Distributism and the Lost Cause

I consider myself a distributist. This is odd because I do not believe that distributism is an effective economic system. I don’t even consider distributism a source of sound political principles. Distributism is a defunct idea. To be emphatic I might go further and call distributism one of the most naive philosophies ever proposed. Still, I call myself a distributist. Despite its manifest failures, distributism contains a spark of idealism absent in the contemporary world; it is this idealism that deserves to be carried forward and explored in the modern times.

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Chesterton’s third way

Inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (on Capitol and Labor), G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc formulated distributism as one of the first “third way” Christian alternatives to socialism. Chesterton and Belloc preached a return to the fundamental Christian values in order to move society away from large institutions and back towards the organic family-oriented communities of the medieval past. On the surface idyllic, distributism was in fact a revolutionary perspective that viewed the existence of largeness and efficiency as enemies to the protection of the small and beautiful. Many distributists following Chesterton and Belloc believed that only when the veneration of power and imperialism was destroyed could the poor and humble things in life be valued. Much ink was spilled on the value for the humble and Chesterton (never shying away from grand pronouncements defending the downtrodden) famously finished his distributist magnum opus What’s Wrong with the World by asserting that he would rather disband every bank, parliament, and army within England than admit that the shaving of one poor girl’s head for lice was “necessary”.

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The distributist community

But despite the romance of Chesterton’s assertions, the distributist vision was (and still is) economic nonsense. Anyone with an even rudimentary understanding of trade knows the terrible impact economic de-globalization would have on the poor. Anyone with knowledge of manufacturing knows the price de-industrialization would have for ordinary families. Moreover, Chesterton’s notion of an independent and empowered medieval peasantry is one the greatest examples of historical hogwash in the modern era. Truly it was a mercy that Chesterton’s creed was found hard and never tried. As a practical system, distributism deserved to die in a sea of well-earned laughter just as much as communism deserved to die in its sea of well-earned blood.

But I persist. Even if there is no value in implementing distributism, there is value in calling oneself a distributist. Identity should be about the ideals and, as such, one can associate with a political philosophy even as he acknowledges it to be impractical. A person’s core ideological position says something about them. If one calls themselves a libertarian or a socialist they are saying something definite about their values even if that same person acknowledges that pure libertarianism or pure socialism would be a disaster. Values are an end to themselves and therefore a truly honest ways of constructing an identity. It is in this way that calling oneself a distributist is powerful. The name stands for idealism, a futile idealism perhaps, but relevant nonetheless.

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Idealism as a guiding light

Chesterton was right in one regard, the world is not suffering from too much idealism but too little. There are too many conversations about practical reality and too few about the values needed to rule over that reality. Within all of the discussion about interventionist wars and international institutions, do people ever think about how the planet should be governed ideally? Within all the talk of funding entitlements, do people discuss how responsibility and ownership should ideally be divided between the individual and state? I find that ideology is almost never discussed in politics. And if there is a dearth of ideological discussion in politics, there is an absolute void of ideological consciousness in technology and culture.  The history of internet privacy and digital copyright abuse is one long catalog of the American people accepting incursions on their property that would have been rejected in seconds if put in stark ideological terms. Like it or not, through a series of pragmatic steps, a core American ideal is now almost removed from our everyday lives.  Admittedly, in realistic terms, privacy and property may be doomed in the digital age; but I would rather hold up the ideal and see it fail than to simply slouch into perdition unconsciously. Even if ideals are hard to realize (and especially if  ideals are impossible to realize ) we still need them if for no other reason than to measure our progress or regression.

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Humanity’s greatest calling

Fair enough one might say, But why distributism? Certainly there is some higher idealism than a failed socialist scheme written by uneducated novelists? Why not Marx or Nietzsche? If one is going to chase castles in the sky, why not make a grander effort and reach for the stars and the supermen?  But I disagree. Distributism does embody the grandest desire of humanity because it rightly focuses man towards the small and personal. Distributism knows that humanity’s greatest calling (and failing) is to love thy neighbor. The philosophy has no grand vision but only a dream of family and fellowship. It is a utopia that is almost familiar because it is almost reachable. The vision of distributism is therefore not just a lost cause but the ultimate and most fundamental of humanity’s lost causes. I think this is what Frank Capra might have meant in his famous scene from Mr. Smith goes to Washington: that behind all the impossible ideals that drive us, the most important is to be neighborly.

So I call myself a distributist not only because the ideal it stands for is hopeless, but also because the ideal  is truly ideal. In the dying embers of that true ideal one might see more clearly the evils done in name of practicality. That, if nothing else, is a lost cause worth fighting for.

2 thoughts on “Distributism and the Lost Cause

  1. I never had read anything about Distributism, so this article taught me quite a bit. I think that what interests me the most, however, is the idea that even if a philosophy does not function pragmatically in the real world, one can cling to its ideals and continue to strive to accomplish them. I find this heroic and admirable.

  2. Some correction here: Distributism, albeit oftentimes reduced to the love of small, local and agrarian economy, is not simply about transferring the economy to be more local and less industrial. It is about having a wide distribution of property. In that sense we, as distributists, can relate to current sociological and economical developments such as the sharing economy or the blockchain (though both concepts bear in it pitfalls, but thats another topic). The Mondragon Corporation is oftentimes cited as an example of large scale distributism.

    Your fellow distributist,

    Phil

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