Distributism was shaped initially in Great Britain by Hilaire Belloc, G.K. and Cecil Chesterton, Arthur Penty, Eric Gill, and, of course, Fr. McNabb. The movement came as a response to the perceived twin evils of Communism and the unrestricted Capitalism generated by classical liberal ideology. Both of these systems emphasize the materialist dimension of man and are marked by a false faith in the continual unfolding of Progress. McNabb and Belloc vociferously pointed to the unity of Marxism and contemporary Capitalism in their materialistic leveling of man. The point has been re-emphasized recently by Pope John Paul II in his reflection on Rerum Novarum: “it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.” From the beginning, two complementary traditions of European thought opposed this two-headed liberal materialism and deeply influenced Distributist writings: Thomism, restored to prominence under Pope Leo XIII, and the anti-Whig medievalism of late eighteenth and nineteenth-century English cultural conservatives such as Cobbett, Coleridge, Ruskin, and Newman.
Distributist ideas would enter into North America chiefly through the works of the English Distributists and the growing influence of Catholic social teaching in political and economic thought. The works of Chesterton, Belloc, and McNabb had a deep and lasting influence on Catholics in America through numerous books published by the Newman, Bruce, and Sheed & Ward presses. Print works fostered personal contacts. The American Herbert Agar, as London correspondent for the Louisville Courier-Journal and a regular columnist for the American Review, became a close literary friend with Chesterton and gave public prominence to Distributism. While Distributist ideas enjoyed broadening circulation in the 1930s and early ’40s, it is little surprise given that the most successful American Distributists in the early twentieth century were Catholics, such as Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day, and members of the original Catholic Worker movement; Graham Walker and the New England Distributist League; and Virgil Michel, as well as those associated with the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.
The Distributists were among the first to identify the destruction of the countryside and the erosion of the agrarian life as a wider social problem to be confronted through a posture of local self-reliance. In the cities, American Distributists were prominent in the fight to prevent unions from embracing Communism, while simultaneously safeguarding workers from the predatory conditions of industrial and urban existence. In the face of the socialist tendencies of unions and the collusion of government and big business, the urban Distributists championed smaller enterprises and the creation of worker shareholding associations.
The closest allies of the Distributists were the Southern Agrarians and their northern associates, such as Agar and Ralph Borsodi, as well as the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Peter Maurin. Like McNabb, Maurin was deeply influenced by the writings of Pope Leo XIII, was experienced as a farmer, and was something of a preacher himself. Maurin’s original vision for the Catholic Worker movement had three essential parts: (1) round table discussions where laborers and intellectuals studied Catholic social teaching together; (2) houses of hospitality – a restoration of the medieval hospice for the poor; and (3) agrarian colleges for the education of the urban refugee to the land.
Like McNabb and Ralph Borsodi, Maurin was distrustful of the alliance between government and business. In Maurin’s case the connection with McNabb is direct. McNabb’s writings were of the body of literature from which Maurin heavily drew. Borsodi, on the other hand, is an American secular parallel to McNabb. With McNabb he shared a desire to convince people to return to self-sufficient homesteading. Unlike McNabb, Borsodi viewed small-scale technology as a force that could assist this process.
McNabb has been described as the most influential of the English Distributists and certainly the “most unabashedly radical.” He held that machinery simply tightened one’s reliance on the structure of cities and industrialization and that any back-to-the-land movement that relied on machines was ultimately inconsistent with the object of self-sufficiency.
In this McNabb stands quite close to Andrew Lytle’s position in "The Hind Tit":
"How is the man who is living on the land...going to defend himself against this industrial imperialism and its destructive technology? One common answer is heard: industrialize the farm; be progressive; drop old-fashioned ways and adopt scientific methods. These slogans are powerfully persuasive and should be, but are not, regarded with the most deliberate circumspection, for under the guise of strengthening the farmer in his way of life they are advising him to abandon it and become absorbed. Such admonition coming from the quarters of the enemy is encouraging to the land-owner in one sense only: it assures him that he has something left to steal. Through its philosophy of Progress it is committing a mortal sin to persuade farmers that they can grow wealthy by adopting its methods. A farm is not a place to grow wealthy; it is a place to grow corn."
Yet whereas Lytle was attempting a last ditch defense of the men on the land, McNabb—holding to the same truths—was attempting to lead men back to it. Both men saw industrial technology as a menace to traditional rural life.
Together, the Distributists and the agrarians stood for local traditions, self-sufficiency, an economic life centered on the household, the stewardship of the land, and local political activism. They stood against the mechanization of society, laissez-faire capitalism, consumerism, cultural homogenization, the destruction of rural and small town life, and the veiled socialism of the Roosevelt administration. Together the Distributists and agrarians attempted to preserve what was described as a Jeffersonian position in American political life. The journal Free America became the flagship publication for the alliance in America; within Catholic circles, the Social Justice Review, Orate Fratres, and The Catholic Worker regularly printed the essays of Distributists. In the British Isles, Eye Witness, The New Age, The New Witness and G.K.’s Weekly were the principal venues, with the Tablet, the Dublin Review and T.S. Eliot’s Criterion occasionally weighing in. Whereas the Distributists anchored their thought in what they saw as a wider natural tendency for man to flourish in a local community, the Southern Agrarians worked out of a specifically regional milieu. The Southern Agrarians’ quintessential but exclusive regionalism made a lasting and effective union impossible and the two remained merely allied forces achieving little public effect after the appearance of Who Owns America? in 1936. In recent years, the chief heir to this tradition in North America is Wendell Berry of Kentucky.
After the Second World War, enthusiasm for the Distributist and agrarian position ebbed as most conservatives formed a common front in the struggle against Communism. Exceptions to this were Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk, both of whom were well-read in the Distributist and agrarian traditions. With a growing concern for environmental issues, the decline of the Soviet Union, and greater alarm for the destructive tendencies of a resurgent laissez-faire capitalism, interest in Distributism began to wax anew in the last decade of the twentieth century.
The thought of Distributist thinkers can be set out according to the following canons: (1) Subsidiarity, or the understanding that the members of a primary association (e.g., the family) must structure their lives and direct their actions responsibly and that higher associations should not – without grave cause – usurp a smaller organization’s ability to accomplish its task; (2) Proprietary interest, or the commitment to the widespread ownership of property and the means of production; (3) Defense of the local, or a suspicion of private or public entities that threaten (1) or (2), and a willingness to support public policy that encourages small, locally-controlled economies over the domination of large retail chains and global corporations; (4) Craftsmanship, or the confidence that local, community-based economies tend toward greater beauty, quality, and trust between the makers and the users of goods; and (5) Agrarianism, or the belief that a rural society is the best environment for safeguarding tradition, typically understood as family-centered life, self-sufficiency, anti-majoritarianism, the dignity of labor and craftsmanship, good health, small communities, and religious vitality.
In narrating the tradition, we place Vincent McNabb among the agrarians and Distributists. McNabb, however, was long uncomfortable with such easy labels:
"You must let me withhold either approval or disapproval, because I am not a “Distributionist;” how often I have said that I am not a politician, nor am I a communist. I have no competence to say what is or is not compatible with Distributionism.The settling of that question must be left to the Distributionists."
For him, his economic and social theory was not his, it was not Chesterton’s, it was not Belloc’s, it was the social teaching of St. Thomas, of the Fathers, and of Holy Scripture. Distributism was merely Faith and Morals affecting the temporal affairs of Christians, in particular, affecting their social, political, and economic life.
Pro Ecclesia et foco, contra mundum
Now let us for a moment travel to a modern North American home. Homeward the happy hunter of the free West rides, usually alone, for some forty-five minutes or more in the great symbol of his liberation, the car. Though it costs him on average over $10,000 per annum to maintain his machine, and though it slays enough people each year to be classified an epidemic, life without two or three vehicles is inconceivable.
Now let us enter the modern home. The home which is nearly a thousand square feet larger than that of his grandparents. The home which his great-grandparents paid for within a decade, and which now – if he bothers staying there for more than a few years – takes a full thirty to pay for.
Now let us sit with the modern man of the West at a meal...if we sit at all. And where is the family – that is to say, where is the other person who brings in the required second income and where are the one or perhaps two children, quite possibly the fruit of the same union? Alas, one and all are exercising their freedoms. His spouse must work in her fluorescent cubicle a little later. To reduce her stress (the sign of her economic liberation) she must, before returning home, go to the great luminous glass-block cave, off to exercise on a never-ending plastic conveyer, while watching – with two dozen other fiercely independent and liberated women – the same cable news program prophesying wars and rumors of war.
The children eat alone, but each apparently content as they are plugged into some virtual world where one may engage in such archaic activities as fighting with swords, searching for treasure, warding off dark powers from a good kingdom, speaking with imaginary creatures, and camping under a star-lit sky. We thank the heavens that digital technology has made such youthful fun not only safe, but possible.
Food, food still unites the family. That is to say, no matter where or what you eat in the United States, you and your loved ones will all be partaking in flavors created in laboratories from the same part of New Jersey. The flame-broiled low-fat burger picked up on the way back from aerobics, the country-style chicken breast prepared “just the way you like it®” in the microwave, the Thai take-out that the children wolf-down as they learn more about an endangered rainforest from the Tourism channel, all were produced along the same corridor, off the Jersey turnpike near South Brunswick.
This is, of course, a comical picture, merely a satire. Every age has its difficulties, no? At least we are secure in ours. Yet we must admit, though, that when McNabb warned that the family and the life of the family was imperiled, he was not wrong. Something as small and distant as industrial capitalism and something as near and menacing as canned food were anathema to Fr. McNabb. They were of the same beast: a dreadful beast crouching to devour the mother and child, left undefended by the father. Whether by a true choice or no, women have been swept from the home and from the life that was dignified and their own. And men, men have taken up the life of socio-economic nomads: knowing no allegiance to work – for work knows them not – and slowly forgetting what duty and paternal piety mean. If this is in doubt, let us turn again to our modern household.
Our Age now views as domesticated a woman who subscribes to an illustrated cooking magazine, and prepares brined beef with the precision of a German chemical engineer. Lost is the art of cooking without a reference library. Pasta and sauce from a jar constitute a home-cooked meal. That we are momentarily satisfied with this state may be due to genuine advances in natural or organic food preparation, or it may only be a conditioned response enabling us not to face social deficiencies.
There was a time when cooking, sewing, and all the domestic arts were natural and vocational expressions of womanhood. Mothers did these things because their love for family called forth beauty and care. Now, when such things are done, they are done as a hobby to refresh the slightly guilty conscience. Guilty, because all too often the hobby is done poorly and without the object of affection: children. When asked privately working women admit they desire more children than their careers allow. The lucrative industry revolving around well-known domestic divas and cooking clubs belies our domestic (and hence political and social) happiness. Womanly arts and feminine traditions have been obliterated and only through the scrutinizing of manuals are all the crafts and treasures of women kept from utter ruin. Thankfully, there is still affection, and with affection the desire to restore the home, if only some clear path could be shown.
Man, having longer been callous, and longer disenfranchised from his own arts, seems happier than the modern woman. The pressure of being sole bread-winner is gone, a work less dreary, no? Again, we collide with our illusions. Let us harden ourselves to the probable sting that comes to most men when they contemplate that our economic system blocks them from being the economic sustainer of the family. The jointworker household is not an exercise in freedom, but a necessity for most. The two cars (and half-ton truck), the twenty-five hundred square foot house, the clothing, the gadgets, the vacations, all require two incomes. We are surfeit with what McNabb called secondary wealth to the point that we are rarely enjoying what is primary (health, and the food and shelter necessary to our station in life). To what end are men fierce providers? Their jobs and lifestyles long insulate them from the experience of husbandry, paternal sacrifice. Their co-worker spouses are not in any real sense dependent, socially or even economically – or rather, the dependency too often becomes a kind of contractual benefit in a rabidly materialistic world. What they supply for their children, they know in their hearts, is ephemeral junk to be replaced at the next birthday or special occasion by yet more plastic and electric gadgetry.
For a small group, Do-It-Yourself shops allow some expression of craft to emerge from the eviscerated life of a white-collar worker. One could also mention camping and certain sports as activities that still remind the male worker of his masculine flesh and sinew. Yet these activities, engaged in by an ever decreasing number of the population, are again done as hobbies or “stress-relievers,” they do not constitute part of a natural cycle of life nor are they done as part of a process of enhancing and creating primary wealth. Instead, modern men drink deeply of nostalgia. They ponder catalogues that speak of “hardware” and “restoration” and buy non-mechanized toys, or at least ones using an archaic device called a “spring.” With haggard determination they hunt; they hunt across the internet for old Boy Scout manuals. And when particularly adventurous (and the weather is clement) they stride boldly onto the patio and cook for their family meat (made all the more adventurous thanks to E. coli O157:H7) over an open flame (produced by something called a “clicker” and hard lava rocks that themselves have been manfully picked out at the department store). Outdoor skills have been transformed into knowing how to adjust a butane compressor properly, while holding an insulated mug, or steering a riding lawn mower – while holding an insulated mug. And yet, many still act out these exaggerated and absurd deeds from a sense of affection, weakened, it is true, by our Age and our wealth, but still there.
This domestic scene, fixed somewhere between satire and tragedy, ought not to depress us. Let it arouse us. It is something, after all, with which to make a start. Traditions may yet be restored, precisely because human nature is so enduring. At moments of crisis clarity can come forth and heroism and sacrifice be readily observed. But therein lies the difficulty. One cannot shore up the family and the community, one cannot bring dignity back to the worker or craft back to the workshop, one cannot set sail on the wild and romantic seas of monogamous marriage, by leaping from crisis to crisis –at least not willingly (normally, husband and wife do not seek out extreme experiences). A natural life, with sane and regular rhythms, is not the product of constant crisis –tempered by crisis, yes, but a healthy organism seeks equipoise and peace. A natural life is the product of a small, healthy community, grounded in the common, traditional, and religious life of the West.
[To by the book, go to IHS Press]