WHAT IS DISTRIBUTISM?
by Dennis Whiting
Beyond Capitalism & Socialism (IHS Press, 2008) gives an introductory history of the movement plus 12 up-to-date views by different authors. On p xlii of the Introduction there is a definition given by K L Kenrick in a pamphlet of 1926:
‘There are three economic theories struggling for supremacy in the modern world. They are Capitalism – the doctrine that property is best concentrated in large masses in the hands of a few people; Socialism -the doctrine that property is best owned and controlled by the State; and Distributism – the doctrine that property is best divided up among the largest possible number of people. Broadly speaking, we may say that Distributism means every man his own master (as far as possible); Socialism means nobody his own master, but the State master of all; Capitalism means a select few their own masters and the rest of us their servants.’
Since the Industrial Revolution the mass of men have been wage slaves: either of the state or of big corporations. In contrast the independent farmer or self-employed craftsman has freedom and security. Modern democracy is a failure because a nation of employees cannot govern itself.
Between the wars, organisations such as the Distributist League in Britain and the Southern Agrarians in the USA achieved a fair measure of popularity and recognition. Despite the seemingly irresistible march of capitalism and globalism, the Distributist movement is still alive today, perhaps more so in the USA than here. Put in ‘distributism’ as a search term to find the websites on the internet.
Distributists believe that economic power should be taken out of the hands of big business and given back to ordinary people. This is what pope Leo XIII advocates in his famous 1891 Encyclical Rerum Novarum. At that time, the misery and abjection of the working class masses was very apparent. After the First World War there were reasonable hopes of an increased general prosperity. But these hopes were dashed by the worldwide slump of 1929/30. The wanton destruction of real wealth and the upsurge of needless poverty brought about by the fluctuations of the money market staggered many intelligent commentators and gave a boost to the notions of Social Credit and Distributism.
This seemed to many to be a fanciful medievalism. But is it so unrealistic? Being one’s own master, tilling one’s own soil and harvesting the crops fulfils a deep human need. The well-run family farm has been celebrated as the ideal down the ages. Similarly with the independent craftsman and tradesman. Large scale manufacturing is better carried out by co-operatives than by conventional firms with the bosses on one side and the workers on the other. The Mondragon Co-operative Corporation in Spain is a prime example of how it can be done.
The role of central government should be to set conditions that encourage local production and consumption and to refrain from stifling local enterprise by a blizzard of needless “health and safety” type regulations. Precisely the opposite course has been pursued by government and supra-government organisations in recent decades! There are today far more obstacles put in the way of small independent producers and craftsmen than there were in the 1920’s and 1930’s. For instance that monstrously powerful multi-national, Monsanto with its genetically modified foodstuffs, has made it impossible for farmers in some parts of the world to even own their own seed crops.
Distributism is not a programme that can readily be sold to the voter on the doorstep. It is not feasible to blow a flourish on the trumpets and demand a radical change to the way we all live. But there are small incremental steps we can each of us take. We can re-examine the way we do our shopping. Let’s spend our money in the local shops instead of the giant supermarkets. When we do patronise the big stores, give preference to John Lewis and Waitrose as they operate on the partnership principle. We should use cash or cheques instead of credit cards as much as possible. Firms such as Visa and MasterCard are parasitic outgrowths on the world economy and have, I am told, a huge stake in the pornography business. We should actively seek out those valiant restaurateurs and shopkeepers who refuse to use credit cards and encourage them with our custom. We cannot all become smallholders but we can most of us grow some of our own vegetables and fruit. We might consider keeping chickens or even follow the example of our Patria Leader, Ian Johnson, and take up beekeeping!
Having recently moved house, I have had occasion to call on the services of quite a number of craftsmen for refurbishment and repairs: people recommended for the most part by word-of-mouth. I have been impressed by their competence and resourcefulness and honesty in giving value for money and also by their cheerful and positive outlook on life. Despite all the political nonsense and the economic and social woes that assail our nation, here is a sign that a healthy community spirit still subsists.