideas, and arts. Consider, for example, the writer, coder, and photographer Craig Mod, an American who lives in Japan. If you look at his website, you will see that he has pieced together chunks of tech that enable him to be a solo proprietor who makes his own books and, most recently, even created a gorgeous short film. If you write for Substack, that whole congregation of tech chunks is preconstructed for you, which makes you quite dependent on Substack. Mod has spread out his dependencies and even written some of his own code: He is one of the cobblers—as the American writer and podcaster Jason Snell, who does something similar, has put it.
I find all this wholly admirable and, frankly, cool—but I do worry about the effects of the solo proprietor, what Ben Thompson (another member of the tribe) calls the “sovereign writer,” on already-degrading institutions. At a time when, as Levin points out, people tend to see participation even in such august institutions as the US Congress as a platform for building their own personal brand, the solo proprietor world can all too easily become branding all the way down, and the personal website a device for constant ego feeding.
The Distributists of a century ago, like their great predecessors John Ruskin and William Morris, were aware that a subsidiarist devolution into smallholdings could have a dangerously atomizing effect on society. They thought that one means of counteracting this tendency would be to encourage the renewal of the ancient guild system. The best-known exponent of this idea was Arthur Penty, who in 1906 published a book called The Restoration of the Gild System. Penty thought that the then-rising trade union movement could lay the foundation for a new set of guilds—one of many examples of the ways in which it can be difficult to label these alternative economic orders as either left or right in political orientation. The best-known example of an anarchosyndicalist system, the Mondragon Corporation in the Basque region of Spain, was founded in 1956 by a Catholic priest, José María Arizmendiarrieta, whose intellectual sources were much the same as those of the famously right-wing Chesterton and Belloc.
In any event, Penty saw the link between unions and guilds in this light:
Already the unions with their elaborate organizations exercise many of the functions which were performed by the Gilds; such, for instance, as the regulation of wages and hours of labor, in addition to the more social duty of giving timely help to the sick and unfortunate. Like the Gilds, the Unions have grown from small beginnings, until they now control whole trades. Like the Gilds also, they are not political creations, but voluntary organizations which have arisen spontaneously to protect the weaker members of society against the oppression of the more powerful.
Is it too fanciful to imagine our solo proprietors, our sovereign writers, beginning to consider their responsibility toward those who find themselves constrained or rejected by the diseased institutions of intellectual and artistic life? What if the more successful political commentators on Substack, or music teachers on YouTube, or masters of the podcast interview, began to teach their craft to others?
I envision a world in which the increased fragmentation of our media scene—fragmentation created by institutions that have lost their sense of purpose and individuals who have lost trust in those institutions—leads, over time, to the rise of new institutions that are built on stronger foundations. As everyone used to know, Ecclesiastes teaches that “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…a time to break down, and a time to build up.” Yuval Levin says that now is that time to build up; but I wonder if, in the life of the mind at least, that time has not quite come. Perhaps the breaking of the old and decrepit institutions of art and culture has to proceed further before the renewal can, in earnest, begin. But I would be delighted if the Craig Mods and Ben Thompsons of the world, and maybe the Jordan Petersons and Joe Rogans as well, began to advertise for apprentices.