Cultural Appropriation, Nuance, and ‘Day of the Dead’

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The primary reason that white people, especially white Americans, appropriate from marginalized traditions is because they’ve been stripped of their own. And if we want white Americans to stop doing that, the best remedy is to encourage them to respectfully and carefully learn about and reclaim their own ancestral traditions.

From Alley Valkyrie

I spend a lot of time reading right-wing critiques of leftist tendencies and behavior. I do this not so much because I’m a masochist, but for many practical reasons. Part of it is the old ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ adage, especially in terms of what they’re discussing and thinking as it pertains to me and my kin. But more so, underneath the inevitable layers of distortion and exaggeration and hyperbole, there is almost always a kernel of truth in the critique. Very often that kernel of truth concerns a crucial point of error in the thinking or actions of those on the Left. And that error in thinking is so often related to points of nuance….or lack thereof.

The Left’s lack of attention to nuance only validates and strengthens the critiques of the Right.

Let me say that again for the kids in the back: it greatly strengthens their arguments, and as a result greatly strengthens their base. And in case you’ve been asleep for the past few years, their base is already quite strong, ever growing, and rather terrifying.

One of the best examples of this is the subject of cultural appropriation. Let me make the following clear at the onset: cultural appropriation is an actual problem, one incredibly damaging to marginalized peoples and cultures. That is not up for debate, nor would I ever try to debate it. And the general position of the right-wing (and sadly, far too many liberals as well) is that any and all complaints of cultural appropriation are nothing more than the overly-PC whining of “snowflakes”. Which is false. Absolutely false.

However, one of the things that has led the Right to such a conclusion is a very real, very specific, and very damaging behavioral tendency coming from the social justice-oriented Left. It comes more often than not from white people who aren’t actually part of the marginalized groups they are claiming to defend, acting from a sort of ‘purity politics’ as opposed to having an actual stake in the issue. These folks are quick to label pretty much anything as cultural appropriation, often without any historical understanding of what they are calling out and absolutely without any attention paid to detail or nuance.

I witnessed an epidemic of this behavior over the past month, in the form of online discussion going back and forth– almost solely by white people in the United States–regarding Day of the Dead and cultural appropriation. There was a dizzying number of personal posts, shared articles, and “community call-outs” warning all people of European descent to “stay in their lane” regarding “Day of the Dead,” lecturing them on how any attempts to celebrate such a holiday was an act of cultural appropriation that was harmful to Latin American people.

This is the perfect example of where the right-wing is actually quite accurate in their critiques. Such proclamations, especially without any real citations or historical backup, are nothing more than moral righteousness gone awry. They also double as erasure when it comes to the actual history of such celebrations.


When it comes to those of European descent, Americans in general are a people that lack ancestral or cultural ties. The loss of culture that comes with assimilation in the United States is not just a product of isolationism and exceptionalism, it’s also very much a product of our Protestant roots. Related to this is the fact that Catholicism was historically a minority religion in the United States that was often repressed, attacked, and subjected to widespread discrimination, especially prior to WWII.

Protestantism and Catholicism, while both acting in similarly hegemonic manners, with similar goals in terms of domination of thought, belief, and behavior, operate quite differently in their means towards that end. Catholicism has exerted and spread its power by adopting the crucial cultural elements of any given culture that it overtakes, rewriting and re-inscribing those elements into its own narrative. This accounts for why holidays like Christmas and Easter are chock full of pagan symbolism, for why the Romans built temples to Egyptian gods in Germany during the later years of the Roman Empire, and why practically any given ancient church or basilica in Europe was built right on top of a former Pagan sacred site. The Catholic strategy has predominantly been to annex indigenous traditions, and historically speaking it has been a very successful strategy.

Protestantism has often taken a different strategy, one most clearly seen in the birth, growth, and development of what we now call America. Instead of adopting the cultural elements of those they subjugated into their own narrative, Protestantism demanded an abandonment of those elements. It demanded that one forsake their own cultural traditions and assimilate into Protestant culture. This may not have been so painful for those Americans whose ancestors came from Protestant cultures, but for those whose ancestors came from Catholic cultures, it was a great loss. Countless celebrations, rituals, and folk traditions which are still practiced widely in Europe today are mostly lost to Americans whose ancestors came from those very countries and cultures where they are still practiced.

And of course, given how much Protestantism and Capitalism are and have always been close and convenient bedfellows in the United States, Capitalism has always been able to fill the void left by the abandonment of non-Protestant ancestral cultures. This is the primary reason why Halloween is not only considered by the rest of the world to be an American holiday, but within America it is arguably the most popular in terms of mass participation and cultural buy-in.

Despite a small but vocal group of fundamentalist Christians who argue otherwise, Halloween is the most part a secular holiday, one embraced by immigrants and American-born folks alike. It is for the most part focused on fun and consumerism, so much so that the majority of the population fails to recognize the way it acts as a substitute for what, in most cultures of Catholic origin, is a rather somber and reverent time of year, one in which remembrance and worship of the dead is the primary focus.


This takes me back to my point regarding the misguided claims of cultural appropriation. “Dìa de los Muertos” and the much larger concept of “Day of the Dead” are not the same thing. The former is specifically the form that the latter takes in Latin American countries. The latter is a tradition that both historically and currently is recognized across the Catholic world, both amongst colonized people as well as those who have historically been colonizers.

And yes, there are many problematic aspects when it comes to white Americans celebrating the former, especially the way it has been fetishized and commodified. Absolutely no argument there from me: as I said above, I would never argue that cultural appropriation is not a real issue that results in tangible harm. But extending that to referencing “Day of the Dead” as being something that white Americans should not touch is extremely misguided, especially because a significant amount of white Americans come from ancestral backgrounds in which Day of the Dead was and still is widely celebrated.

November 1 in France is what is known as “Toussaint”, or All Saints’ Day. Most businesses are closed. Most people have the day off. Church services on this day are as detailed as they are on Christmas or Easter. Florists work double-time all week to satisfy the number of orders of flowers that people take to the graveyard that day. Beyond the specific aesthetics and traditions that define Dìa de los Muertos, what’s going on in France here today looks rather similar to the former in terms of tradition and ritual.

Why, you ask? Because they have the same origin.

And the same can be seen over the course of the same week in Italy, in Spain, in Ireland, in Portugal, as well as other countries with strong ties to Catholicism. Because Day of the Dead as a whole is a Catholic tradition, one that was mostly lost to the descendants of Catholic immigrants to the United States due to the US being a country and culture conceived in Protestantism, a country which demanded assimilation into a Protestant aesthetic in exchange for the benefits of the ‘American Dream’.

Mind you, it’s important to recognize that the true origins of traditions such as Day of the Dead pre-date Catholicism and have pagan origins. That’s another reason why they are so insistently eschewed and suppressed by Protestants: because the Protestants recognize those origins full well and consider them (as well as so many other aspects of Catholicism) to be evil and “Satanic”.

And while in terms of pre-Christian traditions regarding the dead, “Samhain” is by far the most well-known (and therefore adopted into the majority of modern Pagan traditions), the traditions that currently take place in the aforementioned European countries not only are linked by Catholicism, they are similarly linked in regards to their pre-Christian origins.


When I read and hear this constant righteous lecturing on how and why white people have no business participating in Day of the Dead rituals, I also can’t help but to think back to the three weeks I spent in Mexico in 2010. I was there from mid-October to early November, over the course of the Dìa de los Muertos celebrations. And being a culturally-aware, social justice-oriented type who was always very careful to not engage in cultural appropriation and who wanted to “stay in my lane,” I decided at the onset to adopt the position of an observer throughout the various celebrations and rituals that were taking place.

But every single time that I stood back and chose to watch rather than participate, I was met with looks and gestures that ranged from confusion to hurt feelings. And every single time one of the locals encouraged me to step up and participate and would explain in detail what was occurring and why, as they were always under the impression that I was standing back due to lack of knowledge, as opposed to the fear and/or belief that to do so was inappropriate for a white person. Every single time, it was made very clear to me that not only was I welcome to engage in the ongoings, but that they actively wanted me to do so, that they considered it a matter of hospitality to make sure that I was actively engaged. Not only that, but a few people confided in me that in general, although they knew it was not my intention, it was considered rude not to participate.

And while I’m very aware that there’s a difference between being invited to participate in cultural rituals that are not your own and commodifying and fetishizing said rituals, whenever I see the most extreme versions of “white people cannot do this no matter what,” all I can think of were the reactions of my hosts when I chose to step back.

The bottom line is this: aside from the capitalist influence, which obviously is huge, the primary reason that white people, especially white Americans, appropriate from marginalized traditions is because they’ve been stripped of their own. And if we want white Americans to stop doing that, the best remedy is to encourage them to respectfully and carefully learn about and reclaim their own ancestral traditions. We can’t have it both ways. American identity is in part defined by a cultural hole, one which the shallow creations of capitalism simply cannot adequately fill. And so those who recognize that loss will try to fill it.

And they will likely try to fill it with what is easiest for them to access, which is why erasing the history behind celebrations like Day of the Dead and framing it as though it is solely a Latin American tradition that white people should not touch is a disservice to everyone affected. It does very little to stem the tide of cultural appropriation, it erases the history of Day of the Dead as it pertains to European ethnic groups, and the lack of nuance in such arguments only feeds and adds to the legitimacy of right-wing criticisms.

And so I repeat, once more: specificity and nuance are so fucking important when we criticize and/or judge and/or discuss issues such as cultural appropriation. If you’re going to call something or someone out, do your homework. Know your history. And for the love of the gods, stop sharing un-cited, prescriptive social justice articles that lecture people on what they should and should not do.


Alley Valkyrie

Alley Valkyrie is an writer, artist, and spirit worker currently living in Rennes, France. She is one of the co-founders of Gods&Radicals and has been interacting with a wide assortment of both gods and radicals for nearly twenty years now. When she’s not talking to rivers and cats or ranting about capitalism, she is usually engaged in a variety of other projects. She can also be supported on Patreon.


Gods&Radicals is currently raising funds for 2018. Can you help support essays like this? Thanks!

The Gods of My Ancestors

A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred comes out 1 February. This essay by Anthony Rella is one of the many works featured in this edition.


“I got an image of you,” he said lying next to me. We were naked and enjoying the luminescence of limerence, those early days of high hormones, great sex, and mutual fascination. His hand passed over the length of me, not touching me, sensing my subtle body. “I think it’s a past life. You’re in ancient Egypt. You’re wearing simple clothes, like you’re a peasant.”

I’d been Pagan for about two years and was still figuring out what that meant. After years of seeking connection with spirituality through Catholicism, I’d found in Reclaiming witchcraft a welcoming, queer-affirming, ecstatic community that offered me tools and practices that were waking me up in new and powerful ways. What I continued to long for was a connection to the divine, to the Gods.

“That’s interesting,” I mused. “We all did this meditation once to our Places of Power. Mine was all black, black skies and black sands, with a giant black pyramid in it. And I was in jackal form. It seemed very Egyptian.”

Not only did it seem Egyptian, but when eventually I pushed myself to start doing actual research, I learned that the older name of Egypt, Kemet, translated as “the Black Lands.” Every time I went back to that Place of Power, I saw images of Anubis: hearts growing on trees, jackals.

A few months after the bedtime vision with my lover, I took another trance and met Anubis, who said, “I’m waiting for you.” I’d been waiting for a God to “claim” me, assuming that’s how it worked, and still it took me a while to get what Anubis was trying to tell me: the Netjeru had been waiting for me all along, giving me gigantic flashing neon signs pointing in Their direction, but it would be my job to follow the signs.

Part of my confusion and unwillingness to answer the call came from not knowing “which” gods I was “supposed” to honor. Some liberal and conservative pagans suggested I should start by “honoring the gods of your ancestors.”

The Delta of Many Legacies

I am a white man. My known ancestry is German, Irish, and Italian with some Sicilian. My paternal Italian and Sicilian ancestors were the most recent to come to the United States during the early twentieth century. My grandparents were the first generation to be born in the United States. My grandfather enlisted to fight in World War II. Fortunately for him the war was coming to a close, so he was deployed to Germany to oversee the postwar peace process. There he became interested in German culture and tried to learn the language. He’d tell us about the women who laughed at him when he mispronounced “Ich heisse” (My name is) as “Ich scheisse” (I shit). Much later in life, after retirement, my grandparents traveled to Germany and Austria, and grandpa ended up president of his local German club.

Their son, my dad, grew up in New York and Connecticut, as most Italian-Americans do, but decided to go to college in Indiana. As an adult, now knowing Indiana and New York, I do not understand his choice, but I get the urge to branch out from your family for a time. There he met and ended up with my mother, an Irish-German-American who grew up in Indiana.

On her side, we have records of the German family in the United States going back to the 1700s. At one point they were Pennsylvania Dutch, so for a long time I thought that meant we had Dutch ancestors too. Apparently it’s a misnomer. They were actually Deutsch which is German for “German.” United States whiteness mutated their language and names, as it does. The family ended up owning farmland in northern Indiana in a town with a road still named after them. My grandfather from that lineage grew up Lutheran but converted to Catholicism for my Irish grandmother, herself a Maloney, a surname translated as “descendent of a servant of the Church.”

My mother’s father, too, served in World War II, though his fortune was quite different. He was deployed to the Pacific to fight the Japanese and involved in Iwo Jima. Our grandmother told us a story about being at a party while the men were deployed, during which they broke plates because they had been made in Japan. My grandfather returned with several hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder and rarely spoke of his experience. Unlike my other grandfather’s expansive relationship with culture, my mother’s parents had an insular nativism and unquestioned prejudices against nonwhite people, freely using bigoted language even when it shocked my generation.

Catholicism gave my parents common ground, though Irish and Italian Catholicisms are quite different. Irish Catholicism brings a lot of the influences we negatively associate with Catholicism in terms of severity and denial of the body and sexuality, though it also evokes a high level of mysticism and awareness of the spiritual dimensions of reality. Italian Catholics seem far more about the culture, the pageantry, and the rituals that unite. In my experience, Italian Catholics listened to the guidance of their priests, bishops, and the Pope; then, they went to do whatever the hell they wanted; then, they came back for Confession and called it good.

The God of my recent ancestors has been Jehovah, the Christian God. My immediate ancestors prayed for the dead and honored a version of the divine feminine in Mary. Some of them believed that God, Mary, and Satan truly walk this earth at times, intervening directly in our lives. Some of them believe that Mary blesses her faithful, turning their rosaries gold to signify their devotion. Yet how could I honor a God whose churches said I was objectively disordered and living in sin as a gay man, whose teachings seemed increasingly out of alignment with my own truth? Yet if I did not honor that God, how could I feel at home with my family, who prays the rosary together in times of great need and crisis? These days, when Pagans and Polytheists say to “Worship the gods of your ancestors,” most seem to include an unspoken parenthesis of “(except the Abrahamic one).”

Heritage, Seeking, and the Gods

I’d not had a particular interest in Egypt outside of my childhood, when I loved all the stories of the old gods. For one school project, I did a report in which I listed all the Norse gods I could find and what they were “god of,” which I understand now is oversimplified and problematic but I was ten and not as wise at the time. The Greek myths, the Graeco-Roman overlaps, the stories of Christianity all intrigued me. As a baby witch trying to connect to ancestry, I looked to the Celtic, Norse, and Roman pantheons and myths to see if any of those Gods were interested in me. My community honored Brigid during Imbolc, and I felt a friendly affinity toward her. Another community that I worked with has a deep relationship with the Norse, but Freya and her kin seemed uninterested in me.

Roman religion was of a distant, intellectual curiosity, more for the questions it raised than the practices and deities associated. The Roman religion included practices of empire, in which distant gods were uprooted and brought to the capitol to ensure the empire’s dominion over its outlying people. Gods whose lineages, teachings, and practices originated across the known world, reaching back even to Egypt, worshipping Isis, an Egyptian Netjeru who became exalted upon the world stage. Indeed, images of Isis nursing her infant Horus preceded or perhaps inspired later images of Mary with her infant Jesus.

The more I thought about it, the less it made sense to me to think I had any idea who the Gods of my ancestors were. Given shifting migratory, economic, and political histories, I couldn’t say for sure that I don’t have any ancestors that trace back to Egypt. Or maybe my soul reincarnated from a past life in which it was dedicated to the Netjeru.

At this point I’m less concerned about the explanatory models. I simply know these are the Gods who call to my soul, to whom I am called, and studying what I can of Kemetic history and practice inspires and nourishes me. What concerns me more is the need to argue with these explanatory models and teachings that ended up having little to do with my experience.

The other unspoken parenthesis comes into play when white Pagans talk about people of color working with their ancestral practices. Some white pagans think that if you have any Black, Native, Asian, or Pacific Islander heritage then “the gods of your ancestors” absolutely cannot be the European ones. As though the descendants of slaves, who were forcibly brought to this continent and experienced years of servitude and sexual violence by white masters that produced children, have no genetic lineage to Europe! This has nothing to do with spirituality and everything to do with a false attachment to ethnic “purity,” a whiteness so fragile that any known drop of other ancestry pulls it out of the realm of whiteness. My father’s sister has two kids with a Black man. Though we share the same Italian-Sicilian grandparents, would a white Pagan counsel them to study Italian witchcraft?

My Italian and my Irish ancestors were only granted access to whiteness relatively recently. Italians were subject to racism and lynching even into the earliest twentieth century.1 The Irish experienced racial discrimination and oppression for years in the United States, until they were able to leverage white supremacy and political influence at the expense of people of color.2

I recognize, and get reminded when I forget, that I must humble myself in study and contemplation of a world and society for which I have little understanding. The Two Lands thrived for millennia, its remains still standing strong, but the teachings and ways of its people are very little like the life I have in the Pacific Northwest today. The Netjeru were as much entities of place as they are connected to the larger principles of life, the cosmos, and humanity. The inundation of the Nile is distant, I cannot comprehend its significance in a deep and direct way.

Transforming the Legacy of Whiteness

Not long after I began my courtship with Anubis, my father and his wife went to Italy so he could immerse himself in the language and research our family heritage. My sister and I were able to visit him in Florence. I marveled at walking the same streets as Dante Aligheri. Perhaps I even walked the same streets as my ancestors, though the ones we knew of came from small towns. At the Baptistery of San Giovanni, my sister was surprised when I pointed out the Zodiac imagery painted in its interior. The same Zodiac whose symbols have been found inscribed in Kemetic sarcophagi, symbols whose roots go back to Babylon. Inside the neighboring Duomo, we lit candles and knelt in prayer. I knelt awkwardly, the old prayers feeling a poor fit in my mouth, but I knew I was in the house of the God of my ancestors.

“Dear God, I’m not happy with you,” I prayed. “Your priests don’t think much of me. But if you care for my family, then I will honor you for that.”

After a few minutes I felt myself soften and begin to offer gratitude and respect for what I could. As much as I can bad-talk the Christian God and that religion’s impact on my life, I’d never felt like I was at war with Him so much as with His followers. I sensed a beam of spiritual energy touching my heart, emanating from the altar. It was not a conversion or a moment of divine ecstasy; it was a rapprochement. I felt we were at peace with each other.

Looking at the depictions of saints and holy beings around me, noticing their own halos, I wondered if my Work wasn’t so different from that of my Catholic ancestors and relatives. In my core witchcraft practice, we have a notion of what we call Self-possession, when the God Soul descends to permanently and immanently connect with the body and other parts of soul. Descriptions of this are of a sphere surrounding and intersecting the top and back of the head.

Here I am, though, being problematic again. As a white inheritor of Western culture, I’ve also gotten its legacy of attempting to erase difference and find some universal, transcendent culture that I can adhere to. This makes me more likely to look at foreign contexts and project my biases onto them, rather than humble myself to their difference.

And cultural purity is a bizarre concept. It defies millennia of documented exchanges and migrations. It defies how culture works, how it gets transmitted and transformed and reformed. How it becomes imprinted on the body, created through the body, transforms the body, but is not the body. A person who identifies as white in the United States has no claim to cultural purity. Whiteness is not an ethnic heritage. Whiteness is not a country of origin from which our ancestral practices, language, religion, clothing, and art emerged. Whiteness is a culture, insofar as it prescribes us to speak, act, believe, and dress in particular ways. It punishes those of us who do not conform, all the while trying to pass itself off as an apolitical universal norm. Cultural purity in the hands of whiteness is another weapon against people of color.

Whiteness is a culture, however, that has devoured its host mothers and become a parasitic monster that consumes other cultures, erases their origins, and then produces inferior products that it claims are its own invention. Yet whiteness insists upon its own superiority, the innate rightness of its economic and military supremacy. To honor the boundaries of other cultures, to humble ourselves to their difference and desires to differentiate themselves, is a resistance to whiteness and healing from white supremacy. It is a difficult labor of decolonization, one I struggle with often.

I have racist, sexist, and homophobic ancestors. I do them no disrespect by naming this. It simply is. They are also ancestors who served others, sought Truth, and reached beyond the limits of their cultures to build friendships. They are ancestors who ventured beyond the bounds of the known to enter new lands. I have ancestors who were human beings, who danced and sang and made love and hurt each other. What I don’t have are racially or culturally “pure” ancestors. So I honor the Gods of my ancestors of blood and spirit, all of them, all who care about humanity and our place in the cosmos.


1 See Guzman’s “The New Orleans Eleven: The Untold History of the Lynching of Italians in America,” and note that this does not mean Italians went through racial discrimination equivalent to Black or Native people: http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-new-orleans-eleven-the-untold-history-of-the-lynching-of-italians-in-america/5372379
2 Please read How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev


Anthony Rella

09lowresAnthony Rella is a witch, writer, and psychotherapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005.


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Neither Capitalism Nor Socialism: A Third Alternative

In the lead up to Earth Day this year, I wrote a 21-part series of posts offering practical suggestions for how to honor the Earth beyond the standard ideas of planting a tree and picking up litter (both of which are good, but insufficient).  (You can see the list here.)

Number 6 was “Fight Capitalism.”  I wrote:

“Our capitalist economic system is fundamentally incompatible with a healthy planetary ecosystem.  We live on a planet with finite resources, but our economic system is premised on infinite growth.  And since we can’t change the laws of nature, we must change our economic system.  This means challenging some of our most cherished myths …

We can unlearn capitalist ways of thinking.  Capitalism infects all of our relationships: with other people, with other-than-human beings, and with the Earth. … Think about your relationship to the place you live.  Is it a place you ‘use’, or is it a world you inhabit, cherish, and care for?  We learned these ways of thinking, and we can unlearn them.”

One of the commenters asked me what we are to replace capitalism with.  It’s a common question that I hear in response to critiques of capitalism.  The reason why people ask this so often is because capitalism has so colonized our minds that we are incapable of imagining alternatives.

Capitalism ≠ Markets

13743608_622425937932025_2060653650_nOne point of confusion is that capitalism has been conflated with markets  People think that capitalism means people buying and selling things.  But that’s a “market.”  And there can be markets without capitalism.

What is capitalism then? A capitalist society is a market society in which the concentration of wealth in a small percentage of the population.  A capitalist society is divided into two classes: the capitalist class, which owns the means of production, and the working class, which must sell their labor to survive.  The government protects and perpetuate this division through creation and enforcement of laws like limitations on liability of corporations, protection of usury (lending with interest), and free trade agreements.

The Problem With Capitalism

The capitalist class exploits the working class by living off their labor and reinvesting profits to create more profits, which are not shared with the working class.  The members of the working class have no real power in this system, because their only options are to accept the terms of employment by the capitalist class or starve.  This is where the term “wage slavery” comes from.”  Workers put up with this because they believe they are all “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”.  In other words, they have bought into the promise of the American Dream.  But the natural outcome of a capitalist society is the increasing consolidation of property in the hands of an ever shrinking capitalist class and an ever growing class of people who earn just enough to survive (or not enough to survive) — exactly what we are witnessing today.

But this division of society between capitalists and workers is not necessary for markets, or for buying and selling, to exist.  There are other kinds of market economies than capitalism.  Some people think the only alternative to capitalism is Society-style communism — which they believe was debunked with the fall of the USSR — or socialism — which they see as a slippery slope to Soviet-style communism.  The truth is that there are many alternatives to capitalism.  Communism and socialism are just two.*  Distributism is another.

Distributism’s Origins

A little history:  Distributism has its roots in Catholic social theory, starting with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (“Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor”), which published in 1891, in the wake of the rise of capitalism and industrialization, as well as the socialist and communist reactions to these.  In the encyclical, Pope Leo called attention to the poverty of the majority of the working class.  He supported the rights of the working class to organize and form unions for purpose of collective bargaining, in lieu of state intervention.  He rejected both capitalism and socialism.  And he affirmed the right to private property.

These ideas were later supplemented by other Popes, including Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anon in 1931, Pope John XXIII’s Mater et magistrate in 1961, and Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus annus (1991).  (Distributist ideas also can be found in Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the environment. ) The ideas in these documents were taken up by British authors G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, who formed them into a coherent system called “distributism.”  It was eventually adopted by leaders of the Catholic Worker Movement like Dorothy Day.  Although distributism began as a Catholic idea, distributism’s later supporters were not necessarily Catholic.

What is Distributism?

occupy-vennDistributism is not a middle ground between capitalism and socialism.  Rather, it rejects both capitalism and socialism, which it sees as flips sides of the same coin.  From the distributist perspective, capitalism inevitably leads to the concentration of power in big businesses who hold monopolies and exploit workers, consumers, and the environment. On the other hand, socialism also leads to a concentration of power, but in the hands of big government and a political elite.  This concentration of power, either in big business or big government, has the same effect of disempowering the majority of people.  Distributism sees capitalism and socialism, big business and big government, as mutually reinforcing, one leading to the other hand back again in a vicious cycle.  (The military-industrial complex has many analogues.)  Distributism seeks a third way: instead of big business or big government, we would have “big community”.

Distributism sees economics as a subset of ethics.  Thomas Storck explains in “Capitalism and Distributism: Two Systems at War,”

“Distributism seeks to subordinate economic activity to human life as a whole, to our spiritual life, our intellectual life, our family life. It does not regard the mere production of goods, still less the acquisition of wealth, as ends in themselves.”

Our current capitalist system turns this on its head and renders everything — the family, religion, even our bodies — subordinate to the production of wealth for the capitalist class. In a distributist economy, the economy is made to serve the needs — both material and spiritual — of all human beings.

Small is Beautiful

The motto of a distributism is “Small is Beautiful”.  Distributism favors the small and the local.  A fundamental concept in distributism is “subsidiarity,” the idea any activity of economic production should be performed by the smallest possible unit — down to the family.

Another important concept is “solidarity” or “solidarism”, the recognition of our interconnectedness.  Thus, it is the family, not the individual, that is the core of distributist society.  The family is understood as connected to other families through social and biological bonds, and to the whole human family, as well as all life on earth.

In the distributist ideal, the family is in control of the means of production.  No larger unit should perform a function which can be performed by a smaller unit.  Thus, distributism favors anti-trust legislation that breaks up monopolies and concentration of market power in one or only a few companies.  As G.K. Chesterton wrote,

“Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.”

Distributism affirms private property, but rejects its consolidation in the hands of an elite — the 1%.  Instead, it advocates distributing (hence the name) property ownership as widely as possible.  Note, this is different from re-distributing income.  Distributists believe that, when people own the land on which they work and from which they and their families benefit, they work harder and take greater care of the earth.

What Does A Distributist Society Look Like?

So what would a distributist society look like?  Well, Private property would still exist, but most property would be owned by families. Small, family-owned farms and artisan businesses would produce most goods.  Most people would grow at least some of their own food, and the rest would be produced as locally as possible.

Most people would be able to earn a living without having to rely on the property of others.  Farmers would own their own land, artisans would own their own tools, and so on.  There would be markets and competition, but instead of mass production and cheap poor quality goods with built-in obsolescence, local artisans would create high quality products with the expectation that they would be repaired when they broke, not tossed in the trash.

Co-operatives of families and guilds (rather than unions) of workers would exist, but anti-trust and tax laws would prevent companies from growing too big.  Where monopolies are necessary, such as public utilities, they would be owned publicly and locally.  Local credit unions would replace big banks. Social security would be provided by mutual aid societies.   The federal government would exist to provide mutual defense, ensure that human rights are respected, and foster cooperation among smaller political units.

Distributism: A Pagan Ideal?

I’m not an expert on economic matters by any means, so I welcome constructive critiques of the ideas I’ve shared here.  Although it has its roots in Catholic social theory, I think distributism has a lot in common with Pagan critiques of capitalist society I’ve seen here at G&R and elsewhere.  I expect the “small is beautiful” concept will resonate with a lot of Pagans.  I’d like to see more discussion — both pro and con — of distributism as an alternative to capitalism (and socialism) on Pagan blogs and in Pagan forums.  So share your comments below, or write your own post in response.

Some Distributist Resources

“Distributism Basics” by David W. Cooney

A Brief Introduction

Distributist Economic Society

Distributism vs. Capitalism

Distributism vs. Socialism

The Nature and Roles of Government

The Science of Economics

What’s Wrong With Capitalism

The Distributist Review

“An Introduction to Distributism” by John Médaille

“Distributism: Economics As If People Mattered” by Peter Chojnowski

“A Parallel Economy” by Peter Chojnowski

Colin Kovarik (10 minute slideshow)

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My thanks to NaturalPantheist, whose essay, “Pagan Political Economy”, inspired me to learn more about distributism.

*There’s actually lots of different kinds of communism and socialism.