Letters to the Editor: October 1985
Isn’t Dale Vree really a distributist of the Chesterton-Belloc-Eric Gill school?
The Catholic Dictionary defines distributism as “the theory that the political, economic and personal freedom proper to man…can only be maintained when property in the means of production is widely distributed.”
Vree advocates worker ownership of factories. Well, Eric Gill argued that factories should be owned by the men who work there. This, he said, was the best arrangement in an industrial world and was a necessary prelude to a return to the small workshop. Chesterton wrote that even in an ideal distributist state, workmen would have to own certain costly machines and buildings communally, through a guild, as in the case of shipbuilders.
Worker ownership is a distributist ambition. State ownership is the socialist plan. Why, then, is Vree willing to use the term “socialist” in an approving manner? Where does he break with the fiercest anti-capitalists of all: Eric Gill, G.K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc?
St. Louis, Missouri
DALE VREE REPLIES:
Thank you for your bright (cheery) and bright (illuminating) Letter. It resembles other inquiries, and so calls for a comprehensive reply.
Yes, distributism suits me just fine, at least as you have articulated it. If I haven’t used the term, I suppose there are four basic reasons:
(1) I can hardly pronounce the word.
(2) Few people have even the vaguest idea of what the term refers to.
(3) The two most famous distributists — Belloc and Chesterton — have reputations for having had weaknesses for fascism and anti-Semitism (Belloc more so, Chesterton less so). This is not the fault of distributism as such, but it has given me cause to pause.
(4) Most importantly, distributism has a certain romantic agrarian echo to it. It is, shall we say, “green” — not altogether unlike, in my mind at least, “the Greens” in West Germany and similar countercultural, back-to-nature, back-to-the-land movements. My resonances, on the other hand, are more urban, more industrial, even more proletarian.
Happily, your articulation of distributism accommodates these resonances. However, the 1965 Catholic Encyclopedia states that “distributists looked back favorably to the time…when most people lived on farms and made their living directly from the land or worked as craftsmen in their own workshops,” adding this significant demurral: “distributist concepts of agricultural decentralization and subsistence farming run counter to a world-wide trend which requires more farm productivity and larger farming units.” It could also have been added: runs counter to the worldwide trend requiring more industrial production and thus more productive and cost-effective — i.e., larger and more complex — industrial units than the small workshop.
Of course, if we wish to expand the notion of the “small workshop” to embrace workers’ collective ownership and control of large enterprises, that would be fine. But I fear that distributism, at least as it was originally formulated, paid scant attention to the problems of large-scale industry. Distributists wanted to have ownership of private productive property widely distributed, but as the Catholic Encyclopedia states, “Since it was difficult to expand private ownership in the direction of industry, distributists generally put great emphasis on the land. If the worker could not escape being a wage slave in the city, then let him return to the land.” Return to the land?
Because of this strong agrarian bias, it is difficult to give “distributism” a meaning that can be appreciated in an industrial society. Of course, I think it can be done, if we follow the lead of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens, where he shows how the principle of private property can be developed in the direction of collective workers’ self-management.
A key principle in Laborem Exercens is the priority of labor over capital. This priority is operative wherever the worker has a sense that he is working for himself and the good of society rather than for private investors (and their managers) or for state bureaucrats.
Here is where the principle of private property comes in. The great redeeming feature of private property — most evident in small farms, workshops, and stores — is that labor is performed directly for the benefit of those laboring. Here labor power is “nonalienated”; however, it becomes alienated in large organizations when the worker must sell his labor power to a boss who makes all the decisions about what is produced and how, and (with the investors) reaps all the profits. Obviously, it is hard to keep labor nonalienated in large enterprises (whether privately or state-owned), but this is where the virtues of “private property” can be seen operative in collective workers’ self-management. For, such self-management is a way of appropriating the very real advantages of nonalienated labor seen in small-scale free enterprise (working for oneself, feeling a personal stake in one’s work, feeling free to be creative, being accountable for the consequences of one’s decisions and workmanship, reaping the full benefits of one’s hard work and initiative or suffering loss as a result of laziness and lack of effort).
John Paul’s economic views, then, are aimed at achieving what heretofore in history has been so elusive: (1) production for the sake of the laborer instead of the capitalist or state bureaucrat, and (2) worker sharing in ownership, management decisions, and profits, regardless of whether a firm is considered “state-owned” or “capitalistically owned.” Moreover, in his 1984 trip to Canada, John Paul spoke favorably of outright worker ownership — i.e., workers’ co-operatives.
While the Pope does not offer simplistic blueprints, it is clear that both the extremes of overwhelming investor sovereignty and overwhelming state sovereignty over the means of production are essentially ruled out. If this is what current-day distributists have in mind, splendid. What I do know is that, increasingly and to a significant degree, it is what democratic socialists in Western Europe and Canada have in mind.
The question is whether “distributism” is the most felicitous term in representing such a state of affairs. Also at issue is the suitability of the term “socialism,” which in America (but not Western Europe) unfortunately seems to be synonymous with state ownership.
Why am I willing to use approvingly what our Book Review Editor Greg Erlandson has poignantly called “the ‘s’ word” — i.e., “socialism”? In Europe, there are no significant phobias about the term. In America, there are. So, why invite misunderstanding, even hysterical denunciation, by employing that term? There are three basic reasons:
(1) Even if Americans have many misconceptions about the word, there is some rudimentary sense that whatever it is, it represents something distinctly different from what we now have. There is a certain shock value in the word which at least commands people’s attention. Now, I am of the conviction (shared, I believe, by distributists) that Catholic social teaching is truly radical. But “radical” is a spongy, generic word, and I’ve noticed that it is overused and so safe that when I use it, it usually evokes yawns. But somehow, people need to be shocked into the realization that Catholic social teaching is radical, and not just a set of antiquated, mushy, or elastic nostrums.
(2) I’ve toyed around with certain alternative terms, like “communitarianism,” but they seem to suffer from the usual yawn-inducing vagueness. I think, however, following Robert Bellah’s advice, that the best alternative is “economic democracy” (which rather clearly suggests the extension of political democracy to the economy — i.e., worker ownership). The term was coined, I believe, by the venerable Msgr. John A. Ryan, and it enjoys a certain currency in Roman Catholic circles in the U.S. (e.g., it has been invoked by the U.S. bishops in their pastoral on the U.S. economy).
(3) You are absolutely right to suggest that when I use the term “socialism” approvingly I do not mean state ownership. Nor do I mean such things as Marxism or class hatred or total cradle-to-grave security. But then, the democratic socialists (or “social democrats”) of Western Europe and Canada by and large no longer mean those things either.
So, you and I agree that we favor an increase in the various forms of worker ownership and self-management (or “economic democracy”), an increase supported by several papal encyclicals and statements. Now, where in the world do we find political movements advocating this? Seldom is it advocated by European conservatives or liberals, by American conservatives or liberals, or by Christian Democrats or communists or fascists. But it is frequently advocated by democratic socialists. How curious!
Now, heaven knows there are many unsavory things about democratic socialism — usually, but not exclusively, associated with sex and family and abortion — and Lord knows socialism is no panacea (there are no panaceas on this earth). But when it comes to economic democracy, we distributists ought to pay some attention to those other folks, numbering in the millions, who are advocating it and (unlike our ragtag band of distributists) actually doing something to implement it. So, humility behooves us to give credit where credit is due, and to be willing to employ the term “socialism” in an approbatory sense, at least once in a while.
In conclusion, yes, call me a distributist. But I think the term that best communicates to Americans the sense of what we support is neither “distributism” nor “socialism,” but “economic democracy.”
Rank & Rotten
I have read my second issue of the NOR, a sad disappointment. It’s obvious that since the break-up of Sheed and Ward and the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Sheed (Maisie Ward), Catholic writing under whatever aegis is back at the old stamping ground of prejudice, superstition, rank nonsense, and rotten writing. I’m tired of all things pertaining to the faith being discussed in the key of high C by ignoramuses.
Elena E. Ugarte
I think of the New Oxford Review as the most genuinely ecumenical magazine around.
Rev. Alan Beasley
The Parker Heights Presbyterian Church
Each time the New Oxford Review arrives I strike my breast for not having written to you to express my thanks.
Most Rev. Rembert G. Weakland
Archbishop of Milwaukee
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