Distributism - Background

Background

The mid-to-late 19th century witnessed the growth of political Catholicism across Europe. According to historian Michael A. Riff, a common feature of these movements was opposition not only to secularism, but also to both capitalism and socialism. In 1891 Pope Leo XIII promulgated Rerum Novarum, in which he addressed the "misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class" and spoke of how "a small number of very rich men" had been able to "lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.". Affirmed in the encyclical was the right of all men to own property, the necessity of a system that allowed "as many as possible of the people to become owners", the duty of employers to provide safe working conditions and sufficient wages, and the right of workers to unionise. Common and government property ownership was expressly dismissed as a means of helping the poor.

Around the start of the 20th century, G. K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc drew together the disparate experiences of the various cooperatives and friendly societies in Northern England, Ireland and Northern Europe into a coherent political ideology which specifically advocated widespread private ownership of housing and control of industry through owner-operated small businesses and worker-controlled cooperatives. In the United States in the 1930s, distributism was treated in numerous essays by Chesterton, Belloc and others in The American Review, published and edited by Seward Collins. Pivotal among Belloc's and Chesterton's other works regarding distributism include The Servile State, and Outline of Sanity.

Although a majority of distributism's later supporters were not Catholics and many were in fact former radical socialists who had become disillusioned with socialism; distributist thought was adopted by the Catholic Worker Movement, conjoining it with the thought of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin concerning localized and independent communities. It also influenced the thought behind the Antigonish Movement, which implemented cooperatives and other measures to aid the poor in the Canadian Maritimes. Its practical implementation in the form of local cooperatives has recently been documented by Race Mathews in his 1999 book Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society.

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