Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Distributism and South Africa

Distributism is a socio-economic theory formulated in the early 20th century by G.K. Chesterton (pictured right) and Hilaire Belloc in an effort to apply the social teachings of the Catholic Church to an increasingly industrialized world. Often misunderstood to be a compromise between socialism and capitalism, Distributism is in fact a sharp critic of both philosophies insofar as both are enemies of private property: socialism restricting ownership to the state, and capitalism to an elite few. As Chesterton once said, "Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists."

Distributism is underpinned by the Catholic principle of subsidiarity (as articulated by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno), which holds that all economic activity ought to be performed by the smallest possible unit. Families if possible, ought to be in control of the means of production, rather than large corporate bodies which alienate people from their work and means of livelihood. By favouring cheap mass production over that of small societies of artisans, such modern corporations erode the cultural fabric that naturally binds communities together. Distributism, by bringing labour, capital and the environment back into a united whole, aims to restore the integrity of such communities.

It is not difficult to imagine the potential impact the ideas embodied by Distributism could have on the current state of affairs in post-apartheid South Africa. Since 1994 the new government, albeit with its own set of internal challenges, has lacked the much-needed single-minded direction in initiating meaningful and sustainable social and economic development. Leftist plans of nationalisation have been abandoned in favour of cautious yet ineffective programmes like GEAR and BEE, both incapable of creating any real economic progress for the average South African. The same holds true for the disastrous state education initiatives employed over the past 17 years.

The reason why progress has been so stunted is that the problem is not merely an economic one, or, at least, the ethical dimension of an economic way forward has been neglected. This is because the estrangement of labour from capital is at its roots a deeply moral dilemma, as the Church has taught for the last 120 years. The alienation of the worker and his family from the land on which they were born has its origins in the colonial enforcement of hut tax—essentially a program for migrant labour—which in turn destroyed the family as the basis of a flourishing society. That the fundamental and divinely instituted setting for both the learning and the preservation of economic and social values—the family—is still being ravaged by a cascading array of destructive social forces (AIDS, unemployment, crime) is undoubtedly the direct result of the capitalist history of our colonial past. This is, in fact, the very heart of the matter; and any economic thinking which fails to penetrate the root of the moral problem will be utterly helpless to bring about any lasting change.

In line with much modern talk of environmental sustainability, Distributism identifies as a chief cause of the current set of problems the alienation of the family from the land
from ownership. Humankind’s relationship to the land is at the very foundation of what it means to be a healthy community. Both the socialist concept of nationalization and capitalist privatization have sought to mend the broken relationship between labour and ownership in the same wrong way. Where nationalization seeks to expand national interest by destroying individual ownership, privatization and its accompanying free-market modus operandi effectively limit ownership to a select few: both are effectively enemies of widespread private property and are thus antagonistic towards the establishment of healthy communities. Where one is situated along the continuum between leftist nationalization and rightist privatization is beside the point. Distributism operates beyond the old categories (that are increasingly defunct in a globalized world) by seeking to restore the relationship between labour and ownership without eliminating either of them.

This broken relationship has been primarily caused by a very flawed conception of what exactly labour is—a conception prevalent within the system of migrant labour that built the foundations of South Africa’s economy. The fact that labour is viewed as a necessary evil by both labourers and their employers is an indication of the state of a modern industrial landscape ravaged by the capitalist exploits of apartheid and colonialism. One only needs to take a cursory glance at the city slums that surround each of South Africa’s economic centres to see that meaningful work—a chance to utilise and develop one’s faculties, and to overcome one’s ego-centeredness by joining with others to achieve a common task of bringing forth goods that are genuinely needed by the surrounding community—is largely an alien concept. The recovery of labour as a good will only take place when we learn to see that our social problems are in fact moral problems, and that labour and ownership carry a kind of sacredness in their integration with the family and the politics of a dignified humanity.

Therefore, the best foundation of a nation is one built upon an ownership society, that is, a reinvigorated peasantry and manufacturing class The family farm and the family shop need to be restored within a new framework of localism, a framework that is not only natural to humanity and our environment, but also saves the vulnerable from the destructive turbulence of globalized finance. If working people can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the means of the production of goods fitting to a dignified humanity, the consequence will surely be that the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty will begin to be bridged, and once-divided communities brought nearer to one another. As Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum Novarum, “Men will always work harder and more readily when they work on that which belongs to them.”

The problem in South Africa isn't so much about material destitution
we live in a wealthy landbut rather it is about the break-down of society and the relationships that are able to uphold healthy communities and bring forth the fruits of the earth and humanity’s labour. A sacramental understanding of each aspect of society—the family, the land and the environment, ownership and workcan restore to us the full picture of our South African reality that has been hidden for far too long. In the context of a country with unparalleled economic disparity this is undoubtedly a task that requires nothing short of a spiritual reawakening, a deep and widespread moral conversion: a miracle. This is ultimately something that no state or earthly institution can ever achieve. But at the very least the implementation of Distributist ideas in the political and economic arena of South Africa—even by mere individuals in the manner in which they conduct their daily economic and social transactions—will help to build, as Catholic Worker founder Peter Maurin famously said, “a society in which it will be easier to be good”a society in which miracles are more likely to happen.


  1. This is fantastic!

    Where can I find more details on how individuals could live this kind of thing out? I'm really interested in this subject.

  2. Ryan, check out The Distributist Review at for some ideas!

  3. South Africa, after Lesotho, has the highest inequality in the world according to the CIA... that's huge. This explains why workers will be striking for a long time to come to bridge this chasm.