Is Slavoj Žižek a Distributist?

Over at The Spectator World (formerly known as The Spectator USA), Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek has a fascinating piece asking if the Communist Party of China’s “authoritarian capitalism” isn’t the apex of “market economics.” Prof. Žižek writes,

We should resist here the liberal temptation to dream about how, if China had moved towards political democracy, its economic progress would have been even faster.  What if political democracy would have generated new instabilities and tensions that would have hampered economic progress?  What if China’s capitalist progress was feasible only in a society dominated by a strong authoritarian power?  The classical Marxist theory on early modern England stated it was in the bourgeoisie’s own interest to leave the political power to the aristocracy and keep for itself the economic power.  Maybe something similar is going on in today’s China: it has been in the interest of the new capitalists to leave political power to the Communist party, since the Communist party is the best protector of the interests of capitalism.


The big question that haunts us is of course: can you abolish market freedom without abolishing political freedom?  You certainly can abolish political freedom without abolishing market freedom—China proved it.  Yet the final result of its rule seems to be to provide a new form of authoritarian capitalism which will replace liberal capitalism.  Is China then today the biggest threat to a genuine democratic emancipation?  Should China therefore be the enemy of the left?

Prof. Žižek’s analysis of China and modern capitalism is absolutely correct. What he misses—and I admit, it irritates me—is that capitalism has always been authoritarian. It was authoritarian when it was born under the Tudors, sired in the stolen womb of England’s monasteries. It was authoritarian during its Baroque phase under the Bourbons and Bonapartes. It was authoritarian when it came of age under the Rockefellers and Roosevelts. It’s authoritarian in the Silicon Age under the new class of robber barons: Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, and their ilk.

If those oligarchs decide that Chinese-style “socialism” will make them wealthier and more powerful, they won’t hesitate to embrace it. For the Communist Party of China has only refined the long tradition of authoritarian capitalism. It has made capitalism more “capitalist” than ever before.

Now, if capitalism went through some brief “liberal” phase (or phases), that’s very nice, but it doesn’t change the nature of capitalism. Capitalism, like communism, is centralist. It has a tendency to collect power and wealth into the hands of an elite clique. Whether you call them CEOs or Commissars, their function is exactly the same.

Capitalism and communism have always been two sides of the same coin, and they always will be.

Why does this irritate me? Because great thinkers have been pointing out this fact for centuries now—folks like Pope Leo XIII, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Fr. Vincent McNabb, Dorothy Day, and countless others. You can call it distributism, or Catholic social teaching, or whatever you like. But it’s prophetic.

And yet they’ve been ignored, because there are few credentialed economists among the distributists. That is to say, few of those trained in the pseudo-science of macroeconomics come are able to appreciate the common-sense wisdom of distributism.

What is the wisdom of distributism? Wendell Berry put it best: “As a social or economic goal, bigness is totalitarian; it establishes an inevitable tendency towards the one that will be the biggest of all.”

To anyone possessed of a little common sense, it doesn’t matter whether you achieve that tyranny—that horrible oneness—through Big Business or Big Government. But to economists (both capitalists and communists), it matters a great deal whether your tyrant hails from the “public” or the “private” sector.

Is it possible that Prof. Žižek can’t see this? Can he not see that the enemy of freedom isn’t the “Left” or the “Right” as we call them, but the one? Can he not see that communism and capitalism—even “authoritarian capitalism”—are simply different means to the same end?

Someday soon, our cognoscenti will have to look past their disdain for the amateurs who form the vanguard of distributism. Real lovers of liberty will set themselves equally against Big Business and Big Government. They’ll resist tyrants in both the public sector and the private. They’ll fight against the totalitarian nature of bigness; they’ll embrace the freedom of smallness and simplicity.

Until that day, the Chesterbelloc types will go on crying in the wilderness. Maybe someday Prof. Žižek will join us.

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