Let's debate "distributism"

“Distributism” or “distributivism” is a doctrine formulated by Catholic intellectuals in the early 20th Century as an alternative to both socialism and capitalism. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distributivism In essence, it is the idea that productive property should be fairly and equitably distributed throughout society. Distributists envision(ed) a society of small farmers, shopkeepers who own their own shops, artisans who own their own tools, etc. That way, everybody will have some economic independence, shielded to some extent from the vagaries of the marketplace, and nobody will be beholden to a boss or landlord, nor to the state.

When you think about it, there’s nothing especially radical or “un-American” about the concept. It is pretty much exactly the vision Thomas Jefferson had for (white) America. Ditto with Abraham Lincoln, except that his vision was more industrial than agrarian (it was his fate to die before the problematic emergence of really large-scale industry). Every “land reform” movement in history, from Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus to Hugo Chavez, was driven by some form of distributist thinking. And, of course, several times in history the U.S. government has enacted its own “land reform” – taking land from the Indians by armed force and then distributing it to white homesteaders, for nothing or almost nothing, with the clear intention of creating a class of small, self-sufficient yeoman farmers. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

But can distributism still have any relevance under modern economic conditions? How can we apply the distributist model to modern large-scale production or commerce? And how can the family farm hope to compete against agribiz plantations that have the advantages of economies of scale?

Capitalism is a complex network of middle men. The thing that the internet has done, is it has created a venue to create distribution channels that circumvent the old channels of massive corporate bureaucracy. The most clear example of this is the RIAA and MPAA lawsuits, however they are not the only ones that are going to be hit by it. Biodiesel is going to create a bunch of little grass roots markets that will undercut energy producers. People will start putting solar panels and wind turbines on their homes reducing their dependence upon the overall power grid. People are organizing into big indepedent networks like Indymedia. There are networks for people to find access to organically grown small farms.

In a nutshell, I don’t think that massive redistribution is necessary, I think the market will take care of it as many of the big bureaucracies go obsolete. You’ll still have some monolithic corporations, for instance, I don’t see Intel going anywhere. The latin American countries are on the forefront of the “distributivism” revolution, such as Argentina where workers seized and reopened cooperative factories.

SMS Text mobs are increasingly being used as an effective method for mobilizing large groups of people, and they are very easy to implement. We’ve organized a crowd of a couple thousand people using text mobs. We took between 1000-1500 people from Manhattan on a train to Brooklyn and through the streets to the Brooklyn waterfront, we had two sound systems, two marching bands lots of artists, projections, a bus with one sound system and a flatbed truck with another sound system in it. We didn’t need a lot of money to do this, and we’ve done other smaller events using similar models, such as our Halloween event which was less organized, but ended up with about 2-300 people. Flashmobs have been used to organized major protests in latin America and the Phillipines.

It now costs $ 40,000 to launch one’s own satellite. Imagine where the price constraints will go when Blue Origin commercial spaceport in Van Horn Texas opens and competition ratchets up. Open Source software is now entering the realm of being a legitimate rival to Microsoft.

There’s a pretty large movement to make this sort of thing happen. At one festival Burning Man, which is dedicated toward this type of social change, I saw a Robotic flower that was about 3 stories high and a remote controlled jetpack on a pendulum. In short I saw military hardware being used as toys by the populace.


Hee hee hee! I have no problem with your statement there, I was just charmed by the unexpected appositeness of that term in this context. :slight_smile:

I read the piece on distributism and was puzzled by the phrase about predatory capitalists attacking distributists. How would that work?

Well the eminent domain issue comes to mind as one example.


I think you’re missing the main point of distributism, which appears to be, that if everybody owns productive property and everybody is self-employed, then nobody need fear getting fired or laid off. How do the things you’re describing bring us any closer to that?

Umm, that’s government being used to attack people by capitalists. I was thinking it would be something more direct, like using mass production to drive the artisans out of biz, such as by “dumping” similar, much cheaper, products, etc.

I guess I just don’t see how artisans are going to compete successfully against international mass production funded by capitalists. If they COULD compete successfully, I suspect they would have beaten out capitalism a long time ago. But everywhere mass production and capitalists come up against products made by artisans, the artisans tend to be outpriced and outproduced.

Is **BrainGlutton **endorsing Bush’s “ownership society”? :slight_smile:

Sure sounds like it!

BTW, I loved your description of US land reform (I’m not joking):

I think the argument was: but the Indians weren’t using the land productively!

Self employment might guarantee you won’t get fired or laid off, but it certainly doesn’t mean you can make a living. If you’re self-employed you don’t get fired, you just don’t get any customers. A million artisans are just as subject to market forces as a million industrial workers, if no one wants the products you sell then your business is finished.

And invariably, some people are going to be more successful artisans than other people. Maybe they’re more skilled craftsmen, maybe they’re more skilled salesmen, maybe they live in a location with higher demand for their work, maybe their main competitors were killed in a plane crash. Are we going to prohibit a successful sole-proprieter bakery from hiring help? What if it’s organized like: Bob owns a bakery, and makes and sells bread. However, he buys services from other independent businessmen, like the independent kneader who kneads bread and, and the independent dishwasher who washes dishes and has Bob as his sole client. Those businessmen don’t make much money from their services since there are plenty of other independent dishwashers who want Bob for a client. As Bob gets more and more successful he contracts with more dishwashers and floormoppers and cashiers until thousands of people work at (not for) Bob’s bakery and he sells his baked goods to hundreds of thousands of people.

Bob has now become a capitalist. How do you prevent him from becoming a capitalist? How do you maintain skilled artisans when the bottom drops out of the market for their skills?

The software industry is a good example of a market that most closely fits the OP’s idea. There are lots of self-employed consultants and web designers and contract programmers, all they need is their own computer and a broadband connection and their own skills and they can make a living competing alongside the big companies. But the big companies still exist, even if they aren’t always the same big companies. Microsoft was started by a few guys with a few lines of borrowed code, Google was started by a few guys, Amazon was started by a few guys. How do you prevent successful sole proprietors from becoming capitalists without destroying the engine of economic success? Make occupations hereditary?

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Pacific Edge (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_Edge), about a near-future Southern California following a Green political revolution (implicitly nonviolent, but details are never provided), the state achieves a utopian and arguably distributist society, without actually managing the economy directly, by enforcing two rules:

  1. Everybody is guaranteed an income of at least $10,000 a year and nobody is allowed an income of more than $100,000 a year. This eliminates desperate poverty and prevents massive disparities of wealth while still giving everybody an incentive to strive – “Everybody wants to be a Hundred.”

  2. Any business enterprise that becomes too big for all the officers and employees to know each other personally is broken up by the government into smaller ones, antitrust-style.

Not saying this would work, but it bears thinking about.

Umm. No. Capitalism does not entail the government taking property and reallocating it for the public good. That is more akin to socialism than capitalism.*

  • with the unfortunately requisite disclaimer that legitimate use of eminent domain is not therefore bad; it’s one of those deviations from pure laissez-faire that most people agree is a good thing.

I’m not missing the point. I am only stating that I think the natural forces are in motion for an evolution toward this, and that there is no need for an “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” style actions.

What I was trying to illustrate is the ability for people to organize on a small level, where they don’t NEED the big structures. If the big structures are losing business, as many of them are across the board, they eventually go bankrupt and have to sell off pieces of the pie. If individual citizens are poised to buy up the property of the big corporation piecemeal then they will have it. IT makes it much easier for people to collectively pool their resources. A lot of people I know are on that very tip, trying to pool our resources to have more buying power. We do it at a small scale, and I assume that as I get older the scale will increase, as people mature and it’s easier to get along, and to understand the shared goals.

A Distributist system is structured not unlike terrorist cells, what’s different is the motive and what the resources are being used for. However, this is the most efficient way to work in a modern society, and a lot of people are moving toward this method. I believe you’ll see it cropping up naturally in a lot of places.

In about ten years when Argentina has it’s shit together, you’ll be reading a lot more about the burgeoning South America.


Sure, in an ideal sense. However, once the wealth is concentrated in teh hands of the few, it’s easier for them to manipulate legislation to their benefit, which is a natural side-effect of capitalism. As we all know, the system never fits the ideal.


Heh. Of course, if you cap salaries at a certain level, people can be compensated in nonmonetary or black-market ways. What if I pay prostitutes to service my important clients/employees? I’m not paying them a salary over $100,000, I’m just providing a relaxing work atmosphere! And I provide luxury housing for my top employees, with all the champagne and caviar they can stomach.

And past a certain point everything just moves to the out-and-out black market. I’m sure shutting down “crime bosses” who provide cheap consumer goods on the streetcorner is going to be about as easy as shutting down today’s drug dealers. Yeah, FBI raids on illegal movie studios, guys on street corners selling bootleg construction equipment, all major transactions are handled with barter rather than cash. The regulatory and police apparatus to squash all this would be immense, half the citizens would be employed as spies and enforcers against the other half.

I don’t see why you would want to eliminate those things. If you are distributing the wealth you are distributing the wealth. If that means hiring prostitutes that’s fine. Why not? There is no reason to eliminate power from a society. You simply want to bring the level of the lowest common denominator up to a certain standard.


*Hippie #1: Right now we’re proving we don’t need corporations. We don’t need money. This can become a commune where everyone just helps each other.

Hippie #2: Yeah, we’ll have one guy who like, who like, makes bread. And one guy who like, looks out for other people’s safety.

Stan: You mean like a baker and a cop?

Hippie #2: No no. Can’t you imagine a place where people live together and like, provide services for each other in exchange for their services?

Kyle: Yeah, it’s called a town.

Hippie #3: You kids just haven’t been to college yet.*
Okay, less flippantly…

No it doesn’t. It just raises the standards of what constitutes “desperate poverty.” By objective global standards, the US has virtually eliminated “desperate poverty.” Many of our poor have cellphones, microwaves, televisions and their own cars: wealth beyond imagining for 3/4 of the planet’s residents (including those from centrally-planned economies).

Which is a very different thing from ending poverty. The trees are all kept equal by hatchet, axe, and saw, y’know…

No they don’t. I don’t have the work ethic to be a hundred; for most of my life I’ve been more like a “twenty.” Offer me ten for doing nothing, and I’d probably take it and sit on the couch eating Doritos all day.

And put in the hands of someone who probably knows less about running a business; more accurately, someones, as there would likely be reduced competence at each level and in each part of the business. Thus both businesses are now more inefficient (costing consumers more) and one of them may well be run into the ground by the VP-who-is-a-president … eliminating all the jobs.

We’ll leave aside the silliness of " too big for all the officers and employees to know each other personally" as a criteria. (“Dammit, the file clerk forgot the receptionist’s name. Now we’re going to have to split again!”)

Well, I was complaining about Kim Stanley Robinson’s idea of capping salaries at $100,000. How exactly is that gonna be possible? You gonna eliminate cash? Turn every medium-sized businessman into a criminal? Sounds to me like a recipe for a new feudal system…the wiseguys who live in off-the-books luxury, while the chumps are kept in their place by the regulatory state. How long is it gonna take the wiseguys with their unlimited unregulated secret wealth before they take control of the government bureacracy? Everyone has two salaries, their public salary, and the cash/barter/favor salary paid under the table by the wiseguys.

I guess the difference I see here is that we live in a feudal state now. There is lots of off the books luxury. The wealthier you are the further a single dollar goes. Look at celebrities like Johnny Depp who are making millions on a single film. Do you think he ever pays for clothes or drugs? Do you think he couldn’t go just about anywhere in the world and stay in a nice featherbed in somebodies mansion for free for months at a time if he liked?

You can’t eliminate social currency or force it to be equitable. I kind of like Kim Stanley Robinson’s idea. However, what I’d really like to see is a system where Food, Healthcare, and a place to sleep and an internet terminal are provided. If you want to get anything more than that, you’ve gotta figure out a way to do it.


Like every other Utopian ideal, human nature dooms it to failure.

I think the best thing to do is realize that all the world’s strife is caused by religion.
It gives people things in their lives that are “not debatable”, but they differ from those of others and fighting ensues. So you lost me at the phrase “Catholic intellectuals”.