26 May 2018

Distributism, an Awkward, Accurate Name

A thoughtful essay on the name 'Distributism' and the philosophy underlying the idea.

From the Distributist Review

It occurred to me after reading a recent criticism on Distributism as just another “ism”, that there is a kind of ignorance directed towards Distributism and perhaps an outright contempt for the word altogether. This contempt seems to fly in the face of the critic as he defies common sense and critical thinking skills disregarding the basic fundamentals of the English language, especially as the very foundational structure of the word itself tends to interfere with a particular political agenda. The whole point of the prefix “dis” I think, is the fact that it boldly presents Distributism as apart from not only the historical definition of the word tribute, or dependency, but also apart from every political ideology that is “ism”, particularly capitalism and socialism.  Distributism therefore is not just another “ism”, but in a very real sense of the word, it is the “anti-ism”.
Hilaire Belloc in coining the name “Distributism” (or “Distributivism” as it was originally called) thought it a better “ism” than the name Proprietarism. As the father of the word Distributism, Belloc thought it an awkward word but also accurate in that it emerged from the term “Distributive Justice”. “Distributive Justice deals with how society distributes its “common goods.” Aristotle defines these as “things that fall to be divided among those who have a share in the constitution”.1 This refers to the common goods of the state, a partnership, corporation or some cooperative enterprise. For Aristotle, These things should be divided by “merit” based on contributions, but what constitutes this merit will be a matter that is determined culturally”.2
The word “Distributism” itself is a sort of anamorphosis where it appears as one thing but when viewed from a particular perspective becomes clearer and is quite another thing altogether; or at least a less skewed thing. And once we view the thing from this particular perspective, it’s difficult to comprehend why we couldn’t see the thing from this perspective in the first place. Some view this particular thing through the lens of ownership, the guilds and the agrarian life or insist that it is simply “one thing”. I believe Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum captures its essence most accurately when he described it as a “unified worldview”.
In other words, Distributism “addresses all aspects of society”. David W. Cooney makes this assertion in the book The Hound of Distributism and expands on the idea that we accomplish this primarily through the practice of subsidiarity, solidarity and justice where the “society as a whole has a responsibility for all its members”. Therefore by applying these principles holistically, Distributism becomes a very practical way to structure our society and integrate our lives. We begin to understand through the practice of subsidiarity that we have the authority to educate our children, and not give that authority away. Through solidarity we willingly assist our extended families, neighbors, parishioners, strangers and the poor so that we become less self-centered whereby contributing to the common good. And through the primary principle of justice we believe that a healthy society has the broadest ownership of property.
Still further, in the structure of the word Distributism there is a specific distinction to highlight and perhaps add clarity which is to say that Distributism is very much “apart” from socialism and capitalism, and not, as some suggest “opposite”. Why is this an important distinction? It is important in the understanding of the word because the prefix “dis” literally means apart, as in “blown apart” and “shattered into pieces”. This is appropriate and accurate in the sense that Distributism aims to “blow apart” dependency and “shatter” the notion of political ideologies, along with the power and control they manufacture. Conversely, to be opposite from something means we are “facing something of the same type”. Take the sunset for example, it is only beautiful for the fact that the day is facing the night. There is something in common and complimentary in order that it be opposite at all. St. Thomas Aquinas first introduced this idea in observing that “the song receives it’s sweetness from the interval of silence”. As we examine more closely the relationship between apart and opposite we better come to understand why Distributism sets itself apart, while capitalism and socialism are complimentary opposites relying on the dependency of the wage slave for their power and control. Therefore within the word Distributism, opposite would seem to suggest a sort of collusion with that of dependency and political ideology, whereas apart clearly sets Distributism not in the least bit complimentary to socialism and capitalism but distinctly separate ultimately eliciting the virtues of humility and self-sacrifice.
In The Outline of Sanity Chesterton describes Distributism as “a policy of small distributed property…” while in the same stroke of the pen he laments “…which has since assumed the awkward but accurate name of Distributism”. What seemed relatively obvious and likely quite unspoken to Chesterton was the meaning of the word Distributism which tends to escape today’s rather non-critical thinking masses. Perhaps it’s the ferocious pace of relentless sound bites obstructing our consciousness whereby inciting us to presuppose conclusions, or the general descent of schools less inclined to teach a classical integrated curriculum because it interferes with a particular political agenda and a multitude of “isms”.
The legacy Belloc bequeathed the world is this particular awkward word called “Distributism” which leaves us lamenting for another word that describes a thing that cannot be accurately described by any other word since. Until a time comes where there is a sort of silver bullet word; a word for small distributed property; a word that equally blows apart dependency and shatters political ideology; a word that folks can rally around as a unified whole; a seemingly paradoxical word that we can hold up as the anti-ism; and a word that addresses all aspects of society. Until that time comes, we will continue to confidently hold up “the awkward but accurate name of Distributism”.
  1. Nicomachean Ethics, 1130b, 31-33.
  2. John Médaille, “An Introduction to the Economics of Distributism,” The Distributist Review.

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