Distributism – an idea whose time has come?
Here’s an idea that I’d like to see gain some ground in 2014 – it’s called distributism. It’s a practical rather than a spiritual idea, but really, I think that some sort of distributism has to happen before we can think about developing spiritually as a species.
It’s not a new idea – it’s just over a hundred years old. The idea comes originally from the Catholic Church, and was embraced by the right – or at least by one strain of conservatism. I want to argue that the left should embrace it too. We can then begin to remove the left and right labels once and for all, so that we can move away from knee-jerk reactions and fighting, and start coming together to talk about real change.
what’s the idea?
The simplest way to express the idea is that power should never be concentrated. And that means that the traditional left-wing way of diluting corporate power by taking it away and concentrating it in the state is a no-no.
Instead, power and wealth is distributed thinly throughout society. We should all aim to become owners – small-scale owners of ‘the means of production’ as Marx put it – and to support other small-scale owners by giving them our money, rather than giving it to large corporations. This can be via independent businesses, self-employment, partnerships, community-owned businesses, co-ops, smallholdings, not-for-profits, social enterprises etc.
The right will then be happy because power is not concentrated in the state, people are free and there’s a focus on individual responsibility and the family. The left will be happy because power is not concentrated in large corporations and banks, there’s more equality, and more of a sense of community. Everyone’s happy!
The idea of distributism arose out of Catholicism in the 19th century. And in fact, the current Pope, Francis, has said: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills… A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which has taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits.”
In the early 20th century it was generally seen as more of a right-wing than a left-wing idea, coming as it did from religion, opposing state ownership (the dominant socialist model) and promoting individuals, family and local community rather than the large-scale collective.
Then G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc began to promote distributism as a political ideology in opposition to both capitalism and socialism, using the experiences of the co-operative movement in northern England. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement also adopted distributism, helping to build a larger following on the left.
There was a fantastic debate in 1928 between G. K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw, chaired by Hilaire Belloc. Remember that this was when Stalin was just consolidating his power within the Soviet Union. Bernard Shaw’s point was that power needed to be concentrated at the top of the state, to counter the global power of capitalism, and bring freedom to working people. Chesterton’s opinion was that a man like Stalin could abuse that concentration of power to benefit not the workers, but the people at the top of the communist party, and totally destroy any hope of democracy or freedom for ordinary people. Hindsight has proven Chesterton right. Here’s a transcript of the debate. It’s glorious stuff.
how do we do it?
We distribute power economically – so we set up and support family businesses, small farms, independent shops, craftspeople – butchers, bakers, candle(stick)makers, self-employment, credit unions, co-ops (yes, the early, right-wing distributists mentioned them specifically), smallholdings – all the kinds of things that Lowimpact.org has been promoting for the last 13 years.
We use small businesses, and also start them, to provide a viable alternative to corporations and the state. Then the thinly-dispersed power units network to ensure everyone’s safety and freedom. No business would be ‘too big to fail’, and require taxpayers’ money to bail them out.
Distributism means that ordinary people control the means of production in a direct way, rather than through the state. If someone owns a few acres, or a machine, or their own skills and tools, then they decide what to do with them – not the state, and not a corporation. Corporate capitalism kills democracy, and state socialism kills entrepreneurship. But we can be greedy and have both, along with stronger, safer communities, more interesting work, more interesting High Streets, unique localities and a more egalitarian and free society.
It’s an imperfect model of course. Some businesses lend themselves to being small – market gardens, small shops, window cleaners. But what about car or computer manufacture, airlines or oil? Well, let’s start where we can. Let’s pledge never to buy vegetables from a supermarket again. Get a veg box delivered instead, or use your local market or small, independent shops, or even grow your own. Let’s start somewhere. G. K. Chesterton said that coal was an example of an industry in which power can’t be distributed – it has to be run by corporations or the state. I disagree. Groups of miners can form co-operatives to run individual mines. Better still, they could close the mines and start a community renewables group instead, generating energy from solar panels, wind turbines or micro-hydro. We can cross the difficult bridges when we come to them – but let’s start with the things that can be provided by small companies.
However, distributism is an economic rather than a political idea, but we need politicians to be talking about ways to limit the size of businesses. We’re far from that, and under the current political system, any attempts at truly distributing wealth and power may result in a backlash, and maybe a violent backlash, from the state or from the corporate empire – or more likely from a combination of the two. So we have to start talking about how to get round that, by introducing political change.
So – small businesses and talking to each other. I give you distributism.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Patrick January 8th, 2015
“Distributism means that ordinary people control the means of production in a direct way, rather than through the state. If someone owns a few acres, or a machine, or their own skills and tools, then they decide what to do with them – not the state, and not a corporation. Corporate capitalism kills democracy, and state socialism kills entrepreneurship. But we can be greedy and have both, along with stronger, safer communities, more interesting work, more interesting High Streets, unique localities and a more egalitarian and free society.”
The key to a better system.
2Dave Darby January 8th, 2015
One of the keys I think, rather than the key. I’m not exactly arguing against myself, it’s just that a ‘small is beautiful’, distributist economy is impossible to implement via the current economic and political system. We need systemic change too.
3Anthony Bradley December 6th, 2017
The Ringing Cedars book series explain how to create a distributist society. The main first step is a Family Homestead Act that acknowledges the right of each citizen to owning a minimum of 2.5 acres of land. This land cannot be sold but instead is passed on to children through inheritance. Produce grown on a Family Homestead is not subject to taxes. The books explain many more details that show how to transition into distributism. Also, I’ve been reading the Catholic Catechism to gain a perspective on how they see distributism in context.
4Anthony Bradley December 6th, 2017
5Dave Darby December 8th, 2017
Very interesting. I definitely think that people who are prepared to live sustainably AND produce food for their communities should be allowed access to land on which to build a home (within strict eco-criteria – ie not huge, brick and mortar palaces that are more investment than home).
Since I wrote this article, my thoughts have moved more towards mutualism – https://www.lowimpact.org/mutualism-philosophy-changing-society-difference-implementable/. There was a problem for me with distributism – for example at one point, Starbucks would have been a local coffee shop, but its founders weren’t content with that. They wanted to grow into a monster that could put thousands of other independent coffee shops out of business and extract money from workers and communities all over the world to make relatively few shareholders (who do no work) wealthy (and avoid taxes that the small coffee shops had to pay). Same for any corporation. There’s nothing within distributism that prevents that.
Also, if land is inherited, what happens if the children are useless at looking after the land or producing food? Or if they want to concrete over everything / build a casino etc? I’m on the board of the Ecological Land Co-op – http://ecologicalland.coop/. We buy pockets of land in the open countryside, invite business plans from prospective tenants, then go into battle with the planners to allow the to build a home and run a smallholding. If the children want to take over the land at some point, they’d have to show that they’re capable of running a smallholding.