What is it?
‘Small is beautiful’ is a philosophy that favours small shops and restaurants rather than enormous supermarkets and chains; small farms and smallholdings rather than huge monoculture agribusiness; small-scale manufacturing rather than corporations; local credit unions rather than multinational banks.
The reasoning is that the scale of large businesses subverts democracy, damages nature, provides unfulfilling work and blandness instead of uniqueness. ‘Small is Beautiful’ was the title of a 1973 book by E. F. Schumacher, who went on to found the Intermediate Technology Development Group (now Practical Action), helping to set up small enterprises in less-developed countries. The introduction of corporate plantations and factories into those countries destroys small farms and businesses and forces people into grindingly boring, unskilled and exhausting work for very little money. The scale means that they are capital-intensive rather than labour-intensive, which means that small businesses can’t compete when it comes to the capital investment required, and that millions of small farmers are forced off their land and into urban slums and unemployment.
‘Distributism’ was an early 20th-century movement urging that power be spread thinly through society, not concentrated in corporations or the state. In capitalism, the means of production (land, tools, buildings, machinery) are mainly owned by large businesses, and under socialism, the means of production are mainly (or completely) owned by the state. In a distributist society, everyone owns the means of production, either individually, or in partnership / co-operatively with other people. So small farmers own their land, tractors etc; self-employed plumbers own their tools; shopkeepers own their shops; software developers own their computers; small manufacturers own their machinery; and everyone owns their own home – either individually or as part of a co-op. It’s not about redistributing wealth, it is about redistributing ownership of the means of production, so that people can generate their own wealth. Distributism has conservative (and Catholic) roots – radicals came along later. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued a statement, the Rerum Novarum, that criticised communism and unrestricted capitalism and stressed the need to spread the ownership of property thinly. In the first half of the 20th century, G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc (both Catholic, but influenced by the growing co-operative movement in Britain) turned it into a political movement. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement came on board in the middle of the century, along with socialists who were unimpressed with developments in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Opponents of distributism have never been able to hang a left or right label on it, because it isn’t either.
Neither socialism nor capitalism
The ‘smallist’ message to socialists is that collective ownership of the means of production works well on the small, local scale – housing co-ops, worker co-ops, communes, partnerships – but not on the large-scale because it concentrates power in the wrong hands. On the large scale, the qualities rewarded for success mean that given time, power is concentrated in the hands of people like Stalin and Mao. The message to capitalists is the same – private ownership of the means of production works well on the small, local scale – small businesses and shops, smallholdings, family firms, self-employment – but not on the large scale because it concentrates power in the wrong hands. On the large scale, the qualities rewarded for success mean that given time, power is concentrated in the hands of the major shareholders and chief executives of large banks and corporations. Politically, it’s about the principle of subsidiarity – that decisions should be made at the lowest, most local level that can deal with them. That’s it – it’s not about destroying competition or the market. The opposite of competition is not co-operation or collectivism, it’s monopoly.
Guilds were associations of craftsmen or merchants in the late Middle Ages. They could be revived as guarantors that small businesses don’t become large corporations – or even that some trades only contain self-employed people. They arose in Medieval cities as membership organisations for one trade only. Think of doctors – they have to have a long probation period to check if they are able to do the job properly; they don’t advertise; they don’t compete for patients; they collaborate when it comes to information; and they need to abide by the rules (of honour) of their association or they’re not allowed to ply their trade. So it would be for any trade – via self-imposed regulation, apprenticeships and codes of honour. And together they can fight to protect small businesses from the shoddy products, sweat-shop labour, tax avoidance and economies of scale of the large corporations. Guilds could ensure that good work is rewarded, but that livelihoods are protected from unfair competition. Guilds differ from trade unions in that the unions were set up to protect the interests of workers against those of the owners. With the guild system, workers and owners are the same people – there’s no class conflict. And guilds make large projects possible by networking small firms to work together, rather than the work having to be done by large corporations or the state. Trade unionism and social democratic policies are redistributist rather than distributist. They try to cut up the pie into more equal slices – but it’s the same pie. The ‘small is beautiful’ concept is about making a new pie – creating an entirely different type of economy.
- we get better stuff – a move towards the hand-made, grown or built, and away from the mass-produced – so no more sweat shops, low-quality goods, unhealthy processed foods, pesticide-soaked monoculture fruit and veg, poor-quality clothes with toxic dyes etc. etc.
- ends the left vs right battle that helps maintain corporate power; smallness involves principles of freedom, independence and responsibility beloved by the right and principles of unity, equality and mutual support beloved by the left – they are all fine principles
- better, more creative jobs that promote independence, responsibility and dignity – with a revival in apprenticeships to learn fulfilling trades rather than supermarket shelf-stacking or telesales
- goods will be better value for money – although more expensive to begin with. However, if mass produced corporate goods carried the full price of the damaged lives and damaged environments that they cause, they would be much more expensive than locally-produced goods. We have to make our choices
- smallholdings and small farms produce more food per hectare than large monoculture farms. See here
- helps solve the democracy problem directly
- stronger, safer communities, more interesting High Streets, unique localities
- corporations suck money out of local communities to pay distant shareholders, and ensure that we have to chase perpetual growth to give shareholders back more than they put in. The move from ‘one person, one vote’ to ‘one share, one vote’ is the true source of the lack of democracy in capitalism. And communism removes democracy by a more direct route
- there is still a free market, but not the giant casino that is the global stock market, with huge financial rewards for bets placed rather than work done. ‘Small is beautiful’ is about rewards for work done to benefit one’s family, community and oneself. It’s not based on issuing shares to provide the investment to allow firms to grow, because growth is not the point. Business people own enough to run their business, not enough to dominate an industry, or to be as wealthy as a small country
- farmers own enough land to produce food for the local market and to support their families, not huge tracts of land that prevent other potential small farmers from having any. Land is the ultimate zero sum game. You can’t have any if I have it all
- no business would be ‘too big to fail’, and require taxpayers’ money to bail them out
- smallness is good for employment; unemployment causes psychological and social problems, and if we’re sensible, is to be avoided at all costs
What you can do
First, read more on the subject, here and here. We provide books via a federation of small, independent bookshops – ‘small-ism’ in action. After that, you can support the principle in two distinct ways – on the demand side and on the supply side.
If small businesses are to prosper there has to be a body of people prepared to support them by buying what they’re offering, rather than giving money to the corporate sector. So:
- use local shops, markets, independent restaurants, small businesses and co-ops rather than large supermarkets or chains
- in those shops, try to buy goods produced locally and by small businesses, rather than large brands
- use credit unions and mutuals rather than the big banks
- get a veg box delivery, visit a farmers market to support local food producers
With some products and services this will be difficult (cars, phones, laptops), but let’s do what we can now and see what develops. 3D printing and micro factory retailing are exciting developments that may obviate the need for large amounts of capital and huge factories.
And of course, there has to be a range of local, small businesses for those people to buy from. So, why not start one?
If you just want to escape the rat race right now, but don’t have the skills or the ideas to start your own business, then go WWOOFing. You could get new ideas, gain new skills, meet new people who could help you change direction. Really, what’s the worst that could happen? For each of our topics, we’ll be introducing blog articles, links, courses, books and guides on how to start a small business. Governments are corporate-controlled, and subsidise the corporate sector at every opportunity – ignoring tax avoidance, inviting corporate leaders into government, accepting donations, welcoming lobbying, introducing corporate-friendly legislation, bailing them out with taxpayers money if they fail. We can help reverse that. Of course it would be nice to have governments that could curb the power of big business, but under our corrupt political system with its obsession with growth, and the inability of (national) governments to control (international) corporations, that would be wishful thinking.
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