11 February, 2021

LOCALISM! My thoughts on a new name.

In December, the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton[1] revealed what they propose as the new name for Distributism: Localism. This reveal was made simultaneously in the society's magazine, Gilbert, and on its podcast, Uncommon Sense. Prior to its announcement, the society did reach out to other distributists for reaction and input regarding the proposed name change. Thomas Storck and I wrote reactions that were included in the same issue of Gilbert. Adrian Alquist and I also discussed the topic on a later episode of their Uncommon Sense program, which can be found on YouTube.[2] The problem with doing a live interview is that you can go into it with certain points and statements you intend to make, and then find that the course of the conversation went in a direction where you didn't actually say something you intended. In listening to the interview, I found that this was the case for me. I agree with everything I said, but there was one thing I intended to say, but didn't.
The society also issued a challenge to those who completely object to the change: Don't just reject their proposed name, suggest something better. Since this is an activity going on within the wider distributist community, I am presenting here my own thoughts on the idea, not just on the proposed new name for distributism, but also on the idea that the name must be changed. To summarize my position at the beginning, when it comes to the idea of using the name, localism, in the context of distributism, I agree. However, I don't actually agree with the idea of completely replacing the name, distributism, with localism. This is what I intended to say during that interview and this article will explain my entire position. I am also very interested in your thoughts, so please comment on this topic.

Does distributism need a new name? Even the founders thought it was not a good name. I don't know the history of the transition from the original "Distributivism" to Distributism, but it is basically true that throughout its entire history, the distributist movement has acknowledged that the name has issues. The primary issue being that the general population doesn't have any idea what it means. 
Even if they are not entirely correct about them, most people think they know what the terms capitalism and socialism mean. These are words they believe they can grasp. Distributism is not. Add to that the similarity in sound to "redistribution," and the average person will assume that distributism is some form of socialist system to have government redistribute wealth. This puts us at a large disadvantage when trying to introduce the distributist ideas to a large segment of the population. Tell them that you are a distributist, and then spend the next 60 minutes trying to explain how you are not a socialist rather than explaining what distributism actually is. Some may consider this sufficient reason to change the name.
If you manage to get past that point, once you explain that we believe the best way to achieve distributive justice in society is to bring about greater economic and political independence by ensuring the structure of the law supports the widest practical distribution of private ownership of land and productive property you are basically back to square one. Remember that, for most of them, there are only two choices: capitalism and socialism. Is it possible that making this same argument associated with the name localism will alleviate that problem? 

I think it will, but only to a certain extent. This is because localism is a term already widely used in society, but those who use it don't mean quite the same thing as a distributist does. If you were to discuss localism with someone on the political "left," they will likely be in favor of it, but for many of them, localism implies little more than supporting local small businesses rather than corporate outlets or franchises. However, they are generally more in favor of centralized government authority. The idea of decentralized government authority according to the principle of subsidiarity is not included in their understanding of localism. On the other hand, someone on the political "right" would certainly support the idea of the locally owned business, but for them that idea includes franchises controlled by distant corporations, and local locations of large businesses. Opening an Amazon warehouse, a Walmart Super Center, or a franchise restaurant in the community would be, for them, supporting the local economy. When it comes to government, many on the right think they are in favor of local government, but in reality, their idea of decentralized government authority truly stops at the state level. Even then, they are actually in favor of more centralized government power when they believe it will serve their economic goals. 
Even with those issues, the term localism is likely to be a more acceptable introduction to our ideas than distributism, but once we start to move past their own ideas of localism, we will be facing the same issue we currently face. Simply changing the term we use won't change the underlying philosophical differences between the various sides in this discussion, and these are the very heart of what we need to get to. It seems to me that the proposed name change will only overcome a minor hurdle along the path. Is that small hurdle enough to justify changing a name that has been in use for over 100 years? 
In his book, Orthodoxy, Gilbert Chesterton wrote about how some words are a shock to the system such that they make people take notice. I think distributism is such a word, even if it isn't a short one. Because of this, I think we should not consider abandoning the name of distributism. Instead, for me, localism is best looked at as an introduction, a more acceptable opening to a subject that will actually challenge many fundamental assumptions about society, government and economics. When it comes to that reality of our views, distributism remains, for me, a much better word. I don't believe those who would ignore us, assuming we are just socialists, will suddenly be more open to our fundamental ideas based on a name change. They are unlikely to really examine our positions until they have to, hopefully because they are becoming more popular. I'm not convinced that "distributism" automatically turns away those who are open to at least learning about alternative ideas. Again, localism is a good opener for the former group, but it may be too comfortable a word to open them up to the challenge of ideas we are truly presenting. 

Another problem with changing the name is it looks like we're breaking from our own past. It will likely be portrayed by our adversaries as an attempt to deceive people into accepting our ideas. "What," they will ask in an accusing tone, "are the distributists trying to hide?" If distributists were to completely "rebrand" ourselves as "localists," people searching for localism might be led to our own writings, but they won't be led to the founders of the distributist movement (except, maybe, through our writings.) Now, I may suffer from common human vainglory about my own writings, but I don't think I am in any way a replacement for those who founded distributism and presented its case for over 100 years before I joined the bandwagon. After all, those presentations worked for me using the name distributism, so they can work for others as well. If, on the other hand, we emphasize the idea of localism in our own writings on distributism, if we include localism in our tags and descriptions, then people searching for localism will be led to this idea called distributism and conclude these ideas are somehow linked. I believe they would be prompted to search for that unfamiliar term, distributism, and discover the writings of both the founders and the current distributist movement. 

I do believe that we will never separate ourselves from the name of distributism, and I don't think we should really try. It is not only a tie to the founders of the movement, but it is also a tribute to them. Do we honestly think that, when they were debating what name to give the movement, the original distributists never thought of localism? I don't really know, but these were truly brilliant people who emphasized local economics and government, so I doubt it. They struggled with the name for quite a long time and eventually settled on distributism knowing it would be both clumsy and misunderstood. Yes, let's emphasize localism and do so by that name; especially in this time of increased centralization of economic and political power. Do not, however, completely abandon the name of distributism.
In conclusion, I really do like the idea of using the term localism and trying to link that idea with distributism. I think it would be appropriate to use the term as an introduction for those new to the overall distributist idea that there actually is something other than the capitalist/socialist dichotomy; a door opener, if you will. That is, after all, the greatest problem with the name, distributism. I believe this term will help us forge ties with other localist groups like the Strong Towns movement, local farmers groups and cooperatives, and other localist organizations, who likely think of localism in a more limited way than we do. Maybe we can change that perspective and gain more allies. Some may think this is unlikely. To them, I answer with an article by Douglas R. Fox from the Fall 2013 edition of Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener where he proposed to that community that they seriously consider distributism.[3]
[1]  Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton
[2] Uncommon Sense interview
[3] Distributism and the Local Organic Farm Community


  1. David, I pretty much agree with your thoughts here.

    Thomas Storck

  2. I am rather new in using the term “distributism” to describe my views, however I’ve been using the terms “localist” and “personalist” for quite some time (also did not realize the term “personalism” was an official Catholic position until very recently).

    For me, the lineage of writings is not what convinced me, and so the need to maintain labels for historical reasons doesn’t seem compelling. I happen to like the term and am finding myself to much enjoy the founding authors, but I don’t believe any economic system should form an orthodoxy (as has been done with Marxism), placing authority on a set of writings as a canon. The issue in doing so is that definition become static and no longer relate to common usage; language changes over time. (Try to discuss what “labor” means to a socialist and you’ll find the concept is void of common usage of the term, isolated as esoteric concept). So although I enjoy the label, I believe it must make a defense of itself for its own sake, as the social-communicative connections to it should always be to the living, and the living language, first. Again, I say this as an outsider only just recently finding the work of Chesterton. Perhaps my view will change as I read more of the founding materials.

    For practical suggestions of terms, I have found that making a solid personal-impersonal dichotomy is helpful in discussing what separates distributism from socialism and capitalism. Both socialism and capitalism are impersonal economic modes. Mark the difference between buying from Walmart (impersonal) and buying from a guy named Wally (personal). Mark the difference in buying Aunt Jemima syrup opposed to buying syrup from a person named Jemima. The concept of economic personalism (that impersonal entities have no ethical justification to personal rights of ownership, or to protected speech, or to limiting the liability their investors) naturally tends toward a necessary localism and decentralized economics.

    Most people already hold to a personalist ontology “that the *person* is the locus of meaning and moral responsibility in the world”, and also understand that to be *personable* is to be relationally minded and not greedy or selfish.

    Now defining the *person* as being a relational being, we can also mark the distinction between individualism (impersonal focus on the rights of an individual) and collectivism (impersonal focus in the outcomes of the collective).

    A term like “familialism”/“familism” can also sit as a *personal* alternative to the impersonal aspects of individualism (capitalism) and collectivism (socialism). This moves the conversation even further toward the true concept of distributism, as being a family-centered economic framework.

    So along with adding “localism” as a connective term in the toolkit of persuasive ideas, I would add “personalism” and “familialism”.

    Wherever we see the world form a dichotomous relationship between two “opposites”, we must remember that we live in a 3 dimensional world, and that these “opposites” (such as socialism and capitalism) will always have a 3rd axis by which they are the same and something else opposes both of them. Multiperspectival analysis is a way of finding an uncompromised synthesis, and finding solid terms to describe what is just, temperate, and true.

  3. Mr. Mahoney,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree with incorporating other terms to describe the principles that underlie the Distributist movement. Although, again, I see these as a means to introduce others to the wider concepts that are imbued in the concept of distributive justice, which is the source of the name, Distributism. If you can, you should also head over to the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton to discuss these thoughts. They are the ones, after all, who have proposed a different name.

  4. I'm among the crowd that accepts the fait accompli: once a label has been given a thing, and has had time to become habitual in the minds of people who have been exposed to it, it's very, very hard to change it. Still, it does rarely happen. Probably the only way of doing this would be by introducing a new name as an *alternate* to the original. After a couple of generations, if it is found to be inherently clearer, it will succeed in replacing it.
    I do think a much better word could be found, and if so, an agreement on that alternate term among those in the Distributist intelligentsia would lead to it gaining traction, and probably eventually superceding Distributism.
    The main problem with 'Distributism', in my view, is that the word is ultimately derived from the verb 'distribute', which is transitive. The word 'distributism' then implies adherence to the idea that things (in this case property and capital) should be *actively* rearranged *by someone*. And this is why people, when introduced to 'distributism', understand by that word 'REdistributism', and thus connect it with socialism.
    I'm convinced that the core idea really intended by 'distributism' would be better expressed by the following:
    (Economic) Decentralism
    An advantage of this term is that, firstly, it better indicates that the proposed economic order is directly opposed to both Laissez-faire Capitalism and to Socialism, which are necessarily centralizing economic systems. The root, 'central,' is an adjective. It does not imply that anyone is *imposing* anything. Also, decentralization, in this very sense, is already a current idea, for instance among users of blockchain technology.
    Someone else might come up with a better term yet.
    I do NOT think that 'Localism' would be a good replacement at all. It means devotion to the local (see a dictionary on the suffix -ism). Certainly the advocates of this term intend it to mean *economic* localism, but the word itself will imply what the word 'provincialism' means, but on an even smaller geographic scale; that is, it will be taken by many to mean a sort of prejudice against everyone outside of our locality. Distributists do not at all advocate this. On the contrary, they are keenly aware of the need for solidarity in the common good within an entire nation, and even the world.

    1. You wrote: The main problem with 'Distributism', in my view, is that the word is ultimately derived from the verb 'distribute', which is transitive. The word 'distributism' then implies adherence to the idea that things (in this case property and capital) should be *actively* rearranged *by someone*. And this is why people, when introduced to 'distributism', understand by that word 'REdistributism', and thus connect it with socialism.

      The problem is that the "thing" being distributed by "distributism" is NOT property and capital, but justice. It is true that distributists advocate for the widest possible private ownership of productive property as possible, but not by active distribution of that productive property by government. Rather, it is by the establishment of distributive justice which will ultimately result in that, ideally without coercive government redistribution of productive property. I outline this in my book, Distributism Basics: Foundational Principles.


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