Not Socialism, Not Capitalism… Distributism Seeks Community Power

Not socialism, not capitalism… distributism seeks community power.

by Jay Walljasper, On the Commons

permaculture student 1

Conservatives, progressives and everyone else
likes farmers’ markets, local food,
mom-and-pop stores and other qualities of a
thriving community. Can they all connect
around the commons? (Photo of the Barberton,
Ohio, Downtown Farmers’ Market by the
Barberton Community Foundation under a
Creative Commons license.)

In the early-to-mid-20th Century the Distributists — led by English authors G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc — took a dim view of both socialism and corporate capitalism. As conservatives they did, however, believe in private property — so much they thought it should be “distributed” as widely as possible among the whole population.

At its root, the Distributist movement sought a practical, community-oriented alternative to the inequality of capitalism and the bureaucracy of socialism. To fulfill this vision, Distributists advocated for family farms, family-run businesses, a return to craftsmanship and community self-reliance. When large enterprises were inevitable, such as industrial factories, they advocated worker-run cooperatives to give people a greater share of ownership.

Chesterton noted, “There is less difference than many suppose between the ideal socialist system, in which the big businesses are run by the state, and the present capitalist system, in which the state is run by the big businesses. They are much nearer to each other than either is to my own ideal; of breaking up the big businesses into a multitude of small businesses.”

Chesterton and Belloc excelled at writing essays, but not at organizing a political movement. Beyond several well-attended conferences and a scattering of local projects, Distributists never established a successful course toward achieving their ideals. Distributism was not adopted as an economic system in any nation, although the “Green” peasant parties of Central Europe in the 1920s and ‘30s enacted similar policies to keep people on the land.

A full-blown Distributist movement never emerged in the United States, but its ideas were embraced in the mid-20th Century by influential figures from Catholic Worker founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin to Bishop Fulton Sheen to historian Garry Wills. Chesterton and Belloc were guided by Catholic Social teachings, especially Pope Leo XIII whose 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum embraced social justice as a core Catholic mission. But not all Distributists were Catholic.

The themes of Distributism continue to attract political activists, social commentators and others looking for fresh economic and cultural directions for our society. Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, describes his work as being in the “Distributist tradition”.

Richard Aleman, editor-in-chief of the Distributist Review, believes the global economic crisis since 2008 means that Distributism’s message of “more ownership of the economy, more participation of the poor” is more relevant than ever.

“The problem with capitalism from a Distributist perspective,” he tells me, “is that too much ends up in the hands of too few. Most people prefer Main Street to Wall Street. They want community. They want to solve problems on the local level. There’s a potential for both left and right to be Distributist” — a conviction he has voiced to conservative Catholic organizations as well as Occupy Wall Street activists.

Here’s Aleman’s outline for 21st Century Distributism: Local, organic food production; Mom and pop businesses; Community banking and credit unions; Microfinance programs so families around the world can start small businesses; Community self-reliance; Cooperatives and worker ownership; Farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSAs); Locally based currencies; Craft and artisan guilds.

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6 thoughts on “Not Socialism, Not Capitalism… Distributism Seeks Community Power

  1. sounds like a cop out to me- commie lite- for American audiences who are still scared of reds under the bed. Haven’t we moved beyond that? I look around me and I see intense damage to the land because of the concept of private ownership (and on the small scale as much as the large scale) and I see no way to do the weed management and land repairs which are necessary without an end to ALL private ownership and control of land.

    1. That’s a bit judgemental. I would imagine you see yourself as a member of the ruling elite, not one of the serfs being told what to do. I care very much about the earth, my community, the wildlife in my region and am actively ‘doing’ permaculture in my area. Philosophically, I am a pacifist – But I’d like to see you just try to take my farm, and see what happens. I totally believe in private ownership and private property, and there is nothing incompatible between private land ownership, permaculture and doing the right thing.

  2. When the property belongs to everybody, it actually belongs to nobody. Nobody assumes responsibility to mange it, to care for it. There are real examples all over the world, an example being in China, where the government had to give private ownership to the people living in the Grand Loess Plateau, in a project so well known to permaculture followers, so that families that were living there have an incentive to tend the land. Another example is in former communist countries (Romania, Bulgaria, former Soviet republics) where people (still recovering from communism) don’t give a damn about public property, resulting in litter all over, damage to buildings, and so on.

  3. Mr. Walljasper seems elsewhere to support the commons in principle; the article on distributism seems not to have a cozy fit with that. In any case, neither private property nor public property institutions are sufficient for a healthy society. Essential is an orientation to the common good, which requires a corresponding set of moral habits and a wide distribution of rights to access resources needed for healthy survival and individual and social development. A culture and maybe also a spirituality compatible with protecting such rights are needed too. The kind of private property promoted by neoliberal ideologists is poison to the commons.

  4. Please read Ubuntu Contributionism by Michael Tellinger. In it he puts forth a blueprint to achieve real abundance for all (humans and nature) without money. It is also very much aligned to Permaculture Principles. They’ve established the movement in quite a few countries already!

  5. Hello, I’m a permaculturist and a distributist (a lover of gk Chesterton) and it’s the first thime that I read the association between the two schools, while I always felt the strong conbections. Thanks for this article

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