The Distributist Surge

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.


Trevor Monday, March 31, 2008 at 8:16:00 PM CDT  

Hey John,

If you do the webring, be sure to count me in! I blog on a group blog at

We regularly discuss all things distibutist/Georgist/environmentalist. We like to throw in posts about justice, art, and urbanism for good measure as well.

Anonymous,  Tuesday, April 1, 2008 at 10:32:00 AM CDT  

You ignored the fact that part of the reason Distributism fell into disfavor is that the Papal Magisterium itself seemed to change. Do you think that Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno express the same teaching as Mater et Magistra, Populorum Progressio and Centesimus Annus? Perhaps Fr. Schall was just "reading the signs of the times" when he abandoned the Distributist ship.

I find it humorous whenever Distributists quote the Papal Magisterium in support of their teaching. There is a river of quotations from Leo XIII and Pius XI with perhaps a drop or two of carefully selected snippets from John Paul II.

As with so many things after Vatican II, Distributism seems to be a merely tolerated view and not the preferred expression of the Church's social teachings as such.

John Médaille Tuesday, April 1, 2008 at 1:51:00 PM CDT  

Brad writes: Do you think that Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno express the same teaching as Mater et Magistra, Populorum Progressio and Centesimus Annus?

To answer your question, "yes." I don't see any differences, except in the sense of extensions. One can argue that Mater et Magister takes a more conventional "welfare capitalism" line, but that was reversed quickly from Paul VI onwards. And John Paul is, if anything, far more radical and anti-capitalist than any of his predecessors, and they were pretty anti-capitalist.

So I am at a complete loss to see what you mean. There was, and is, an attempt by the neo-cons to interpret CA as an "endorsement" of capitalism, something denied within the encyclical itself.

Brad writes I find it humorous whenever Distributists quote the Papal Magisterium in support of their teaching. There is a river of quotations from Leo XIII and Pius XI with perhaps a drop or two of carefully selected snippets from John Paul II.

In my book, there is one chapter on Leo XIII and two on John Paul II. I cannot begin to guess to which authors you refer, since I don't see a shred of evidence to support your view, and you didn't offer any. So perhaps you will take the opportunity to share with our readers just what shifts you see in the latter popes and what authors you see ignoring them.

Athanasius Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 9:37:00 PM CDT  

Here are a few thoughts:

Finally, "humane" working hours and adequate free-time need to be guaranteed, as well as the right to express one's own personality at the work-place without suffering any affront to one's conscience or personal dignity. This is the place to mention once more the role of trade unions, not only in negotiating contracts, but also as "places" where workers can express themselves. They serve the development of an authentic culture of work and help workers to share in a fully human way in the life of their place of employment -CA no. 15

The late Holy Father speaks of trade unions as if they are doing great good for workers, but in our day that is not the case. He mentions nothing about a corporate guild or a guild or union where all the funds, goods, and management were corporately owned and utilized. The experience both here and in Italy (I can't speak for the rest of Europe) is when trade unions are not positively socialist, they are positively Capitalist. Here in the states for example, a union is a money making machine where bureaucrats control the assets and make determinations that workers may or may not agree with. Essentially, workers pay their hard earned dollars (especially hard earned in low wage jobs like retail) and the Union promises higher salaries and benefits, but what really happens is they bring a lawyer and a union rep to arbitration and they talk, and in the end the grocery store says we will accept this much, and the union caves on various conditions, usually if they can get seniority installed. This is why union membership continues to drop, it isn't useful. This is a point in the encyclical which is ambiguous and could be taken to justify the status quo or advocating unions that really do something for the worker.

Even in recent years it was thought that the poorest countries would develop by isolating themselves from the world market and by depending only on their own resources. Recent experience has shown that countries which did this have suffered stagnation and recession, while the countries which experienced development were those which succeeded in taking part in the general interrelated economic activities at the international level. -CA no. 33

This is false when we look at actual experience. Countries which foundered did not embrace the principles of local economy and widespread ownership, but of totalitarian usurpation. If instead we look at Argentina, ruined by "free" trade and "connection" to the international community. Factories went out of business, so while the owners went to Switzerland to cash out the people took over the factories (albeit illegally) and now run them on a corporate model, bargaining on a just price with fabric merchants and purveyors of goods. In fact the crisis in Argentina was due to its interconnectedness to the international market not in spite of. see Argentina didn't fall on it's own

Overall, that section of CA is pro-globalist, and moves away from the sound principles spoken of earlier and later in the document. It is one of several reasons why neo-cons claim this document for their own while ignoring the condemnation of the free market. Part of the problem of course is that laissez-fare people don't read the documents right, and are always reading their principles into an off word while ignoring over all condemnations of the free market and unrestrained competition. The other part is that often times John Paul II and/or his translators use words that appear to support the austrian school, which makes it easier to pervert his teaching.

John Médaille Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 10:19:00 PM CDT  

@Athanasius The late Holy Father speaks of trade unions as if they are doing great good for workers, but in our day that is not the case.

My interpretation is somewhat different; I think the Holy Father is expressing his hope for unions and pointing out the possibilities. I think you are correct in that unions are problematic: they do either too little or too much. You give us the example of the useless union, but worse is the example of the useful one. For example, the union contracts with the auto industry of the 60-80's were really mutual suicide pacts, a fact that is now becoming painfully obvious. And in France and Spain, the unions are powerful enough to abrogate to their members nearly all the gains from increased productivity. Hence, there is little left over to support new employment. The union members are more than willing to pay high taxes to support high unemployment benefits to the non-unionized, but this is hardly an optimal situation.

The pope is right, in that as long as ownership is concentrated in a highly organized group, the workers too must be organized. However, this is precisely where I object to the whole arrangement, on both sides. The real problem with unions is the same problem with corporations: both institutionalize the separation of work and ownership. The real task is to join them together; as JPII put it, We can speak of socializing [the means of production] only when…on the basis of his work each person is fully entitled to consider himself a part owner of the great workbench at which he is working with everybody else. (LE 65)

Overall, that section of CA is pro-globalist, and moves away from the sound principles spoken of earlier and later in the document.

Thanks for the link to the situation in Argentina. I have written on this as well (See "Fire the Boss"). I think you are right that JPII is "pro-globalist," but that is not the same as pro neo-liberal. He is not stating the means for interconnection, and that section has to be read in the light of Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, which is where the Pope really expands on these issues. It is not, in my opinion, a neo-liberal model.

As to your larger point, I quite agree. Argentina followed il modelo of Hayek and, like every country that did so, including the United States, brought itself to ruin (Ireland may be an exception, but it is a special case and followed "the model" in its own Irish way).

Anonymous,  Sunday, April 6, 2008 at 1:34:00 AM CDT  

I thought there had been a webring. If not, I'll gladly join it (not that many of my posts are about distributism).

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