07/08/2011 - Distributism: An idea whose time has come?

THE last three years have seen economic upheaval in the western world the likes of which has not been experienced since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Once mighty banks have been brought to their knees and in some cases have gone under altogether.  National governments have been forced to go cap in hand to international financial bodies to be rescued from bankruptcy.  In turn, many across Europe and beyond have lost their jobs or face the threat of unemployment due to businesses failing and governments cutting their budgets.  Insecurity and uncertainty over employment and pensions in old age are the fears of many these days.

In the face of these conditions many people have become aware for perhaps the first time in their lives of the forces that govern their livelihoods.  People who previously had little or no interest in economic matters are reading the financial pages and looking for some way of restoring security to their own lives.  In view of this, it might be apposite to look at a political and economic movement that first flourished during the turbulent days of the 1920s and 30s, namely Distributism.

The origins of Distributism are believed to lie in the 1891 Papal encyclical entitled Rerum Novarum, (‘On the Condition of Labour’).  Pope Leo XIII wrote: “A small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the shoulders of the labouring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself”.  The Pope’s concerns with the relationship between the owner and the worker were subsequently taken up by pioneers of the Distributist concept such as GK Chesterton, today better remembered for his Father Brown mysteries, and Hilaire Belloc.  Both men were seeking a ‘Third Way’ between capitalism, (which tended to concentrate ownership and control in the hands of a few), and communism, (which concentrated ownership and control in the hands of the state).  They were also inspired by the examples of co-operatives and friendly societies that grew in Victorian England.  Today we still have the Co-Op and credit unions and the building societies that did not succumb to de-mutualisation. Distributists sought to bring about a social and economic system whereby there was widespread private ownership of property and workers controlled industry and participated in the share of its profits. 

In 1926 the Distributist League was formed, the aims of which Richard Howard sums up in his paper on Distributism as:

“In Britain in the 1920s and 30s, the distributists sought the restoration of family and individual liberty by a revival of smallholder agriculture and small business and an end to grasping landlords, by attacking monopolies and trusts and denouncing what they saw as anonymous and usurious control of finance.

Opposed to laissez-faire capitalism, which distributists argued leads to a concentration of ownership in the hands of a few and to state-socialism in which private ownership is denied altogether, distributism was conceived as a genuine Third Way, opposing both the tyranny of the marketplace and the tyranny of the state, by means of a society of owners”
. (The Third Way – A Secular Party paper by Richard Howard).

In 1937 the League published Arthur Penty’s Distrubitism: A Manifesto.  Sadly, the League went into decline in the late 1930s after the death of GK Chesterton in 1936 and Penty in 1937, a matter of weeks after his manifesto was published, and the organisation came to an end in 1940.

The ideas of Distributism did not fade away entirely after the passing of its founders. One quarter in which it continued to influence thinking was in the nationalist movement.  Nationalists have long been drawn to Distributism because they see it as fulfilling the goals of Social Justice through the ending of wage slavery and the exploitation of workers and National Freedom by the breaking-up of huge private corporations that are only interested in profit even when the pursuit of those profits is detrimental to the national interest.  Such corporations are owned by a handful of people but their power is such that they can bend governments to their will.

In these days of financial turmoil and the mask having slipped from the face of unbridled global capitalism, is Distributism now an idea whose time has come?