Distributists thought the family farm was the best way to return to the home, but that was before the Internet
I ended my last article here on Aleteia with the following, rather cryptic, flourish:
“Chesterton and Belloc thought that distributism required a return to the small family farm. The digital age, however, allows us to adapt the truth of distributism to an unexpected context. But this work of adaptation will be futile if we cannot keep the ideal of authenticity from becoming rank self-determination; that is, if we cannot link it to the more vital Catholic notions of the person, work, and the family.”
As there are about six hidden premises in this condensed argument, I would like today to unpack my thought a little more, beginning with a definition of distributism.
Distributism was an economic philosophy that came to the fore in the first part of the 20th century. In England, the movement was famously spearheaded by G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Distributism took for one of its chief inspirations Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum novarum, in which we read:
“The law, therefore, should favor ownership and its policy should be to induce as many as possible to become owners.”
Here we find the first principle of distributism: the need for widely distributed private property. Chesterton and Belloc took aim against both the capitalist and socialist tendencies of their day, railing against systems that took the means of livelihood out of the hands of individuals and gave them either to what Chesterton liked to call “plutocrats” (the owners of “big shops” and monopolies), or to the State.
Distributism claimed that when property is in the rightful hands of individuals, they are able to resist serfdom to the large conglomerate or to the State. They are able to live as free, economically self-sufficient men and women.
Rerum novarum associates this self-sufficiency with the private ownership of land:
“If workpeople can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the land, the result will be that the gulf between vast wealth and deep poverty will be bridged over, and the two orders will be brought nearer together.”
Accordingly, distributism called for a return to the economics of the small family farm. Its rallying cry became “Three acres and a cow.” As the rural ideal of distributism developed, so too increased a deep suspicion of the value of machinery, a suspicion that rings in the motto of the distributist champion, Dominican Father Vincent McNabb (“Smash the machines!”).
So what does distributism have to do with us?
Think about it. Since 2009, the West has been mired in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, a crisis brought on in part by the plutocratic appetites of Wall Street. At the same time, the liberal democratic governments of the West, not least the United States, have shown an alarming and rapidly accelerating tendency to disregard the most basic truths of democratic government. Four years later, the economic crisis shows little sign of abating, while the State is becoming ever more aggressive in centralizing power. Something seems to be missing in our understanding of economics. We have forgotten that the word originally comes from the Greek word oikos – “the household.” We have forgotten that the point of economic activity is service to the family. In this light, a return to the deal of widely distributed private ownership would seem to be a salutary one. But how to accomplish it?
First of all, keep in mind that distributism does not mean a wholesale rejection of capitalism. While distributism criticizes a capitalism with no moral compass and with wanton disregard for anything but the bottom line, the principles of distributism are perfectly compatible with the economic vision that we find in Pope Blessed John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, in which he defends the free market as long as it is pursued in a moral culture respectful of virtue and the dignity of human persons.
Secondly, let us acknowledge that distributism does not mean a rejection of modern technology. To be more than a pipe-dream here in the 21st century, distributism cannot be merely a rural ideal. The rural ideal is a beautiful one, one that some people I know are boldly pursuing. But it is also a very difficult ideal for most people in our hyper-mechanized society to realize, and not least by farmers. So we have to think creatively about how to adapt the principles of distributism to our own circumstances.
This is where the tools of our digital age can be used to our advantage. One of the wonders of digital technology is that it allows for individuals, at minimal cost, to become owners of the means of their livelihood. It really is a marvel: at literally zero cost, and in the space of a few hours, you or I can establish a web site, set up accounts across various social media, and open up a global business as a professor or publisher, a comedian or consultant. This is not to say that success is easy or guaranteed. But for many, digital technology can substitute for the small family farm as the “home base” of economic self-sufficiency.
Of course, there is nothing inherent to digital technology that keeps it from becoming just one more tool of a plutocratic appetite or, for that matter, one more cog in the State machine. Like all technology, digital technology needs to be situated in a moral culture that understands what human beings are and what they’re made for.
But once it is, the laptop with the Internet connection can be a powerful means of returning economics to the household where it belongs.
Author’s note: To learn more about distributism, see Maisie Ward’s biography of Chesterton, which I used in the above, as well as the articles found at The Distributist Review.
Daniel McInerny is a novelist, journalist, and the CEO of The Comic Muse, a consultancy in the area of brand storytelling. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.