(Today Michael posted a very interesting question about “Distributism” under my frustrated rant about the Syrian disaster (check it out by clicking on the link above). First, I began by replying to him in the comment section, but then I found the topic so interesting that I decided to turn my reply into a separate post. So here we go:)
Michael, I did look at the sites you recommended and then I even went further and looked at the Wikipedia article on Distributism. The list of its composing ideas was, in particular, very interesting and here is what it resulted in for me:
- Private property: check, with a caveat (see below)
- Guild system: check, with a caveat (see below)
- Banks: check, with a caveat (see below)
- Anti-trust legislation: check
- Human family: check
- Subsidiarity: check
- Social security: disagree (see below)
- Society of artisans: check
- Political order: check
- Political parties: check
- Just War Theory: check
Private property: While I do very favor private property rights on a family, community and even corporate level, I strongly feel that the state should have control of *strategic assets* such as, typically, energy or military-industrial production. These vital high value resources must at all cost be owned collectively by the the sovereign people and not by any private interest.
Banking: I favor a single not-for-profit state bank whose sole task would be to make investment available where it is needed. So on these matters I am far closer to classical socialist or Marxist political economy theory than to Distributism.
Social security: I have come to fervently believe that a minimal yet decent social safety net should be considered as a human right. In other words, I believe that each and every member of society should be guaranteed housing, food, medical care and the constituent components of “dignity” (which are different in each society) regardless of his/her contribution to, or status in, society. Even a criminal who refuses to work on principle and who openly declares that he hates and rejects society should, in my opinion, be granted all these rights. The issue of “dignity” is the hardest one to harness, but it is very important. Let me give you an example:
In the rural parts of the Balkans, you always welcome visitors to your home by offering them a cup of coffee and a glass of water. Even if you are very poor, the ability to offer that type of hospitality is most important to many people. Hence coffee, which in other parts of the world might be considered a luxury item, becomes a crucial commodity for which even other, clearly essential, goods might be sacrificed (meds or food for example). I believe that the local governments should therefore make it a human right to have access to cheap or free coffee for these people (I just can hear the horrified exclamations of the proponents of “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps with the help of the “truly laissez faire free market economy’s invisible hand” of the anarcho-libertarian fairy tale” – I don’t care :-P)
To be absolutely clear: I am not saying that everybody ‘deserves’ something. What I am saying is that any society which accepts that somebody would not have access to these socio-economic minima is not a civilized society. Think about it: why ban torture, and yet do nothing against social, economic “torture”? Why would a government protect its citizens against external aggression or natural disasters and not against economic distress or disease?
This makes absolutely no sense.
So here is my key conclusion:
THE PURPOSE AND FUNCTION OF GOVERNMENT IS TO PROTECT THE WEAK REGARDLESS OF THE CAUSE AND NATURE OF THEIR WEAKNESS
Think about it: do the powerful even need a government? Of course not! They are protected against external aggression by their own security forces, they are protected against natural disasters by their wealth, they are protected against societal abuse by their lawyers, they can take care of their own health, etc. So the only people who need a government are the weak. Conversely, all these Austrian, laissez faire, libertarian, anarchist, anti-“statist” theories in reality all serve to protect the plutocrats, the 1%. No wonder the Koch brothers finance it. Michael Hudson very succinctly explained it all when he said: “Every economy is planned. This traditionally has been the function of government. Relinquishing this role under the slogan of “free markets” leaves it in the hands of banks.
When he says that planning the economy is the function of government he clearly does not mean planning the economy for the better interest of the plutocrats but rather for the better interests of society as a whole. I think that he would agree if I suggested to him that those who most need that kind of regulation of the economy are the weak. Now let’s turn to a related point,
Guild system: I like guilds, and I think that they should contribute to society, but I find unions absolutely essential. The Wiki article says “labour unions are organized along class lines to promote class interests and frequently class struggle”, but to this I would reply as Michael Parenti does that the rich VERY much are organized according to class lines and that they conspire against the rest of us. Check out this website: http://www.tucradio.org/parenti.html in general and the following lectures in particular:
- Ideology And Conspiracy
- Political Liberties and Economic Democracy
- Capitalism’s Apocalypse
- Conspiracy & Class Power
I have always found the entire concept of class consciousness and, even more so, class struggle absolutely distasteful. And yet, to my absolute dismay, I cannot deny their reality any more. For decades I tried to find other plausible mechanisms explaining what I observe, but now, at age 48, I find myself compelled to admit that both class consciousness and class struggle are not Marxist myths, but observable realities which must be addressed.
For the rest of it, I by and large agree with all the Distributistic theories above which I marked with “check”.
My strong feeling is that coming from early 20th century Papist circles Distributism is an attempt to find a third way between rabid capitalism and the kind of equally rabid Socialism and Marxism which was prevalent at the time. A full century later, I think that the proponents of Socialism and Marxism have changed a great deal and have learned a lot of lessons from their countless and often monstrous mistakes of the past.
I mean, only the DPRK is still stuck in doubleplusgoodthinking rigid Socialist and Marxists ideas, made even worse by the addition of the home-grown idea of Juche. Even Cuba has changed a great deal in recent years and I would argue that both Iran and Russia are, de-facto, shall we say, “neo-Socialist” countries both in their economic structure and in their social values (Did you notice that Putin’s recent article on economic issues entitled “Building Justice: A Social Policy for Russia” began with the words: “Russia is a welfare state“?).
21 century Socialism and Marxism are very, very different beasts than their ideological forerunners and I do not feel the same urge to absolutely avoid them as, I think, early 20th century Papists did. I don’t believe that any Socialist or Marxist party nowadays proposes to return to the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” or “Military Communism” and even though a majority of Socialists or Marxists are probably not religious, I know of no Socialist or Marxist activist who would seriously defend militant atheism or, even less so, “Godless Five Year Plans”. All these abominations were still the order of the day for Socialists and Marxists when Distributism was invented and I think that this explains some of its weaknesses.
My personal views on economics are therefore much closer to Socialist and even Marxists views than to Distributism as such. Its the loaded social ideological aspects of modern Socialism and Marxism which I am really fed up with. I am sick and tired of Amy Goodman reporting every time about what she would call ” LGBT civil rights” and I even stopped sending any contributions to the ACLU over their constant promotion of an agenda to which I comprehensively object: the recognition of sexual pathologies as a civil right. As Michael Parenti humorously said in one of his speeches – its all very fine and dandy to defend the sexual preferences of group XYZ, but that does nothing for those who come home from work too exhausted to have sex…
The same goes for those uniquely American ideological debates about abortion or gun control where I equally hate both sides of the issues and just feel like telling them to go and finally kill each other somewhere else…
And then there is the pseudo-Left. In the USA its called “liberal” or even “progressive” and it is just a spineless, toothless and thoughtless pseudo-left who does not have the balls to openly attack capitalism and its absolutely flawed assumptions.
But shoving all those rigidly ideological idiots aside, there is a great deal of good and healthy “hard-Left” (for lack of a better term) activism out there, and a lot of very sensible thinking. Unsurprisingly, I am particularly encouraged by the dialog between “hard Left” and religions like Islam or Orthodox Christianity.
No, I am not at all a supporter of the 20th century “theology of liberation” (my big bone with it is that it was exactly that – a “theology”), but once that nonsense about a “Socialist Jesus” is set aside, there is a very interesting dialog possible not about how to transform theology into political activism, but about what religious dogmatic anthropology (teachings about “man” and “his” nature) implies about what would be a just social and economic order.
In this context, I think that some of the ideas of Distributism could be very useful in “polishing” or correcting some of the ideas of Socialism or Marxism, just as I believe that a open and constructive dialog between religions such as Islam or Orthodox Christianity can also be very useful in modernizing Socialism and Marxism. In Latin American and Russia such a dialog is already very much under way. Sadly, this otherwise useful dialog is very much corrupted by the fact that in Latin America the Papist clergy is very much under the control of the amazingly corrupt and hypocritical Papal curia of Rome while in Russia the Orthodox clergy is very much under the control of the Moscow Patriarchate, also amazingly corrupt and hypocritical organization which has never been purged of its old KGB-controlled elements and which is run by one of the most corrupt Mafia-dons in Russia: “Patriarch” Kirill (who, at least, did not cover up for pedophile priests like his friend and colleague “Pope” Benedict XVI).
So these are my first impressions and thoughts while going through the articles on Distributism. I would be very interested in hearing everybody else’s reactions, thoughts and comments.
And if its off-topic – feel free to also post it :-)
Cheers (and thanks again, Michael!)
I’ll have a more detailed reply on Marxism later on. For now, I’ll just comment on what you said about banking.
“I favor a single not-for-profit state bank whose sole task would be to make investment available where it is needed. So on these matters I am far closer to classical socialist or Marxist political economy theory than to Distributism.”
Do mean for this to be a monopoly (e.g., no credit unions allowed), or would this be in addition to such things? In the latter case, I am willing to keep an open mind.
In general, I am with Ron Paul and the Distributists (and ultimately with President Andrew Jackson) when it comes to central banking. Any institution which has the legal right to create money out of thin air has a moral hazard built into it.
The first moral hazard is that the central bank will be captured by the plutocracy (if it wasn’t a creation of thge plutocracy in the first place as in the U.s.). The second moral hazard is that the civil servants running the central bank will become the new plutocracy, by virtue of their ability to create money out of thin air. As Milovan Djilas pointed out in his famous book “The New Class”, government officials (i.e., “nomenklatura” or “apparatchiki”) have a definite class consciousness of their own.
If anyone can explain (or, even better, give real-world examples of) how these moral hazards can be overcome, please let me know.
@Michael:Do mean for this to be a monopoly (e.g., no credit unions allowed), or would this be in addition to such things?
I am all in favor of credit unions. Its the national bank which I believe has to be state-owned as that it the only way to have it people-controlled and not plutocray-controlled.
It will either be one dollar on vote or one person one vote. A central state bank and local credit union do no threaten the democratic sovereignty of the people. Large private banks do.
Any institution which has the legal right to create money out of thin air
That is a uniquely US problem as the USA has managed to make the rest of the world accept the dollar and thus it has exported its inflation. For any other country, if you print money out of thin air, you immediately devalue it thereby. I don’t have a problem with a state-controlled bank emits some money to “grease” the system as long as it benefits society as a whole. As soon as that turns into a cute way of making the poor poorer and the rich richer, I object to it. This is why that should not be the decision of a group of plutocrats, but a fundamental right of the people themselves. Strictly personally, I believe that money should be backed by real goods such a gold or other tangible “real” wealth. But I am not dogmatic about it as that depends on circumstances.
If anyone can explain (or, even better, give real-world examples of) how these moral hazards can be overcome, please let me know.
I would personally favor a stringent control of the people over the political class is essential: popular initiatives, referenda, recalls, etc. Combine that with a strong regulatory efforts aimed an tightly regulating the activities of corporations (who are the real birth-givers of plutocracies), and openness openness openness at all levels. Secrecy breeds corruption like nothing else. I like the principle of subsidiarity on all levels, combined with regional de-centralization. But the bottom line for me is this: the state and the private sector must clearly be given a mandate, a mission, to serve society as a whole. That is not something which any “invisible hand” can do, but that *is* something which the very *visible* hand of the state can enforce in the name of the people.
Corporations, in particularly, should be unambiguously told that they are *tolerated* as long as they are believed to be beneficial to society and that any corporation failing to meet this criteria will simply be shut down. I have found that in countries in which corporations are thus regulated they actually do a fairly good job of combining profits and providing the public with goods and services. So the two are not mutually exclusive at all (that was a big Marxist mistake, IMHO), but that kind of equilibrium must be enforced with a iron fist.
I fully agree with Michael about central banks. The Latin American experience in the last 30 years demonstrate beyond any doubt the tremendous damage the printing of money can create. Brazil and Argentina in the late 70’s throught the 80’s, and now Argentina (again!) and Venezuela, are victims of high inflation, which broadens the gap between rich and poor and help keeping the worst social and economical problem of this region: high inequality. The current (pseudo) leftist Argentine government says that it is “distributing wealth”, but in fact it is only giving out printed paper which has a smaller purchase power each passing month, and the poorer (that is, those who don’t have an income high enough to buy dollar, gold, real estate or expensive consume goods) are the ones who most suffer with it. Argentina saw a decrease of poverty from 2003 til 2006 or 2007; in the last 5 years, however, there are many indications that it is rising again, no matter how the government tries to hide it with falsified statistics:
@: Carlo and Michael
The Latin American experience in the last 30 years demonstrate beyond any doubt the tremendous damage the printing of money can create
The issue is whether the cause of the problem is an *EXCESSIVE* printing of fiat money or whether it is the fiat money itself.
Again, I *AGREE* that printing fiat money is a bad thing, but I would caution against being too dogmatic about that since, in some circumstances, *some* printing of fiat money might make sense.
This issue is a good illustration one of the things I do not like about libertarian economics: they are phenomenally dogmatic. For them, its all black or white. Life is more complex than that and economic policymaking often requires a nuanced case by case approach rather than a dogmatic one.
“The issue is whether the cause of the problem is an *EXCESSIVE* printing of fiat money or whether it is the fiat money itself.”
What happened in Argentina in the last years show that fiat money is too much of a temptation for some politics: printing money was the only way to come out of a crisis caused by the lack of liquidity in Argentina’s economy, and absolutely necessary to take it out of the crisis. It surely caused inflation, but it was the lesser evil compared to huge unemployemnt and recession. But a few years later, when the economy was already growing strongly, it was deemed easier to the political class to continue with huge spending, as cutting state expenditures was considered unpopular. So yes, you are right, fiat money can be good and necessary, as it was the only way out of the Argentine 2001 crisis. But like Michael said (but adapting to the Latin American experience), fiat money is a moral hazard, and too much of a temptation for politicians of a region where populism is still very strong.
@Carlo: fiat money is a moral hazard, and too much of a temptation for politicians of a region where populism is still very strong.
“THE PURPOSE AND FUNCTION OF GOVERNMENT IS TO PROTECT THE WEAK REGARDLESS OF THE CAUSE AND NATURE OF THEIR WEAKNESS”
The responsibility of every person is to contribute to the care of the weak and helpless, personally or through the Church or some other voluntary organization. The government is a monster that takes from people by force and gives to the politically connected, drafts your sons to serve for causes championed the politically connected, manages the election or other succession machinery and the press to give the illusion of ruling by divine right of at least by some universal ethical moral principle – deomocracy – which is totally for sale,bought by the same elite for chump change. This institution, government, is capable of doing good only as a part of it’s self certification from which flows its right to rule.
Hitler used to do charity. Stalin ruled with the badge of action on behalf of the workers of the world. In Chicago, the street gang 21st century vote serves breakfast to school kids as a lever to attain ward political power. To feed the birds by feeding the grain to the donkey makes as much sense.
@Anonymous:Hitler used to do charity. Stalin ruled with the badge of action on behalf of the workers of the world. In Chicago, the street gang 21st century vote serves breakfast to school kids as a lever to attain ward political power
Well, your choice of examples really only goes to prove how ideologically dogmatic your views are. You might have added Pol Pot and Idi Amin as an illustration of how bad governments are. This is in the same vein as denouncing all of medicine because of Dr. Mengele. Its the rather crude “biased sample” fallacy:
This is what bugs me so much about you libertarians, you are more dogmatic than Stalinists, really. You entire political discourse is just on long and never ending “minute of hate” against the state and any government. The fact that the very few times in history that kind of state-less and government-less society like you propose was actually attempted it always end up in a bloodbath does not bother you in the least. From the ugly and frankly idiotic “Free Territory” of Makhno to the outright mass-murdering Spanish stateless communities during the Spanish Civil War, the examples in history are always either laughable, or horrible, or both (usually they begin with the former, and end up with the latter)
I would also add the the 21 street century vote gang was had exactly *NOTHING* to do with any government or state. Heck! I would even argue that it is a quite typical of spontaneous popular self-organization :-)
I know, before you even finished reading the sentence above you already explained it all away by conjuring more images of Gulags, Swastikas, evil despots, parasitic monarchs, etc. Believe me, I know the type. It’s all summed up in the following sentence: “don’t confuse me with facts, I have got my opinion”.
I will just conclude with this: next time you go to your MD, just remember Mengele, and just walk away in horrified disgust, ok?
My only comment on that last exchange is this.
Of all the “Austrian” economists, the one I have the most time for is Wilhelm Roepke. Actually, Roepke differed from von Mises in a number of areas, and founded (with a number of colleagues) what he called “social liberalism.” It was Roepke (and not Mises) whi was the big influence on Ludwig Erhard, and Roepke is credited with the post WW II “economic miracle” in Germany.
Roepke had firm principles, but he was not an inflexible ideologue. Economic efficiency was not his god. He realized that society and “politics” had to set fences around the market, and he supported a robust social safety net. Most of Western Europe has followed his model, to one extent or another.
I think the “Austrians” have some crucial insights in specific areas of economic theory. I just don’t like the anthropological assumptions of Mises (which I consider tautological at best, and laughable at worst).
So, I hope “Anonymous” will broaden his horizons, at least enough to read some of the other “Mont Pelerin” economists, and not just Mises.
@Michael:I think the “Austrians” have some crucial insights in specific areas of economic theory
Oh yes, that I absolutely agree on! And they should not be ignored or set aside only because they are not totally 100% right all the time.
In fact, that is another similarity that I see between the Austrians and the Marxists: a lot of what they wrote provides some terrific insights into historical, social and economic issues. Where the problem begins is with their prescriptive ideas, their solutions, which, unlike their critical insight, tend to be more ideological and dogmatic, seeing simple solutions to immensely complex problems.
The ‘advantage’ that the Socialists and Marxists have is that their original theories were tested many many times in the 20th century, mostly with extremely bad consequences. Reality has a way of biting you in the ass which makes even the most dogmatic ideologue eventually wake up from his ideology-induced slumber. And that brings up the fascinating idea of a Ron Paul Presidency which, as I wrote earlier, will never happen because (I am absolutely convinced that) the US ‘deep state’ will murder him before he has a chance to actually do something. Yet, conceptually, a Ron Paul Presidency would probably results in such internal economic chaos that it would require drastic and fast-paced corrections to the original campaign promises.
Anyway, my biggest beef with the libertarians is a) their ideological dogmatism b) their simple one-size-fits-all solutions to complex problems. However, once these two are set aside, they do have some extremely valuable insights which I do not dismiss at all.
As far as Marxism is concerned there is a guy called Steve Keen who has just published a book going into detail as to why neoclassical/freemarket economics is fundamentally flawed.
He devotes a chapter to Marx and his conclusion is that the labour theory of value is false and therefore so is the famous tendency of the rate of profit to fall and the inevitability of socialism. But he argues that once you put those mistaken ideas aside Marxism provides a very valuable tool for analysing capitalism.
@Robert:Steve Keen who has just published a book going into detail as to why neoclassical/freemarket economics is fundamentally flawed
Is this the book you are referring to?
Yes that’s the one. He’s not alone – I believe Soros himself has criticised market fundamentalism and the idea that markets left to themselves reach equilibrium and if only government would step aside we would live in the best of all possible worlds. And as a billionaire financier who has been playing the money markets for years Soros knows a thing or two about markets.
@Robert: thanks, I think that I will get a copy of the book as it looks very interesting.
Oh now I understood better your “Left Libetarian” position. First of all, I’m delighted to see that the “Libertarian” doesn’t mean nothing close to “anarcho-capitalist”. And rightly so, because I think they stole this name. Your writings about the fuctions of the State are fantastic. “Conversely, all these Austrian, laissez faire, libertarian, anarchist, anti-“statist” theories in reality all serve to protect the plutocrats, the 1%. No wonder the Koch brothers finance it. Michael Hudson very succinctly explained it all when he said: “Every economy is planned. This traditionally has been the function of government. Relinquishing this role under the slogan of “free markets” leaves it in the hands of banks.” Bravo!
I think I totally agree with you on economic issues as I’m not an orthodox Marxist and as you said times are different. There are no “marxist-leninist” societies anymore. Korea went backwards with Juche and Cuba is opening their economy (I don’t like it but I think they have no options really).
I loved when you said: “I have always found the entire concept of class consciousness and, even more so, class struggle absolutely distasteful. And yet, to my absolute dismay, I cannot deny their reality any more. For decades I tried to find other plausible mechanisms explaining what I observe, but now, at age 48, I find myself compelled to admit that both class consciousness and class struggle are not Marxist myths, but observable realities which must be addressed.” It’s exactly this! Postmodern authors very popular within western new left, like Foucault, try in all ways to prove this is outdated, but it’s just reality. As one teacher once said me, class struggle is a fact, one’s approach to it is what changes.
Again, I disagree with you on what you call “sexual pathologies”. I don’t agree with rabid promotion of homossexuality either (this is enough to call me homophobic in Brazil now). But I fully agree with you about “the pseudo-Left. In the USA its called “liberal” or even “progressive” and it is just a spineless, toothless and thoughtless pseudo-left who does not have the balls to openly attack capitalism and its absolutely flawed assumptions.” I think this is why the Democrats are called liberals over leftists. I think there is no real left in mainstream USA politics and media. In Europe it used to be different, but since Thatcher and the fall of socialist bloc, the fake left took over British Labour Party, French Socialist Party and many others. And now the “left” media like the Guardian have a rabid pro-US, pro-“open societies”, pro-liberalism agenda.
Here in Brazil, leftist PT governs in a coalition with many right-wing parties and the only “pure” left-wing party represented in the Congress is trotskyite new left PSOL – our SYRIZA – with 4 – out of 513 – deputees and 0 senators). Although it is small, the left is really anticapitalist (PSOL) or at least anti-neoliberal (PT – the militant wings). But they are extremely socially liberal, rabid pro-LGBT. Especially PSOL that has infamous rabid gay militant Jean Wyllys as a deputee. The Brazilian population is generally conservative (even though the media and main right-wing party PSDB are very liberal) and hates PT and PSOL over these issues. However, in the universities, the young wings of these parties are very strong, especially PSOL. And as a Law undergraduate, what I perceive is that it is very “cool” being in favor of decriminalization of drugs and abortion, of LGBT, of feminism and even queer, but defending Marxism (the theories of that old white homophobic) and class strugle is not so cool, it’s so “outdated”.