It’s come to this. A rich strain of conservative thought, and the powerful currents of Distributism coursing through it, is explored intelligently by a man most so-called conservatives (aka, Republicans) would dismiss as a commie wignut. Ralph Nader talks about the middle way between big government and big business, using one of the more important texts to emerge from the Southern agrarian movement. Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence is a collection of essays edited by Allen Tate and Herbert Agar that was a follow-up to the Southern agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand.
In this mix, there was espoused a political economy for grassroots America that neither Wall Street nor the socialists nor the New Dealers would find acceptable. It came largely out of the agrarian South, casting a baleful eye on both Wall Street and Washington, D.C. To these decentralists, the concentrated power of bigness would produce its plutocratic injustices whether regulated through the centralization of political authority in Washington or left to its own cyclical failures. They were quite aware of both the corporate state fast maturing in Italy and Nazi Germany and the Marxists in the Soviet Union constructing another form of concentrated power with an ideology favoring centralized bigness in the state economy. They warned that either approach would produce unrestrained plutocracy and oligarchy.
Nor did they believe that a federal government with sufficient political authority to modestly tame the plutocracy and what they called “monopoly capitalism” could work because its struggle would end either in surrender or with the replacing of one set of autocrats with another. As Shapiro wrote in the foreword, “while the plutocrats wanted to shift control over property to themselves, the Marxists wanted to shift this control to government bureaucrats. Liberty would be sacrificed in either case. Only the restoration of the widespread ownership of property, Tate said, could ‘create a decent society in terms of American history.’”
What the decentralists were pushing for was the supremacy of individual property rights that “secure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” over the property rights of incorporated entities possessing a “legal-social structure of privilege and concentration completely alien” to the agrarians’ notions of a democratic society.
In this regard, they drew their public’s attention to the early corporate chartering laws, administered by state legislatures in the early 1800s with “the greatest caution and limitation,” reflecting the charterers’ view of the supremacy of property “in the hands of private individuals.”
Rapid industrialism and the increase in the power of financial institutions led to the changing of these laws and the revising of some state constitutions to authorize more automatic chartering by state agencies, leading the agrarians to lament the lost opportunity, for they had been pressing for the creation of chartered cooperatives that would do the same work of amassing capital and other services without the distorting greed and concentrated power of corporations.
I have no illusions that any kind of Distributism will ever find a place in American polity unless the Republic collapses. Since that appears to be happening in slow-motion right now, there may a future in which the citizens of this country need too look to new models of social, political, and economic organization. Those of us who call ourselves Distributists need to keep that flame lit not because we have any illusions about its widespread practicality under the current Demopublican Ruling Class, but to explore it, expand it, and keep it alive in the cultural memory for a time when it may be needed.
On the other hand, Herbert Agar, was more hopeful of a radical return to roots:
If the American people, Agar believed, “ever decide they want something, they will not be headed off by anyone so readily frightened as our robber rabbits…. The important question from our point of view is not whether we can overcome the opposition of Big Business, but whether we can convince the plain man in America that our program is what he wants.”
Exit quote, from Agar:
“No country can be reformed by the people who hate it. The haters can supply useful criticism. But only those who have affection for the national ideal can persuade a people to reform.”