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Archive for October 10th, 2011

Sowing Distributism

When I first started reading Wendell Berry thirty odd years ago I had just returned to the Catholic faith. I was struck by how easily his ideas harmonized with the Catholic social teaching and distributist thought  I was discovering. In the early 90s I finally wrote Mr Berry and asked him about this; had he ever read the papal encyclicals? Or Chesterton and Belloc? He replied somewhat testily that no, he was not familiar with any of that. I sensed, as one might expect from someone raised as a Baptist in Kentucky, that he was somewhat suspicious of Catholicism and not quite comfortable being told that his ideas resonated with Catholics. (He has since gotten over that and has addressed Catholic conferences).

I relate that story because distributists need to be reminded that distributism is not “Catholic Economics”; it is not revealed truth, and it is not just for Catholics. Every truth in the distributist canon can be arrived at by unaided reason. You do not need to have been baptized or to have read the social encyclicals to understand that small is beautiful, that life should be lived on a human scale, that property should be widely distributed instead of being in the hands of a few, that labor has priority over capital.

It is true that distributism owes a great debt to Catholic social teaching, and particularly to the papal social encyclicals. And it is true that at least a plurality of distributists over the years have been professed Catholics. Indeed, after a vibrant moment in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century distributism has existed as something of a Catholic relic. If it was a movement it wasn’t moving much at all, was relegated to abstract discussions among co-religionists over beer. It was a sort of curiosity, the ideal of eccentrics.

But all that has changed in recent years. When I first discovered distributism just about any Catholic who was interested in social and economic issues was either a leftist of the liberation theology sort  or a free marketeer. That is, they either emphasized solidarity or subsidiarity, but rarely put them together. All of that has changed; thirty years of free market ideology has resulted in economic collapse and an emerging plutocracy. Young Catholics have for some time rejected market fundamentalism and are open to the distributist message. And distributism has, in the last decade or so, come alive. Through the tireless work of Tom Storck, John Medaille, Richard Aleman, and others, distributism is no longer living in the past but vibrant, brought into the contemporary debate with new vigor. Dusted off, it appears fresh and new.

There are those- and some of them are on my blogroll- who dismiss distributism as anachronistic, as if it were a combination of William Morris crafts plus British romantic agrarianism. To be sure, distributism did arise within the milieu of English radicalism, which is paradoxically reactionary and agrarian. But the principles of the movement apply to any society.

Indeed, it seems uniquely suited to the American scene. It is not so far from Jeffersonian democracy, and there are antecedents to distributism in our history: perhaps no culture has so nearly approximated the distributist ideal as did the American Midwest in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Property was widely distributed, most folks were small farmers, craftsmen or shopkeepers. There was no dramatic imbalance between the rich few and the poor many. That is long gone, done in by a series of disasters, beginning with the Dust Bowl and the Depression and finally all but finished off in the 70s, when farmers took the “get big or get out” advice of the county land agent and the Department of Agriculture and went deeply in debt to finance newer and bigger equipment, only to be done in when land prices bottomed out. Farms foreclosed by the thousands, eaten by agribusiness. If it wasn’t a set up it sure looked like one. But that society is a living memory to many who are still around.

And now that there is finally outrage over the rule of the Corporation and openness to alternatives we should stand ready to address the modern crisis. But we must do so in a new way. John Lennon famously said to the leftists of his day “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao you ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow”. To paraphrase him, if you go carrying pictures of Christ the King you ain’t going to convince anyone of anything. We must frame distributist thought in a way that young people can hear it, and whether you like it or not the Church isn’t exactly viewed favorably these days. If you quote papal authority it ought to be only to Catholics, not to those who don’t recognize magisterial authority.

Actually, the sectarian tone of distributism is a recent thing; G K’s Weekly and other distributist organs of the early 20th century avoided it, and read like any other political/economic journal.

But perhaps you disagree with this. Perhaps distributism is one point of your 5 point plan to create a Catholic commonwealth in the United States, complete with a monarch and state religion. If so, good luck on that. Don’t forget to write.

As for me, I believe that distributism has the answers to the crisis we are in. It is an idea whose time has come. But don’t get me wrong; just  because I say this is the Distributist Moment does not mean that I think we are on the verge of becoming a mass movement. We may have come a long way in the last decade, but we still labor in obscurity. How much obscurity? Well, whenever I type “distributist” or “distributism” the spell-check thing underlines the word, thinking it is an error. When spell-check doesn’t think your word exists you are pretty obscure.

So I don’t think we are about to reap a great distributist harvest.

But it is high time we broke some ground and sowed some seeds.

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