Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Some Advice for Distributists

One of the pitfalls that lies in the path of those who try to gauge the outlines of the future in advance, and swallows no small number of them, is the assumption that today’s popular beliefs and assumptions are a good guide to tomorrow’s. Sometimes, to be sure, this turns out to be the case, and some widespread opinion or other remains glued in place for decades or centuries – though this usually happens to opinions that most sensible people think will soon be abandoned. More often, though, there’s no belief less popular at any given time than the most firmly held convictions of the recent past.

A reminder of this landed in my inbox a few days back, in an article about a recent survey of American opinion. According to the article, only 53% of the people who responded to the survey agreed that capitalism was better than socialism; 20% thought that socialism was better, while 27% weren’t sure which way to call it. The article caused a brief flutter in the dovecotes of the Left, and a somewhat larger one in the hawk-cotes of the Right, but I’m not at all sure that either side caught the wider implications of the shift this survey documented.

Some history needs to be surveyed to make sense of those implications. Ever since the rubble stopped bouncing in 1945, what used to be called political economy – that is, the way that human societies organize and direct their economic activities – has been defined by a choice between two unpromising alternatives. Calling them simply “capitalism” and “socialism,” popular as this habit is, misstates the matter, because they were much more specific than that.

The first might better be called corporate capitalism, as it recycled older forms of capitalism in the service of the weird social fiction of the corporation, a “legal person” that has more rights and fewer responsibilities than the rest of us, and serves today’s well-to-do in roughly the same role that the image of Oz the Great and Powerful did for the little man behind the curtain. The second might with equal justice be called bureaucratic socialism, as it translated the grand promises and stirring rhetoric of generations of radicals into dour totalitarian states that guaranteed every citizen an equal share of deprivation and repression.

In retrospect, it might seem obvious that there are many other ways to run a free market economy than relying on an arrangement that Adam Smith himself considered the worst possible way to run a business. (I wonder how many of today’s cheerleaders for corporatist capitalism have read Smith’s scathing comments about joint-stock companies, the proto-corporations of his own time.) It might seem equally obvious that there are plenty of ways to manage an economy of collective ownership that do not require vast sclerotic bureaucracies governed by dogmatic ideologies. Nor are some form of free market or some form of collective ownership the only ways to manage a society’s production and distribution of goods and services.

The fact remains, though, that since 1945 nearly everyone in the industrial world, and most of the nonindustrial world as well, has behaved as though corporate capitalism, bureaucratic socialism, or some awkward hybrid such as social democracy composed of spare parts from both, were the only possible forms of political economy. This is problematic now, because both corporate capitalism and bureaucratic socialism have not only failed abjectly to make good on their promises, but have turned out to be catastrophically failure-prone into the bargain.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its client states, the massed failures of bureaucratic socialism are hard to miss. Still, corporate capitalism has demonstrated not once but twice that its results are just as bad. From 1896 to 1929, and then again from 1980 to 2008, corporate capitalism was allowed to take the bit in its teeth and run, and in each case the result was an accelerating cycle of disastrous booms and busts and the emergence of a culture of corporate kleptocracy that, between them, ended up devastating the global economy. Meanwhile the faith that a rising tide would lift all boats turned out, in both cases, to be completely misplaced; the benefits that were supposed to trickle down trickled up instead, beggaring the working classes and driving much of the middle class into relative poverty while funneling most of society’s wealth into the unproductive hands of speculators and financiers.

Neither system, in other words, works worth a tinker’s expletive at the basic job of keeping an economy productive and functioning, and both thus might reasonably be chucked into history’s recycle bin. The one difficulty is that very few people nowadays realize that there are other alternatives – and this, in turn, is a function of our collective blindness to our own history.

Until the Second World War, in point of fact, corporate capitalism and bureaucratic socialism were only the most successful of a dizzying range of systems of political economy that had a substantial public presence. Distributism, syndicalism, synarchism, guild socialism, and many others were discussed in a lively literature of books and periodicals, and each had its enthusiastic followers. Nor were these simply slight variations on the two systems left standing; some tended toward the free market end of the spectrum, others toward the collective ownership end, and some occupied positions in the middle, assigning some fields of economic activity to the free market while putting others in the public sphere, but each offered a distinctive system for managing the realities of human economic life.

What squeezed these alternative systems out of collective consciousness was the long era of the Cold War, when both sides turned their respective systems of political economy into ideological battle flags in the struggle over which of two empires – American or Russian – would dominate the world in the wake of the British Empire’s long retreat. (Yes, I know it’s unpopular these days to suggest that America is an empire, but given that we station troops in 140 countries just now, backing up a state of affairs in which the 5% of humanity that lives in the United States uses around a third of the world’s resources and industrial output, the term is hard to avoid.) The United States won that struggle, only to find – as every other empire in history has found – that getting to the top of the heap simply makes you target number one for an endless series of fresh challengers, one of whom will eventually win.

The disastrous narrowing of vision that was driven by the bitter rivalries of the Cold War years remains fixed in place, though, not only in the United States but – in large part due to America’s current role as the main manufacturer and exporter of the global culture industry – throughout most of the world. The problem with this state of affairs is not limited to the massive failures that afflict both corporate capitalism and bureaucratic socialism; neither system has shown the least trace of an ability to deal with the challenge of making human economics work within the fragile ecology and finite resource base of our planet, for example. Still, at a time when the world’s industrial societies are facing severe problems due to the steady depletion of fossil fuel reserves, relying on systems of political economy that have a proven track record of catastrophic dysfunction anyway is not exactly a good idea.

What the survey mentioned at the beginning of this post shows, in turn, is that a growing number of Americans have become aware of this last point. That opens up options that have been closed for the last two generations or so. Thus I’d like to offer a bit of advice to distributists – yes, there are still some out there – and proponents of any other alternative systems of political economy that may still be around after all these years: now’s your chance. If, as the survey suggests, 27% of Americans have already reached the point where neither capitalism nor socialism has any particular appeal, there’s a large audience waiting to hear what you have to say, if you make an effort to get the word out to them.

Now of course there’s also a place for newly minted alternatives, provided that those don’t start from the assumption that people can consume more goods and services than they produce, or that the Earth’s remaining resource base can support – two little difficulties that have been all too common in recent schemes of this sort. Even the most determined prophet of some new system, though, might benefit from taking a good close look at what has been done in the past; if you’re going to reinvent the wheel, it might be useful to make sure that your version is actually better than the last century or two of attempts at the same thing. Anything that can pop our collective imaginations out of the current and hopelessly sterile fixation on the relative merits of two abjectly failed systems is likely to be a good thing.

Will it be enough of a good thing to stave off the decline and fall this blog has been discussing for the last three years? At this stage of the game, with petroleum production already sliding and so many opportunities gone by the boards, that seems hopelessly unlikely. Still, the adoption of some less wildly inefficient and failure-prone approach to political economy would be a very sensible move as we begin to deal with the challenges of the long era of contraction and readjustment that is taking shape around us right now. Utopian schemes remain as useless as they have ever been, but efforts at thoughtful, constructive, and realistic change are quite another matter, and in the wake of corporate capitalism’s latest round of failure, there might just be an opportunity to accomplish a bit of the latter.


xhmko said...

Hi John,

I am not from the United States, but, as an Australian I have felt the effects of an expanding empire that filled the gaps of the British and has a veil of secrecy unheard of in domestic politics.

I compare the communist/capitalist duality to the fiction of bipartisan politics that dominates both the US and Autralia's political debates. When it comes time for election it seems as though only two parties exist. Dumb and dumber, and we must choose the lesser of two dumbers. Media has its own interests but still they set the stage for "great" debates between only two candidates. Imagine if Nader, or Bob Brown in Australia were included in televised debates. And I only make reference to the Greens Party candidates. I don't know if the good vs. evil dichotomy is all that "most" people can understand or if its all that they are exposed to at any meaningful level.

It's as though, as the population grows to previously unimaginable highs, our political spectrum has narrowed to an unprecedented spike, some sort of mountain peak where there's only room for one but two want to sit and have dominion over all.

I'll be happy at the fertile base, beneath the radar and amidst the rubble of the their collapse.

FARfetched said...

Hm… got any links for gentle introductions to any of those alternatives? I remember hearing terms like "syndio-X" and thinking they were some kind of joke, but maybe they weren't.

I agree 100% with your premise: our Big Two political economies turned out to be a great big tractor bucket of FAIL, and we need to start looking for an alternative. But we have to know what they are before we can settle on one.

{chuckle… the verification word is "redly" — maybe that's a sign?}

Robert C. Guy said...

I agree with your vision of the failure of these two economic schemes to take the resources of our entire planet and the personal economic activities of over six thousand million people and fit them comfy cozy under a single all encompassing ideal. It seems unfortunate to me though that the most efficient means of mass communicating any new ideas are through channels of public communication which are altogether intertwined and controlled by those ideals though perhaps less so the communications on the internet (although even that is completely moderated in some nations and becoming ever more under the control of both government and corporations in the USA). Do you believe that this will inhibit alternative ideas from gaining ground? Also it appears to me that the myth of perpetual progress, such as it is an effective governing religious ideal of this society (United States), is much like many other religions and has its books of psalms and hymns and that the sweeping chorus of Corporate Capitalism has become of late (on a historical scale) one of its most beloved and holy scriptures so that to deny the purity of it may bring down onto an individual the righteous indignation of the ones who stand as ministers, chaplains, priests, elders etc. in the great church of perpetual progress along with those individuals who may disagree with the rest of the progress bit but love that particular hymn so much that they have since split off and created their own denominations.

I have so many other paths of thought I wish earnestly to share and as you seem simply the most capable of understanding them I find myself daily wandering which thoughts would be most beneficial to communicate and ask for assistance with here so that others may see them but I am not well practiced in tending and growing minds and only somewhat experienced with one or two at a time and not entire forests.

I would like to thank you again for making your thoughts so accessible. I have nearly finished reading (and at times re-reading, re-re-reading...) the full archive here and hope that it is not a bother if I take each post and all of its comments and create a digital collection of each year's material for myself and any I can find with willing ears to share with.

Bilbo said...

When I saw this report on the survey on capitalism vs socialism my reaction was that people who said they had no preference between socialism and capitalism basically were saying, "Don't know, don't care." I think a significant number of them don't even know the difference between capitalism and socialism. We are so over surveyed in this country that anything will be said anything to get it over with.

The most interesting thing in the survey was the difference in generation in their response. Those who have come of age since the fall of the Berlin wall, and were not raised in an atmosphere of anticommunist propaganda, had a much more favorable view of socialism than those conditioned by the various Red scares.

Leonard Poole said...

I have followed your blog for some time, but have never commented. At this time I want to express my appreciation for your very thoughtful, and thought-provoking comments.
Yes, there is a better way. I can't describe it, other than I know that it I believe it must include a much better integration of personal responsibility and understanding of what it is reasonable for any person to expect with a fundamental restructuring of some of our basic social institutions. I know, sounds kind of muddy, but some time ago I formed this into my own sense of long term vision. I called it:

My Vision of a Greening World -
where every person...

Understands the consequences of their consumption and is actively engaged in reducing its effect.

Commits to the goal of consuming no more than his or her fair share.

Knows that to do otherwise will lead to tragic consequences for life as we know it.

Seeks to appreciate the quality of the life they are given more than the quantity of what they have and experience.

This is a tall order of change for humanity. Corporatist type thinking has almost drowned out any type of "seven generation" thinking as so often demonstrated by many indigenous communities.

I can readily get bogged down in sadness when I think that we really are very close to running out of time. Whether that be true or not, however, I choose light, over darkness, hope over despair. To do otherwise simply hastens our demise.

Thank you again for being a shining light in the darkness.

Danby said...

Thanks for the advice. Believe me we know. Our problem is, as it has always been, actually formulating some policies to go along with our theorizing.

For those who are interested, Distributism is the attempt to implement the social teaching of the Catholic Church as laid out by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum and Pius XII in Quadragesimo Anno. Essentially, the Church looked at Capitalism and Socialism and determined that they both deny mankind's essential dignity, by making him into a slave of either the state or the capitalist. In modern times one can replace the word Capitalist with Corporation.

The base principle of Distributism is that productive property should be as widely distributed as possible, so that every workingman should be secure in his livelihood, and that the role of the state is to discourage the accumulation of productive capital into a small set of hands. Thus, possession of farmland, for instance, should be taxed a high rate when it exceeds the space needed to support a family in reasonable comfort. It is hoped that this would result in the breakup of those 10,000 acre California industrial food production facilities. Commercial establishments would be taxed at an accelerated rate based on the number of employees and the number of branches, opening room in the market for someone besides Appleby's and McDonald's to run a restaurant.

For industrial concerns that do not admit of an "each workman his own master" solution, such as automotive manufacture, Distributism favors the creation of and conversion to co-operative enterprises such as the Mondragon Co-operative Corporation in Spain, and the similar enterprises in Emilia-Romagna, Italy.

I am stating it very briefly here. If you would like to know more about Distributism, the websites The Distributist Review and the Chesterbelloc Mandate have much much more information. Did I mention that Distributists tend toward wordy theorizing? Which I suppose is understandable when your ideas have been shoved into a corner and dismissed out of hand for a century and a half. When you can't implement, you have to theorize.

Megan said...

I wonder how corporate capitalism would look different if 'legal persons' were subject to the same constraints as actual persons?

I further wonder why bureaucracy debilitates some societies - socialist ones being notable examples - and not others? All societies large and complex enough to need middle managers between the leader and the masses have 'bureaucracy' in some sense of the word, by what stops some bureaucracies from getting out of hand, and can that limiting factor be deliberately introduced?

I have cautious hopes for distributism, but would be interested in seeing the pros and cons of the other alternatives you mentioned discussed further. I've heard the arguments of their enthusiasts, but your own clear-sighted perspective is always appreciated.

Megan said...

Message for Mr. Greer, not intended to be posted (unless you wish, of course):

I recently came across this academic article, and thought it might interest you. If you don't have the necessary subscriptions to access it through the link I would be willing to email you a pdf copy.

Blindweb said...

John and readers,
This reminds me of a Walter Block lecture I was recently watching, Socialism and Fascism. In it he points out some simple ideas that can get a conversation started with others: If you use the standard left/right spectrum to start dividing people you end up with Noam Chomsky and Stalin together on the far left, and Ron Paul and Hitler together on the far right. Obviously that's a failed model. A better basic model would be a 2-dimensional chart with socialism and capitalism on one axis, and involuntary and voluntary on the other. Are you a involuntary socialist (N. Korea) or voluntary (community garden), a involuntary capitalist (Hitler) or a voluntary(Adam Smith)?

It seems to me many of the problems in this world are directly caused by dogmatic adherence to overly simplistic models; e.g. simplistic models can lead in part to horrific events like holocausts. And that even good models can only be interpreted through a broad knowledge base; e.g. the other day I saw a top voted article on Digg, a top social news site, with the author proclaiming because they believe in evolution theory sexual activity now provides the primary meaning to her life. If you've ever played Go, a game more complex than chess, you know that the most complex computer models can hardly beat amateurs. The game requires great strategy; and also requires great study of all the possible situations one might get into, akin to studying history. I guess my idea of model is closely related to John's myths of civilization.

Gregory Wade said...

Interesting! On my morning walk, I thought about the possibilities of a small scale reciprocal economy softening the blows to come. Not sure if it's an actual "term," but elements already exist between neighbors. We share surplus, tools and expertise most readily. One would think it came naturally, if one were prone to such thoughts.

nutty professor said...

This post is more explicitly political than any that I have seen lately, and more suggestive than prescriptive. I always enjoy what you write; but this piece, for some reason, is not as satisfying to me. (That is less a criticism than it is an observation of my response.) Are you speaking of intellectual investigations of alternatives or actual experiments with political/economic systems? I eagerly await the conversation that follows. Thank you.

Joel said...

You mention a lively debate...can you recommend a concise source, for those of us who want a primer in comparative political economy?

I've enjoyed reading Yochai Benkler and Paul Graham, who have very different systems in mind but both see the production of computer programmers as qualitatively different from economics as usual. I wonder how their thoughts will do in this new market.

wylde otse said...

Overpopulation, is a concept many people refuse to accept.
In essence this implies an outgrowth of space and resources. It is an affront to anyone who believes in the kind of unlimited "progress" that has been a human driving-force of the past century or so.

When humans become over-abundant, the value (and quality) of human life drops, and the stock of 'defense' contractors rises.

For instance:
A single orphan is cherished; but 12 million orphans in Africa (about 20% with AIDS) are more than the 'Old Woman Living in the Shoe' knows what to do with.
(sue Pope Benedict for child support?)

Many Utopias 'crash and burn' but 'hope dwells eternal'. However...

Over-population is hard to ignore: to ignore it even harder.

Driller said...


I've recently been discussing topics and outcomes with my neighbors. Your myths of apocolype and technology are met face to face. They are very difficult to displace. After looking around with eyes that see, it is scary the amount of work that needs to be done,that's not getting done.
I've been suggesting your back to basics and local economy template. Also,saving some technology that can be operated on our neighborhood level is welcomed by most. Organizing these Cell cities into a hive like workable economy is a monumental task. Changing cultural belief's is a universal task. Maybe they'll be called technocrats that will morph into ecogenius'. Or poor farmers.


John Michael Greer said...

Xhmko, I don't think it's a function of population growth -- this sort of narrowing of the imagination afflicts all societies as they age.

Farfetched, my guess is that five minutes on Google will get you all the explanations you could want. I don't happen to know of a single site or book -- might make a good project.

Robert, most of the material that's been posted here has ended up as raw material for two books on the future of industrial society, The Long Descent (New Society, 2008) and The Ecotechnic Future (New Society, due out in September). Picking those up might be a lot less work than slogging through the archives!

Bilbo, I'd noticed the age difference as well. I'm less sure that the figures are just survey overload, though, but we'll see.

Leonard, it's a good vision. Now get out there and communicate it to the world; more people may be ready to hear it than you think.

Danby, theories and policies are less important right now than public exposure for the basic ideas. There have got to be some competent writers among today's distributists -- you, for example; write a clear readable article explaining what it's about, and get that puppy into the alternative press. (The same advice, of course, goes for any guild socialists, syndicalists, etc. who may be reading this.) You've got a window of opportunity to redefine the whole context of public discourse about political economy, might as well put it to use.

Megan, a field guide to alternative systems of political economy would be quite an undertaking; I'll consider it, though. For now I'll simply say that I'm highly prejudiced in favor of economic decentralization, cooperative modes of economic organization, and representative democracy, and any system that fosters those is probably going to get high marks in my book.

Thank you for the heads up about the Diamond article, btw! (I posted the comment because I suspect others will find it interesting as well.) I don't have a subscription with that service, and would welcome a pdf copy; please send it to creyrglas (at) earthlink (dot) org. Many thanks!

Blindweb, oversimplifying reality into two rigid categories is probably the most pervasive source of failed thinking in the modern world. One of these days I should post something about the Druid notion of ternary thinking; the basic practice is that when you encounter any classification of the world into two and only two sides (we call this a binary), think of a third option that isn't simply a compromise between them. With practice you get very good at noticing the blind spots that make binary thinking seem to make sense. Yes, you can then go on to look for a fourth, fifth, etc.!

Gregory, one of the things I didn't discuss here, but have commented on in earlier posts, is that there are whole worlds of economic exchange outside the market economy altogether. Small-scale cooperation between neighbors is part of that, and yes, it's probably hardwired into our genes -- those bands of hominids whose members cooperated with one another will have survived a lot more often than those that did not.

Professor, I'm focusing here on the idea that our collective discourse about political economy doesn't need to be stuck in the same sterile rut it's been in since 1945. Exploring unfamiliar ideas is the first step toward trying out unfamiliar possibilities.

Joel, I wish I knew of a concise source! I know about this stuff because a lot of alternative spiritual traditions in the early 20th century overlapped with these movements; some of the leading English Druids of the time, for example, were also passionate supporters of Social Credit. For starters, though, you might take a look at the Wikipedia entries on these movements -- they're not too bad at all as an introduction.

Robert C. Guy said...

I fully intend to acquire the books also and others of yours on other topics but as a programmer and several years a Linux enthusiast muddling through text and organizing data is second nature to me in this environment and as much as I enjoy an informative book I also would like to see these discussions as they are/were. I know that it is quite inside out but I read a book first at its end then the middle then the beginning. I have done this for most of my life. Not always but often enough when I am reading the comments I find your responses first and then read what you responded to then the whole thing top to bottom.

The reasoning, if I have to find words to communicate it, in my own mind for wanting to have at hand an archive of the discourse here is perhaps like wanting a diagram and design notes/sketches of how a couch was made as much as wanting the materials or even the couch itself at hand.

Danby said...

Well, I am chastened. JMG telling me, of all people, to get off my assets and do something. Of course, that thing I should do is write, which has always been like pulling teeth for me. And considering my phobia of dentists, that's a fairly high hurdle.

You are right. Thanks.

Loveandlight said...

As for the survey you mentioned, I've heard about it on a LiveJournal Community, and it was pointed out that the terms "capitalism" and "socialism" were not defined. My guess is that the vast majority of the 20% who said they favored "socialism" were thinking "Norway, Sweden, and to a lesser extent, France". The bureaucratic totalitarian systems you mentioned are categorized under the label "communism" by most Middle American types. And communism blew huge chunks by any standard worth applying. North Korea probably tops the list for developing nations in which I would least want to live. Though at the same time, Cuba and Venezuela would be towards the top of the list for developing nations in which I would least mind residing. (Though I should point out that nations that are Islamic or that do not speak a language of the Indo-European family are automatically excluded for such consideration on my second list.)

John Michael Greer said...

Otse, one challenge at a time.

Driller, it's a common feature of history that the people who are on top of the heap when a society peaks and begins its decline, are among the biggest losers as the decline picks up speed. A lot of your technocrats will be lucky to come through this with a whole skin.

Robert, well, by all means!

Danby, my suggestion wasn't that you or anyone else wasn't doing enough -- simply that some of the effort might be usefully directed in an unfamiliar direction.

Loveandlight, by the time we hit bottom people may be saying that corporate capitalism blew huge chunks, too. A great deal of the political economy of our society basically boils down to feasting on the seed grain that would have made next year's harvest possible.

Plenty of non-Indo-European languages are very easy to learn, by the way. If you know English, you've already mastered what by many measures (vocabulary size, irregular grammar, opaque idioms, etc.) is the hardest language on Earth; compared to that, Thai, Swahili, Japanese, or what have you are comparatively pretty easy.

Louis said...


I have been a faithful reader for some time and have enjoyed the comments without making one, but this instance of the blog is so fine that i must compliment you.

Many thanks for all your sensible analysis.

Louis Bryan
San Francisco

The Dude said...

John Michael, greetings from the Chehalem Valley,

Was startled to find parallels with your thinking from an ex-Thatcherite: John Gray: 'We're not facing our problems. We've got Prozac politics'. Albeit this is second-hand, are you familiar with Cohn?

"He dates his interest in Russia from early in his teens, when he began reading Dostoevsky, and credits the hardening of his anti-Soviet, anti-ideological stance to "the enormous influence" of Norman Cohn's 1957 book The Pursuit of the Millennium.

"Cohn argued that all of the great political movements of the 20th century, including Nazism, were at least partly pathological versions of western religious traditions, in particular apocalypticism. If you talk to most centre-left people, these happy meliorists, these so-called inch-by-inch meliorists, they will say: 'That may be true of the 20th century and of the extremes of politics but not of us.' But I always believed that utopian or millenarian or, let's just say, irrational politics, could break out in democracies as well.""

He briefly brings up energy limits and ecology, too. Not familiar with him until now though I've come across references to his book Straw Dogs and wondered what it had to do with the very nasty Peckinpah film.

Brian Kaller said...

Mr. Greer,

I was just writing something along these lines, and darned if you didn’t beat me to it. :-)

When speaking to audiences about the future, perhaps the greatest hurdle is that any meaningful issue – education, economics, energy policy, religion – is seen as political, and any political issue is seen as having only two possible positions, left and right. Any idea, then, is perceived to be a coordinate on a spectrum of Democrats and Republicans, socialists and capitalists, progressive and traditional, all stretching between Stalin, Teamsters, Chomsky and Earth First at the far-left extreme vs. Hitler and the Amish on the far right.

It’s a ridiculous model – no one believes that the religions of the world are coordinates on a Catholic-Hindu spectrum, or that being, say, Druid is just being 19 percent Catholic. But binary politics are deeply ingrained – many people only want to know which team I play for, and base all their reactions on that.

I would add that, fifty or a hundred years ago, Americans seemed to be less binary in their politics as well – multiple parties were commonplace, and their support was required for major-party candidates to succeed.

The good news is that there has been some small shift away from this – co-ops and intentional communities, working on a variety of models, have multiplied in recent years, and distributism has seen a recent revival in “crunchy conservative” circles. Let us hope this yields more creative thinking in the future.

John M├ędaille said...

An alternative model exists, on the ground and functioning. And not just in one place, but in many. There is the Mondragon Cooperative corporation, one of the largest companies in Spain with a 50 year history of worker ownership. There is the cooperative economy of Emilia-Romagna, where 40% of the GDP is from cooperatives and which enjoys one of the highest standards of living in Europe.

And there are ESOPs, micro-banks, cooperatives, etc., all over the world that have proved themselves stable and successful. The truth is that Distributism goes from success to success while Capitalism goes from bailout to bailout. It has always been thus. Capitalism depends not on its history, but on its power.

Archmage said...

JMG, English is not that hard to learn actually, almost all my friends speak both Spanish (native) and English. One of the girls in my group also speaks German (which is harder to learn than english) and Japanese

Roy F. Moore said...

Dear Mr. Greer,

Hello. This is Roy F. Moore of "The Distributist Voice" and formerly of "The Distributist Review". Your essay on this topic was recently posted in the Distributism Yahoo Group and got our attention.

We Distributists are getting the word out regarding what the Popes, Belloc, Chesterton and their successors bequeathed to us. We are still too few and far between, but not forever. So we can only do what we can with - for now - what little we have.

Recently in New York state, there was a three-way debate between us and our two main rivals. And it came out very well for Distributism. Permit me to direct you to the Review for a summary of the whole affair:

BTW, you asked Danby this:

"There have got to be some competent writers among today's distributists -- you, for example; write a clear readable article explaining what it's about, and get that puppy into the alternative press."

Let me assure you, it's being done, both in print and on YouTube. The poster "paleocrat" on YouTube has a few videos promoting Distributism, as well as interviewing several prominent exponents of it.

And forgive me for tooting my own horn, but I've written several of those posts you're looking for, currently posted on "The ChesterBelloc Mandate". They were originally published in Gilbert Magazine, which is put out by the American Chesterton Society.

With your permission, I'll link those posts here:

I hope these posts, and those from better writers than I, will give you hope that we're reaching out to that 27% disgusted with Capitalism and Socialism.

Thank you very much for your time, patience and attention. Viva Jesu! Viva Maria!

Loveandlight said...

No argument here about corporate capitalism! In that spirit, here are four related articles by the same author that sets many conventional ideas about political economy on their head, and even if they're not completely spot on still manage to give the reader important mental tools for conceiving of something different from the capitalism/ communism false dichotomy. Note that while the author has some sympathy towards the primitivist critique of civilization as it has existed so far, he is not an orthodox anarcho-primitivist as such.

Money, A New Beginning, Part 1Money, A New Beginning, Part 2Money and the Crisis of CivilizationMoney and the Turning of the Age{My validation "word" is "testi", perhaps because it will take a very substantial pair of gonads to implement a new political economy for the coming post-industrial world?}

OneCrazyMama said...

There are other ways. I couldn't agree more about the need to pursue them--with or without peak oil or climate change.

Presently, I am working to help out with our local Freecycle, which is, in essence, both a form of gift-economy and an effort to curb waste.

We also participate in community supported agriculture and are trying to reduce our dependence on the 1,000 mile salad bar.

The next big leap we plan to make is into a walkable community.

If we are doing this, it is not hard for me to imagine that others are doing this as well. The aggregate effect of many former suburbanites and urbanites switching their habits in such a way will change the world.

Dwig said...

A while back, the following statement popped into my head while I was semi-dreaming: "In my six decades [now close to seven] kicking around this world, I've never met an ideology that I consider worth the cost of a single human life." I'm willing to own it. Note that I'm not saying that every ideology is worthless -- far from it. I consider the worth of a human life to be a pretty high upper bound. (Hmm, I'm hearing Joanna Macy whispering in my ear -- "what about other forms of life?").

To the extent that the two currently dominant "isms", and the hopefuls that JMG mentions, are ideologies, I'm automatically suspicious, although interested in some of them. (And note that the two dominant systems have maintained their dominance at the cost of far more than a single human life.)

That said, I too welcome the offering and promotion of any alternative system for organizing society and commerce, as long as it's offered in a constructive and pragmatic spirit, and not the kind of rigid orthodoxy that closes off useful critiques of limitations and dysfunctions of the system. I'll refer to my "rules" number 4 and 5 of last week: expect to be surprised, and learn to see your system in the context in which it's embedded.

Danby laments "... Which I suppose is understandable when your ideas have been shoved into a corner and dismissed out of hand for a century and a half. When you can't implement, you have to theorize." Actually, you can implement -- numerous intentional communities have been formed in the US and other places by folks intent on creating a community that reifies their pet theories. Some of these communities still exist, although probably not as shining examples of the founders' theories. What's left of our democracy still allows room for groups of people to experiment, and succeed or fail, such experiments can be valuable when undertaken in a learningful spirit. If the original theory doesn't survive the experiment, perhaps what emerges will be an improvement. (And if/when it comes to survival of the theory vs. survival of any of the people, see my opening statement.)

Like you, John Michael, I favor decentralization and cooperation. In that vein, I'll suggest another system for folks' consideration: Jeff Vail's "rhizome" (

Karel said...

Many thanks, JMG; from the early eighties, when Czech discussion on political economy ended, I had to wait for exactly this post to continue...

To Megan: Surely there is one simple, but - I think - largely unsatisfying answer concerning bureaucracy. Don`t let those bureaucrats to acummulate too much resources and power, don`t let society grow around centralistic projects, technological or commercial. In part of continental Europe where I live circa in 17. - 18. century baroque bureaucracy was created by absolutistic monarchs; they try to field large armies using means created by Italian city states before. And after short period of simple commodity economy continental Europe transformed itself into food supplier of industrial England (via large feudal ranches and second enslavement of peasants). So, relying on some kind of international trade could sometimes lead to very dangerous political constellations.

Karel, Czech Rep.

spottedwolf said...

Well call me a fatalist but even if the world were able to create a mutually agreeable basis of interfaced trade through local economies, would it not require the need of leadership through and for collective distributorship of these goods and services? A local economy thrives when it remains nature's interventions. Would this idea of some different dynamic not entail reiteration of the current status of belief and active result which fund the same mess we now ascribe to? It seems to me that base human nature is far to close to the illusiveness of its fundaments of belief and until that changes on a major scale...we will fail miserably in all our grand social endeavors...sooner or later. I think you are seeking something that is virtually impossible because it requires absolute consensus between all parties to exist. Maybe the whole cosmic dynamic repeats itself throughout time/space continuity again and again and what we are supposed to learn in our proportionate existence is merely that fact. Yes ...I realize it sounds hopeless to those who seek answers....but the point is rather obvious from where I stand. We chase our tails for little more than a space in time.

marielar said...

Hello all,

It seems to me that the failure of political ideologies are that they concerned only human affairs. Land is property. Nature is commodified and has no voice at the table. It seems to me that we need alternatives where the whole of the biosphere, species, landscapes and all have rights of their own. We need a shift from land ownership to land stewardship.

The discussions have been very much about what, of our current civilization, will make it through the bottleneck. In my mind, preserving biological diversity is a more important task. Maybe what is in store for humanity will cure it from its hubris. Mother Nature has the bat and will blow out of the water all our ideological constructs and all our false gods.

At this juncture of history, I dont like the idea of anybody looking at land and splitting it up according to some other political idea such as distributism. The voices who speak for chickadees, black spruces, tortoises are still too few and too marginalized. I guess I saw too many clearcut forests to believe in human-centered political agenda of any stripes. Ethical systems derived from monotheistic religions have failed miserably. They unrooted the divine from the Earth and placed in the Heavens, removing springs, trees, animals from the domain of the sacred. There is no political framework in place allowing for a balance in between human interests and the biosphere interests, its all individual judgement call for the custodian of a piece of the land. Its muddling through at the edge. And I feel that as long as population control is not at the forefront of a new ethic, it will be up to concerned individuals to defend what's left of wilderness against human depredation. The land I have temporary stewarship is not just good farmland. Its the home of many others wild creatures. I dont want it being farmed wall to wall, no matter how pressing it will become to feed the human population, sustainably, conventionally, organically or any otherways. Part of the original farm has already being sold to Duck Unlimited.

Evan Schull said...

I admire Distributists for their prolific writing and theorizing, and while I have met, admired and been arrested with more than one nun or priest in my day, I'd be pretty wary of trying to use a Pope's words as the basis of a socioeconomic system - which luckily isnt a problem since there's nothing particularly unique about Distributism that can't be found in other mutualis,-based philosophies (Even as far as religious based economics, it's not just CST that has problems with ursury for example, nearly all the Abrahamic religions traditionally forbid it)


I think one of the key differences between many "third-way" tendencies is how they treat private property (if it exists)

I've identified as an anarchist/libertarian socialist for over half my life at this point, but I don't pretend to know what that would like like in practice -- whether it would be closer to market socialism and some sort of competition among cooperatives or whether it would look more like a gift economy or more like decentralized pure egalitarianism

If you want to spend all day reading there's certainly no shortage of debates over both large and small points, but I suspect no amount of theorizing will convince anyone they are right

Much better to keep in mind certain values and then experiment with different processes to find out what works best.

And no need for uniformity either -- I can imagine some communities functioning with some amounts of private property and others doing away with it entirely -- and making very different decisions about how to both make sure everyone in the community is taken care of, and people are remunerated fairly for their efforts

I mean we probably don't even need once definition of fairness, or equality, or justice

The whole Grand Sweeping Theory thing is so 20th century -- onward to a riot of diversity!

John Michael Greer said...

Louis, thank you!

Dude, Cohn's work on the delusions of millennialism is central to my own take on the subject. Not too many people pay attention to him -- which may explain why the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which Cohn efficiently debunked, is once again circulating on the fringes.

Brian, I wish your idea of a Catholic-Hindu spectrum for the world's religions was a joke; I've read fundamentalist Protestant screeds that insisted that all religions other than theirs were variants of Hinduism. Sheesh.

John, of course there are other models. My point is that they're still very poorly publicized in the general alternative scene.

Archmage, I found it refreshingly easy to get a reading knowledge of German. Harder than English? Well, if you insist...

Roy, I don't doubt for a moment that there are good things being written by Distributists. The problem I'm trying to point up is that they're only being read by other Distributists, when they -- and their equivalents elsewhere on the spectrum -- need to find their way into the broader discourse about alternative systems of political economy. As long as it's just fans of the ChesterBelloc talking to one another, there's a very hard limit to what you can hope to accomplish.

Loveandlight, thanks for the links!

Crazy Mama, no argument there. The personal is always the root of the political. My hope, though, is that people can get a wider sense of the limits of the imaginable, and then start putting what they imagine into practice.

Dwig, I'd say there are ideologies that need badly enough to be stopped that some lives may be worth spending -- Nazism comes to mind. Still, you're certainly right that when any ideology tries to enforce itself by violence, it's lost its right to serious consideration. Thanks for the link to Jeff's rhizome theory!

Karel, I think you're likely right about bureaucracy.

Spotted Wolf, I think you've missed my point completely. The last thing I want is consensus, of any kind. I want people to disagree more, ask more hard questions about their basic assumptions, and come up with different answers. That's the exact equivalent of the natural diversity that makes for a healthy ecosystem.

Marielar, I have to disagree -- and please remember that I agree with you about the rights of chickadees. It's precisely because too many basic questions about economics are taken for granted that we've stumbled into the current blind consensus that takes money values as the only values worth taking into consideration.

Evan, thank you! "So 20th century" -- now there's a crushing comment. But you're quite right; the last thing we need is the replacement of one universal system with another.

das monde said...

I suppose that alternative ideas are there, as they are not rocket science. But the media is very selective, which ideas to promote. Alternative thinkers and doers are effectively marginalized, because of little attention the media gives and even lack of communication between them. I do not quite believe that media sensationalism and the hectic life rhythm are the “natural” outcomes of survival competition. Rather, the memes of competition, consumption, “investments”, of particular political and media interests are there everywhere because they are very convenient to various elites with (quite hidden) power to persistent influence.

I am touching here the unpleasant topic of possible (emergent or actual) conspiracies. But as so much power and unconditional social status is given to money, and as financial inequalities diverge no less quickly and dramatically than in a “Monopoly” game, we ought to ask ourselves: How much power do the big money makers really have? How much do they determine the way of life and thinking? What do elite leaders really represent and discuss in G20 or Davos meetings? How much (and in which ways) do they care of crises and sufferings? How long are they possibly pushing self-serving agendas?

Economic imagination is really hollowed in the middle. It would not be surprising if that serves most powerful interests very well. There are even extreme theories (like of Antony Sutton) that already the Bolshevik revolution and Hitler were projects of some Wall Street groups. Wars had been profitable “investments” since ages.

Not only the elites are possibly disrupting development of alternative ideas. They might be smart enough to foresee coming crises (whether financial, demographic, resource depletion or climate instability) and prepare for them stealthily, or even orchestrate them. They confidence might be stemming from some private knowledge of what was really behind many important events.

Sorry to bring this up. But I increasingly see “empirical” theories of collapse or global changes as naive or suspect. Just to give one example, the break-up of Soviet Union does not look to me like a natural break-down of a failed ideology (and I remember it from pretty close). Quite obviously, the Soviet leaders gave up the project without much testing of supposed inevitabilities. And most of them re-oriented to the wild capitalism very readily. Only a few East European leaders suffered on their skin. (And by the way, the mood in East European countries now is much darker, with hardly any worthy industry or education preserved, but with large monetary obligations or dependance).

This picture of elite control is not great, but it may offer good practical expectations and guidance. First of all, governments are not to be trusted, now for real. They work well for those inside; wouldn’t you love those ridiculously fat bailouts? Whatever cooperation or self-governing people may need for carrying on, they have to manage it themselves, with some taxing and indebting load from the top.

Theo_musher said...

Alex de Tocqueville saw corporate Capitalism coming 200 years ago:

"The territorial aristocracy of former ages was either bound by law, or thought itself bound by usage, to come to the relief of its serving-men and to relieve their distress. But the manufacturing aristocracy of our age first impoverishes and debases the men who serve it and then abandons them to be supported by the charity of the public. This is a natural consequence of what has been said before. Between the workman and the master there are frequent relations, but no real association.
I am of the opinion, on the whole, that the manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes is one of the harshest that ever existed in the world; but at the same time it is one of the most confined and least dangerous. Nevertheless, the friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in this direction; for if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrates into the world, it may be predicted that this is the gate by which they will enter.

-Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ch. xx, 1835"

spottedwolf said...

Actually John..........I understand your point completely.However ...the diversity of nature brings consensus again and again in the examples of nature's impermanence and its history of successful to speak.
With that in mind I am suggesting that it , in view of the nature of life's paradigm of subjectivity versus acquired objectivity or the illusions thereof, is impossible except in its temporary examples......and maybe that is the simple "fact" of the "equation" of seeking solutions......

dave said...

Blindweb suggests "A better basic model [than the left-right spectrum" would be a 2-dimensional chart with socialism and capitalism on one axis, and involuntary and voluntary on the other". That is exactly how I've always read Belloc's Distributist political analysis in "The Servile State"; "primary" and "surplus" circuits in Lonergan's monetary economics are likewise involuntary and voluntary, the one dictated by need and the other allowing democratic choice.

The difficulty is that both actual and potential Distributists have differing personalities reflecting any three of these four possibilities to the neglect of the other, with the result that, just as there are four Gospels, there are four different perspectives on what Distributism is; if any one of these dominates that represents a personality bias. Chesterton and Belloc provided complementary perspectives, but neither, like most Distributists now, had the experience of theorising and engineering necessary to be able to realise that we cannot just "exchange" a bad system for better one; one has to go through a four-phase research, development, design and "tooling up" (or more appropriately here, "programming") process.

The initial research itself has also had to go through four phases, as the realisation that Old Testament Law didn't work gave way to the revolutionary New Testament ethos of loving others. It is being tried by Hume's 1740atheistic argument against even knowing others being possible, but by 1948 Shannon had discovered "computer" logics which not only do what Hume thought impossible but are usually able to correct themselves when they go wrong.

I've been trying for years to get not just other Distributists but social scientists and philosophers of science to see the significance of these "active" and "moral" forms of logic, but as of now it does seem that commands and a superficial "good vs. evil dichotomy is all that 'most' people can understand". Such has been the effect of specialisation and the blind leading the blind.

The reality is that the very few (perhaps just one of us) who see the whole picture will remain impotent unless rather more potential programmers realise the need to grapple with Blindweb's complex error-correcting logic of the Cross, and enthuse a good body of activists by embodying it in a Catholic programme complex enough to meet all types of need in their own due time. (As Einstein said and Blindweb has also realised, "We need to keep it simple, but not too simple).

Only then will the "higher education" and legal work get done to make it possible for us all to do what most of us want to: replace the "tramlines to hell" of the present system with a Distributist freedom to drive safely in our own economic car.

God has worked miracles in getting us this far, for which we thank him as we pray "deliver us from evil". It may yet happen.

wylde otse said...

mmm... this is crazy. i love this blog.