• Michael Martin

Distributism, Sophiology, and the Current Moment

dust, light, a barn

Where are all the distributists at this threshold point in human history? One would think that this would be the prime moment for a distributist gambit. But it’s not, or at least it hasn’t been so far. For those who don’t know what distributism is, it is the notion, popularized in the early twentieth century by figures such as G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, that means of production and property should be widely distributed through societies and not in control of the few, whether the few be corporations (as in Capitalist economic structures) or governments (as in Socialist and Communist economic structures). The idea arises from the concept of subsidiarity found in Catholic Social Teaching stemming from Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum (1891) and reiterated regularly (and ignored just as often) in Catholic teaching ever since.

Of course, distributism and subsidiarity were proposed in an age before the internet, a space that could also use some serious reconfiguration as it is alarmingly controlled by a very few—a very few who can decide what is and what is not real knowledge, real wisdom, or real news. When in concert with corporations, governments, and multinational NGOs, these social media and search engine companies show just how insidious are the evils inherent in social structures held in the hands of the few, a warning sounded long ago in Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Zamyatin’s We among many others.

Perhaps the most powerful voice for distributism in the later twentieth century was economist E.F. Schumacher’s in his classic work Small is Beautiful. For Schumacher, the place to begin with such a project is, quite literally, on the ground beneath our feet, that is, in the soil. As we all know, BigAg, through its parasitic relationship with governments and the NGO superstructure, has done untold damage to the environment and human health, literally poisoning both. Starting from the soil, regenerative practices can then impact industry:

In agriculture and horticulture, we can interest ourselves in the perfection of production methods which are biologically sound, build up soil fertility, and produce health, beauty and permanence. Productivity will then look after itself. In industry, we can interest ourselves in the evolution of small-scale technology, relatively non-violent technology, ‘technology with a human face’, so that people have a chance to enjoy themselves while they are working, instead of working solely for their pay packet and hoping, usually forlornly, for enjoyment solely during their leisure time.”1

I often think of the words of folksinger Pete Seeger in this regard: “I like to say I’m more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.”

More recently, anarchist economist Guido Preparata has also endorsed an agricultural model—biodynamics to be specific—as a template for human economies. “The farmers and agriculturalists of our project,” explains Preparata,

inhabit a landscape governed by these principles: the ideal model is that of the bio-dynamic farm. A bio-dynamic farm is characterized by the absence of importation (viz. closed-circuit cycle), zero-waste (the output of a sector serves as the input of another), diversity (crop-rotation and diverse ecosystems instead of intensive mono-cultivation), and a symbiotic relationship with all the elements of the wider living system.”2

Even more recently, physician and researcher Zach Bush has been promoting biodiversity of the gut biome and the greater, environmental biome as the way to greater health and true human flourishing.

So, diversity seems to be the key here—which is precisely what distributism has always proposed. It doesn’t seem that difficult to achieve. Why is it?

One reason, of course, is the immensity of the governmental-military-corporatist-NGO megalith that seems almost insurmountable. Another is spiritual ennui: we just don’t have the strength (no doubt due to the lousy nutrition we get from processed foods laced with glyphosate and a host of other poisons). We also suffer from spiritual ennui. This, for me, is most telling in the (for lack of a better term) distributist movement (which has little distributism and even less movement). On the one hand are the distributist cosplayers, those who talk a good game about Chesterton, Belloc, and Tolkien, who romanticize about life in the Shire, wearing tweed, smoking pipes, and drinking highballs, but who never throw the ring back into the fires of Mount Doom. On the other hand are the exhausted, those who have given up on a dream of a better way and are content to pray for a Progressive Messiah who will then allow distributism to flourish. AS IF THAT WOULD EVER HAPPEN. These forms of distributism are shells from which life has long disappeared. For my part, my sword will not sleep in my hand, until we have built Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land. As St. Ambrose reminded us so long ago, “The earth is all men’s, not the property of the rich.”

What we need to enliven is what economist and priest Sergei Bulgakov called the sophianic economy, one that “establishes the ultimate connection of all things.”3 As he further argues, the true purpose of an economy, “is to defend and to spread the seeds of life, to resurrect nature. This is the action of Sophia on the universe in an effort to restore it to being in truth.... Economic activity overcomes the divisions in nature, and its ultimate goal ... is to return the world to life in Sophia.”4 This is what all people of good will should be working toward. This is true spiritual warfare.

Everything that offends against the Doctrine of Creation is Church business; everything that affirms it, the love of nature, the craftsman’s job, the artist’s vision, the yeoman’s husbandry, responsible or creative work of any and every kind, all true zeal in interpreting that Doctrine whether by witness in art, by service in honourable labour or by devotion in resistance to anarchy or automatism, those modern enemies of godliness, should receive the holy blessing.” ~ H.J. Massingham 5

Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets.

Steve Winwood returning to agriculture.

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.

1. E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Harper & Row, 1973), 19–20.

2. Guido G. Preparata, with Domenico D’Amico, Flavio Fabiani, Aurelio Riccioli, and Sebastiano Scrófina, “‘The Blueprint’: A Modest Monetary and Organizational Proposal for Re-launching the Economic Welfare of Communities,” in New Directions for Catholic Social and Political Research: Humanity vs. Hyper-Modernity, ed. G.G. Preparata (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 5.

3. Sergei Bulgakov, Philosophy of Economy: The World as Household (Yale University Press, 2000), 155.

4. Ibid., 153.

5. H.J. Massingham, The Tree of Life Chapman & Hall, 1943), 194.

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