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Friday, July 24, 2009

Jobs of Our Own: A New Book on Distributism
Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society, Alternatives to the Market and the State Race Mathews. New foreword by Thomas Storck. Distributist Review Press, 2009, $22.95. Order now.

You read the Distributist Review. Now you can read the Distributist Review Press. From our new press comes a major history of the distributist movement, a book which, up to now, has only appeared overseas: Jobs of Our Own, by Race Mathews.
A history of distributism is often a short history of a few distributists: Belloc, Chesterton(s), and perhaps a McNabb, a Penty, and other assorted English scribblers. Between the failure of Ditchling and the trauma of World War II, the general impression is that distributism has never actually happened in real life.

Wrong. Mathews shows exactly how distributism has happened and is happening, right in the midst of the real economy.
In Part I, British Distributism, we get an overview of how distributism began. Mathews doesn't begin with the Chesterbelloc, but earlier, with the socialist movements in England which preceded distributism, so we can better understand the distributist reaction.

The treatment of Belloc and the Chesterton brothers goes beyond the major works and draws heavily on lesser-known writings, particularly in the various incarnations of the newspaper which became G.K.'s Weekly. Mathews also doesn't hesitate to examine the question of their anti-Semitism, which even today tarnishes distributist ideas through an illogical guilt by association.

But although Part I will be of interest even to those well-versed in distributist history, it's in Part II, Distributist Reborn, where the action really begins. If you've ever heard of the Antigonish movement—but, like me, barely recognize the word—or if you keep meaning to find out about that mysterious Mondragon corporation, wait no longer.

Mathews focuses on Antigonish and Mondragon as two major attempts to put the ideas of distributism into practice. Although he had other examples to choose from, these two movements illustrate his central thesis: distributism only works when people have jobs (that is, work) of their own.

In the early 20th century, Antigonish was a movement of consumer co-operatives in Nova Scotia which flourished for a time, but ultimately failed. Although Mathews finds much to praise in their work (and plenty of consumer co-ops flourish today), he uses Antigonish to illustrate how the basic agency dilemma will weaken any co-operative that operates only on the consumer level. You may have a food co-op, but if you hire outside managers to run it, there's nothing particularly co-operative about their incentives. They may as well be working at the mall.
In contrast, Mondragon is a worker co-operative. This co-operative (really a co-operative of co-operatives) is altogether the seventh largest corporation in Spain. Big business? Hardly. Mathews examines the intricate mechanisms by which a worker in a Mondragon factory has a real voice in how his shop is run, a real stake in the success of the whole enterprise, and a real safety net for keeping at work, not getting welfare payments.

As with his treatment of the early distributist heroes, Mathews doesn't hesitate to acknowledge the shortcomings he finds, and the compromises Mondragon has made in recent years. But, as with those heroes, the signifance of what Mondragon has achieved and will achieve is far more striking.

Personally, I found myself amazed at this evolved distributism. Here at last is the answer to cliché that distributism is a sweet idea, but how would you make a jet? Ask NASA, which hired a Mondragon co-operative, Ikerlan, to work on the Columbia space shuttle.
On the other hand, long-time distributists may think that deep down, Mondragon must be simply another corporation, and that the only real distributist is a sole proprietor. Jobs of Our Own offers a new perspective; actually, an old perspective, since G. K. Chesterton stated clearly, in Outline of Sanity and elsewhere, that some necessary projects would always be beyond the scope of the independent yeoman. As far as I know, Chesterton and Belloc never worked out the details of how distributists could co-operate in a large industrial enterprise. But Mondragon, and co-operatives like it, are doing just that.

Order Jobs of Our Own.
Posted by Bill Powell