Approx Reading Time: 13 Minutes
Distributism is a meme ideology. Distributism is communism for Christians. Distributism is socialism for people who understand economics. Distributism is just a lame fetishization of agrarianism. Distributism is a gateway drug to the far right and the far left. Distributists are all monarchists, all anarchists, all fascists, all leftists. Distributism is wholly impractical but is also part of the policy programs of most mainstream political parties in the western world. Distributism is Hobbit socialism. Perhaps all of these things are true. Maybe none of them are. To borrow an old Jewish joke, if you were to get two distributists in a room together, you’d get at least three definitions of ‘distributism.’ Two of the leading lights of distributism as a concept, GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, never liked the term and seemed to have been embarrassed by it by the end of their careers. It may not be a useful label at all. Nevertheless, we’re going to try and make sense of it.
Ideology centered on the Family
Distributism is at least three things: a basic principle, a policy program based in Christian values and Catholic social teaching, and an unattainable but worthy ideal that is grounded in morals and aesthetics as much as anything else.
However, as with all fringe ideologies, distributism is a profoundly personal attachment, something which people fall into from a variety of different perspectives. I used to identify myself as a ‘distributist’ openly – but I don’t anymore. I don’t think the label is helpful. I don’t think it means anything outside of specific contexts. To hear some enthusiasts talk, you might as well replace the label with something even more inane: a Lover of Good Things-ist, a Common Senseite, or even a Hobbit Socialist. Divorced from actual policy-making and power projects, serious articles offering a ‘distributist case for single-payer healthcare’ or a ‘distributist analysis of the craft beer phenomenon’ are just forms of navel-gazing by academics and dilettantes.
Distributism did, however, provide me with a useful out, and several valuable ins. I used to be extremely left-wing. I was a socialist who unironically apologized for the Soviet Union, a true believer in Marxist economics and the revolutionary struggle. I had most of this knocked out of me at university but remained a man of the left, a believer in the role of the state in the economy, the liberal cultural project, secularism, and public-private partnerships firmly. In Britain, I would have been called a Blairite, and in America, I would have been a genuine, unconditional supporter of the Clintons and Joe Biden.
My call to distributism was indistinguishable from my call to the cross. This was not a coincidence. Reading widely in the field fired me up from two angles, it transformed my view of the world, and thus my view of heaven. I had not previously been able to see heaven, being too invested in worldly projects and pleasures. For a time after this change of heart, the two ideals were indistinguishable in my head: the just and comfortable world of freeholding farmers and artisans, and the pursuit of holiness and salvation, joined by the unifying institution of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
It would be glib to say that this is no longer my world view. In many ways, it still is. Nevertheless, my view of distributist ‘economic theory’ has expanded somewhat. To grow in holiness is also to increase in healthy cynicism about the world, especially the viability of political projects. There is a whiff of utopianism about distributism: socialists dream of the classless society, anarcho-capitalists of an age of abundance and individual license, distributists have their Middle Earth, their land of milk and honey. I realized I was mistaking false and unattainable heaven on Earth, a perfect world of rolling fields, little plots of land, autonomy, prosperity, fat cows, country parsons, old maids cycling to Holy Communion and mead for the real heaven, which is beyond our mortal capacity to comprehend.
That distributist dream will never be realized because power structures exist. The state always serves the interests of those who can buy into it, those on whose patronage it depends. It is never an institution independent of a society and its magnates, or its culture. For that reason, it can never be a vehicle for social transformation on strictly ideological lines. You cannot merely come into government with a program of policies and an ideal end in mind and enact what you want to enact – life is not a Real-Time Strategy Simulation. This truth applies to all ideological programs, both sensible and mad.
Politics is the art of managing relationships, compromising, doing what you can in the circumstances handed to you. It’s about power, and power will never allow ‘distributism’ to be enacted systematically across an entire society. It simply isn’t conceivable that magnates could be convinced to give away or sell enough of their capital and wealth to enable the majority of people to hold property – certainly not at a scale large enough to be autonomous economic actors. It isn’t conceivable that a society based on agriculture and artisanal production could exist without a decline in material living standards significant enough to lead to massive political unrest. How would a distributist society police crime? How would it defend itself from external attackers? How would it develop new medicines, what would its national infrastructure be like? Nobody can say, and that’s the point.
A genuine transnational crisis like COVID-19 throws these questions into even starker relief: what is a distributist response to a global pandemic? What are little shops and freeholding farmers in the face of such a threat? In our bones, even those who still identify with distributism are grateful for corporate supply chains and significant state coercion at a time like this. We need more than goodwill and localized charity to tackle a deadly and fast-spreading virus. Perhaps more localism.
Distributism as a fundamental principle is a good one: more people should own property. This is a sound idea and a viable policy platform. It’s the basis for material prosperity, social cohesion, and higher degrees of individual autonomy. It encourages family values and healthier local communities. It’s not socialism, seeking to abolish private property through state control, or capitalism (in as much as ‘capitalism’ is a systematic ideology like socialism) – tending to concentrate ownership in a small number of hands. It makes sense – it is both moral and practical.
Questions that keep distributism in the same boat
Nevertheless, this principle raises questions. How, exactly, can property be redistributed without some sort of coercive force? What measures, if any, should be taken to break the power of large corporations and open the many markets which they dominate up to smaller entrants? What role has technology played in pushing society away from the local, the communal, and the familial, and what capacity does a government or some sort of ‘citizen’s movement’ even have to do to reverse that?
There are detailed and credible answers to all of these questions in circulation, and I’m sure that many well-informed readers can think of outline solutions in their heads. The problem remains, however, that the state is a blunt instrument in the hands of the already wealthy and powerful, and has, what might be called, an anti-distributist bias baked into the pie. This is not a problem of policy or ideology, but a problem of power and superstructure.
It is orthodox within economics to dismiss mercantilism as primitive pseudo-science, a pre-enlightenment notion based on chauvinism and ignorance. Wealth is not a zero-sum game. One country, firm, or individual is not necessarily wealthy at the expense of or to the exclusion of others. A rising tide can lift all boats in trade, commerce, and industry.
Nevertheless, there are clear examples in the modern world where mercantile theory applies. In the property markets of Britain and the United States, the number of people who own their own homes is declining. It remains impressively high by any historical or global comparison but is moving in the wrong direction. Too much property is in the hands of the old and already wealthy, and an increasing proportion in the hands of powerful magnates who purchase property solely to profit from expected future gains. This is an unsustainable situation that has had profound social as well as economic impacts. With parents caught in two-income traps, people under the age of 40 are unable to afford property, and young people are neglecting to save for a future they feel they have already been priced out of and, thus, surrender to consumer nihilism and hedonism. Even small landlords, taking advantage of their accumulated assets to enter the buy-for-let property market, have contributed to the problem; by overheating house prices in and around major urban centers and denying younger, fortuneless people access to property.
An even grimmer picture can be said to exist in specific sectors of the economy, notably retail and agriculture. These fields, dominated by nucleated households and family firms for millennia, are now controlled almost entirely by large corporate entities. The high street of independent, characterful shops is extinct. It has been replaced by strip malls full of franchised outlets and, more increasingly, online marketplaces like Amazon, dispensing goods from invisible warehouses. Where even fifty years ago, it was viable for ordinary people to aspire to own a shop that could provide income and employment to an entire family and serve as a focal point within a neighborhood, this is now all but impossible. Those scattered remnants of independent retailers that do survive are forced to do so by imitating their corporate rivals – scaling up, cutting costs, keeping ungodly hours, trading on Sundays, and underpaying their workforce (if they can afford to employ a workforce).
It would be a mistake to attribute all of the negative changes within modern society to economics. Clearly, it is a moral failing for us to have allowed the public realm to become so savage and inhuman. Markets function according to their own logic, whether we like it or not – but it is up to us to decide to what extent this logic should drive public policy-making. There is an imbalance in the modern west, and materialism has been allowed to thrive to an unhealthy degree. It is within our power to challenge that, and there is no doubt that ‘distributism’ offers some practical solutions.
Indeed, distributist ideas have influenced efforts to address some of these problems. Throughout the last century or more, various policy measures have been pursued to increase property ownership at all levels of society. Most of these are entirely practical and also dull, they have had some success, but they have not transformed society in any tangible sense. Here in Britain, Margaret Thatcher and her advisers envisaged a ‘property-owning democracy’ of family firms, homeowners, and shareholders. She gave council tenants, who leased their houses from local government authorities, the right to buy the property they were living in, thus, creating an asset boom within a section of society that had never been wealthy before. She sold off shares in privatized state assets, including the Post Office, water, gas, and electricity campaign, and funded marketing campaigns to encourage ordinary people to buy these up.
A state policy of this kind can be considered ‘distributist’; the basic principles of Catholic social teaching were are at the heart of many western polities in the decades after the Second World War, what the French call ‘the glorious thirty’ – the high watermark of Christian Democracy. This period saw a flourishing of regional, mutually owned, and, in some cases, explicitly Catholic businesses in finance, insurance, manufacturing, and even retail in Italy, Germany, Spain, and elsewhere.
The Mondragon Corporation
The greatest of these, and a subject on which vast amounts of ink continue to be spilled by academics and amateur distributism enthusiasts alike, is the Mondragon Corporation. Founded in 1956 by graduates of a technical college in Spain, this company had its origins in primarily charitable enterprises set up in the 1940s by Jose Maria Arizmenderrieta, a Basque Catholic priest, in part to help with reconstruction after the Spanish Civil War. From these origins, Mondragon has grown to be an economic entity of national and, indeed, international significance, a network of employee-owned co-operatives operating across the finance, manufacturing, retail, and tertiary service sectors.
I’m not here to criticize Mondragon explicitly. The company has done and continues to do good work. Mondragon pays better wages and gives more autonomy to its’ workers than most. Nevertheless, it is not what some distributists wish it to be. It has not transformed Spanish society; Spaniards do not dream of working for Mondragon, flock to its outlets, or extoll its virtues far and wide. It’s a good corporation, yes. But in truth, it is little more than another part of the corporate landscape of neoliberal Spain. It has a board of directors, a CEO, an HR department, marketing, and everything else. It has not transformed the moral economy of Spain or anywhere else, nor does it have the capacity or ambition to do so. Anyone who believes that it can is deluding themselves: modern Spain is another secular, neoliberal state like any other.
The same can be said of the many co-operative, mutual, or employee-owned corporations that exist in Britain. The Co-operative supermarket was founded as a radical employee-owned venture by Methodist miners in the 19th century. The Royal London insurance was founded by the poor of East London to provide for each other’s funeral care, and the Nationwide Building Society started when a group of Birmingham artisans pooled their savings to allow them to build their own homes. Now, each one of these is just another part of the corporate ecosystem, with branches on every high street and adverts on every billboard, perhaps slightly more ethical as an employer or service provider than some of their competitors, but only slightly.
The origins of these companies cannot be divorced from their historical context or the cultural and political conditions of their time. Victorian England had a homogenous and broadly Christian culture that enabled mutual aid societies and collectively-owned enterprises to be more easily established. Technology and mass media had not yet distracted people into solipsistic caves; they knew their neighbors and colleagues and had an explicitly Christian concern for their wellbeing. Moreover, the privations of early industrial society and the laissez-faire attitude of the government at the time made local, bottom-up responses to the needs of the poor and unemployed a necessity. There is much less space now for mutual effort in the age of the mass-scale welfare state. There is, also, much less incentive to get involved in local clubs and associations, it confers less social capital in our fast-paced, globalized world. People share less and less and resent more and more about their neighbors: we are not cohesive cultures anymore. We live in a society, and force of will alone will not turn that society back to the 1880s.
The origins of Mondragon can be found in a more recent, but no less unattainable past. The inconvenient fact for any left-leaning Catholic, inclined to praise the corporation, are its origins in the Francoist state. Say what you will about the stagnation and brutality of the Generalissimo and his long rule over Spain, but what cannot be denied is that Franco’s Spain was explicitly Catholic and pursued a corporatist economic model aligned with much of Catholic social teaching. Enterprises, like Mondragon, were necessary for rebuilding Spain after the Civil War and modernizing its economy on a model that did not present a challenge to the autonomy of the dictatorship, such in a way that foreign investment from the liberal western powers would have done. Seen in its full context, Mondragon’s roots are less ‘three acres and a cow,’ and more ‘Dios, Patria, Rey’ – and this demonstrates something significant about actually existing distributist projects. They depend on their political context – and rightist dictatorship with its emphasis on nationhood and traditional values is often more conducive to this than democratic socialism or globalist liberalism. Without concurrent changes in a moral, political, or social order, all attempts to create actual existing distributism are simply subsumed into the corporate nexus.
A dose of pragmatism
There are many policies, which modern governments could pursue, to promote something that could be called distributism. They could offer tax incentives, subsidies, or similar to encourage companies to allow employees to hold shares or have a more significant say in corporate governance. They could pursue right-to-buy or help-to-buy schemes to help more people to own their own homes and give more favorable terms for private families and individuals to save and invest. They could establish quasi-autonomous government banks to enable more people to get loans on favorable conditions to develop businesses. They could sell off state-owned assets, whether land, capital, or industries, and introduce terms that ensured they were only bought in small portions by smaller companies or private individuals. They could tighten anti-trust legislation, break up some of the bigger banks and companies, and close loopholes that enable firms to establish monopolies. They could step out of the economy more; stop subsidizing big farming and manufacturing enterprises, corporate infrastructure projects, and landlords.
All of these are policies for which a sound ‘distributist’ case could be made. Most of these policies are being pursued, to a greater or lesser extent, by modern western governments today. They are not terribly radical. They offer, at best, a partial improvement to people’s living conditions within the existing paradigm. A low-wage worker for Mondragon is still just a tax-paying, consuming, corporate employee, facing the same moral and cultural malaise as everyone else, a sense of tedium, of entrapment. A homeowner or small shareholder in a western liberal democracy is not an autonomous economic agent. They probably have debts and a corporate or government job of which they depend on for survival. Policies, like those delineated above, will not change that. ‘Policy’ is entirely inadequate to address these broader issues, demanding paradigmatic shifts which are beyond any government, and certainly beyond any academic, priest, or participant in any nascent ‘citizen’s movement’ to address. It may well require the cataclysmic collapse of modern western society before we can even think of formally discussing the ‘distributist dream’ or whatever. By that point, we’ll most likely have warlords, pestilence, and nuclear fallout to deal with, at any rate.
None of these discussions of policies and statistics get at the heart of distributism. Distributism is a spiritual belief, a value, an image, and an ideal. What precise form this takes can differ from person to person, movement to movement. You have pragmatic distributists, who imagine a society not wildly dissimilar to our own, just with a fairer dispersal of property and a better deal for small businesses. There are techno-futurist distributists, who imagine a world more technologically advanced than our own, where people’s wealth is to be distributed in complex and free-flowing virtual networks of stocks and shares, automatic ISAs, blockchains, and crypto-bonds. There are authoritarian distributists, who imagine distributist economic policy in the context of an all-powerful national regime, and libertarian distributists, who see distributism as the ideal economics of a stateless or nearly stateless future.
The main concluding point of this article, however, is that distributism is unattainable, and that’s ok. All dreams are unattainable in this life. Our kingdom is not of this Earth, we are not to live perfectly just and ideal lives in this Vale of Tears. At its most abstract, distributism is little more than a description of heaven on Earth. At its most practical, it is just a catch-all term for sound, pragmatic policy-making that is so vague as to be nearly useless. We should, by all means, seek a more just and moral economic settlement based on property-ownership and material autonomy. However, we should not delude ourselves that this is going to transform society as much as we as we’d like or that it is anything less than a spiritual battle for the salvation of souls. That battle is to be fought elsewhere, away from policy forums, think tanks, and impenetrable academic articles about mutualism or microeconomics. It is fought through prayer, scripture, charity, sterling moral effort, and family formation, in the churches and in the sacraments. Through prayer, devotion, and effort, we may move a little closer to the worthy ideals that distributism represents. However, we will only ever find them in their full form in heaven. Thanks be to God.
Written by Alfonz Cavalier. Alfonz is a Catholic reactionary from London, England. You can follow him on Twitter here.