For many decades after the Second Vatican Council, it was pretty easy to spot the Distributist in any conversation: he was the one with the long face and the sour disposition. Further, he or she was often the one with the deepest convictions about economic matters, but the least actual knowledge of economics. Indeed, in the face of the apparent victory of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, whether of the Chicago- or Austrian-school variants, Distributists tended to retreat to their own narrow world. Not surprisingly, there were many defections from the Distributist view to neo-conservatism. Even prominent Chesterton scholars, like James V. Schall, made the switch.
Yet this retreat is somewhat surprising, give the fact that from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1970's Distributism was the dominant interpretation of Catholic Social Teaching and was highly influential in shaping the economic policies of the United States, Europe, and even of the Far East. This influence is documented in Allan Carlson's Third Ways (see The Return to Realism). This Distributist influence was at its height during the so-called “Golden Age” of capitalism (1950-1973) when economic growth brought the novel experience of mass prosperity to the West and vast stretches of the East. Indeed, the arguments then were not so much between capitalists and Distributists as between Distributism and Keynesian re-distributism on the one hand, and both of these and socialist collectivism on the other. But in all these disputes, distributional issues were at the forefront of the economic discussion.
However, things began to change—and change rapidly—after the economic shocks of the 1970's. One factor was the turmoil in Catholic Social Teaching that followed the Vatican Council. There was a certain loss of confidence in old interpretations of Catholic teachings, and a certain confusion in how to interpret the work of the council. The interpretations of the social encyclicals tended to bifurcate into Austrian and Liberal variants. This post-conciliar confusion is not unusual. Even after the Council of Jerusalem, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, there were arguments between Paul and Peter and James as to how to interpret the work of the council. It ordinarily takes a generation to absorb the work of any council.
Another factor was the economic shocks of the 70's and the subsequent rise of neo-(liberalism, conservatism). For a long time, this seemed to be working. However, “working” here is problematic. It turns out that it was a growth mainly in debt; we were borrowing our way to prosperity, always a dubious strategy. Indeed, the old, pre-Keynesian problems of capitalism began to return with a vengeance: vast disparities between rich and poor, economic instability, and a destabilized world order. (see Does Capitalism Work?)
Things are now changing. For one thing, the failures of neo-liberal and Austrian economics are becoming apparent. People are realizing that their wages have been stagnant ever since the Austrian and Chicago-school ascendancy in economic policy. The are beginning to resent the care and concern that the government shows for the rich, and its complete indifference to the poor and middle classes. Free trade development policies have been a complete failure, leaving behind those unfortunate nations that followed them. Moreover, people see that these jobs have hollowed out the real economy, the economy that makes things and services, and enriched the financiers and snake-oil salesman of exotic and incomprehensible securities. People see their jobs being shipped overseas, while John McCain tells them that these jobs are never coming back and advises them to retrain for jobs at fast-food joints.
Across the economic and political spectrum, there is a renewed interest in distributive justice, which is, of course, at the heart of the distributist discourse. And that discourse has found many new and articulate spokesman, too many for me to mention here. Moreover, it is (once again) not confined to Catholics or even “distributists” in the formal sense, but finds allies among mutualists, Georgists, agrarians, institutionalists, left-wing libertarians, environmentalists, and many others.
Further, distributist enterprises have shown themselves to be stable, successful, and competitive with capitalist firms. The Mondragón Cooperativeness Corporation, the cooperative economy of Bologna, ESOPs, micro-lending, land redistribution programs, and many more examples “on the ground and working” give distributists confidence that they can provide superior economic structures. These successful enterprises give Distributists confidence that they are indeed talking about a workable and functional system, one that needs to make no apologies about its own productiveness, efficiency, or competitive abilities.
These ventures have given Distributists confidence that they can enter the realms of economic theory and defeat the enemy on his own grounds. We have come to realize that an economic “science” that lacks a distributive principle is like physics without a mathematics; it can never accurately describe the world and hence can never really be a science; hence economics, as currently practiced, will always end up as a clash of ideologies with no real way to resolve disputes. Only the distributists can add what economics needs to make it a real science. Further, there are no challenges to the lack of a coherent social theory among the neo-libs and -cons (e. g., Thatcher's “there is no such thing as society!”), and a new rejection of modernist solipsism and individualism.
We see a constant stream of new distributist ventures and institutions. There is the IHS Press, dedicated to re-publishing the old classics and developing new authors. There is the success of Gilbert! Magazine. There are ventures like the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, which makes local produce available to cities and towns of that state and which has spawned many similar ventures. By September, Lord willing, there will be a new journal, The Distributist Review, (not connected with this blog) and, at the same time, a new conference on Distributism at Seton Hall College near New York (watch this space for further details). And we cannot forget the influence of the internet, which is an inherently distributist technology, in allowing greater communication and information among distributists. There are many fine bloggers (present company excepted) and many excellent sources of information (hey, bloggers! Is it time to form a distributist web-ring? Contact me.)
It may be that the Distributist Surge will be no more effective than the surge in Iraq; that it will be a mere illusion. And it is not impossible that, while successful, it recedes again, as it did once before. But now, more than ever, we are in a position to actually accomplish things. The old structures are breaking down, and people are looking for new ones. And the best place to find the really new is in the really old; only the methods and practices that have worked in the past can provide the proper antidote for the modern methods that no longer work. We no longer have to go about with either the long face or the superior smirk, but with a quiet determination to build up the world with structures of justice and solidarity, just as we are commanded to do by the Gospels and by the Social Encyclicals.