Will The Real Utopians Please Stand Up?

To follow up my last post on the Papal defense of Distributist ideas, I think it is also time we cleared up this notion of  ‘what can work’ and what actually does work.

Distributism, if it is practically defined as a set of social or political initiatives that encourage greater ownership of property, and specifically, worker ownership of the means of production, does exist and does work.

Here are some regional facts to consider:

Canada

“In Canada, there are distinct trends in worker co-operatives in Québec and the rest of the country. From 1993 to 2003, there was 87% growth in Québec and 25% growth in the rest of Canada.”

The United States

” In 2004, there were 300 worker co-operatives and 11,500 ESOPs covering over 8.5 million participants and controlling about $500 billion in assets.”

Spain

“Spain is home to the world’s oldest and most famous worker co-operative, the Mondragon Corporacion Cooperativa (MCC), established in 1956. In 2004, this group located in the Basque County, had sales of 10.4 Billion euros, 10.0 Billion euros of administered assets, with a workforce of 71,500.”

This website also has graphs for the UK and France.

One may be tempted to ask at this point: if Distributist principles are being more widely applied today, why are you so vocal about them?

Because the truth is that while the principles are spreading they still haven’t gone far enough to address the major global problems of our time: over a billion people living in absolute poverty and many more living in relative poverty; global diseases that threaten many more lives; ecological sustainability, etc.

Is there a magic cure to all of these problems? No. These problems will continue to challenge humanity for some time yet to come, regardless of how ownership is distributed and structured. The difference is that moving closer to economic democracy through Distributist principles, more people are empowered to directly affect their situation. There is less of an urgent need to beg for help from big business or big government, and more freedom for those most directly affected by problems to address them themselves.

What we may begin to see is more meaningful and reasonable public-private collaboration, which is a good thing when both parties respect each other’s boundaries. I look forward to a time when government leads instead of commands, and I think it will have a much harder time commanding communities of ownership than it will a society that resembles the Hobbesian state of war.

On the other hand, where is this ‘free market’ that supposedly ‘works’  and renders Distributism unnecessary? People continually point to countries as examples of the wonders of free markets that actually relied heavily on state direction of the economy for most of their development – Japan, Korea, Taiwan, etc. No one believes that America has a ‘free market’ either, and everyone knows that supposedly ‘socialist’ Europe, in spite of its economic problems, is still a better place to live than anywhere in the Third World.

The ‘free market’  stands in a mythical nether-realm, where it is held to be responsible for every good thing that happens in the economy and yet shielded from all responsibility for anything bad that happens. It is an untestable, unverifiable hypothesis. At best people can point to certain effects achieved by certain individual policies, but within a long-term historical context about the only thing laissez faire policies lead to are economic crashes and world-wide disasters.

The choices we really face are either more Distributism – which has different variants going by the names of ‘social economy’, ‘mutualism’, etc. – or more state-capitalism. Economic power can either be diffused and granted to more people, or it can be concentrated more greatly in the hands of big business and government.

This might be the last of my successive blog posts for a few days since I’m going to be busy until next week. Just throwing it out there so no one thinks I’ve vanished :) I’ll try to comment for the rest of today.

4 Responses to Will The Real Utopians Please Stand Up?

  • Great post!

    Have you heard of Focolare? I think they have whole cities that are sort of like this.

  • The dairy industry in NZ had its beginnings toward the end of the 19th century. IIRC, dairy farmers formed their co-operatives in the early 20th century, and established their own processing factories. By the 1930′s the industry was well established, and hundreds of dairy factories were dotted throughout rural NZ around which townships grew and prospered.

    After WW2, with the improvement in transportation a lot of rationalisation occurred so that by the 70′s many local dairy factories had closed through amalgamation with neighboring plants within say a 50 mile radius. Further rationalisation occurred through the 90′s, culminating in the formation of NZ’s largest company, Fonterra in 2001. This company is still owned co-operatively by thousands of dairy farmers throughout NZ, and is one of the world’s bigger players in the dairy industry. There are a couple of other companies in NZ providing a degree of choice, but Fonterra is by far and away the biggest.

    Fonterra has plants/offices now in Australia, USA near Chicago,and Europe, and does a lot of business in the Arab countries and India. There was a recent scandal in China you may have heard about, with a Chinese dairy company SanLu contaminating its milk with melamine and caused the death of several babies and the sickness of hundreds of thousands. Fonterra was a 48% shareholder in that company, and though they had nothing to do with the contamination, there were many red faces – Sanlu went bankrupt and was liquidated in very short order and its CEO convicted. I think they were given the death penalty.

    Despite that, Fonterra is still working with the Chinese to re-establish itself there, but under a different model and branding.

    I had heard of the Mondragon “experiment” in the early 60′s, and always thought that it is the way to
    go. All interesting stuff, and arguably one option for the future.

  • There are 8,000,000 firms in the US which are operated by the owner(s) alone, millions more have fewer than 4 employees. That’s successful distributism.

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