Sunday, August 05, 2012

On Distributism and Orthodoxy

Modern American culture has become really adept at manufacturing desire. This realization does not depend on any particular religious orientation, but my sense of it has certainly been focused by the Orthodox Christian teaching that we should work to "overcome our passions."

Since this ascetic attitude is normative in Orthodox Christianity, I've been thinking about this aspect of a possible American Orthodox Culture as Melinda Johnson has been discussing the topic. What is the opposite of a consumerist culture? What would it look like in practice and What would that mean for Orthodox Christians?

Wendell Berry, writing in The Progressive, notes the following:
A properly ordered economy, putting nature first and consumption last, would start with the subsistence or household economy and proceed from that to the economy of markets. It would be the means by which people provide to themselves and to others the things necessary to support life: goods coming from nature and human work. It would distinguish between needs and mere wants, and it would grant a firm precedence to needs.

Berry is writing in a tradition concerned with distributive justice, or the equitable distribution of property in a society. Unlike Socialism, which seeks to redistribute wealth, Distributism would redistribute property so that it is best able to be used efficiently and provide the broadest benefit to society. The basic tenets of Distributism include pushing decision-making to the most local level possible (subsidarity), making decisions that benefit everyone (solidarity), and giving every household the tools and materials (property or means of production) necessary to make their own living. G.K. Chesterton, an English author and one of the fathers of Distributism (as conceived in modern times), providing a critique of Capitalism summed up this wide distribution of property thus: "too much capitalism doesn't mean there are too many capitalists, but too few."

As an Orthodox Christian (albeit a convert), I find the emphasis on local authority in Distributism to be resonant, as is the emphasis on the community caring for everyone in it especially those most in need. If we American Orthodox Christians are to realize a unique culture through authentic praxis, the idea of distributive justice might be useful in understanding where dominant American culture is orthogonal to Orthodox teaching, and how we might "come out from among them and be...separate" as St. Paul exhorted the believers in Corinth (II Corinthians 6:17). Lest we think this exhortation cannot possibly be relevant to us, consider the words of St. Nilus of Sora:
It is my conviction that if it is by God’s will that we are gathered together, then we should be faithful to the traditions of the saints and the Holy Fathers and to our Lord’s commandments, instead of seeking to exempt ourselves by saying that nowadays it is impossible to live according to the Scriptures and the precepts of the Fathers. We are weak indeed, but we must nonetheless follow, according to the measure of our strength, the example of the blessed and memorable Fathers, even though we are unable to become their equals.

In a primer on Distributism for Orthodox Christians, David Holden writes, "Christ came to make people partakers of the divine nature, not institutions, agencies or businesses." Just so my position isn't mistaken: I don't expect that the establishment of an American Orthodox Culture would bring about paradise on Earth (though, to the extent that we are given the grace to experience the world already transformed by Christ, we can participate in a shadow of paradise this side of the Parousia). As Holden notes, a nation cannot be Christian, and that ought not to be our goal.

As I contemplate my role as an American Orthodox Christian, specifically with respect to exercising our freedom advocate for economic justice, St. Basil's words seem incredibly timely:
'But whom do I treat unjustly,' you say, 'by keeping what is my own?' Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it? It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all in common -- this is what the rich do. They seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of preemption. For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.

Did you not come forth naked from the womb, and will you not return naked to the earth? Where then did you obtain your belongings? If you say that you acquired them by chance, then you deny God, since you neither recognize your Creator, nor are you grateful to the One who gave these things to you. But if you acknowledge that they were given to you by God, then tell me, for what purpose did you receive them? Is God unjust, when He distributes to us unequally the things that are necessary for life? Why then are you wealthy while another is poor? Why else, but so that you might receive the reward of benevolence and faithful stewardship, while the poor are honored for patient endurance in their struggles? But you, stuffing everything into the bottomless pockets for your greed, assume that you wrong no one; yet how many do you in fact dispossess?

Who are the greedy? Those who are not satisfied with what suffices for their own needs. Who are the robbers? Those who take for themselves what rightfully belongs to everyone. And you, are you not greedy? Are you not a robber? The things you received in trust as a stewardship, have you not appropriated them for yourself? Is not the person who strips another of clothing called a thief? And those who do not clothe the naked when they have the power to do so, should they not be called the same? The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you might have aided, and did not.
 - Homily 6, On Social Justice: St. Basil the Great (with thanks to Jonathan for publishing this excerpt in his review at Amazon).

While Distributism is often seen as a Roman Catholic invention, and as such might be viewed with some distrust by (some) Orthodox, American Orthodox Christians can look to the success of Distributist ideals in the native Orthodox culture of Romania.  , writing about Distributism in Eastern Europe for the Distributist Review, makes the following observations about how the human-scale economy envisioned by Distributism comports with Orthodox theology:

In Eastern Christianity, the unity of Christ with Church follows the model of personal unity of the Holy Trinity. Dumitru Stăniloae, a most distinguished Orthodox theologian, calls the Church a ‘pluripersonal symphony’: a multitude of instruments with particular patterns of notes combined to create a unity which is ever so much richer for its multiplicity. Each person plays his notes, but all is conducted, coordinated, unified under the direction of Christ. Being made in the image of God, the Trinity, each person realizes his true nature through mutual life; each person is autonomous and unique and yet he is not able to have life except in community with others.

“The community of persons” is spelt out in terms of “sobornicity”: Sobornicity (from the Slavic sobornaya, which means both “universal” and “conciliar”), writes Dumitru Stăniloae, “is not unity pure and simple: it is a certain kind of unity. There is the unity of a whole in which the constitutive parts are not distinct, or the unity of a group which is kept together by an exterior command, or formed into a union of uniform entities existing side by side. Sobornicity is none of these. It is distinguished from an undifferentiated unity by being of a special kind, the unity of communion. The unity of communion is the sole unity which does not subordinate one person to another, or in which the institution is not conceived as something external to or superior to or repressive of the persons involved.”

In the Orthodox East, Distributism needs to partake of the iconographic conception of the human person because “sobornicity” is grounded in the person as an image and likeness of the Trinity. Made in the divine image, human persons are not to be instrumentalized–they should be regarded as unique subjects, not as interchangeable objects. Each must be treated as an end in his or herself and not as a vehicle to some further end. There is no “sobornicity”–no trust, reciprocity and fraternity—where the economic and political power is removed from the level of the person and transferred to an increasingly oligarchic concentration of ownership. Distributism is best equipped to oppose the dehumanizing schemes of both neo-liberals and neo-communists since it never subordinates ends to means. In Romania, neo-liberals, socialists and bureaucrats from Brussels all plan to destroy the “unproductive” peasants, turning them into wage-slaves or commercial farmers, that is, into something other than peasants. The distributists, like the agrarians of yesteryear oppose such a “market revolution” in the village. They offer instead their own economic model, based on co-ops and other forms of voluntary associations.

The Eastern distributists should also adopt a liturgical view of life. For St. Maximus the Confessor, the world is a “cosmic temple” in which man exercises his priesthood. Man not only lives in and uses this world but he is capable of seeing the world as God’s gift and offering it back to God in thanksgiving “Thine own from thine own we offer to thee, in all and for all” (The liturgy of St. John Chrysostom).


Steve Hayes said...

There has been a proposal for an Orthodox synchroblog on Orthodox culture, which you might like to contribute to. This post would be a pretty good contribution.

See the Orthoboggers group on Facebook for more information, or contact me.

Jonathan Kotinek said...

Thank you Steve! Katherine Hyde previously invited me to check out the Orthobloggers group, too. I looked at the list of members and felt out of my depth, so I passed before. Since you've brought it up again, I made a request to join the group, but I'm a terribly inconsistent blogger, so I hope I won't disappoint.

John Médaille said...

it must be admitted that the very name—distributism—makes people worry. It conjures up an image of an all-powerful government taking property from some and giving it to
others. But the truth is otherwise: aside from exceptional cases, the wider distribution of property is not so much about what the government should do as about what it should stop doing. Government itself is the biggest agent of accumulation through subsidies, privileges, tax breaks, monopolies, externalized costs, and the like. What a free market really requires is free men, and what men require to be free is access to their own means of subsistence, which is precisely what capitalism denies them. The proper ground of freedom is one's own proper ground. What is denied to the mass of men must fall to a minority of men, men who will then be the masters of society and the effective rulers of the state, co-opting it to their own ends. This is what has happened. The higher the piles of capital gathered in a few hands, the thicker the walls of government necessary to protect it, and capital and government combine to limit freedom, to restrict property. Capitalism is therefore not to be confused with the free market, but to be identified as its mortal enemy, and to confuse the one with the other is to totally misunderstand the reality of modern economic, social, and political life.

Fr. Cassian Sibley said...

As I told you in the Party of the Shires page on Facebook, I really liked this piece. Generally speaking, all it really lacks is the Byzantine "theme" connection and a little more information about the agrarian peasant party movement and its intellectual influences to make it complete.

One corrective, however. Your description of Distributism suggests that distributists are committed to the "redistribution" of "property" rather than "wealth" (in your contrast with socialism). I'm relatively certain this is false on the face of it and generally misleading. I would argue instead that the deeper commitment of those of us who are distributists is to ensuring that distributively just laws are crafted which will ensure that great agglomerations of property are hard to achieve and that the efforts to do so are self-stultifying - laws which tend toward the distribution of land and productive resources (such as machines, factories, and so forth). The political objective of distributism is a distributively just society in which people can and do receive some semblance of a just proportion of the wealth that they themselves create - so that heads of households can support their families; create and support mediating institutions in society; and have enough left over for charitable giving to those who still need assistance - rather than a society in which the resources, labor, and creative ingenuity of all are used to create the wealth of an increasingly small subset of the population, as capital begets capital and the first to the top of the hill build castles to keep the rest of society at the bottom of the hill.

Jonathan Kotinek said...

Prof. Médaille & Fr. Cassian -

Thank you both for taking the time to share these comments here!

I am clear that I've misrepresented Distributism in suggesting that Distributists are looking to take anything away from anyone...rather that Distributists would like to see laws in place that would discourage the accumulation of property in such a way that it is unproductive. Is this correct?

I'll have to do more research myself to be able to write about the Byzantine theme connections and agrarian peasant party movement. Do you have anything on these topics you would recommend?

Steve Hayes said...

I'm not too sure about "distributism", in that I'm not sure exactly what it means. But perhaps you could look at communitarianism, which was advocated by Dorothy Day. She was a Roman Catholic, but Jim Forest, who recently revised his biography of her, is now Orthodox, and at the root of communitarianism is Orthodox anthropology. Western Modernity sets two extreme positions in opposition: individualism and collectivism. But neither of these really fits with Orthodox anthropology.

Jonathan Kotinek said...

Thanks for the comment, Steve.

As Prof. Médaille notes above, the term "Distributism" might have some awkward baggage. His "Introduction to Distributism" ( does a nice job of explaining Distributism within the context of other economic systems of thought.

Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement are actually among the sources used by present-day Distributists. In my limited knowledge of the subject and your tastes, I would say that you would not find the tenets of Distributism disagreeable.

Reader Johnny said...

Thank you for posting this and forgive me for coming late to the game. Funny enough, I read Chesterton's "Orthodoxy" when converting to the Orthodox Church. Of course, I could not help but wonder if he would have become Orthodox instead of Catholic if the Eastern Church had a more visible presence in the UK during his lifetime. But, it's not really about that, is it? You see, what I am trying to figure out is how to we all find common ground as far as Distributism is concerned? Personally, I am about 60% Distributist without even knowing or hearing of it. Christ is Risen!