Distributism is Dying...

... or so I've been told.

It wasn't but four years ago that I stumbled upon Distributist Perspectives Vol. 1. It was a Christmas gift from my parents. Along with it came two other books. The first was "I'll Take My Stand" by the Twelve Southerners. The second was "Who Owns America?" edited by Agar and Tate. Unbeknownst to me, the writers and content of both "I'll Take My Stand" and "Who Owns America" were in some way or another linked to those persons and ideas contained in Distributist Perspectives Vol. 1. Chalk it up as a strike of providence. 

Upon reading these books, it didn't take me long to see the similarities. All three were traditionalist, skeptical of all things big, and agrarian to the core. Furthermore, the writers all appeared to see a connection between the political economy and culture. They talked of art, literature, and architecture. In brief, there was a consensus amongst the contributors that the debates surrounding the political economy were not merely academic. Rather, these debates hit to the very center of who we are as individuals, as a city, and as a nation.

Some may insist that the ideas advanced within these books fall within the losing column of history. I would beg to differ, though only with the luxury of hindsight. While one should readily admit that there was relatively little progress made during the lifetimes of these particular men, it would be foolish to confine the win and lose columns of history to the lifespan of a group of writers. 

At any rate, there are those who point to the burgeoning of Big Business, Wall Street, and the service economy as proof that the American people have no interest in the ideas typically associated with distributism. Some may even note the fact that a large portion of Americans claim to love Capitalism, while very few have ever heard the word distributism, and even less of its substance. These facts, at least for the anti-distributist, serve as evidence that distributism is on its deathbed waiting to be put out of its misery. Or, if they are generous enough to grant that there will always be a remnant of those willing to identify themselves as distributists, they will ridicule the school of thought as a fringe movement made up of discontents and those overly infatuated with all things nostalgic. 

But are these so-called evidences proof, as the antagonist would insist, that distributism is dying? As I said earlier, I would answer this in the negative. For these so-called evidences can be seen and interpreted in many other ways. 

Take for instance Big Business. It certainly appears to be thriving. On the other hand, even giants like Wal-Mart are having to rally the troops in hope of figuring out ways to bypass what has recently become a storm of opposition.  One need only watch the documentary "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" to see just how strong, and coordinated, the opposition has become. 

But this, in and of itself, does not answer the question as to why so many people continue to frequent these behemoths. Truth be told, the answers are as simple as they are complex. We know that there many shoppers that have been pigeonholed into believing that they cannot afford to shop anywhere else. There are others who could shop elsewhere, and who decry the loss of small business, but who would prefer watching the local hardware dealer go out of business than to pay what could only be described as a reasonable price for goods  and services of better quality. Sadly, there are also those who simply don't care what happens to their neighbor, so long as they save a few pennies here and there. Of course, they shun from their conscience all guilt for having fed companies that rely for their existence on what amounts to nothing less than slave labor in foreign countries. For these particular shoppers, it is a matter of "out of sight, out of mind." To make matters worse is that the vast majority of these people don't realize that their low prices are also tied to government subsibies. These come from local, state, and federal dollars, and they come in frequency and figures that would be the envy of any local business owner. So while the answer to this question may seem easy to the antagonist, the truth of the matter is that the issue is much more complicated than it may first appear.

Wall Street is an entirely different story. The average Johnny Q and Sally Sue have little care for what goes on there. As The Nation pointed out so accurately in 2002, people don't typically go to work in order to purchase stocks. Where the common folk of yesteryear may have been somewhat indifferent to Wall Street, this can no longer be said. Instead, indifference has turned into outrage. Faulty prices, rabid speculation, credit swaps, and the stock market's subtle, but now apparent, interconnectivity with even those who know little about the numbers and letters flashing across the bottom of the television screen, has resulted in a collective man-hunt, with Wall Street as its target. Add to the flames the "revelation" concerning the government's obvious preference for the well-being of Wall Street insiders over against the common good, and you have a sure recipe for populist outcry. 

People are outraged. This much is certain. But what is more telling than their outrage is their not wishing to better familiarize themselves with the beast. Rather, many prefer to see it go the way of the dinosaur, or at least to be treated like a plague that needs isolation and strict supervision. Regardless of how the hucksters on Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue wish to spin this, the American people have quickly grown a healthy distaste (and distrust) for Capitalism's casino and the gamblers who frequent its halls.

As for capitalism, while the word is commonplace amongst the citizenry, very few know what it really entails. Most tend to boil it down to a free market where people can compete with others and earn money along the way. This is typically dovetailed with the notion that less government intervention is good. 

While all this sounds well and good, it fails to take into account the fact that, as Chesterton put it, one of capitalism's greatest inadequacies is that it creates too few capitalists.  To add insult to injury, the average citizens knows as little about little of the current status of wealth in the United States as they do about the meaning of capitalism. I'm willing to bet the farm that were the citizenry to be fully aware of the figures concerning the distribution of wealth and land in this so-called capitalist society, they would, unlike Chesterton, be astounded. 

Let's take the 2006 Federal Reserve, Department of Treasury survey as a practical example. We begin with $100. Then we add 100 people. Now,  a perfectly equal distribution of wealth (which is not the goal of distributism) would be $1 per person. As it stands right now, the 50 individuals at the bottom of the stack have $0.05. Collectively, they make up $2.50, leaving $97.50 to be divided between the remaining 50. The next 40 have $0.70 of wealth, or $28 collectively. The next nine have $4 of wealth, or $36 collectively. Now this leaves one person remaining. This single individual would, per $100 mentioned earlier, have in his or her sole possession $33.50. 

To say that this is horrifying would be to trivialize the meaning of horror.

One may rest assured that when these figures come to light, as they are with the passing of every day, people will begin to see the forest for the trees. They'll begin to connect the dots, finding a line between Big Business, Wall Street, and what parades around as capitalism. It is here, at this moment and at this time that distributists can smile and wink at the antagonist, knowing full well that the confidence of the naysayer was built on what was little more than a phantasm waiting for the right moment to disappear.

Distributism isn't dead. It isn't even dying. No, distributism is coming to light. It is, as John Medaille would say, "the wave of the future."

The road is destined to be hard, as money and power never fail to put up a good fight. But those rumbling underfoot, fueled by ideas penned by those of old, may be too much for even the giants of today to withstand. In the end, being perceived as finding a home in history's losing column may have turned out to be a boon rather than a bust. 


Richard Aleman Saturday, February 7, 2009 at 8:29:00 PM CST  


You are correct that Distributism is definitely not dying, but rather it is thriving. One may argue that soon (if not already) actual interest will rival that of the early movement.

Our readers may not be aware of this, but Distributism wasn't just advocated by a few friends enjoying a pint at the Devereux pub. No, the early movement spawned 24 branches of the famous Distributist League, cooperated with the Catholic Land Association, and was endorsed by writers in journals such as Blackfriars,The Universe,Commonweal,The Catholic World, and Orate Fratres, to name a few.

Chesterton's paradox of few capitalists was just that. Allow me to explain.

First, Chesterton and the distributists argued that if by capitalism we mean a surplus system then even the communist was a capitalist. After all, who wants a shortage? Second, some might be surprised to learn they did not accept the argument that capitalism had simply gone awry or had been hijacked by some radicals bent on material acquisition. Rather, they insisted that capitalism wasn't capitalism at all, but rather proletarianism, i.e. a system –from its very conception- bent on maximizing profit and dependent on wage slavery. Therefore, capitalism always had and will continue to have few capitalists, because by its very nature the system worked against the widest diffusion of property ownership.

Besorge Monday, February 9, 2009 at 1:08:00 PM CST  

The authenticity in Catholic teaching starting from a weak Christological representation is one reason such an idea is not very commonly known. Try the question...how Catholic are our Catholic Schools? Do we embrace Christology, or do we get by with Jesus?

Chris Campbell Monday, November 2, 2009 at 10:57:00 AM CST  

Thanks to young men like Jeremiah, we can be sure the word is getting out and the discussions are held again.....

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