by John Peterson
In an effort to direct the conversation on distributism, I give you this fine work by John Peterson, who gave this speech to the Chicago Are Chestertonians a while back.
I've called the peculiar slant Gilbert! magazine takes at Distributism by the name “Urban Distributism,” a phrase Chesterton and Belloc never spoke or ever even heard. It's a peculiar name because ChesterBellocian Distributism was basically an agrarian movement, and “agrarian” is the opposite of “urban.”
Start with a basic definition or description of “Distributism,” which (as you know) was active as a political movement in England in the 20’s and 30’s before it faded from view. The fundamental idea of Distributism is economic independence and economic freedom for families, with the government in a subsidiary and supportive role. It is the concept of Democracy applied to the field of economics.
It's the question of who is in control of our work. The problem with Communism and Capitalism is that the money, property, power, and control associated with economic production tend to become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. In other words, Communism and Capitalism are economically undemocratic. Under Communistic production, a few powerful politicians or bureaucrats control the production of goods. Under Capitalist production it’s a few powerful business executives or managers. Under Distributism, the people control the production of goods. The people are in control of their own work.
Distributism’s economic democracy is based on the wide distribution and ownership of productive property -- property used in the production and distribution of goods and services -- as tools, land, facilities, and machinery. The Distributist believes workers are most free when they own their own tools and are their own bosses. They are least free when they hire out for a wage and work at the command and sufferance of someone else who owns the tools, machinery, and land.
That's Distributism. Now Urban Distributism. This is a Distributist philosophy for those who do not hold out much hope for the triumph of the pure form of Distributism. Those who simply don't expect a full blown Distributist Revolution any time soon. Why this pessimism? For a good answer, we have to consider the strategies and plans of the original Distributists in England. The original Distributist program can be reconstructed -- and it appears to have had these six stages:
1. Promote Distributist ideas in print and in public debate. That was done.
2. Start a Distributist “League” to sponsor activities. That was done.
3. Provide for model Distributist experiments (e.g., self-sustaining Distributist communities). That was done.
4. Form a Distributist political party and elect Distributist candidates. That was done.
5. Influence legislation in favor of Distributist reforms and programs. That was done, at least partially.
6. Achieve majority representation in Parliament and gradually inaugurate the Distributist State. Obviously that was not done.
But five out of six isn't bad. Although this Distributist program is generally regarded to have been a practical failure, in fairness they did achieve much of their aim. Their Distributist ideas are politically influential to this day -- although not usually under the Distributist name. Even though the Distributist political party did not last even two years, they accomplished much, especially when compared to what has been accomplished here.
Compared to the efforts of the original Distributists, the American branch can barely be said to exist. At best we are at the initial phase of the beginning chapter of stage one. We haven't even convinced most of our Chestertonian friends of the worth of Distributism! That fact alone measures how little has been done.
Chesterton's Distributism was an agrarian movement. While not everyone is a farmer in the Distributist society -- there are merchants, craftsmen, doctors, teachers -- most are farmers. Now, I ask you this: how many people do you personally know who are ready and willing to move onto the land and to operate a family farm? As you meet other Chestertonians you discover that most of them have no interest in agrarianism. You discover that many find the idea utterly ridiculous. “Put me on a farm and I’ll starve to death,” they say. “I’m not milking any cow,” they say. “I’ll get my milk at the supermarket, thank you very much.”
Our idea of “The American Way of Life,” is wrapped up in the whole notion of a “Standard of Living.” The “Living Standard” is a measure of consumer spending. It is concerned with how many things we can buy, how expensively we are able to live, what luxuries we might afford. For many (perhaps most) Americans, the purpose of work is to earn a wage or salary in order to support the level of consuming that we believe is right for us and will make us happy. This is light years way from life on a farm.
Even life on the farm isn't life on the farm. The people I know who are already farmers are not Distributists. The farmers I know are all involved in something called agribusiness. They cultivate 800 acres or more of feed corn (and soybeans) using all the latest methods and machinery of mass production. They don't have kitchen gardens or keep a cow for the milk. They buy their eggs at the supermarket, just as the rest of us do.
Most of the owners of small businesses I know aren’t Distributists either. They don’t want their businesses to stay small. They try to grow their businesses as fast as possible to become as big as possible. I have a friend who owns two Subway sandwich shops. He wants to own four -- on his way to owning fifty. I have a friend who owns a carpet-cleaning business. He has six employees and three dozen industrial customers. He wants hundreds of employees and thousands of customers. He's a small businessman but he is in no sense a Distributist.
Distributists find themselves in a frustrating situation. We have the remedy for our diseased society's ills, but nobody is buying -- because nobody is aware of the pain. We have medicine, but nobody thinks he’s sick. We have a state of ignorance so profound as to be astonishing. The whole of our society is in a state of denial that appears to be limitless.
Here are four common symptoms or side effects of our present system that we do not seem to be aware of.
Two previously divorced people tie the knot. We sit in a church and, as Chesterton pointed out, the two people make solemn vows before God while at the exact same moment they break their previous vows. In a church! We sit still in the presence of this enormous and shocking sacrilege, and smile and go to the reception. We're in denial and we feel no pain.
Second. We live in a society that has enshrined the seven deadly sins as the seven lively ideals. I don't mean that these sins are committed, I mean these sins are recommended. We turn on the television and we watch a funny show dedicated to the glorification of Lust. I don't mean the glorification of sex, because that would be a good thing. But it is Lust that is portrayed as a good thing, as a funny thing, as a healthy thing, and as the standard of good behavior. The same point can easily be made in respect to Pride or Vanity, Envy, Gluttony, Anger or Wrath, Sloth, and especially Greed. We're in denial and we feel no pain.
The third example of what we don't notice is the servility in the workplace. The average wage-paying job in this economic system offers exactly as much dignity, freedom, and creativity as that of a slave. Remember, the mark of slavery is not drudgery but the absence of freedom. The typical job in North America today is computer data entry -- wearing a phone set and sitting before a computer monitor hour after hour, mindlessly entering data. On-the-job freedom and creativity in this and in similar employment is out of the question. And because we are released from the slave compound every night at 5 o'clock, we seem to think the servility of the workplace does not exist. Or we think that servility in the workplace is proper to the condition of work.
Four. The existing economic regime or capitalist “way of life” is destroying the family before our eyes. We are seeing the effects of working moms, two-job dads, abortion to protect a paycheck or a shopping spree, preschool daycare, children brainwashed in compulsory schools, and divorce on demand. We see mindless spending, crushing personal debt, employment insecurity, and preferential turning away from the poor. We're in denial and we feel no pain.
To get off this treadmill, current wisdom offers three suggestions. They are imperfect at best.
First, we have to look very warily at the alternative of small business enterprise as the Urban Distributist ideal. If the failure rate for new businesses is eighty percent within the first five years of operation, then advising the typical wage-earner, to “start his own business” is tantamount to recommending his personal bankruptcy and financial ruin. We might endorse the current system of small business formation, which rewards only those with the entrepreneurial spirit, or boundless good luck, or unbridled ruthlessness. Rewarding the few is called Capitalism; it is the opposite of Distributism.
Second, the alternative called the “Producer's Cooperative” has had very little practical success. In fact, we have to go far afield geographically to the Bosc region of Spain to find a successful example of a worker-owned and worker-managed factory. This is not an encouraging sign.
Third and last, the employee-owned business corporation (e.g., Avis or United Air Lines) is a wonderful economic concept, but it is not a Distributist concept. These employees benefit by sharing in the growth and profitability of the company they work for. But they do not share in the management of the company they work for. They don't run things, they work as hirelings. They do as they are told or they are fired. They cannot be said to “own” the company in the real sense -- that is, the company is their own private property to direct however they choose.
None of that stuff is Distributism. But there is a way for the typical urban American family to enjoy the major benefits of Distributism without gambling everything on some high-risk venture, agricultural or not. That way is simple. We can even say it's easy. It merely requires a single-minded fanaticism about Distributist ideals and a stubborn refusal to compromise with anti-Distributist influences -- which are diabolically powerful.
This fanaticism asked for has been expressed in a ten-point program, which might be referred to as the Ten Commandments of Urban Distributism. But they are more ideals than commands.
1. Everything begins with putting the family first. The first loyalty has to be to the family.
Urban Distributist marriages should include, among the wedding vows, a mutual promise to willingly die for the welfare of this newly created family. Is there a stronger way to put it? Distributism is not about farming-economics, it's about family-integrity. The family has to have stability before it can have economic stability. Therefore, Distributism cannot be comprised of a bunch of wishy-washy, temporary, modernist marriages with spoiled-brat divorces and no-sweat annulments. That stuff is fine for Proletarians but will not do for Distributists. In every decision made by husband, in every decision made by wife, the first consideration must be, “is this good for or bad for my family?” Neither the selfish, “How will this affect me?” nor the unselfish, “How will it affect her (or him)” is Distributist. This commandment is especially true in the sphere of economics. The word “career” has no meaning for a Distributist except as it relates to the economic support of his family.
2. The Urban Distributist goal is economic independence for the family.
3. The center of Urban Distributist life is a place -- the home. The place is permanent. It can be changed for weighty family reasons, certainly, but certainly not for mere job transfers or so-called career “promotions.”
4. The Urban Distributist home is an economically productive place.
5. Urban Distributist family members hire themselves out as employees to work for a wage on behalf of the family. The Urban Distributist employees are valued employees. In justice, they give a good hour's work for an hour's pay, but they do not give their loyalty to their employer, they do not pin their hopes on job success, and they have no illusions about their employer's loyalty to them.
6. Urban Distributist families are frugal families. They accumulate savings, which they then invest to provide non-wage family income.
7. Urban Distributist families experiment with home businesses, at first as a learning experience, then as a source of non-wage income, and last as something to fall back on when the wages disappear (as they well may and very often do). Urban Distributist businesses are built around the interests, skills, and creativity of the family members, and are a source of both dignity and pleasure for them.
8. Urban Distributists have extra time. They make more of their time because they do not waste dozens of hours each week on television, computer games, the Internet or other escapist pursuits.
9. The Urban Distributist dollar goes further. Distributists avoid a consumerist life-style with its credit cards, mindless shopping, conspicuous consumption, and keeping up with Jones.
10. Urban Distributist families are hotbeds of economic education, perpetually seeking and learning new and improved job skills, sharper investment techniques, and more profitable business practices.
In summary, the Urban way to Distributism and family economic independence combines
family wages with investments and business income.
These economic benefits multiply with Distributist family frugality, productivity, and continuous education.
Maybe Urban Distributism can be explained in terms of the difference between rebellion and resistance. An alien enemy has conquered Christendom and we now live in occupied territory. The enemy has imposed his culture on us and is imposing his rules of law and life. When you are a conquered people, you have three alternatives. You can collaborate, you can resist, or you can rebel. To establish the Distributist State would require a rebellion. Until the Distributist Rebellion, then, we can think of ourselves as part of the resistance.
That's Urban Distributism.
February 20, 1999, Chicago Area Chestertonians
given by John Peterson