Distributism is firmly grounded in the Western intellectual and religious tradition. Its political economy is based on the moral principles of Catholic social teaching; its inspiring terms derive their vigor from the practice of “local” and “decentralized” economies of yesterday and today – where “local” and “decentralized” are defined in Western terms. The Distributist alternative proposes the restoration of an economy within the boundaries of an enlarged Aristotelian oikonomia, “producing, distributing and maintaining concrete use values for the household and community over the long run” (H.E. Daly). The main tenets of Distributism are widespread property, just wages, the subordination of economic activity to human life as a whole (reunion of ethics, spirituality and economics), subsidiarity, and restoration of a cooperative and fraternal spirit. Successful as these Distributist tenets are in challenging entrenched idiosyncrasies, they still struggle to establish a firm foundation for a truly “third way” beyond capitalism and socialism, individualism and collectivism. Distributism should capitalize better on its own potentialities by calling into question the root cause of today’s problems. My contention is that the Distributist embrace of economic localism cannot be divorced from a sound theology of the particular; “the local” needs to be rooted in an ontological soil in order to be a unique reality. I also argue that Distributist concern for the dignity of the human person and for the welfare of the community should be expressed within the context of a Christian anthropology. If Distributists want to avoid the pitfalls of materialism, they need adequate theological support. More precisely, they need to speak a Trinitarian language. Distributism cannot abstract from Christology and Pneumatology of both communal and personal religious experience.
The first questions to be asked: why is the local subordinate to the global? Why is localness, the locus of distinctiveness and variety, considered inferior to some underlying generalities, false universals such as “global democratic marketplace,” “global information infrastructure,” “global business community,” “single global lifestyle,” etc.? Our modern world disqualifies “the local” from being the bearer of truth. Bereft of an ontological basis for its concrete existence, the local is marginalized or vanishes. “For American military leaders, the global is the interior of a finite world whose very finitude poses many logistical problems. And the local is the exterior, the periphery, if not indeed the “outer suburbs” of the world.”1
The second set of questions refers to the problem of relatedness. Why the monadic individual is pure tautology, “I AM WHAT I AM”, I=I?2 Why does the individual who seeks nothing beyond himself have ontological priority over the person (person-in-community)? In other words, why is the lack of all attachment (religious, cultural, economic, social and political) seen as liberation? Is liberation from determinations, even from any objective representation of the world, more important than a genuine economy of gift and reception?
Collectivism (the one) is but the flip side of individualism (the distributed one). Individualism only appears to do justice to particularity. In theory, it shows concern for concrete particulars while in practice it suppresses them on the basis of an anti-particularistic logic. “Individualism,” writes Stanley Hauerwas, “in an effort to secure societal cooperation and justice, must deny individual differences.”3
For individualism, we are what we are in separation not only from our neighbors, but also from external objects and discourses. Individuals are formed independently of the constraints of place and time, culture and history; they are timeless, unsustainable and empty subjectivities with no intrinsic qualities. Nor are they motivated by the intrinsic qualities of the objects they desire. “I consume, therefore I am”: the selves of modernity are moved only by their desires to consume, in total indifference to the objects consumed.
Tracing back the historical fallacies of individualism goes beyond the scope of my inquiry. I will therefore content myself by saying that individualism has much to do with a Christian tradition that has conceived God unitarily as will, reason, feeling or desire (depending on the preferences of each epoch). God would impart particularity only to what is in its image: the inner man. The individual is in internal “vertical” relation to God but not in reciprocal relatedness with his fellow-beings. He loses both particularity and concreteness. In the secular world, which “displaced God”4, the multitude of disembodied selves are self-founded, “built on an absent column,” as the Belgian poet Henry Michaux puts it.
The ultimate consequences of the flight from God is the flight from anything both solidly real and concretely relational. Freed from attachments, the contemporary selves have no real understanding of either their world or themselves. They are passive and conformist, “uniform masses of wholly interchangeable individuals, given to idolizing the same media heroes, zombies that are buffeted by the whims of fashion.”5 How exhilarating Chesterton’s words sound today when he pleas for “hard stones” and “hard facts”:
“Thank God for hard stones, thank God for hard facts; thank God for thorns and rocks and deserts and long years. At least I know now that I am not the best or strongest thing in the world. At least I know now that I have not dreamed of everything.”
Distributists are thus faced with the issue of the one and the many, the particular and the general, substantiality and abstractness. It is not the priority given to the many that primarily distinguishes Distributism from collectivism. And it is not such priority that separates Distributism from individualism, either. A genuine Distributist solution would emphasize individuality without losing particularity and relatedness (relations among concrete particulars). Just as the three divine persons live in and for each other, so man being made in the image of God the Trinity is what he is through concrete relationality.
It is not enough to say that persons mutually constitute each other through concrete relationality. Genuine human relations need to be “event like” because Jesus Christ is the Event, “on which all other events are based, an event which took place in history, and an event which is produced in the life of people, an event which sums up and guarantees all other events, personal or historical, and renders history and life absolutely irreversible”.6 Only in Jesus Christ and His Church, the self can grow into a person, a body-event. We are not only witnesses to the Christ-event; in the Eucharist, we appropriate Him in our body, we are in the Event. For our whole life we are struggling to grow in our experience of the Holy Spirit so that we might shine forth like body-events.
Any event is localized (rooted in a certain time and place), it originates in a point and unfolds into an event-like situation. An event is neither an accident nor an incident, it is transformative, an augmented reality – it is tension towards perfection. Only localness, all that is in situ, what is concretely localized can grow into an event. Localness should not be the rural desert of today, the sleepy, “interchangeable” little towns where nothing happens. If today the local is a desert, this is partly because Christianity has neglected its Trinitarian tradition; accordingly, everything personalized became gradually homogenized and, since the event of the Incarnation until the event of the Second Coming of Christ, nothing really happened—all history is homogeneous.
How to live our daily life-like an event? How to bring back an event-like existence to the local community?
It is not enough to re-localize the market, to grow your own vegetables or to “buy local” and attend “local events”. First, we need to transform our lives and cultivate event-like relationships through an ethic of gift and reception. Rather than “local community events,” we need “community as an event,” a “pluripersonal symphony” (D. Stăniloae) following the model of a perichoretic personal unity of the Holy Trinity: “[…] in the Church, the human persons of the faithful are united with the person of Christ all the more in action and will and through a unity which includes them, without the persons being merged into a single person. Each of them moves around the others and within the others, in a perichoresis, in a reciprocal interiority, which preserves the existence of each and yet develops it… in this reciprocal interiority between us and Christ, he is the center of gravity for us, as the same unifying sun, since we all are in him.”7
The “pluripersonal symphony” is dependent on and conditioned by the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit is replaced by the spirit of money, the local becomes de-personalized and context-less, being easily absorbed into a utopia, the false universal of global capitalism. By obsessively chasing money, the individual does not meet material reality but abstractions, not life, but spiritual death.
To restore local economy to its meaning of oikonomia, we should first restore it in the light of the Kingdom of God. Distributism is called to place people in an economic situation, which is such that they can actually recognize the Event. Because of their hypnotic behavior, people are no longer alive to hear the words and see the icons of the incarnated God. They live in the “society of the spectacle” (G. Debord), they are enslaved by its images and trust only its staged accidents, trifle incidents and the grotesque “star system”. In their largest sense, voodoo economics and financial wizardry make reality disappear, the reality of man and the reality of “thorns, and rock and deserts” that surround him.
The great task of Distributists is to give direction to the world in the sphere of economics, politics and social life from the standpoint of the Event. From this standpoint alone, people will restore reality in their life. “Restoring reality in our life” does not mean producing more ready-made actualities and surrendering to a pseudo-reality of ready-made truths. It means bringing back the event to the “hard facts”; trample down quantity by quality, staleness by creativity; reunite flesh and the spirit, the local and the cosmic. It presupposes resistance, opposition, and contradiction, i.e. tension. No event shines forth out of indifference and a “normalized” reality. It unfolds against thorns, rocks and deserts and in this fight we must engage our whole being.
Distributism concerns the whole of life and not only “moral values” or an economy governed by an ethical doctrine. We should not confuse justice according to business with justice according to the Scriptures: “Unless your justice abound more than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of Heaven.”
Distributists ought to leave their comfort zone and go much further than establishing the guidelines for a local “front porch life style”. The coziness and warmth of a small-scale paradise is a utopia. You lose comfort in order to gain life. To “go local” is not “homecoming”—no petty reform but transformation. And the ultimate goal: transfiguration in the light of the eschatological event.
Since the Incarnation assumes not only a historical significance, but also a cosmological one, the local opens up to the cosmos. There is no longer separation between the local economy and the “Great Economy of God”. In the cosmic church, the local is not a part of an abstract whole but a microcosm. Through the human person the created world, in all its diversity, is transformed and offered as a gift to God the Trinity. Nature is no longer merely “physical,” a homogenous “natural space,” but a multitude of interconnected hypostases of the earthly cosmos. Personalized nature is no longer just a means to serve a utilitarian purpose; it becomes a concrete bearer of diversified life and acquires a sacredness which is not inherent to its essence. An event-like quality makes each natural hypostasis shine forth.
In this article, I argue that the perfecting in Christ of what has been made, and the turning of the things of this world to the Glory of God bear the marks of an event rooted in concrete localness and unique persons-in-community. The local is not the periphery where nothing happens but an “evental site” (Badiou); it is the very condition for the renewal of life in Jesus Christ and for the restoration of the world as a pluripersonal symphony. Thus, the level on which the problem of localness and personhood is posed goes beyond that of economics and ethics. It is a question of ontology and Trinitarian Distributism.
- Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb (London and New York; Verso, 2000), p. 10.
- The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurection, http://paycreate.com/thecominginsurrection/, p.20
- Cited by Colin E. Gunton The One, the Three and the Many. God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 1998) p. 45.
- See Gunton, p. 71.
- Ann Godignon, Jean-Louis Thiriet, The End of Alienation? in New French Thought: Political Philosophy. ed. Mark Lilla, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1994,
- Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom, (Colorado Springs, Helmers & Howard, 1989), p.108.
- Dumitru Stăniloae, cited Calinic (Kevin M.) Berger, Does Eucharist Make the Church? An Ecclesiological Comparison of Stăniloae and Zizioulas, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 51:1 (2007), 23-70.