Distributism as a Problem

When people think of Distributism, even people who know a little about it, they tend to see it as something problematic, something more akin to agrarianism and a naïve nostalgia for a rural past, a search for a “golden age” that never existed. In this, they are not entirely mistaken, for distributists frequently present themselves this way, and there is no fault in taking somebody at their word. But if there is to be any real advance, then distributism must make a better presentation of itself. And in this task, I see two great problems. The first is the misunderstanding (even among distributists) of the nature of property and the second is the misunderstanding (especially among distributists) of the role of politics. That is to say, we have a theoretical and a political problem.

Distributism as a Theoretical Problem

The primary concern of distributism is distributive justice, judged largely by the distribution of property. For there are but two sources of wealth: The gifts of God and the labor of man. By “the gifts of God” we mean those things which man can neither make nor do without, things like land, air, water, broadcast spectrum, and the like. And in accord with nearly all religious systems, distributists regard these gifts as given by God (or by Nature, if you have doubts about the divine) to all men for their common use. But these gifts can only be made useful to man when we apply our labor, whether physical, intellectual, spiritual, managerial, etc., and without this labor, the gifts remain hidden, useless. So, we take a tree and make a chair, because people prefer to sit in chairs rather than in trees; the labor of man applied to the gift of God makes the gifts available in a form we can use, and all wealth is produced like that.

But a problem arises immediately, because although the gifts of God are meant for all, actual use must be allocated to individuals, or to cooperating groups such as families, tribes or other types of communities. Two farmers cannot plow the same field, one for wheat and the other for corn; two radio programs cannot use the same frequency. There must be some means of allocating the use of these gifts, and it is in this allocation process that problems arise.

There are any number of historical methods for allocating use of the gifts of God, but the primary method in our age is that of private property. Or rather, that is the claim; the facts are otherwise. One great problem with the conversation today is that the question of property has been flattened to a question of “private property” vs. “public property.” Private property exists as an unlimited right; one may own as much as one’s wits and cunning can amass and in theory one person could own everything. As things actually stand, a comparatively few entities own most properties, or at least the most productive properties. But the great irony is that they do not own them as “private property,” but in the form of corporate collectives. For property itself exists along a continuum that begins with the communal (the foundation of all property) and moves to the personal, the cooperative, the private, and finally the collective or corporate, at which point the idea of “property” is negated, as control passes to a group of professional managers who are deemed to be “experts” no matter how incompetent they show themselves to be.

Distributism emphasizes the personal and cooperative aspects of property. The personal is distinguished from the “private” by being limited to the obligations one has. The head of a family needs enough property to support that family, but a person charged with defense of the community might require a good deal more property. Distributism is generally suspicious of unlimited positive rights which are divorced from duties; we need property to support a family, and hence the duty both dictates and limits the right. But the “unlimited” rights of private property for the few are viewed with suspicion because they necessarily limit the opportunities for personal property for the many.

Cooperative property is distinguished from collective property by the direction of control. In a collective, control flows from the top down and is generally exercised by managers who are remote from the property and who, in the course of their careers, will flit from one corporate collective to another, without any particular attachment to any of them. But in a cooperative, control is vested in all the members of the coop, people who are involved in the enterprise and have the greatest stake in its success. Distributism is justly suspicious of collectives, whether in their “soviet” or corporate forms, but highly supportive of cooperatives.

Distributism as a Political Problem

The primary political problem distributism faces is that when people first hear of it, they tend to ask, “Is this just socialism?” On one level, this is a naïve question, but on another, it gets to the heart of the matter. It is naïve because socialism (of the sort the questioner understands) posits that no one should own any property or—what is much the same thing—that everybody will own every property. But distributism posits that everybody should own some property as their personal possession and for their personal use. So distributism would seem to be the exact opposite of socialism.

But on another level, the naïve question is also the correct question, for distributism involves the recognition of the profoundly social nature of property; we are “socialists” in recognizing the communal origins of all property, even private property. Indeed, a purely “private” notion of property is dubious; property depends on a framework of laws and on the willingness of the community to defend the property. That is, if you can’t call the cops you can’t have property, private or otherwise. Property is a social question, and it is therefore a political question.

At this point, it is not distributism, but the distributists that have become problematic. For the truth is this: distributists tend to separate their “distributist” and political selves. That is to say, as distributists they may found a business or a coop, or dream of doing so, but as voters they are nothing in particular; they are Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, progressives, and what have you. We are literally all over the map. That is to say, we are nowhere at all. But if distributism is a real possibility, it needs to have a political program and one with a clear and definable purpose and goal. And I suggest that the goal should be two-fold, one part which might be termed “subversive” and one part which might be termed “patriotic.”

First the subversive part. Here, we are always trying to widen the spaces wherein a man or a woman might use their own personal or cooperative property to make their own way in the world. Here we are trying to create cracks in the concrete hegemony of capitalism so that some distributist flowers might grow. And foremost is the broadening and enforcement of anti-trust laws. For while capitalist propaganda advertises itself as “free market,” in reality it is opposed to the market. In a free market, there is vigorous competition and no firm is large enough to dominate the market and keep competition out. But what has actually happened is anti-market. When we look at practically any segment of the economy, we find that it is dominated by two or three firms. From beer to banking, from eye care to oil to entertainment, we find not a free market but a cartelized economy which sucks all the life out of the market and diminishes the space for the economic use of personal and cooperative property.

Foremost among the hegemonic institutions is the big-box store, itself largely the creation of the highway subsidy. These stores have done more than any other to wipe out the small businessman and destroy the commercial and communal life of towns and cities. But their “competitive” advantage does not arise from any supposed “efficiency,” but from subsidy. For it is not more efficient—but less so—to manufacture low-value goods in the interior of China, ship it to the coast, ship it across the sea to Long Beach, California, ship it by truck to Bentonville, Arkansas, and then ship it to regional distribution centers and stores. The only way this is practical is because the transportation system is subsidized at every stage. If, for example, the interstate highway system was financed by weight and distance tolls, the big-box store would be seen for what it is—the least efficient way of distributing goods—and local manufacturers and retailers, with shorter supply lines, would have the cost advantage.

Along with undermining the hegemonic aspects of capitalism, we must build up the legal and regulatory basis for distributist enterprises. Cooperatives need to have their own space in law, a space that provides for regulatory and even tax relief. There are good reasons to highly regulate vast global enterprises, and regulate them at the national and international level. An ADM pig barn that slaughters 4,000 pigs a day for shipment across the country needs one kind of regulatory regime, but when these safeguards are applied to the small farmer slaughtering a dozen pigs a week, the enterprise becomes uneconomic; ADM actually benefits from a regulatory regime that only big firms can afford.

Likewise, firms where the employees have effective control of their own work rules need little in the way of public regulation; the workers can protect their own interests. But in firms where the workers have no power, they require the power of the state to protect them from exploitative work rules and dangerous and toxic work environments. Hence the small and worker-owned firm, freed from the regulatory burdens that properly belong to mega-firms, will have an advantage over the globalist collectives.

Distributism as Patriotic Subversion

This short list is not meant to be exhaustive, but suggestive. Starting from the principle of widening the economic space for distributism and undermining capitalist hegemony, many other things will suggest themselves. But along with this subversive goal of undermining the system, there is a second and paradoxical goal: We must uphold the system. That is, we must participate in the political process with the goal of getting people the best deal that can be obtained under liberal capitalism. This is largely a matter of recognizing that alongside of market goods, there are common and socialized goods that are necessary for the stability and flourishing of families and communities. Everyone recognizes this in the case of such things as national defense, roads, police and fire protection, and the like, but do not the same considerations apply to healthcare, unemployment insurance, housing supports in over-crowded cites, and similar goods, goods without which family and community life becomes precarious.

There are, of course, distributists who take the opposite tack, such as the so-called “Benedict Option,” which advises political quietism while building up counter-cultural enterprises. The hope is that the liberal world order will simply collapse, and then as Patrick Deneen put it, “such countercultures will come to be seen not as ‘options’ but as necessities.” This tends to result in a politics suspicious of any actions of the nation-state in behalf of families, a politics which is theoretically libertarian but functionally corporatist. At this point, distributism negates itself politically to become its own opposite.

There are at least two problems with this. The first is that it’s the kind of thing said mainly by tenured professors and political pundits whose needs are well met by the system of liberal capitalism; they have their university’s Gold Plan insurance for their family and be insouciant about public healthcare for everybody else. Hence, they can painlessly advocate for collapse since the system already meets their needs and they are unlikely to actually see the collapse. They are divorced from the problems of the mass of men and women who have neither tenure nor health insurance. As such, the “Benedict Option” is simply a violation of solidarity.

The second problem is that just distribution does not arise from disorder, but from order. Liberal order has collapsed in Honduras; their major exports are now drugs and refugees. The Middle East is in flames; the only thing well-distributed is militias. It would be the same here; were America to collapse, the Amish farmers so admired by the “benedictines” would find themselves paying tribute to local warlords, presuming that they would be allowed to keep their farms at all.

So then, we are presented with a complex and even contradictory task. In the name of subsidiarity, we must work to undermine liberal capitalism and create alternative spaces for production and exchange, art and leisure, community and independence. But in the name of solidarity, we must work to ameliorate the system and socialize such common goods as health care, unemployment insurance, education, etc. In this, we can think of ourselves as “patriotic subversives,” working simultaneously to undermine and uphold the system of liberal capitalism so as to provide space and time for something better and more humane.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture

27 COMMENTS

  1. A wonderful piece, John. I little harsh there at the end–there are plenty of other conservatives besides “tenured professors and political pundits” who advocate for a kind of quietism in the face of global capitalism, in my judgment–but overall your way of setting up the problem(s) of distributism is superb. I especially liked your very final paragraph, which to my mind linked back to your introduction to the “political problem” section, because that tension which you describe is the tension which democratic socialists (even somewhat heterodox ones like myself) live with all the time. Compare your words (“In the name of subsidiarity, we must work to undermine liberal capitalism and create alternative spaces for production and exchange, art and leisure, community and independence. But in the name of solidarity, we must work to ameliorate the system and socialize such common goods as health care, unemployment insurance, education, etc.”) with those of Fritz Tarnow, a German trade unionist in the 1920s and 1930s

    “We are standing at the sickbed of capitalism not only as doctors who want to heal the patient, but also as prospective heirs who can’t wait for the end and would gladly help the process along with a little poison….We are damned, I think, to be doctors who seriously want to cure, and yet we have to maintain at the same time the feeling that we are heirs who wish to receive the entire legacy of the capitalist system today rather than tomorrow. This double role, doctor and heir, is a damned difficult task.”

    • Tarnow certainly captured what I was trying to say, and in more vivid terms.

      And there are certainly others besides the tenured professors who advocate for quietism, but in my experience they all tend to be “tenured” in the sense of having a secure profession with ample benefits. We forget how much this tenure isolates us from the concerns of ordinary people whose jobs are “at will,” whose futures are uncertain, and whose benefits, like health care, are precarious or entirely lacking, and require the ability to navigate complex bureaucratic systems. People’s thought tends to be guided by their concerns for their daily bread, and those who lack those concerns in themselves tend to overlook them for others. Solidarity requires a certain empathy, and that is hard to achieve if your reality is otherwise.

      • Complete agreement here, John. And, again, these are conversations which take place (though not nearly often enough, unfortunately) in leftist circles. I think of an old and dear friend of mine, who currently lives in a commune in Wyoming (and whose wife is running for a U.S. senate seat!), who has been involved in radical politics all his life, and who has come to conclusion–as we discussed together over soup here in Wichita a little over a year ago–that his old accelerationist friends are sadly, completely wrong; the costs to those “ordinary people” who are trying to build alternatives through their jobs, their families, their communities and congregations, is just much too great. He acknowledged that he lacked empathy in the past, and is grateful that life as enabled him to learn some.

  2. ~~The hope is that the liberal world order will simply collapse, and then as Patrick Deneen put it, “such countercultures will come to be seen not as ‘options’ but as necessities.”~~

    Concern over the possibility of the liberal order’s collapse does not equate to hoping for it. As Dreher and others have often said, in this understanding political activity is an exercise in strengthening what remains, and by no means can be called “quietism.” And the Benedict Option’s emphasis on localism — brightening the corner where you are — flies in the face of accusations of Ivory Towerism and “violations of solidarity.” There may be some writers/pundits “advocating for collapse” but I don’t see Dreher and Deneen as among them. Among other things neither of these gentlemen seem to believe that we’re in any way prepared for such a collapse were it to occur: Rod and others have said this repeatedly. I hate to say it, but the description of “Benedict Option” thought presented here is a caricature.

  3. Robb, you might be correct, but I see no program for the current moment; certainly, it is legitimate to interpret what you call a “concern” with the prospect for collapse with a hope for that collapse, especially when nothing else is proffered. “Brightening the corner where you are” is certainly a worthy endeavor, but growing your own tomatoes (which I do) will not solve the job insecurity that capitalism brings, nor comfort the mother taking her child to the emergency room with no or high deductible insurance. What all utopias–capitalist, communist, or localist–have in common is that they sacrifice the current moment to the glorious future; the sufferings of today will be justified by the perfections found in the future.

    But it doesn’t work that way. As I wrote previously in these columns, “But the problem is that the alternative “counter-anticultural” communities themselves depend on the maintenance of liberal order. Collapse benefits no one but the bandits. The collapse of the Roman Empire did not empower the citizen, but reduced him to a serf. The collapse of the Soviet Empire enabled only the oligarchs and established a former KGB officer as autocrat of the Russians. The demise of the Carolingian empire and its dissolution into local principalities left Europe defenseless against the simultaneous assaults of the Saracens from the South, Magyars from the East, and Vikings from the North; such “localism” made the 9th and 10th centuries a time of widespread misery, and enabled the roving bands of mounted thugs—the origin of the knights—who pillaged Europe from within. I cannot think of a single historical precedent for a “successful” collapse; it resides in the realm of pure fantasy, and a very dangerous fantasy at that. We can only hope that the benedictines do not get what they hope for. ”

    Without an agenda for today, we cannot count ourselves as being in solidarity with the family that has problems today. And yes, our solutions will all be of the “ivory tower” variety. Localism can only exist in tension with larger structures dedicated to its flourishing and prosperity, and without these hierarchies, it collapses into anarchy.

    • John, I agree in general, but would hasten to add that I see us as still being largely in the “diagnostic” period of this bigger question. People are still hammering out what exactly is wrong, how it got that way, and why: the treatment plan comes only after there is some consensus on the diagnosis. But there’s nothing necessarily wrong with attempting to alleviate the symptoms in the meantime.

  4. I call myself a distributist, so I like much of this, especially stuff like this: “ADM actually benefits from a regulatory regime that only big firms can afford…Hence the small and worker-owned firm, freed from the regulatory burdens that properly belong to mega-firms, will have an advantage over the globalist collectives.” And as someone who wants small towns to be full again of locally owned businesses rather than vacant wastelands, I want to see government policies that explicitly favor small businesses rather than large.

    However, you should have edited out the entire paragraph that starts with “Foremost among the hegemonic institutions is the big-box store” because as both economics and history it is complete and total nonsense. The fact is that big-box stores and massive logistics operations are EXTREMELY efficient (economically) relative to small local systems. Read “The Great A&P” by Levinson for lots of examples of why it is so hard politically to fight big business, even those that swear off political lobbying like A&P did for almost its entire history–because they DO provide cheaper prices, and the public DOES like that. A lot.

    What is necessary is a long, long fight to convince more people that economics is NOT the only, or even primary, concern we should have. This will be very hard, because it involves fighting the big interests that are now so incredibly entrenched. Look at the massive, one-sided hysterics that have filled media and politics the past few years at the suggestion that we put tariffs on Chinese goods and try to bring production back to America. (Also, liberals/leftists should note that the labor movement was opposed to A&P only until they agreed to unionize many of their employees, at which point they happily became supporters. If Walmart ever thought they would benefit from unionizing their workers, they would do so in an instant, and then those of us who actually are advocates of small businesses, not just allies of convenience, would be even more marginalized.)

    • “A&P”; there’s a blast from the past. I used to manage a warehouse for them, way back in my misspent youth. And I categorically deny any responsibility for its bankruptcy.

      But the big-box store is entirely a creation of the federal highway system, the “free”ways. If there were weight and distance tolls on these roads such that the big-box stores actually bore the full cost of their “massive logistics systems,” the WalMarts of the world would dry up and blow away, while local enterprises, with shorter and more efficient supply chains, would flourish. It is subsidy, not efficiency, which creates these monstrosities.

  5. You need to enter into dialog with deneen and dreher. “Quietism” indicates a misreading and pulling them into this discussion is a severe category error. Your argument is far stronger without that aside.

      • A couple years back Dreher put out a general request for someone who knew more about political economy than he did to reason out what a Benedict Option economics might look like. There was at least one person that he had in mind whom he hoped would take it on (he named him, but I don’t remember who it was), but as far as I know he got no takers. This was in response to certain critics of the book who chided him for not including enough about economics.

        When you ask, “What is the program?” I’d argue that the stage has not been reached yet where the average person is convinced that acquisitive consumer capitalism is problematic. To use my medical analogy from above, it’s hard to sell people a cure when they don’t believe they are sick. Any distributist or BenOp program requires some measure of scaling down or dialing back acquisition and consumption. People need to be awakened to the problems inherent in those things before they decide to start doing that, however. If you don’t see the good in effecting those sorts of lifestyle change you have no reason to take them on. And for some people the lack of a “program” simply serves as an excuse to do nothing.

  6. Well, perhaps distributists might take a leaf from the book of Mormon. The Mormans (along with other groups such as the 12 Tribes) run what is essentially a parallel society that delivers great social benefits to anyone involved in their operation. They have their own healthcare, insurance, etc. What a lot of people who scoff or salivate over the Bededict Option seem to miss is the scope of its potential: not merely a group of people who are all on the same page culturally, not a little “hobbiton” but what amounts to an alternate society and economy, run by a theocratic body. A “shadow state,” if you will. If “collapse” is the impetus for such a movement, it need not be the only means of accomplising it. The collapse does seem to be coming, one way or the other. Why should bizzare offshoots of Prot. Christianity (or the not exactly booming religious orders of the more mainstream faiths) have all the fun?

    • Michael, I have come across this in my work with the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The Mormons in Dallas operate their own fully staffed grocery store and used to give our clients credits to shop there. It happens to be on the other side of the county, so it is not practical for most of our people, but it is a splendid system. A diocesan and parish-based system would be a true marvel, but I seriously doubt that the Church is willing to commit the resources, and it would likely require the same tithing system the Mormons have. But their system is quite impressive, and we should feel some shame that we are not able to do the same.

      • As a Mormon who spent about four and a half years helping to run our congregation’s welfare program here in Wichita, I thank you both for the kind words, and wish that more of my co-religionists had the vision Michael has of an “alternate society.” Anyone familiar with our history knows that there was a time when Mormons took that vision very seriously; today, it’s much more rare, not the least reason for which being the membership’s integration into contemporary liberal capitalist states like the U.S. throughout the 20th century, and the ensuing complexity which that diversity and specialization brought into what was, at one time, a much more contained economy. Still, the ideal remains.

        • Would that many of our respective religious groups would seek a return to a more radical lifestyle. For us Orthodox, the barrier is a tendency to dismiss more intense communal/anti-consumerist proposals as “something for monastics.”While us lay folk need not try to be monastics, it wouldn’t hurt us to be quite a bit more counter cultural short of that.
          I’d like to live a world where we are better prepared, in general, to weather the boom and bust. Regardless of particular religious commitments, the possibility of building highly localized, resilient, “alternative” economies is a real possibilities. I have a lot of faith in the potential of the cooperative movement, land trusts, credit unions. Basically anything that puts control back in the hands of communities within their immediate municipalities.
          I think the expectation of any serious market regulation is highly unlikely. And the welfare state is a band aid not a cure. The trick is convincing communities/neighborhoods to move in that direction. Heck, even getting individuals to make those decisions. We’ve been talking about making the credit union move for a while. Hasn’t happened yet.

  7. “Likewise, firms where the employers have effective control of their own work rules need little in the way of public regulation; the workers can protect their own interests.

    Is this a typo? It should be “firms where the employEES…”

    Great stuff, btw!

  8. Mr. Médaille, thank you for an enlightening article that answered many of my questions about distributivism and generated such thoughtful comments and responses. I look forward to learning more. Best wishes, Gerrit in rural Ontario.

  9. “But if distributism is a real possibility, it needs to have a political program and one with a clear and definable purpose and goal.”

    Absolutely. Distributism suffers from two problems that virtually guarantees that it will never be implemented. The first is that Distributism is ill-defined. Some seem to equate it with a kind of bucolic utopia, complete with shoe cobblers and blacksmith shops. Others confound federalism and subsidiarity, as if subsidiarity took no account of competence, but smallness for its own sake.

    The first isn’t going to happen within the lifetimes of our great-great grandchildren. And it isn’t clear to me that it would be a good thing. The infant mortality of the old days gives me a great deal of pause. The second causes distributists to oppose such obvious necessities as universal health coverage. A single-payer system could be administered locally, but there is no better funding source than an entity that can manufacture its own money. But there are honest distributists who oppose it because the federal government isn’t local enough, thereby sacrificing efficiency to ideology.

    So we have to decide what distributism IS. And it seems to me clear that the only definition that makes any sense is that it stands for the widest possible distribution of capital ownership. We support anything that moves us in that direction, and oppose anything that moves us away.

    Now the “we” is also problematic. Distributism is anything but an organized movement. I sense that some distributists find the very idea obnoxious. But we can have no impact unless we do so. And, yes, we should decide, once and for all, that our ideas should have a political instantiation.

    I emphatically do not mean that a third party should be formed, which is simply a way of marginalizing people with a particular ideology. But an organization with sufficient numbers to impact politicians and policy is a worthy goal. Let’s do it!

    • Yes, the bucolic vision is most associated with distributist theory, but it’s largest implementations are in industry: Mondragon, ESOPs, the Emilia-Romagna system, etc.

      Agreed: the one sentence definition is “the widest possible distribution of capital ownership.” Anything that tends toward this is distributism and anything that tends away from it isn’t.

      The American Solidarity Party is or wants to be basically distributist party. It is worth checking them out.

      • Alas, I was involved with the formation of the ASP. I have never see it go wholeheartedly in a distributist direction. I could be wrong. But, as I said, a third party is a bankrupt strategy. An organizational force that commanded the attention of one or both of the major parties would be more effective.

        • I’m a little baffled as to why the ASP is putting Presidential candidates forward. I support them, but I think they would do well to focus on local elections and act as more of pressure group at the national level. DSA has had some success caucusing with Democrats. It might be wise for ASP to take a similar tack. Though, which of the two major parties would give us the time of day?

          • If we have enough numbers (i.e., votes) the major parties have to pay attention. We’ll only be marginalized if we marginalize ourselves, like the ASP is doing.

  10. In terms of a politics of hope and a politics of solidarity, Mr. Médaille’s patriotic-subversive Distributism recognizes that the one cannot do without the other. Yet if there’s a remiss point here it’s that another nation or region’s descent into chaos has become a willful blind spot in an all-too normalized practice of primitive accumulation across the globe. Whether it’s Iraq or Honduras, the problem is that they are both examples of premeditated destruction – Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” – of intentionally harmful, destabilizing arrangements imposed by the barrel of a gun to perpetuate oligarchic wealth and extractivist capitalism’s imperatives.

    The difficulty going forward, in other words, is that any viable politics of subversion/solidarity can’t accept a democratized distribution of social goods if it in anyway comes courtesy of, or compromises with, this BAU model and its routinized sacrifice of another populace’s land and well-being, whether at “home” or abroad. From this angle, Sanders’ democratic-socialist remedies have not yet squared with his reluctance to rein in the national-security complex’s militarist insanity, or with his silence in rebuking the plutocratic (i.e. corrupt) sources of wealth that his own party has grown fat on.

    Order could still be wrested from the 1% in the short term, but the future staring America down is one, as JM Greer recently wrote, where “weather-related disasters … move raggedly upward with each passing year … loading another increasingly heavy burden on economic activity and putting more of what used to count as a normal lifestyle out of reach for more people.” Complex and contradictory, indeed.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here