Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Distributism, Socialism, and Syndicalism, What’s the Difference?

We’ve mentioned a number of times before on this blog that we like it when people ask questions that are easy to answer.  It makes us look smart, and it doesn’t take too much work to put a posting together.  That’s why we were so delighted last week to get the following question: “I just came across the word ‘syndicalism’.  It sounds very much like distributism.  How do they differ?”
And here is a photo of someone actually "paying the devil."
Talk about a soft-pitch . . . and not the kind with which you pay the devil.  Here’s your history lesson for the day.  “The devil to pay” has nothing to do with handing over money to Satan.  It means “paying” — or paving — the outermost plank of a wooden ship’s deck, the one right next to the ship’s hull.  The plank was called the “devil,” and had the widest gap to fill with oakum and pitch to make it waterproof.  Hence “the devil to pay and no pitch hot” (the full expression) means you’re caught short without enough whatever to finish or even do a critical task.
Oh, that’s right.  You were asking about the difference between distributism and syndicalism. . . .
Hilaire Belloc, "Old Thunder"
Strictly speaking, syndicalism and distributism are 180 degrees from each other.  The goal of distributism as G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc broadly defined it is that actual human beings own the means of production directly, as private property.  Syndicalism means that the workers’ organization(s), such as unions or guilds, own, or the State owns through the organization.  The key here, of course, is that whether the State owns, or the community owns (not a real difference in any event), private property is abolished: effective socialism.
In a syndicalist arrangement, workers may have rights in the capital, but this is what is called “beneficial ownership.”  Beneficial ownership is the sort of thing you have in a qualified retirement plan under U.S. law — workers get the benefits of ownership (income), but have no control and do not have actual title.
Perhaps the confusion between distributism and syndicalism may result from the fact that, while he and his brother Cecil left the Fabian Society and stopped being socialists (as did Belloc and Ronald Knox), they remained on more or less friendly terms with Fabians such as George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Penty.  Penty (or somebody else, depending on who you’re talking to) was the founder of “guild socialism.”  Guild socialism spun off from Fabian socialism, and then fragmented again into different schools of guild socialism and social credit.
Arthur Penty
Chesterton was such a genial fellow that he even wrote a foreword to one of Penty's books that is one of the most subtly funny things he ever wrote.  Chesterton managed to say not one word about Penty's book except that it was “interesting” and it addresses “important issues.”  The reader is left with no clue after reading Chesterton's foreword what he thought of Penty's ideas — if anything.
This is probably because guild socialism is a form of syndicalism.  Community, not personal, ownership, was the goal, with the community being the workers' organization.
We at CESJ propose “ownership unions.”  These are somewhat closer to the idea of the Medieval guild in that the union would admit only owners and protect their ownership rights.  At the same time, an ownership union would make certain everyone has both the opportunity and means to become an owner so that nobody is left out.
In syndicalism, the workers own indirectly through the union or guild, while in an ownership union the owners would own, and the organization is answerable to them, instead of them to the organization.

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