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Distributism Review
November 28, 2010 11:28 AM   Subscribe

Distributist Review promotes distributism (wiki), a "third way" of economics between capitalism and socialism, inspired by Catholic social teaching. Popularized by G. K. Chesterton (more, more), Fr. Vincent McNabb (more, more), Hilaire Belloc (more, more), and E. F. Schumacher (more, more, more), as well as through the pages of the Catholic Worker (more, also), distributism seeks to put "productive" property into the hands of the many, with implications for urban homesteading and agricultural reform, as well as the rebirth of the guild as an idea. Distributism is not merely an economic system - it is wholly fused with Catholic teachings, fusing the left and right, standing against modern, liberal political and sociological thought.

Further reading on distributism (long pdf).
posted by Sticherbeast (33 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh, man, I should have known that G.K. Chesterton would have the answer I was looking for.
posted by redsparkler at 11:41 AM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


So, it's mutualism but with more Jesus?
posted by XerxesQados at 11:47 AM on November 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


See also ParEcon
posted by lalochezia at 11:50 AM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Clamoring for a just economic system is Christianity I can get behind.
posted by entropone at 11:52 AM on November 28, 2010 [10 favorites]


Middle way economics. I'd rather someone gave concrete proposals based on rational assessments of outcomes than simply coming up with a middle-point between two poles and calling that a solution.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 12:02 PM on November 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


You know who else wanted a third way of economics between capitalism and socialism inspired by Catholic social teaching?
posted by Electrius at 12:02 PM on November 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


Isn't this a rephrasing of the common statement that every person should be a productive member of society? As the eternal optimist, I hope this goal is achievable.
posted by Jodio at 12:12 PM on November 28, 2010


Distributism is not merely an economic system - it is wholly fused with Catholic teachings, fusing the left and right, standing against modern, liberal political and sociological thought.

Great: so it's three Christian wolves and a heretical lamb, voting on what's for dinner.

Except the author hates voting, so I guess it's just a righteous Christian king who gets to silence all our "determined and well-financed minorities", so we can "be subordinated to the purpose of right living, and that in turn is subordinated to the attainment of eternal life in Heaven". Awesome, the 11th century was brilliant the first time around!
posted by vorfeed at 12:16 PM on November 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


Funny you should say that, Electrus: Chesterton's endless tirades against Jews, which he thrust into stories and essays upon the flimsiest pretexts, never got him into trouble--indeed Chesterton was one of the most generally respected figures in English literary life. Dodgy old quasi-fascist, though of course he "had Jewish friends."
Might look a like a glib trashing of his economic ideas by association, but his identification of "a Jewish problem" and his "stand against the modern" are reminiscent of a Postone analysis of Nazi anti-Semitism I've posted here before, which exposes the poverty of understanding at the root of 'third way' ideas:
This form of “anticapitalism,” then, is based on a one-sided attack on the abstract. The abstract and concrete are not seen as constituting an antinomy where the real overcoming of the abstract—of the value dimension—involves the historical overcoming of the antinomy itself as well as each of its terms. Instead there is the one-sided attack on abstract reason, abstract law, or, at another level, money and finance capital. In this sense it is antinomically complementary to liberal thought, where the domination of the abstract remains unquestioned and the distinction between positive and critical reason is not made.

The “anticapitalist” attack, however, did not remain limited to the attack against abstraction. On the level of the capital fetish, it is not only the concrete side of the antinomy which can be naturalized and biologized. The manifest abstract dimension was also biologized—as the Jews. The fetishized opposition of the concrete material and the abstract, of the “natural” and the “artificial,” became translated as the world-historically significant racial opposition of the Aryans and the Jews. Modern anti-Semitism involves a biologization of capitalism—which itself is only understood in terms of its manifest abstract dimension—as International Jewry.

According to this interpretation, the Jews were identified not merely with money, with the sphere of circulation, but with capitalism itself. However, because of its fetishized form, capitalism did not appear to include industry and technology. Capitalism appeared to be only its manifest abstract dimension which, in turn, was responsible for the whole range of concrete social and cultural changes associated with the rapid development of modern industrial capitalism.

The Jews were not seen merely as representatives of capital (in which case anti-Semitic attacks would have been much more class-specific). They became the personifications of the intangible, destructive, immensely powerful, and international domination of capital as an alienated social form.
posted by Abiezer at 12:27 PM on November 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'd rather someone gave concrete proposals based on rational assessments of outcomes

I'm sure distributionists would love a chance to make various social experiments based on their principles and get back to you. Or maybe they've already identified some past policies that are close (I see some distributionism in the homesteading of the 1800s or the 40 acres and a mule reconstruction stuff) and would like to tell us about it, but maybe not in this post. That doesn't makes an introduction to the philosophy useless or uninteresting.

simply coming up with a middle-point between two poles and calling that a solution.

This does the thinking I'm seeing here a disservice. They're not just saying "What's some middle point between the state holding the means of production and an oligarchy holding the means of production? Hey, let's split the difference! Half for the state and half for the oligarchs!" -- which may sound facetious, but is actually closer to what we generally do in the western world than what's described here. Rather than "simply" coming up with a middle point, this is addressing the real question that under both unalloyed socialism and capitalism, determination regarding use of capital (and its returns) is concentrated in the hands of a minority, meaning that most people are estranged from their labor either way and are farther away from the ability to take care of themselves and their neighbors. What to do? Well, find some other way to put capital straight in the hands of as many individuals as possible.

Now, if your complaint is that the devil's in the details, sure, I agree. Working out the policy would be tricky enough. The political realities are even tougher, given the large segment of the population that's trained to see economic policy in only two colors (communist and capitalist). But talking about the philosophy can be a start towards getting people to see fuller spectrum.
posted by weston at 12:46 PM on November 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Middle way economics. I'd rather someone gave concrete proposals based on rational assessments of outcomes than simply coming up with a middle-point between two poles and calling that a solution.

The links under "urban," "homesteading," "agricultural," and "the rebirth of the guild as an idea" all do precisely that. Perhaps even more importantly, distributism is so tightly wound up with Catholicism - and usually a pre-Vatican II, pre-Roe v. Wade brand of Catholicism - that to critique it purely on a lack of clarity as a system of economic and political thought is sort of missing the point.

(Also, outlandishmarxist, assuming your handle isn't completely sarcastic, I'm sure you can appreciate writings that are meant to change the way we think about something, but do not go into all practical particulars!)

Oh, man, I should have known that G.K. Chesterton would have the answer I was looking for.

If your question was "as which early 20th Century author shall I become as fat as, and then dress as, for my next job interview," then yes.

You know who else wanted a third way of economics between capitalism and socialism inspired by Catholic social teaching?

I know you're joking, but fascist syndicalism/corporatism is sort of like if you hung distributism upside-down.

Except the author hates voting, so I guess it's just a righteous Christian king who gets to silence all our "determined and well-financed minorities", so we can "be subordinated to the purpose of right living, and that in turn is subordinated to the attainment of eternal life in Heaven". Awesome, the 11th century was brilliant the first time around!

I didn't take that essay as a literal endorsement of monarchism, and to be fair, support for monarchism is not a common part of distributism, and I should have been more clear on that point, so that's my mistake. On the other hand, distributism comes from an essentially English Catholicism, so there is that general tendency towards not caring one way or another about pure, monarch-free representative democracy.

Anyway, the reason why I enjoyed that essay was because it presented a critique of democracy very similar to that which I've read from Zizek and other, hipper, non-religious philosophers. Not to say that being similar to Zizek makes one any less ridiculous, but I bring up the comparison because Médaille presents interesting ideas about democracy, using class and religious references, instead of, say, Zizek's appeals to Lacan and perversity and ideology and pop culture references. What I draw from them both is in how democracy adopts a ritualistic form that vaccinates it from real criticism - we're all aware that elections, especially ones on the national level, are manipulated by massively-monied interests, and yet we go along with them, because hey, that's democracy. The sacrosanct nature of democracy makes it hard to really burrow into that realization that democracy, at least in America, is sometimes little better than an explicit oligarchy, and yet we go along with it, because hey, once again, that's democracy.

On a very practical level, something new Médaille brings to the table is a sense that the sham that is a national election presents all the more reason to be passionate about working locally.

And, of course, we do not need a monarch, a monarch would not be an improvement, and we should, in fact, vote, because national elections do still matter, flaws and all, but there's something more substantial in there than just a paean to the 11th Century.

...

Meanwhile, on Chesterton's famous anti-Semitism:

Might look a like a glib trashing of his economic ideas by association, but his identification of "a Jewish problem" and his "stand against the modern" are reminiscent of a Postone analysis of Nazi anti-Semitism I've posted here before, which exposes the poverty of understanding at the root of 'third way' ideas:

Looks like an interesting essay, thanks for bringing this up. It's funny as well because I've just been reading Chesterton's Ball and the Cross, which, while well-written and enjoyable, of course contains unintentional hilarity (and offensiveness) on the acceptability of barging into a Jewish shopkeeper's business, castigating him for running a pawn shop and a pornography shop, and then binding and gagging him while you swordfight with an atheist.

It is interesting - and for what it's worth, I am a Jew, and not a Catholic, and therefore not a distributist - how the Jew does adopt this form as on Other who represents that sort of alienation, and how even modern, soft-pedalled anti-Semitism still reveals this. It is also interesting how National Socialism was so Romantic and anti-modern at its core.

On the other hand, wouldn't this also be a golden opportunity to separate the actual problem - alienation - from the project of that alienation onto an Other, Jewish and otherwise?
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:58 PM on November 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


“I am a monarchist because I am a democrat.” That is, I believe that the will of the people, their traditions and customs, their concern for their families, their communities, and for the future should determine the shape of any political order. And monarchy is the highest form of this democracy.
...
The traditions we receive are the sum total of the distilled wisdom of the past about how to live in the world and with each other. It is, of course, an incomplete knowledge, and our task is to add to it, and to pass it on. Tradition therefore comes from the past but is oriented to the future. But democracies tend to erode traditions by pandering to current desires.
Reading through the article, the author's chief concern seems to be that democracies can overthrow the traditions of the dead past, where kings can enforce those traditions against the will of the living citizenry. I presume that this king will be enforcing the author's traditions, like Christmas, and not the traditions of others, who will be relegated to the status of second class citizens in our new democratic monarchy.

The author takes pains to emphasize that these kings will not be like the bad English kings, but like good kings Aristotle would like. Aristotle was skeptical that such governments were possible, and in any case thought the ideal state contained a large class of slaves. And even if these new kings are tyrants, they'll be no worse than elected tyrants (save, I assume, for their life-long tenure) and will be easier identified as such than democratic tyrants (as if identification, not removal, is the problem).

There are good arguments for constitutional monarchy where the monarch exerts power only when the elected governing body is dissolved, but these are really just arguments for stability of some kind. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court could serve the same function in the US were we to move to a parliamentary system.

These arguments, on the other hand, are bad arguments, but popular among a certain set of Catholics who really go in for ceremony and the sense of connection to ancient traditions. I was never one of those Catholics, but I can see the appeal for religious practice. The appeal for political practice, on the other hand, is nil. Nil unless, that is, you place a premium on enacting a theocratic regime, in which case it's a great idea, because that's what you're going to do.

Some liberation!
posted by Marty Marx at 12:59 PM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Except the author hates voting, so I guess it's just a righteous Christian king

1) The Wikipedia article notes "Distributism does not favor one set of political order over another, from democracy to monarchism."

2) Even if there are distributionists -- even if there are many distributionists -- who would prefer a theocracy (or even a racist theocracy), I don't see any reason people couldn't benefit from considering the economic side of the policy on its own merits. It doesn't look that hard to factor out. Though I do think it's interesting to watch a segment of christianity try to come to grips with actual social and economic policy, something that you might well think was lost from christian cultural discourse if you were only looking at the highly visible fusion between current evangelicalism and the political right in the U.S.
posted by weston at 1:04 PM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wasn't Ignatius J. Reilly one of these?
posted by Countess Elena at 1:09 PM on November 28, 2010


From their wiki page:
"Distributism sees the trinitarian human family of one male, one female, and their children as the central and primary social unit of human ordering and the principal unit of a functioning distributist society and civilization."

Sorry, this is not liberation. Not for me.

Once you take all of the theocratic stuff out, it looks to me like weak left-libertarianism, but distributivists would oppose the anti-traditionalist approach of left-libertarianism. Unless I'm misreading it and there's a more compatible political theory residuum, you can't consider the economic policy alone as something that distributivists would endorse. The whole idea is that our economic policies are constrained by theological considerations.
posted by Marty Marx at 1:12 PM on November 28, 2010


Interesting post, though, Sticherbeast.
posted by Marty Marx at 1:20 PM on November 28, 2010


Thanks for taking my comment the way I intended Sticherbeast; I didn't want to just dump on your post. It's that aspect of the reaction to the modern and its attendant alienation I did want to get at. I am a (nominal) Catholic and have encountered distributist ideas before, held by decent people who I don't doubt shared my concern for social justice, what they call a desire to "subordinate economic activity to human life as a whole." Strikes me that an understandable anti-communism blinded them to the superior analyses of the Marxists and post-Marxists, in particular on the totalising nature of the market, and they ended up with what seems ultimately an exercise in wanting to put a genie back in its bottle long after it was even possible.
posted by Abiezer at 1:30 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I take my king's neck wrapped in priest's entrails, thanks.
posted by fleetmouse at 1:35 PM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


A minor digression, but this, from the last link above:
…and; finally, an examination of American institutions which could evolve, in times of trouble, into more monarchical (and therefore more democratic) forms.
made me think in more ways than one of this John Holbo post on Chestertonian antinomies:
Now how does Hart hope to evade the awkward consideration that trying to cross a desert with only a dog-eared copy of The Wind in the Willows as your guide is as likely to get the whole caravan killed as any other method that might be tried? Well, obviously he doesn’t mean it. But that’s the trick. Because this is the point in the discussion at which Hart is most obliged to mean something by something. Because this is the point at which the circular peg of anarcho-monarchism fits into the round hole of solid English conservatism—of plain common sense, disdaining all conceptual extravagance and idle concept-mongery! Well, how does it?
posted by kipmanley at 1:36 PM on November 28, 2010


I think G.K. Chesterton was a great man and Distributism (the idea that private property is not a bad thing but a good one (so screw you Communists) -- so more people should have more private property rather than a few people having almost all of it (so screw you Capitalists)) is an expression of him at his best.

But Chesterton absorbed and expressed the racism and anti-Semitism of his age, along with all his goodness and decency. And picking those things apart from the good stuff is not trivial. He had a huge imagination and all the things he believed in (including the things we have learned to reject) loomed large in it and associated with each other.

I think that any form of socialism which is likely to be accepted and implemented in a post-Soviet world is likely to reject the excesses of Communism which Distributism is designed to counter, so I think these days you might as well just be a left-winger as be a Distributist -- all the good stuff and none of the really sketchy stuff which has accumulated around it since Chesterton's day.

These days Distributism is a favorite of the BNP and similar folks. I don't see it as worth fighting people like that for the sake of the name. Just fight for socialism, and in a world of immensely powerful capitalists, you're likely to succeed only enough to produce something like Distributism.
posted by edheil at 1:45 PM on November 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


2) Even if there are distributionists -- even if there are many distributionists -- who would prefer a theocracy (or even a racist theocracy), I don't see any reason people couldn't benefit from considering the economic side of the policy on its own merits.

There are plenty of alternatives to democracy and/or capitalism which aren't a stalking-horse for Christian supremacy. I largely agree with the author's critique of democracy and capitalism, actually... but economics which are "wholly fused with Catholic teachings" are a solution in search of a problem, not the other way around. The idea that they can be considered on their own merits assumes that they have merit apart from their religious context, an assumption distributionists like Storck would seem to deny. It'd be one thing if Catholicism were merely the inspiration for distributism, rather than its intended outcome, but that's clearly not the case here... "factoring out" the economics from the religion is pointless when the very goal of these particular economic choices is religious.

In short: I despise Catholicism and Christianity, and I despise the idea that economics should be "subordinated to the purpose of right living". What possible reason should I have for giving consideration to an economic policy which is explicitly designed to support these goals? You may as well suggest that I take a blueprint and cut out all the stuff about buildings, in the hope that I'll end up with a starship.

Maybe so, but it would be easier to get a different blueprint.
posted by vorfeed at 1:51 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Distributism and subsidiarity are decent ideas hobbled by their affiliation with Catholicism.

It's been independently reinvented by other thinkers (none major or very influential).

The major philosophical issues that jump out -- at least to me -- have more to do with subsidiarity than with distributism per se:

- (1) without making very strong assumptions about the preferences of individuals it can be hard to tell what the appropriate size for an entity would be. EG: if you think WalMart is in the "running large stores with lots of products" than WalMart is too big: the same thing could be done by the mom-and-pop stores WalMart has largely replaced. If, on the other hand, you think WalMart is in the "reduce prices and deliver increased value using sophisticated logistics infrastructure, market analytics, and economies-of-scale" than WalMart has to be about as large as it is now to do what it's supposed to do. Two different purposes, two differing minimal sizes to achieve those purposes, and no clear way to determine which purpose we ought to understand as controlling here.

- (2) the foundational writers lived in a time in which it was easy to observe economic power getting concentrated but before the real significance of things like economics-of-scale -- and in particular the things we now know to call network effects -- became widely-understood. Consider the internet: its value is in its ever-increasing universality. The value of a collection of interconnected networks is larger than the sum of the value of those networks in isolation (not connected to each other). The consequence of this mean that a naive application of subsidiarity -- breaking things down into the smallest pieces possible -- will get rid of a certain sort of concentration by throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The point in (2) about networks applies to most other forms of infrastructure: having more -- and more localized -- electrical generation may be beneficial (and be a good distributist outcome) but having a shared electrical grid solves problems that can't be solved with a disconnected patchwork of isolated mini-grids.

- (3) the sense of size doesn't take into consideration the long-run effects of automation. EG: in 1910 a large snack-cake factory might've employed hundreds of people to prepare dough, knead it, shape it into cakes, place in the oven, keep the ovens at the right temperatures, remove finished cakes, wrap the cakes for packing, then pack the cakes for delivery. In the distributist outlook this was already a questionable situation: the owners of the snack-cake factory are enjoying the concentrated benefits of their capital equipment and their employees' labor, and maybe things would be better off with a dozen smaller snack-cake shops with a few dozen employees each. In the early distributist's imagination the next step in such excessive concentration would've been some hellish snack-cake factory straight out of Bosch: a cavernous shop floor with thousands of employees toiling away beneath the heat of giant ovens, stirring swimming-pool sized vats of dough, and so on; this gargantuan factory would've even further concentrated the economic benefits to the owners, and perhaps we'd all have been better off with a few dozen of those 200-300 person snack-cake factories instead of such a monster.

Instead, the outcome is that there's only one giant snack-cake factory, but it is almost entirely automated, and employs maybe two dozen or so employees (who mainly watch over the automation and push the occasional button or turn the occasional dial). This is still a bad outcome from a distributist standpoint -- as it leads to even more concentration of the economic benefits than the hundred-employee snack-cake factory of earlier eras -- but it is a bit of a monkey-wrench in terms of subsidiarity: is this "smaller" than the larger factory of yesteryear? or is it larger?

The combined effect of (1), (2), and (3) seem to be that distributism and subsidiarity still have something to say, but are essentially incomplete economic philosophies in the modern setting: if they want to offer a plausible chance at sustaining something resembling modern life they need to have some provision for the creation and administration of the enormous infrastructural projects without which modern life becomes infeasible. Most of the plausible suggestions on that topic -- things that seem like they're compatible with the basic notions of distributism and subsidiarity, etc., -- are very close to various types of socialist thought and thus makes it seem like distributism doesn't have much to say that's unique. A consequence of this is that there's not much there, there, anymore, that can't be found elsewhere, and so something like distributism -- for what merits it does have -- seems more like a potential shibboleth for people who want to engage in the vanity of small differences and distinguish themselves from disliked groups with similar outlooks (cf its popularity with various european nationalists).

(!) Note that in the context of the Catholic tradition there's a final arbiter as to which purposes would or would not be more-kosher than others, and so in a specifically-Catholic implementation of distributism one could appeal to the church to get an authoritative answer as to what the purpose of WalMart is when discussing what size WalMart ought to be. As you might expect from such an intellectual climate the earlier distributist writings (at least what I've read) pay lip-servce to the possibility of differing values but do not have a deep appreciation for the problem.
posted by hoople at 1:56 PM on November 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


"Third Way" ideas and movements have been infamous for their variety and vagueness. I think the poster is basically incorrect in suggesting that the Distributists (the Neo-Medieval anti-usury intellectual movement headed by Chesterton and Belloc) came somewhere between capitalism and socialism or the so-called "triangulation politics" often associated with New Labour (UK) or Clinton Dems (USA)

Instead, I think if we are going to have any clarity about the specific policy measures of a "Third Way" movement-party its going to be in the monetary sphere – not romanticizations of rural life and social cohesion.

The first place to start is Chesterton's economics: the Social Credit doctrine of C.H. Douglas

Social Credit (as anyone from Alberta Canada should know) was a proto-Keynesian underconsumptionist idea that called for the replacement of bank-debt money with a public treasury house that would distribute a "public dividend" of credit-money to every household based on the administrative calculation of the nation's total capacity for production and consumption. Douglas was probably inspired by the Chartalist or German State Theory of Money, as, indeed was Keynes. And while the formula of Douglas's theory (the A + B theorem) is terribly flawed, the basic idea that there is systematically insufficient purchasing power in the economy remains contested.

Chesterton basically took Douglas's underconsumptionist theories and gave them a Neo-Medivalist and Catholic flavour. His colleague Belloc especially emphasized the role of "guilds" (i.e., trade unions...). I know less about Chesterton's anti-Semitism than of Douglas, who popularized "German-Jewish-Masononic financial conspiracy theory" as a way to support his economic ideas. Social Credit was premised on the idea that systematic industrial sabotage by financiers was integral to capitalist economies in the push towards what former Alberta premier Ernest Manning called a World Slave State. And from here you get the multitude of conspiracy theories (qualified to a degree) about how both Bolshevism and the Nazis were financed by the City of London and Wall St.

Against of all this baggage, I think there is a definite kernel of legitimate insight from social credit/distributist ideas from their macro-economic and monetary concerns. Instead of approaching "Third Way-ism" from Catholic social doctrine or fascism, however, a better line of thinking might well be propositions for debt-free money.

As usual Joe has the answers
posted by ogallalaknowhow at 2:05 PM on November 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


@weston and Sticherbeast:

I should have spent more time looking at the arguments of distributism before deciding it was simply middle-wayism. It's not at all middle-way capitalism, in fact; in reality, it's much closer to certain other kinds of socio-economic doctrines (of the Blut und Boden type that we've seen before (more below).

@Sticherbeast:

(Also, outlandishmarxist, assuming your handle isn't completely sarcastic, I'm sure you can appreciate writings that are meant to change the way we think about something, but do not go into all practical particulars!)

I actually think Marx and Engels' ban on concrete utopias and planning was one of the greatest disservices they ever did to the left. It creates an apocalypticism that can't deal with the present moment and acts as if every part of human life is subordinate to the final step, namely, the communist revolution. This is why there were no classes or history or environmental destruction, etc., in Stalin's Russia - i.e., they didn't recognize them once the event (the revolution) had occurred. This is why I feel that Badiou and Zizek are little more than hucksters, even if I agree with them occasionally.

@weston:

Even if there are distributionists -- even if there are many distributionists -- who would prefer a theocracy (or even a racist theocracy), I don't see any reason people couldn't benefit from considering the economic side of the policy on its own merits. It doesn't look that hard to factor out. Though I do think it's interesting to watch a segment of christianity try to come to grips with actual social and economic policy, something that you might well think was lost from christian cultural discourse if you were only looking at the highly visible fusion between current evangelicalism and the political right in the U.S.

On its economic merits, it's libertarianism: it believes that both monopolies and the state are bad (also worth pointing out that libertarianism has always had strong moralistic elements; it's almost as if family-values moralism and the belief in capitalism with a human face are inseparable).

I have certain sympathies with such a system, to a point. The Analles school (Braudel and his disciples) argued that capitalism has been ill-defined in the past - that it is not simply the reinvestment of capital into production (after all, doesn't an agrarian society or a hunter gatherer society invest a proportion of capital into production?), but rather it describes a certain relationship between the state and the "owners of the means of production" - one in which the military power of the state is employed directly in protecting the interests of those who are most central to the process of reinvestment (merchants and financiers in the 15th century; industrialists in the 19th century; etc.). In this sense, a certain segment of Marxists would agree with Chesterton and his ilk that capitalism is not simply an effect of the existence of capitalists and workers, but an outcome of a certain relationship between capital and the state.

I think what's ultimately lacking is 1) an analysis of power and 2) a realistic assessment of the degree of integration in the world as it is. For 1): what happens when a single capitalist (or group of capitalists) manage(s) to accumulate massive amounts of wealth due to strategic positioning or sheer brute force? Do we have a mechanism that can break up a trust? Do we have mechanisms for protecting people from that kind of thing? (This is not to argue that state capitalism is particularly effective in this regard). For 2): To provide for 6 billion people, we need a lot of intermarket coordination. Of course, it could be argued that they want a system that works better for a lot fewer people, but then their system relies on the very crisis (massive depopulation) that it claims in principle to be trying to forestall.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 2:15 PM on November 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Great comments Sticherbeast. I will watch your career with interest.
posted by Faze at 3:38 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think the poster is basically incorrect in suggesting that the Distributists...came somewhere between capitalism and socialism

Correct or not, it is precisely how distributists often sell themselves. I'd also say that their romanticizations of the small and the rural are part and parcel of who they were and are - splitting the cultural and religious aspect from the economic aspect gets away from what distinguishes distributism from any number of "third way" or socialist-flavored movements.

The Social Credit material is very interesting and I look forward to reading more about it, but it does not seem like a strong enough commonality through distributism that I have found, especially in "modern" distributism, if such a thing could be said to exist. If anything, distributism represents a hodgepodge of general themes and strategies, without many singular ideas, outside of a devotion to the Church.

As for Chesterton, the only instance I can find of him referencing Douglas (in what I've read of Chesterton) is apparently not complimentary - in the essay "Progress and Proportion," he says that "[the Douglas Scheme] may have been a solution of something, but, if anybody tells me that nothing is wrong with our economic ethics except an error in book-keeping, I am sure he is wrong anyhow."

Then again, an expert I ain't. Do you have a reference for his following Douglas that I can explore more deeply?

Once you take all of the theocratic stuff out, it looks to me like weak left-libertarianism, but distributivists would oppose the anti-traditionalist approach of left-libertarianism. Unless I'm misreading it and there's a more compatible political theory residuum, you can't consider the economic policy alone as something that distributivists would endorse. The whole idea is that our economic policies are constrained by theological considerations.

I think you see clearly the inextricability of the religion from the economic policy, so, yeah, we're getting a whole lot of bathwater with that baby.

That said, I disagree that distributism is a form of left-libertarianism. There's quite a bit of top-down government action in distributism. IMHO, it resembles something more in the vein of agrarianism, parecon, and social democracy, except with the Church as the monoculture behind it.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court could serve the same function in the US [as one of these "good kings"] were we to move to a parliamentary system.

In a very limited sense, though, don't they do that already? The Supremes interpret the law to best fit the words of dead men and old ideas, while also being guided by their own personal views and belief systems. They have considerable power over America, and they are purposefully insulated from the electoral process. Most people regard this as a feature and not a bug - while the Court has made any number of wrong or sloppy decisions, it's still a good thing that they can override popular public sentiment.

They're subject to rules and checks and balances, and that is also good, but the point still stands. We also see this with how administrative agencies are conducted, especially the independent ones - for good and for ill, our government has seen fit to insulate powerful arms of the government from elections, and sometimes it's even for very good reasons.

I think that any form of socialism which is likely to be accepted and implemented in a post-Soviet world is likely to reject the excesses of Communism which Distributism is designed to counter, so I think these days you might as well just be a left-winger as be a Distributist -- all the good stuff and none of the really sketchy stuff which has accumulated around it since Chesterton's day.

I see your point, but I disagree with the idea that just being a left-winger would smooth over the differences. Distributism is interesting precisely because it is neither left nor right. It shows how far we've come, for good and for ill. It's strange to think that it wasn't so long ago when some of the most conservative, religious people out there would be regarded today as being extreme leftists. We now live in an era far, far more tolerant of many people's basic rights than just a few decades ago, but we also have to fall over ourselves apologizing for daring to want to set up a national health care system. Politics, especially in America, has zig-zagged furiously, back and forth and across party lines.

And so when we read the platforms of some of these distributists, and when we, to put it mildly, do not like the idea of us all becoming strict Catholics and all that, also bear in mind how people with different beliefs than you must feel when you propose some things that they might agree with, but also many things that, to them, are totally unacceptable.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:26 PM on November 28, 2010


The idea that they can be considered on their own merits assumes that they have merit apart from their religious context, an assumption distributionists like Storck would seem to deny.

Which is probably about as valid as the idea that morality doesn't exist apart from religion. Are you going to be bound by Storck's conception of what can and can't be separated? Are you really arguing that distributionism must be accepted or rejected whole, or exactly as some of its proponents dictate? Do you take this approach when you evaluate other ideas?

I despise the idea that economics should be "subordinated to the purpose of right living". What possible reason should I have for giving consideration to an economic policy which is explicitly designed to support these goals?

Well, for one thing, the idea that economic policy should be constrained by any kind of value system is one that's on life support at best in America, and if nothing else, I think that's an idea that could use more avenues of reintroduction and support, particularly where it comes to conservative/christian discourse. But more importantly, it seems incorrect to say that catholic/christian values are the only thing the economics can support. I think one could argue there are Marxist values that are supported here, for example. If there are specific values you feel are both important and incompatible with the economics, feel free to argue that, particularly if you are certain there's no variation that would accommodate them.
posted by weston at 5:33 PM on November 28, 2010


Are you really arguing that distributionism must be accepted or rejected whole, or exactly as some of its proponents dictate?

I think the argument is more that distributivism minus the religious context is identical to some other political theory. The religious context is what makes distributivism distributivism rather than something else. Sticherbeast's mention of parecon seems even more plausible than left-libertarianism as the remainder of distributivism after religious context is excised, but even if parecon is compatible with the subsidiarity principle (hoople's criticisms kept in mind), parecon is (or its supporters take it to be) compatible with multiculturalism and feminism in ways that distributivism is not. The function of religious context -- or better yet, the function of Thomistic philosophy -- in distributivist arguments is to provide a justification for limiting that sort of compatibility.

And those limitations will have an effect on the distribution of things like wealth, prestige, health care, and so on. The distribution will reflect what the ideal Thomist believes to be important, unimportant, worthy, and unworthy. That's not only going to rule out democratic pluralism, but also women's basic control over their own reproductive capacities and everyone's sexual autonomy, to take the most obvious. This need not take the form of legal prohibition, but could be achieved through tax credits to heterosexuals with children, the exclusion of abortion and birth control from insurance subsidies, or tax subsidies for religious schools. Not for nothing have I selected results that are currently championed by conservatives in the U.S. Even if distributivists begin with a leftist economic system, the religious constraints on the distribution of resources do not leave them with one.

There's a separate credibility issue, such that even if we thought distributivism was leftists we might be suspicious about whether its advocates would implement leftist programs. The historical circumstances of its origin make it an attempt to preserve the social power of the Catholic Church in the face of a perceived existential threat from communism and anarchism. It seems leftist today, but that's against the backdrop of John Paul II and Benedict XVI squashing the last remnants of liberation theology now that the threat has gone. And now we have articles in the distributivism review arguing for monarchy with all the romanticism of one who imagines he would be included in the new aristocracy. This has little to do with helping the poor, but lots to do with, again, ensuring the Church retains social power in a pluralist society that is its most powerful competitor today. Accusations of bad faith are bad refutations, but I don't trust distributivists to make any promised economic reforms in favor of the poor they aren't forced to make in order to best some competitor for the hearts and minds of the faithful.
posted by Marty Marx at 7:19 PM on November 28, 2010


So, it's mutualism but with more Jesus?

"Distributism but with less Jesus" is pretty close to my initial reaction to Mutualism. Which is probably why I find it so appealing.
posted by moss at 7:24 PM on November 28, 2010


Yay!
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:38 AM on November 29, 2010


As for Chesterton, the only instance I can find of him referencing Douglas (in what I've read of Chesterton) is apparently not complimentary - in the essay "Progress and Proportion," he says that "[the Douglas Scheme] may have been a solution of something, but, if anybody tells me that nothing is wrong with our economic ethics except an error in book-keeping, I am sure he is wrong anyhow."

I likely erred in referring to as direct a correspondence between Douglas and Chesterton as I implied. Part of the problem is how widespread the term "Social Credit" was during the interwar era to describe all manner of social and monetary reform movements and ideas – and not necessarily the idiosyncratic policy proposals of Douglas. It seems as though Hilaire Belloc is the stronger link than Chesterton.

Maybe you can help me fill in the gaps between Chesterton and Douglas, as I do not know much about the former. Chesterton's quote is acute. Douglas was a technocratic thinker who believed that the state could calculate the 'real economy' and distribute purchasing power accordingly (in practice, a basic income guarantee). I remember reading that Douglas described his ideas as "applied Christianity," but I'm not sure what this meant beyond advocating for credit-money that is debt and interest free.
posted by ogallalaknowhow at 8:00 AM on November 29, 2010


I'd also say that their romanticizations of the small and the rural are part and parcel of who they were and are - splitting the cultural and religious aspect from the economic aspect gets away from what distinguishes distributism from any number of "third way" or socialist-flavored movements.

It is not so much that I want to remove the economic from the religious, but to push the question: what comes first, the romanticization or the reforms? If Distributivism is going to be more than an aesthetic for those that can afford it (and I don't believe this to be the case – there is hopefully more to it than noblesse oblige) than we need to be specific about details. I think part of the problem is that the classical liberal / agrarian goals of Distributivism are actually embedded in American ideology already! It isn't controversial to suggest that economies 'grow from the ground up', and themes of localism and subsidiary are generally popular – for better or for worse.

What is the romanticization of rural life without substantial land reform?

How can we have an economy that gives everyone the security from which to be free without substantial monetary reform?

If Distributivism is going to be a political (a populist) force – than it needs to generalize from what it is good in Catholic social thought into concrete and secular proposals. I emphasize the significance of money and credit precisely because there is a pressing opportunity to truly get past the capitalist/socialist dichotomy through money and banking systems at the moment (particularly in USA). Somewhere in the rude mix between 100% reserve rules, competing currencies, open source economics, local scrip, and monetary sovereignty there is a platform for a new hegemony.
posted by ogallalaknowhow at 8:49 AM on November 29, 2010


Oh yeah, man, mutualism. Great subject, great post.

I left this comment on ioesef's project on American Worker Coops recommending Race Mathews's work and website when it came to mutualism.

I've met the guy, and spent a bit of time on a committee with him, he's nothing less than a gushing fountain of historical corporate knowledge about Australian social democracy, labourism and political economy.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 12:33 AM on November 30, 2010


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