Is It Time for Neo-Distributism?

One of the joys of not actually being enrolled in a graduate program arises in the ability to actually read the assigned books from some of the classes! It isn’t that I didn’t complete my assisgnments, but often only a chapter or two were intended for the class. For instance, No Logo by Naomi Klein is a must read for anyone interested in how globalization really changed US manufacturing (and marketing).

The most recent book that I finished Jobs of Our Own by Race Matthews. This 1999 treatise (re-released in 2009 with a new forward) discusses the ignored ideas of G.K. Chesterton and his distrubists allies providing a nice history of the discourse between this group and the Fabian Society of George Bernard Shaw. Ultimately, the Fabians won the hearts and minds of the people and ushered in a remarkable 30 year period of economic stability under the prodding of Prime Minister Clement Atlee that saw the creation of the National Health Service, the Breton Woods Accord, and the dominance of Keynesian Economics.

It is a bit hard to argue that the Fabians had it wrong. The idea that the three legs of the stool (Trade Unions for Workers, Co-ops for consumers, and the Labour Party for citizen control of the commanding heights of the economy) still has a certain appeal. **  However, the Distributists had more far reaching ideas. They didn’t trust the State to control the economy. Led by their religious dogma and the Pope Leo XIII’s ecclesiastical, Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labour), they sought a society of small owners in which power could not be concentrated into the hands of few, but distributed throughout the society. They never really go much further than this general idea largely because of their egos, untimely deaths, and an appalling antisemitism and racism that would eventually cause their movement to be disregarded.

Outside of England, however, this idea did take hold. Matthews work takes off when he discusses the work of the Maritime Canadian priests Jimmy Tompkins and Moses Coady. Together, these community organizers helped build a strong and powerful cooperative movement as well as a culture of adult education. Although, the movement did crash in the mid 1960’s due to systemic structural problems and was re-born as Co-op Atlantic.

One of Coady’s goals which he never lived to see was the idea of delivering education to working men and women in their homes. He saw that it was impossible to expect people to leave their jobs to attend classes. I am sure that he would be quite proud that Tom Webb, one of his successors as Director of the Extension Department at the University of St. Francis Xavier in Nova Scotia would create exactly such a program at the sister school of St. Mary’s University–the MMCCU. (I was surprised to see this footnote in the book as I consider Tom a mentor to me and never knew that held Coady’s position prior to St. Mary’s).

The book then turns to its true focus. The Antigonish Movement discovered what has come to be known at the rochdale cul-de-sac. Essentially, that co-operatives grow to a point where the membership must give up control to hired management. The co-op then begins to behave and act like any other store and the uniqueness of the co-opertive model becomes lost. It is Matthews argument that distributists can overcome the problems brought about through Agency Theory by engaging in a slightly different model of co-operation, namely the worker co-operative.

So it is, that Matthews ties the work of our favorite priest Don José María Arizmendiaretta to the distributist movement of Chesterton and Coady. The rise of Mondragon and its redefining the relations between capital and labor fit nicely into the edict of Rerum Novarum without creating the tyranny of the the worker over the consumer that the Fabians so feared. By giving workers a voice and participation in the management of the co-operative, the problems of the cul-de-sac get eliminated. In some of the Mondragon coops, there are mutli-stakeholder modes that provide space for several voices in the discussion. At a few years past 50, Mondragon has outlived the Antigonish Movement and remains a strong and fervent co-operative model.

Distributism, according to Matthews, works. It works exceptionally well provided that the workers enjoy a strong voice as workers in the organizations. Mondragon distributes the wealth throughout the basque region of Spain to its 180,000 members (I think that is the correct number). By creating a true ownership society, they created a sustainable marketplace that focuses on the value of the human being.

Is it time for us to take a second look at distributism? I’m still not quite sure. I think that Mondragon could also be considered an excellent example of syndicalism even if there isn’t a labor union involved. The point, however, is that capitalism displaced a workerable social contract without establishing a new social contract. Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand replaced the Noblesse Oblige. Keynes sought to soften the hand. The Fabian sought to re-invent the social contract through government ownership. Distributists and Syndicalists, in my opinion, seek to rewrite the social contract based on the individual civil and human rights. Perhaps the ideas of the Distributists could be folded into a Neo-Syndicalism creating a movement that uses both worker ownership and industrial unionism to meet the needs of the community and society by creating an ownership society of small owners, and recognizing when the scale of a project is too big for worker co-operative alone and requires an industrial union presence. Such a linking with Mondragon and the US Steelworkers may be the beginning of this new ideal.

But this time, we really need to document what it is!

**Thanks to Bob Cannell for that imagery.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
This entry was posted in Worker Rights and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is It Time for Neo-Distributism?

  1. Pingback: Mondragon in America? « The Workers' Paradise

  2. I’m glad to hear about Race Matthews’ book, and the start of your thought processes on it, John. I wish I was still in the States with easy access to! I hear you on the graduate school-reading issue, though I’m currently having fond recollections of the grad school environment.
    Having read a few of your posts, the idea of synidicalism and the question of paradigms has been percolating in my mind, and I plan to expand upon those thoughts at the website.
    I think the combination of the syndicalist and distributist models has some potential. However, unions in the U.S. have been greatly weakened since the Reagan years, though I would like a strong reference on the point. James Crotty has discussed some aspects, and the Mass. NGO with a name like United for a Fair Economy has collated some great information on the subject. While each and every union job and member provides a hopeful source for a co-operative project, I see obstacles and challenges in reaching others outside that network. Ideally, it would be great if the unions turned entrepreneurial and began creating new jobs and workplaces as the leaders in the sustainable re-industrialization of the U.S.
    William Greider in his book The Soul of Capitalism has written a real masterpiece in which he probes a variety of ongoing strategies involving ownership tactics. I’d say the transformation of the stock market investment ideology is one great challenge.
    A Co-op enterprise, Green Worker Co-ops, in the South Bronx, NY has begun co-op entrepreneurship training that provides an inspiring example of a related approach.

  3. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » Building a Stakeholder Society as an Alternative to the Market and the State

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.