Today’s Romania is a ravaged country with a wrecked economy, a banking system in foreign hands, and its natural resources and fertile land up for grabs. A corrupt political caste has ruined the country by ransacking the state’s finances for its own benefit and the benefits of foreign banks. Romania had zero debt in 1990, but over the past 22 years the country has piled up a mountain of debt and the country is now enslaved to the International Monetary Fund. A Third World style politico-business plutocracy has amassed fabulous wealth through corruption, fraud and feasting on the public trough while the people are grappling under the burden of “austerity measures”.
Romania’s case is not unique. It is emblematic of what is wrong with neo-liberalism and the global economic system. Each country tells a different story and yet each story evokes the same intractable issues and systemic failures: the degradation of the state, the erosion of social capital, the collapse of the large family and of the civic middle—self-organized associations such as parishes, unions, civic organizations—rampant deforestation, the depletion of natural resources, the concentration of power and wealth at the top of society, widespread disempowerment, poverty and despair at the bottom.
What is to be done? In Romania the political pundits are long on criticism, but short on solutions. Responses to the crisis which aim to strengthen the economy are deeply misguided and doomed to failure: more “austerity”, more privatization, more deregulation, more selling of natural resources and environmental degradation.
The challenges here are partly economic and partly social. Romania needs structural change at the societal level and a different kind of economy if its prospects for a fair and lasting prosperity are to materialize. Many Romanians now realize there is life beyond neo-liberalism, globalism, consumerism, Europeanism and other delusional “isms” recklessly imported to their country after 1990. More importantly, they have rediscovered their own model of social and economic development: the Distributism of the Romanian agrarians in the inter-war period.
Like the British Distributists, the Romanian agrarians viewed their doctrine and practice as a Third Way, neither capitalist nor socialist. They shared the Distributist antagonism to Big Business, Big Finance, trusts, cartels and the unlimited accumulation of wealth. They were ahead of their time when they advocated for a sustainable industrialization, industries scattered widely in smaller units across the land, and they rejected large-scale heavy industries, dependent upon the interests of foreign investors and the mercantilist national state. In line with the Distributist view, these agrarians believed that humans are free and independent in a society of well-distributed productive property, that is, where worker-ownership is the prevailing keystone of business. Concentration of property and power in the hands of a few was considered degrading to human dignity and disruptive to the social order. The Romanian agrarians were no more statists than the British Distributists. Indeed, they emphasized decentralization, local-self government and the idea of building a state from the bottom up. They believed cooperative principles such as private property, communal responsibility and cooperation within voluntary associations were good for all of society.
The prospects for a Distributist order in Romania were brutally destroyed by communism. The communist rule embodied what the agrarians hated most: gigantism, dictatorship, slavery, violence, and the absence of God. During the communist rule, the members of the agrarian party, the National Peasant Party, were persecuted, murdered or condemned to many years in prison. And yet, the longing for the Distributist order envisaged by the agrarians during the interwar period is still very much alive among Romanians. The newly formed Romanian Distributist League marks a victory for restoring Distributism in the country.
If Distributism is to succeed in Romania, and hopefully in other Eastern European countries, it has to take a somewhat different path from both today’s neo-distributism in the West and the agrarianism of the past. Romanian Distributists should promote a low capital, low-overhead, resilient and sustainable economy. Such an economy would reduce waste and inefficiency through the greater efficiency with which it extracts use/value from a given amount of land or capital.
Distributists should support a healthy relationship between ownership and production by maintaining and encouraging small businesses, small workshops, and small farms in which the owner would be personally involved in the actual production of the product or service. He would see himself primarily as a producer; a craftsman or a farmer or as some kind of service provider rather than someone indifferent to the making and selling of books or shoes or computers, dependent upon wherever the greatest profit can be made at the moment.
Romanian Distributism is rooted in the Orthodox tradition and envisages the world, neither in individualistic nor collectivistic, but personalist terms. There is no trust, reciprocity and fraternity where the economic and political power is removed from the level of the person and transferred to an increasingly oligarchic concentration of ownership. Basically, a Distributist Romanian economy will be a sharing system. Workers in a cooperative enterprise put more of themselves into their work and feel free to share their private knowledge, knowledge that would be exploited ruthlessly as a source of information in a conventional enterprise. As a rule, self-employment in the household, self-managed peer networks and self-managed cooperatives are humanly rewarding and enhancing. When persons realize that they are involved in a genuine sharing system, an enormous human energy is released: there is a transformation from suspicion to trust; from lack of commitment to strong commitment; from holding back to plunging in; from disappointed wariness to confident hope.
Romanian Distributists are best equipped to oppose the dehumanizing schemes of both Neoliberals and Neo-communists since they never subordinate ends to means. One of their main objectives is to implement “RRR” (re-moralize the market, re-localize economy and re-capitalize the poor) and to re-personalize the economic and social life which became “profane” under communism and neoliberal capitalism.
In their opinion, there is no such thing as a separate, isolated and autonomous economy. The “profane” economy is in reality an economy “profaned,” one that no longer orients itself to God or abides by ethical guiding values.
Romanian Distributists face the daunting task of building the foundations of a Distributist society within the shell of the old. Such a situation confronts us with a great danger. The new Distributist forces, activities and institutions, instead of crystallizing independently into their own appropriate forms, might creep into the unsustainable structures of existing society. As Kevin Carson rightly puts it, the new institutions might follow, not their own pattern, but the pattern laid down by previous economic and social structures. Emerging from today’s failed system, the Distributist institutions might compromise with it and lose their genuine identity by reason of the weight of vested interests.
Hopefully, we will not let Romania perish. Our twin tasks presently are to 1) promote a model of Distributist communities and distributed economies and, 2) develop and propagate a new philosophical worldview quite distinct from the old one in order to gain enthusiastic support from the public.
As far as our first goal is concerned, we need to encourage a major shift to disperse production in countless micro-enterprises, from wage labor to the household economy. This will produce a “de-massification” of production capability driven by the trends in machine-tool evolution (smaller, smarter, cheaper) and a corresponding decentralization of capital. Concomitantly, the household–the family–will be revitalized as a powerful and relatively autonomous productive unit. By building their own homes, by recycling old cars or avoiding automobiles altogether, by making their own furniture, sewing their own clothes, and growing their own food, Romanians can internalize 70-80% of all their needs and live a low-cost, comfortable subsistence “off the grid”.
The future Distributist economy of Romania will make use of renewable energy and green technology, crowd-sourced credit and micro-lending, re-localized networked manufacturing, small-scale organic agriculture and a mode of economic organization centered around civil society and peer networks.
Distributism cannot promise equality. It cannot promise that every Romanian citizen will be the master of his or her own personal capital. But distributists can promise a more sustainable, secure future for Romania encouraging responsibility for one’s own welfare and the welfare of the country.