Distributism is the only practical solution to the problem of rampant corporatism and the globalism which is its inevitable consequence. Next time we raise a glass of craft-brewed ale, we should not merely enjoy its flavor, we should also raise a toast to the political and economic freedom that it represents. (essay by Joseph Pearce)
It doesn’t take the proverbial rocket-scientist to perceive the perils and pitfalls of socialism. Tens of millions of dead, and untold misery among the living, over the last century provide more than ample reason to view socialism as what it is: a tried-and-failed vision of political economy, a utopian ideal in the worst sense of the word (“utopia” means, literally, “no place” – a vision that is by its very nature impossible to achieve), a shipwreck foundered upon the shoals of its own misunderstanding of human nature.
What is less obvious – especially among many on the conservative side of the political aisle – is that capitalism doesn’t exactly enjoy a shining historical record, either. As a useful ally to Western liberal democracies (back when “liberal” meant something close to its original definition) during the long struggle against totalitarian Communism, being seen as the antithesis to Marxism, capitalism acquired something of a luster that it may not entirely deserve.
While capitalism has not (so far, at least) sent anyone to the gulags, that does not mean its effects have been entirely benign, either.
From the “dark, satanic mills” of William Blake’s Jerusalem to the horrors of the meat-packing industry in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, from colonial exploitation of natural and human resources abroad to the 19th century exploitation of Irish and Eastern European immigrants here at home, from rivers so clogged with pollution that they sometimes caught fire (the worse being the Cuyahoga in 1969, within my lifetime – the 13th time it had burned) to cities blanketed in choking smog, from mill-workers living in conditions of poverty, misery, and economic slavery to the companies that owned their towns to the situation today, where 10 percent of the world’s population owns 90% of its wealth (in the U.S., wealth inequality is so severe that as of 2016,
I am no fan of either Big Government or Big Business, and when the two are in cahoots – as happens all too often these days, here in the U.S. and beyond – the potential for harm is increased exponentially. This is not an attack on the present administration, I hasten to add! The Clintons were notorious for their connections with mega-corporations like Monsanto, and the Obamas were hardly immune, either. When people are waving large amounts of money under your nose, it can be all to easy to ignore the stink wafting from the bills: the odor of economic – and ecological – exploitation and oppression.
But of course, these are not the images that many – again, especially on the right side of the political aisle – think of when they think of capitalism. Or at least, they are not the images they evoke when defending it!
Rather, they cite the rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger tales of someone who started with nothing, and by dint of hard work (and generally a few lucky breaks, though this is rarely mentioned) made their way to the top. The conditions of their workers, or the material source of their wealth, is likewise rarely mentioned in these inspirational tales. Nor is the fact that, as one commentator has wryly pointed out, if hard work and enterprise alone were sufficient for success, many African village women would be millionaires!
But Horatio Alger’s
propaganda inspirational literature aside, the other image that comes to mind when thinking about capitalism in the U.S. is the Jeffersonian ideal, of a nation of yeoman farmers, supported by a relatively small and localized network of shop-keepers and tradesmen. Now we are getting into a model we could and – in my view – should use.
Of course, there would need to be practical changes to reflect the reality of our early-21st century world; and there would also need to be changes in our collective outlook: a willingness to abandon the idea that bigger is better, for instance; and possibly that newer is always and necessarily better, as well (although Jefferson himself was certainly an innovator, and innovation certainly has its place – neophilia, the love of what is new simply for its own sake, or the belief that it is always preferable to what is older, is a different story).
In fact, what Jefferson was propounding was basically what would become known, in the age of Chesterton and Belloc, as Distributism, a somewhat opaquely-named socio-economic and political philosophy based on the idea that not wealth (capital), per se, but rather the means of acquiring wealth, should be distributed as widely as possible. In other words, contra the Socialists, there should not be fewer capitalists, but more; contra the corporatists, however, that means of production and acquisition of wealth should be on a smaller, more localized, and more human scale: distributed among the many, not concentrated in the hands of a greedy few.
A nation of yeoman farmers, merchants, and artisans would fit the bill nicely! Of course, as I say, there would need to be some practical adjustments to fit current realities.
Even so, this may seem a utopian – and thus, impossible to achieve – ideal. However, as this essay points out, there are examples that demonstrate that it may not, necessarily, be quite so far-fetched as one might think at first glance. The example used is that of the craft beer (a.k.a., “microbeer”) movement. The article notes,
“As recently as 2012, two duopolistic companies, Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors controlled almost ninety percent of beer production. Apart from their own ‘domestic’ products, these two giants sought to consolidate their grip on the market by buying up successful smaller breweries.”
This is problematic, as “research has found that the existence of corporate behemoths stamps out innovation and hurts workers” – the dark side of capitalism, and a pattern that one sees played out over and over again (think Microsoft or Google). However, in more recent years, something strange has happened:
“Between 2008 and 2016, the number of new breweries rose by a factor of six, and the number of employees in the brewing industry rose by 120 percent. Even more incredibly, this sextupling in the number of new breweries and more than doubling of the workforce has come at a time when overall beer consumption in the USA has actually declined.”
Remarkably, as of 2017, the number of brewery employees has tripled from the previous decade, and despite their “economies of scale and massive marketing budgets, the big brewers are losing their stranglehold on the market.” Major producers are in steep decline, the article notes, quoting one of the study’s authors: “Goliaths are tumbling… Davids are ascendant.” The same is true of liquor distilleries and wineries, it continues. Among the reasons, “perhaps the most encouraging of all, is a rise in localism and the desire to consume locally-produced products.”
Now, is every industry open to the same sort of decentralization and growth of smaller-scale, local and regional, production that has been seen in breweries, wineries, and distilleries? That is a good question, to which I haven’t a good answer; but at least this example proves that the trend lines need not always and necessarily go just one way: toward larger-scale and more centralized ownership and production. There is an alternative.
Part of this alternative, however, does require government operating in its proper role, as representative of the people. When, as I say, government and corporate interests act in cahoots, people tend to suffer. But in addition to smaller-scale production generally producing a superior product, the leveling effect of social media on advertising, and a growing desire on the part of many people for local business – business on a more human and community level – there is another essential element: laws which “prevent the Goliaths from using their economies of scale to smash the competition.”
As the article points out, “The great effervescence in America’s beer industry is largely the product of a market structure designed to ensure moral balances, one that relies on independent middlemen to limit the reach and power of the giants… Such legislative intervention in the marketplace,” it continues, “serves to limit the political and economic power of the largest brewers while creating opportunities for small businesses to enter the market.” What they say about brewers can easily be applied to many other industries.
This is precisely the scenario the “free market” extremists – also known as “neoliberals,” who believe in “The Market,” and more generally competition, as the sole governing feature of human interaction (see here for more) – want to discourage: but scratch a neo-liberal, and you will find a corporatist. The idea of “competition,” in any meaningful sense, between a single innovator or a small business and a corporate giant, is absurd, a mockery. It’s a utopian (there’s that word again!) pipe-dream. As an old proverb puts it, “when elephants dance, mice get crushed.”
Thus, it’s not the small business owners, the artisans, the craftsmen, who have a problem with such reasonable intervention by government – functioning, again, in its proper role as representative of the people – but those who are being made wealthy by corporate capitalism, or who cherish a secret dream that someday they might be.
Unfortunately for that dream, it’s sort of like being a king, or even a major aristocrat: there’s only so much room at the top. And unlike traditional kings and aristocrats, most plutocrats, profiteers, corporate capitalists (there are a few notable exceptions) seem to have little sense of noblesse oblige, little concern for the well-being of the “peasants,” except as consumers of their goods or services.
As a result, the few accumulate more – more wealth, and the power and prestige that come with it – while the rest of us gradually (or sometimes, suddenly) get poorer. The decline of the American middle class, even while the economy is supposedly “booming” (mostly for those at the top), is a graphic illustration of the problem.
Distributism, based on principles of subsidiarity, solidarity, and community, may serve – could serve – as a solution. But it would require, as I noted above, a change not only in the way we do business, but more fundamentally, in our outlook: our approach, not only to business, but to life itself. It would require a government which was concerned with the commonweal, the well-being of the people, more than the interests of the wealthiest and most powerful.
And it would require an awareness that the “free market” is not some mystical entity unto itself, a secular replacement for God, but a creation of human beings, and one which human beings have both a right and a responsibility to shape in accordance with our own best interests. Certainly, that includes a healthy competition of ideas, products, and services – not a state-run economy, as in socialism or Communism.
But it does not require giving the fat-cats free reign to get fatter. Instead, it requires the creation and maintenance of a level playing field, in which true and healthy competition is possible. And it requires an awareness that competition is one and only one of the possible relationships between and among people, businesses, and other sectors of society: cooperation and commonweal must also be taken into account.
What form would that take, in today’s world? I am not enough of an economist, or a politician, to have a clear answer to that question. Certainly in the absence of a major crisis that resulted in a dramatic reduction in our present population (now more than three times what it was when I was born, in 1965), a return to Jefferson’s ideal of small-holders, yeoman farmers, and small-scale merchants, craftsmen, and tradesmen seems unlikely.
But the craft-beer experience demonstrates clearly that alternatives to ever-larger and ever-more-centralized modes of production and distribution are both possible, and desirable. It is up to us to figure out how to bring them about.
May God grant us both the wisdom, and the will, to do so.
Put simply, the principle of subsidiarity rests on the assumption that the rights of small communities — e.g., families or neighbourhoods — should not be violated by the intervention of larger communities — e.g., the state or centralized bureaucracies. Thus, for instance, in practical terms, the rights of parents to educate their children without the imposition by the state of ‘politically correct’ school curricula would be enshrined by the principle of subsidiarity. Parental influence in schools is subsidiarist; state influence is anti-subsidiarist.
“Subsidiarity’” is an awkward word but at least it serves as an adequate definition of the principle for which it is the label. Distributism, on the other hand, is an awkward word and an awkward label. What exactly does it advocate distributing? Are not communists and socialists “distributists” in the sense that they seek a more equitable distribution of wealth? Yet Belloc argues vehemently that distributism is radically at variance with the underlying ideas of communism and socialism…
Unlike the socialists, the distributists were not advocating the redistribution of ‘wealth’ per se, though they believed that this would be one of the results of distributism. Instead, and the difference is crucial, they were advocating the redistribution of the means of production to as many people as possible. Belloc and the distributists drew the vital connection between the freedom of labour and its relationship with the other factors of production — i.e., land, capital, and the entrepreneurial spirit.
The more that labour is divorced from the other factors of production the more it is enslaved to the will of powers beyond its control. In an ideal world every man would own the land on which, and the tools with which, he worked. In an ideal world he would control his own destiny by having control over the means to his livelihood. For Belloc, this was the most important economic freedom, the freedom beside which all other economic freedoms are relatively trivial. If a man has this freedom he will not so easily succumb to encroachments upon his other freedoms.
And this critical point, for our current situation:
We are called to imitate Christ, even if we cannot be perfect as Christ is perfect. And what is true of man in his relationship with God is true of man in his relationship with his neighbour, i.e. we are called to strive towards a better and more just society, even if it will never be perfect. Therefore, in practical terms, every policy or every practice that leads to a reuniting of man with the land and capital on which he depends for his sustenance is a step in the right direction. Every policy or practice that puts him more at the mercy of those who control the land and the capital on which he depends, and therefore who control his labour also, is a step in the wrong direction. Practical politics is about moving in the right direction, however slowly.
What might some of these practices look like?
In practical terms, the following would all be distributist solutions to current problems: policies that establish a favourable climate for the establishment and subsequent thriving of small businesses; policies that discourage mergers, takeovers and monopolies; policies that allow for the break-up of monopolies or larger companies into smaller businesses; policies that encourage producers’ cooperatives; policies that privatize nationalized industries; policies that bring real political power closer to the family by decentralizing power from central government to local government, from big government to small government. All these are practical examples of applied distributism.
As the foregoing practical examples would suggest, distributism/subsidiarity is not an esoteric ideal without any practical applicability in everyday political and economic life. On the contrary, it is at the heart of politics and economics. In all politics and economics there is the tendency for power to become centralized into the hands of fewer and fewer people. Subsidiarity can be seen as the antidote to this centralization, i.e. it is the principle at the heart of the forces of decentralization, the principle that demands the rights and protection of smaller political and economic units against the encroachments of central government and big business.
Hopefully these are ideas that most of my readers can get behind!