“There Was Also Much Singing”: A Review of The Hound of Distributism

by Elias Crim on August 27, 2012 · 9 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low,Economics & Empire,Writers & Poets

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In his estimable history of distributism and its major figures, Jobs of Our Own, Australian economist and former MP Race Matthews records an account of the distinctive atmosphere of the Distributist League meetings in the late 1920s:

“The formal business of the League was followed by after-meetings in the general bar of the Devereux, where an account by one of the members describes pint pots banging on the tables and members ‘shouting texts of St. Thomas at each other, calling on the people of England for the overthrow of their taskmasters, and a return to the religion of their forefathers.’

There was also much singing. ‘I have always, writes Titterton, ‘regarded this singing as an essential part of Distributism.’”

Despite the enthusiasm of adherents like the worthy Titterton, some latter-day observers have found entirely too much singing and pot-banging amidst this group and not enough real action—a criticism which fairly applies to the otherwise brilliant career of one Gilbert Chesterton, entirely a man of ideas, if less so to his more bellicose comrade Hilaire Belloc who at least served, somewhat unhappily, as a member of Parliament.

Still, it is hard not to favor a group whose agenda somehow found room for tavern meetings and singing. And in this delightful collection of eighteen short articles edited by the Distributist Review’s Richard Aleman, the profoundly sane and humanistic nature of this movement manqué comes through quite plainly.

Take Dr. William Fahey’s faux-Bellocian dialogue, “Toward a Description of Distributism,” in which the personages Scriptor and Lector banter amusingly (Lector: “Wait a minute, Distributism has as its founder a Roman Pope?” Scriptor: “Is there another kind?”), amidst serious reflections such as this “catena of Mr. Belloc”:

“I propose no general scheme for restoring freedom and property…the restoration of property must be essentially the product of a new mood, not a new scheme…

“Restoration of property…could never approach mechanical perfection. We are only attempting to change the general tone of society and restore property as a commonly present, not universal, institution.

“Property being a personal and human institution, normal to man, will always be, and must be, diversified.”

To which Fahey’s Scriptor adds, “Does this, dear reader, sound like a man about to propose state control of everything financial?”

By contrast, the tone of John Medaille’s “A Distributist Banking System” is not jocular but his five pages here display his customary brilliance as he comments on the links between money and community, how a distributist money supply would work and why usury and monopoly are examples of bad morals and bad economics.

Joseph Pearce’s essay recalls what is perhaps E. F. Schumacher’s most lasting legacy: his demonstration (in Small is Beautiful and other writings) that the Catholic principle of subsidiarity has found worldwide popular appeal, and that it is a practical and viable alternative to laissez-faire concepts of economics.

Before reading this anthology, I was not familiar with the French author Philippe Maxence whose article “The Common Good” contains these excellent sentences: “Thus, the power of distributism: the purpose of society and hence of man, is not primarily the production of wealth or collective servitude. It is about allowing men to achieve their purpose, to live in political camaraderie, to practice the virtues, and to achieve happiness and contemplation…” Maxence has written a book on Chesterton and is the editor-in-chief of the French Catholic newspaper, L’Homme Nouveau.

For those interested in the specifically Catholic dimension of distributism, Mark and Louise Zwick (of Houston’s remarkable Casa Juan Diego, a Catholic Worker house) note the links between Prince Kropotkin, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day. The Zwicks note  that “Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops (perhaps in anticipation of books like Shop Class as Soulcraft?) introduced Maurin to another idea that appeared in the Worker movement—that the intellectual could find in manual labor, especially in intensive gardening and fine craft work, an enriching dimension to intellectual work.”

Donald Goodman’s interesting piece explains why the system most resembling Marxism in several respects is certainly not distributism but in fact capitalism. “Like Marxism, capitalism ensures that the bulk of society will be composed of workers laboring for a wage, unlikely ever to become the owners of productive property. Like Marxism, capitalism ensures that society is strictly defined into two classes, those who control the use of productive property and those who don’t. Like Marxism, capitalism ensures that those who belong to the first group have the bulk of power, including power over those who belong to the second.”

Other contributions: Ryan Grant on the distributist approach to education (which would involve homeschooling cooperatives), Race Matthews looking forward to the model of Spain’s Mondragon Corporation, the largest cooperative enterprise in the world, Bill Powell’s piece on creating your own backyard forest garden, and Phillip Blond’s call for both the state and the market to once more be subservient to a renewed civil association.

I don’t want to close without noting both Dale Ahlquist’s beautifully philosophical introduction and Richard Aleman’s pragmatically minded final essay. When so little light is generated in most of American letters and social thought today,  groups like the American Chesterton Society and its cousin website, the Distributist Review do a great service. This anthology is a shining example of that.

 

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jeffrey Polet August 28, 2012 at 6:06 am

Since FPR is hosting a reception at a pub consequent to the conference, I will be sure to recommend mug-banging and loud singing for that occasion as well.

avatar Robert August 28, 2012 at 7:59 am

The author makes passing reference to the notion of Distrubutists being long on words but short on action. Unfortunately, I feel I must concur with the accusation. In fact, I get the feeling that many Distributists–much like the Libertarians they frequently admonish–would rather engage in rhetorical battles than do the work required to create a functioning political/economic model.

Also, if the movement is to gain an audience of the size necessary to move the discussion of its ideas into the public sphere, it must find a way to welcome those not of the the Catholic faith. For instance, many of the articles posted at the Distributists Review (the most logical place to learn about Distributism) are filled with references that are undoubtedly unfamiliar to non-Catholics. And anyone attempting to gain a further understanding of the issue by reading the comments that follow the articles would soon conclude that many Distributists value doctrinal point scoring more than the conveyance of ideas.

avatar Elias Crim August 28, 2012 at 8:17 am

Robert, you are quite correct on the need to communicate distributist ideas as simply a form of natural law economics, to use the newer terminology, not merely a piece of Catholic antiquarianism. And I think such efforts are underway, both abroad (in Vern Hughes’ efforts toward an international distributist project here: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Civil-Society-Global-Network-4137855?goback=.gde_4137855_member_152828080) and at home (a new webzine-in-the-works, Solidarity Hall, about which more soon).

avatar Steve August 29, 2012 at 5:29 pm

This was a good essay. It made me miss FPR’s golden days when Deneen, Medaille, and Fox were batting around big ideas.

avatar Elias Crim August 29, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Thanks, Steve–but I think those guys are still at the plate.

avatar love the girls September 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm

From the article : “To which Fahey’s Scriptor adds, “Does this, dear reader, sound like a man about to propose state control of everything financial?””

But yet over at the Distributist Review they do propose as example that all clothing would be manufactured by tailors under the thumb of guilds. A proposal that does meet the level of state control of everything financial regarding clothing.

A proposed example when taken to its logical conclusion is ” propose state control of everything financial?”

Distributism as proposed by the catholic intellectual class is a non starter, and if started worse than dystopia.

I suspect the reason distributism adherents are almost entirely composed of drones working for government, universities, and corporations is not because distributism is viable, but because distributism is a romanticist variance of the world they know and rightly despise because it deprives them of their manhood. But what they propose is equally emasculating.

avatar Elias Crim September 3, 2012 at 10:00 pm

First, guilds are not governmental entities (i.e., they are not “the state”) but civil associations. Think old-fashioned labor unions, maybe with Robin Hood costumes.

Second, anyone whose blog handle is “love the girls” seems, ipso facto, too preoccupied with this manhood thing.

avatar love the girls September 4, 2012 at 1:27 am

Mr. Crim,

Guilds are not like unions, they are far more akin to neighborhood associations that while not being formally part of the government, are recognized by the government with the force of law behind them. And they can and do crush those who oppose them because city council backs them.

Distributists may be highly impractical, but no one could be so impractical so as to expect a guild system of tailors to survive unless patrons were forced to buy from them.

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