by Ovidiu Hurduzeu
To understand the importance of distributism, we need to compare it to both communism and capitalism, the two systems that distributism is opposed to. In a distributist society there is wide and equitable distribution of property and ownership. In communism you have collective ownership and collective redistribution of property. People do not have economic freedom; they are wage-slaves to the state. In the so called “free, democratic and capitalist” society, the capital, and most of the property, belong to a small class called ‘capitalists’, while the mass of the citizens are obliged to work for the few capitalists in return for a wage. Distributism does not separate ownership and work any longer. It seeks to establish an economic and social order, where most people have real, debt-free productive property. (In capitalism, the “property” of the common person is mortgaged or purchased on credit; it is merely a rented good). In practical terms a distributist order is achieved through the widespread dissemination of family-owned businesses, employee ownership, cooperatives, and any other arrangement resulting in well-divided property.
What are the main problems that plague Romania and other Eastern European countries? How can they be solved?
The main problem that has confronted Romania and other Eastern European countries is the reckless adoption of the neoliberal economic model. In the aftermath of communism’s collapse, the collective ownership of land and the means of production (state assets) were transferred to the private sector (local oligarchs and foreign individuals and companies). Such a process was the main culprit behind the huge concentration of wealth, widespread poverty and the destruction of the national economies. Today, Eastern Europe is made up of what distributists call “servile states”, with Romania being a case in point. Politically and economically, the country is enslaved to the globalist power centers, while its citizens are constrained to work under servile conditions in the rich EU countries, or are wage-slaves for transnational corporations operating in Romania. There is no long-term solution unless the system of property rights is completely reformed. Only the widespread ownership of property will make Romanians sufficiently well off so that they can have a say in how they are governed.
Romania is a Christian-orthodox country while distributism is a catholic economic doctrine. Do you see some contradictions here?
Distributism is more than an economic doctrine. It is a set of concrete economic practices based on the Christian anthropology of the person. The main economic actors of liberalism are homo oeconomicus and homo interlopus, while distributism can function only within a community of persons. What I mean by person and personal has nothing to do with the atomistic individualism of liberalism. It refers to the relational aspect of creation. Both Catholicism and Orthodoxy envisage the human person in relation to God, to other human beings, and to the rest of creation. The personalist aspects of distributism and its “small is beautiful” tenet are what makes it very attractive to the orthodox world. It is not surprising that Solzhenitsyn greatly admired the famous distributist thinker G.K. Chesterton. Solzhenitsyn conceived his own version of distributism as a “democracy of small areas” (Rebuilding Russia) in the tradition of Russian zemstvos. Catholic writers such as G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were very influential in disseminating the distributist ideas of the West. And yet distributism could never really challenge liberalism and its economic doctrines. In the light of history, one can discern two main reasons for its failure in the Western countries. One reason is the forgetfulness and abandonment of the Person and of the community of persons created in the image and likeness of God; another reason is the loss of the agrarian tradition that Distributism was based on. The Western world replaced the person with the monadic individual of liberalism, while the agrarian Weltanschauung gave way to an addiction to technology and unbridled commercialism.
Distributism had its moment of glory in the 1920’s. What can you tell us about the “Green Rising”?
The aftermath of World War I saw an agrarian-distributist revolution, known as “the Green Rising”, which swept across Europe from Ireland and Scandinavia through Germany to the Slav world. G.K. Chesterton underscored its historical significance: “It is a huge historical hinge and turning point, like the conversion of Constantine or the French Revolution…What has happened in Europe since the war (World War I) has been a vast victory for the peasant, and therefore a vast defeat for the communists and the capitalists.” Chesterton does not exaggerate at all. “To observers in the 1920’s” – writes the conservative writer Allan C. Carlson in the ‘Third Ways’ – “the future of Eastern Europe seemed to lie with the peasant ‘Green’, not the Bolshevik ‘Red’ “. The Green Rising saw agrarian parties, with their radical distributist programs, come to power in Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Finland, and strongly influenced the situation in the Baltic States and Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, the great distributist movement of the 1920’s was largely crushed by the mid 1930’s, and is now mostly forgotten.
What distributist principles of organizing an economy are most suitable to the orthodox countries? Is a “Christian-orthodox economy” still possible?
A Christian-orthodox economy is not only possible; it is the only way that could lead to the transformation of our societies for the better. When communism collapsed, the liberals injected the virus of a plutocratic economy and rampant individualism into our societies. If communists dispossessed the populace in the name of collective ownership and a communal monopoly, the liberals created a dispossessed “lonely crowd” that was forced to work for subsistence wages in the name of the “free market”. Both communism and the “new capitalists” instituted master-slave relations in the former Soviet bloc. That is unacceptable from a Christian point of view. As Christians, we cannot accept the neoliberal tenet that “there is no such thing as society” (Margaret Thatcher). Individualism and ruthless competition are utterly unchristian. A Christian orthodox society is a cooperative one in which loving our neighbors is the norm, and the common rules are enforced in a way that maximizes personal responsibility. Due to their communal organization, there was simply no poverty among the first Christians; they had no fear of becoming slaves in order to support themselves. Today, a distributist society should challenge the neo-liberal economic model in the way the cooperative society of the first Christians challenged the slave-based economic order of the Roman Empire. We are not talking here about idealism, utopia or socialist solutions in the form of welfare and punitive taxation. We do not want to repeat the cycle of disempowerment and dependency. We need to provide the conditions for social justice through a widespread distribution of property, the remoralization of the markets, and recapitalization of the poor.
Does Romania have an intellectual tradition of non-liberal economic thought? What value does this heritage have for today’s economists?
Indeed, Romania had a solid intellectual tradition of non-liberal economic thought. A mention must be made to the agrarian economists Virgil Madgearu (one of the leaders of the National Peasant Party), Mircea Vulcanescu (one of Romania’s greatest thinkers ever, he died in prison as a Christian martyr), and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, the founder of the ecological economy. They belong to different economic schools and yet they share the same fondness for agrarian and Christian values. Today’s Romanian economists are too busy following orders from the West to pay any attention to the great Romanian economists of the past.
How can the distributist principles be implemented in real economic policies? Are there any political forces in Romania that want to bring the distributist ideas into reality?
The country needs a new “Green rising” to complete what the Romanian agrarians left unfinished. “If the Peasants’ Party is to be victorious in elections” – wrote Virgil Madgearu – “the shape of things would be changed.” The National Bank would no longer be the economic fortress of the Liberal oligarchy. Trusts would no longer enslave and exploit the state. Their selfish and venal leaders would no longer be enthroned in overseeing positions over the country’s destiny. Civil liberties, nowadays suffocated, and stolen civil rights would be fully restored, and the constitutional-parliamentary regime would become a reality, benefiting the development of popular masses as well as civilization.”
Unfortunately, I do not see any real chance for Romania of adopting sweeping changes like the ones envisaged by Madgearu in the 1920’s. There are no political forces in today’s Romania strong enough to challenge the dominance of liberalism.
Do you see any relevance of the distributist model to Russian society in general, and the Russian economy in particular?
I think that distributism is germane to Russian realities and not a foreign import like communism and liberalism. And it is the only economic model that can vanquish the Liberals on their own ground (the economy). Russia, like the Third Rome, should not forget the lessons of Byzantine recovery. When confronted with a series of serious crises in the 7th century, the Byzantine Empire adopted a brilliant distributist strategy. As a consequence, it went from near disintegration to being the main power in Europe and the Near East. The pillar of this strategy was the peasant-soldier who became a producer rather than consumer of the empire’s wealth. Fighting for their own lands and families, soldiers performed better. As staunch Christians, the Byzantines survived by simplifying their social, political, and economic systems within the constraints of less available resources. They moved from extensive space-based development to simplified, local, intensive development. (That’s the lesson the Soviet Union did not learn, and failed as a result.) “In this sense, Byzantium” – writes Joseph A. Tainter – “may be a model or prototype for our own future, in broad parameters but not in specific details.”
Today’s Global Empire is an integrated hyper-complex system that is very costly to human society. It has reached the limits of its expansion and faces collapse because it tries to solve its problems in the same outdated way: investing in more complexity and expansion. So far its growth has been subsidized by the availability of cheap human and natural resources, as well as a “world currency” that the Global Empire totally controls. A multipolar world and a finite planet make investment in complexity no longer a problem-solving tool – the costs exceed the benefits. If Russia could adopt distributism and follow the Byzantium-like strategies of intensive development, the Third Rome can save herself and become a genuine “prototype of our future”.