21 November, 2013

Distributism Basics: Distributism vs. Socialism

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, three alternatives were proposed to alleviate the conditions of the working classes under capitalism: distributism, Keynesian capitalism, and socialism. Distributists are sometimes accused of being socialists, or at least quasi-socialists. This article will examine the nature of socialism and how it is completely incompatible with distributism.

Capitalism enabled the owners of corporations to greatly increase their wealth and eliminate any effective competition, making the vast majority of the working classes completely dependent on them. While the owners of these companies lived in luxury, the working class was reduced to a state where even having both parents work did not yield enough income to support a family. The lack of effective competition meant that workers could not simply leave their jobs for a better opportunity – better jobs didn't exist. The workers had to put up with whatever the employers wanted to make them endure, or they would be fired and be quickly replaced by others desperate for any work. It is no wonder that the promises of socialism appealed to many of them.

There are three basic fundamentals to the original idea of socialism, the first is the complete elimination of social classes, the second is the elimination of money, and the third is the elimination of a government run state. From the socialist view, the private ownership of property is what enables the classes to exist. The existence of a private claim to productive property enables some to elevate themselves above others, subjugating the workers to their ends and using their wealth to twist the powers of government to their advantage. Eliminating a private claim to productive property will enable the laborer to claim the benefit of his labor. Those in need will work according to their ability for the good of society – which means that each member of society will be guaranteed the fulfillment of his needs. This means that there is no need for money, which is merely a tool to transfer the private ownership of property. Since each person will act for the good of the whole society, and will do so voluntarily, there will be no need for government.

This original idea became known as utopian socialism. It was quickly supplanted with the idea of a “vanguard party” which, acting on behalf of the people, would secure the powers of the state. This vanguard party would implement “state capitalism” (also known as “state socialism”) where the state would manage industry in much the same way as the capitalist did, but of course for the benefit of the society. This new form of socialism became known as scientific socialism.

Scientific socialism is the form of socialism of societies like the former Soviet Union and present day China. While it is true that there are various strains of socialist thought, this is the main embodiment of socialism as it has actually been implemented in any significant way. While the original utopian socialism would eliminate all private property, many socialist societies allowed some degree of private property which operated at the sufferance of, and sometimes under the direction of the state. While utopian socialism would eliminate all classes, all socialist societies actually replaced the old set of leaders with their own, and transferred the control of the majority of productive property from the hands of the few capitalists into the hands of the few political leaders. While utopian socialism would eliminate the state altogether, the existence of other states necessitated the continued existence of a state government with a capable military.

This last point is very important to understand about socialism. It cannot coexist with other “countries” except in isolation from them. The utopian version of a stateless socialism means that there cannot be a threat from outside of its society. Within its society, everyone is supposed to act according to the needs of society as a whole – they will do this voluntarily. In the socialist view, however, the existence of private property causes the greed and strife that lead to wars of conquest and the impoverishing of the masses. Therefore, a stateless socialist society cannot truly coexist with a capitalist society because the greed and strife of the latter will “obviously” lead it to attack the Utopia of the purely socialist society. While I think there is even a degree to which multiple socialist societies could not coexist, the attempt to create a truly socialist society necessitates either complete economic and military isolation from any capitalist societies, or the elimination of those societies altogether. I am not saying this is something they declared; it is merely the reality.

Unlike socialists, distributists do not consider the existence of privately owned property to be the problem with capitalism. As G. K. Chesterton quipped, the problem with capitalism is not that there are too many capitalists, but that there are too few. The problem is that capitalism allows the ownership of the majority of productive property to become concentrated into the hands of a small minority of the population. The rest must become workers completely dependent on that minority for a wage on which to live.

Instead of seeking the socialist solution of eliminating private property by transferring the ownership of it into the hands of state controllers, distributism proposes the widest possible private ownership of property that can be achieved in a practical way. Unlike utopian socialists, distributists do not expect to establish a perfect society in which all of the people consistently voluntarily act for the good of society as a whole. In other words, distributism does not advocate the stateless society. Unlike the scientific socialists, distributists to not believe in empowering the state to manage potentially all economic activity for the good of the society. Distributism proposes a society structured on the principles of subsidiarity, where the lower foundational levels of society have natural rights which the higher levels cannot usurp. Even when assisting those lower levels, the higher levels cannot usurp the roles and functions which rightfully belong to the lower levels.

As you can see, the form of economic and political society proposed by distributism is fundamentally different than that proposed by socialism. Yes, distributists criticize the instability and injustices of the capitalist system as do the socialists, but the solutions proposed by the distributists are completely incompatible with the solutions proposed by socialism. Indeed, from the distributist perspective, the solutions proposed by socialism are in ways more unjust than the problems of capitalism they propose to solve.

Other articles in this series:

1 comment:

  1. I would like to respond to a comment made by a reader to the Facebook page of The Distributist Review. The comment was about the simplistic description of socialism relying on an unrealistic altruism.

    In fact, all economic systems - including distributism - have an "ideal" which includes a certain level of altruism that may be described as unrealistic. The deeper question, which this series will only address in a basic way, is what happens to that economic system when faced with reality?

    As stated in this article, the fundamental goal of socialism was to establish a classless, moneyless, and stateless society. This goal can only be established with an extreme level of altruism. When faced with reality, socialism had to modify itself, as Hilaire Belloc predicted in The Servile State, in a way that it actually moved very much away from its ideal. In other words, we may still call it socialism but it was actually something very different. The socialist societies that came to be were anything but classless, moneyless, or stateless. Some socialists may argue that such was a transitional state. I disagree.

    When Adam Smith penned the principles of capitalism, he talked of how self interest would prevent the injustices that actually occurred under capitalism. In reality, business interests used their economic power to employe the forces of government in their favor. This will be discussed more in the next article of this series. The point I will make here is that capitalism was modified in a way that moved away from its ideal. It is still called by capitalism by everyone except those who cling to the ideal (who mistakenly call it socialism), but it has become something very different. Again, Hilaire Belloc predicted this in The Servile State.

    Distributism has its ideal as well. Ideally, everyone would be a proprietor either independently or cooperatively. The point I'm trying to make is that, from its formulation, distributism never expected this ideal to be reached. I wrote about this in an article titled "Utopia" published at The Distributist Review and which I will eventually post on this site as well. Because of this, the economic structure has always included protections to mitigate the ability of those who will act contrary to the altruistic ideal to ruin the system. In other words, unlike capitalism and socialism, distributism will not need to become something other than its founding principles in order to work.

    In other words, what I hope to show in this series is that the ideals of both capitalism and socialism faced obstacles that their economic systems were not designed to overcome. Because of this, they had to be modified to ultimately become something other than what they were truly meant to be. What we call socialism had to abandon the true essence of socialism in order to function. While certain schools of capitalism dispute that we are currently living under capitalism, what is generally known as, and is called capitalism also abandon the true essence of capitalism in order to function.

    Distributism, however, is structured so that it does not have to do this. It does, however, require a great change in society to be realized. Just as the introduction of capitalism was preceded by a change in the underlying philosophy of society, I believe that distributism must be preceded by the same sort of philosophical change, and this is why in addition to discussion concrete matters, I believe that an approach to discussing distributism that doesn't include a serious philosophical discussion is simply not practical.