It has been several years since the doors closed at The Distributist Review, its members dispersing in various directions, its leader retiring somewhere into the musty cellar of the place, the only evidence of his continued presence being the strange hammering sounds coming from the basement at all hours of the night. But now the doors have been flung open again, and it seems prudent after all this time to survey the landscape and ask if anything has changed. What’s new in the conversation about distributism? Or perhaps, to put it more honestly, does the conversation still exist?
Having posed these questions, I took it upon myself to provide a brief and disorderly answer—a “roundup,” if you will—of what’s been said about the so-called “Chesterbelloc” idea while we were off the grid. The reader will find that some things, particularly the arguments of the critics, have not changed a bit. On the other hand, recent developments suggest that there has never been a better time for the distributist message.
Let’s take a look at the negative side first. The bad news is that its critics are still proffering the same objections to distributism. To list but a few of those most often used:
- Distributism is utopian. It has never existed and never could exist.
- Distributism, if it could exist, would require a revolution. This revolution would entail fueling social unrest and the use of violence to impose its ideas and to silence its opponents.
- Distributism puts too much emphasis on “physical property,” suggesting that its defenders are not sophisticated enough to comprehend abstract forms of wealth.
- Distributists are nostalgic sentimentalists. They just want to “grow heirloom tomatoes” in their backyard and brew their own beer.
- Distributists pine for a rediscovery of the guilds as a social institution.
- Distributists cherry pick from Catholic social teaching to support their ideas.
- Distributists only think of politics in terms of the polis, and they would try to enact village polities at a megalopolis level.
- Distributists are amateurs. They simply do not understand economic theory.
- Distributists are hypocrites since their lives clearly do not conform to the ideals they preach.
- Distributists use the same material over and over: it’s either a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or a reference to the Mondragon cooperative. They need fresh content.
Now, I’ll give them the last one. Folks in distributist circles do love a good Tolkien reference, and if they had to take a sip of that homebrew every time one of them quoted Gandalf or cited “Mondragon,” they’d be in a stupor by breakfast. The rest of these objections, however, are a bit stale. They’ve been stretched to their limit, like butter scraped over too much bread. (Drink…)
At any rate, it isn’t my object in this article to refute anything. Most arguments from the list above have been answered well enough before, and will likely be answered again in the days to come. Right now I just wanted to see where we are.
So how about the positive side of things? As I hinted earlier, certain recent developments really do bode well for the realization of the distributist vision. In fact, new arguments for the vision have proven much easier to find than new arguments against it. I’ll just mention a couple of examples of “resurgence” here. I choose them not because they are specific arguments for the distributist case, but because, for obvious reasons, they suggest that the Chesterbelloc idea has retained its vitality, even while capitalism and socialism reach their rigor mortis.
The first and most obvious is the case of Pope Francis. This is not surprising, since the distributists have never had a pope for an enemy. (We cannot say the same thing for either the capitalists or the socialists, both of whom must approach each new address or encyclical with red pens in hand.)
Pope Francis has in fact lighted a new stage with respect to “third ways,” or at least he has made room for new conversations about economic theory. He is saying the same thing as those who came before him, but saying it a bit louder, a bit more frequently, and in much more provocative terms. He makes no bones about the “idolatry of money,” the “economy of exclusion,” and the social evils of individualism, materialism, and selfishness.
I find it particularly amusing that some bloggers criticize distributists because they can be found “supporting environmentalist policies, but for different reasons.” Such an accusation, now that Laudato Si’ has burst onto the scene, seems more like a compliment, since through this document Francis has done just that: arguing for an “environmentalist” position without resorting to the naturalistic rhetoric of a secularist. Pope Francis, following Benedict XVI, states in no uncertain terms that a respect for plant and animal life is not unrelated to a respect for human life, and that a utilitarian exploitation of one inevitably leads to a disregard for the other.
It is important to state here that this is not an attempt to “claim” Pope Francis as a distributist. He isn’t. He is a pope who is defending Catholic social teaching and that is all that can be said. However, the fact that his positions are undeniably affirming to distributist thinkers while at the same time undeniably repugnant to certain other groups—this, I say, is a promising thing.
In addition to the obvious, I ought to mention a case that is clearer in its “distributist” intentions, while at the same time coming from a very different perspective. Michel Houellebecq, a controversial French novelist whose combined work amounts to a devastating critique of Western liberalism, has published a new novel titled “Submission.” Without spoiling the narrative too much, it describes the takeover of France by an Islamic political party, led by a fellow named Ben Abbes. The changes that follow with the regime change are radical, but not all of them are radically Islamic:
It turned out that some of Ben Abbes’s ideas had nothing to do with Islam: during a press conference he declared (to general bafflement) that he was profoundly influenced by distributism … over the next few weeks, the public learned that distributism was an English economic theory espoused at the turn of the last century by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc…. For distributists, the basic economic unit was the family business; when in certain sectors consolidation became necessary, the government had to ensure that the workers remained the owners and managers of their own enterprise.1
In Houellebecq’s fictional scenario, this means new subsidies for families, which leads to a mass exodus of women from the workplace since childbearing and childrearing have become, for the first time in a long time, an economically attractive option. This in turn leads to an abundance of employment opportunities and record lows for unemployment. The Islamic-distributist government also ends subsidies for big business in order to encourage small enterprises, and it even abolishes mandatory public education after the age twelve in favor of optional vocational training.
The two cases just cited are, again, not intended as arguments, but instead as proof of a slight change in the condition of our “cultural soil.” One case is real (Francis) and one is imaginary (Houellebecq) but they have both proven culturally operative. This means that they matter, and in fact it could be said that they matter more than most of the officially “distributist” arguments that have been published over the years. They are examples of a vigorous organic growth. If nothing else, this suggests that we are in the presence of fertile soil.
- Michael Houellebecq, Submission (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 164.