Reviewed by Keith Harvey
Of Labour and Liberty – Distributism in Victoria 1891-1966 By Race Mathews
- Publisher: Monash University Publishing, 2017
- ISBN: 1925495337, 9781925495331
- RRP $34.95
The old adage “never judge a book by its cover” may also apply to its title. It is certainly the case with the latest offering of Dr Race Mathews, which has the grand and expansive title Of Labour and Liberty and a precise sub-title: Distributism in Victoria 1891-1966.
A reader who purchases the book seeking to learn more about the subject implied by the sub-title will be largely disappointed. This is a pity because Race Mathews is undoubtedly the Australian most interested in Distributism today and who has done most to explain its principles and encourage its application.
Distributism was the name used by a group of English Catholic intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s to describe their social and economic philosophy based on the social teachings of the Catholic Church and their opposition to both capitalism and state socialism/communism. G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc were the best known Distributists.
Capitalism, they argued, had resulted in ownership being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. The left’s solution to this problem was either State socialism or communism but the Distributists saw this as simply the other side of the same counterfeit economic and social coin.
In both systems, workers had no personal ownership, no control or influence over their working lives, whether or not the system claimed to be run in their interests (as in the case of state socialism and communism).
The alternative to capitalism was not State socialism but the wider distribution of ownership. How this was to be achieved was not particularly well defined by the Distributists but in fact a model which sought to implement wider ownership was already known: the cooperative model of economic activity.
Cooperatives were well known in England since the days of the Rochdale cooperative in 1844. Rochdale was a consumer cooperative but the principles of cooperation can also be expressed in other forms of endeavour – for example, producer, credit and worker cooperatives. In all cases, the primary economic actors own the business.
Race Mathews has done significant work in publicising the ideas of the Distributists in Australia but even more importantly in researching, describing and analysing the best current example of cooperative enterprise – that is, the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation (MCC) in the Basque region of Spain.
Established largely through the efforts of a Catholic priest – Fr José María Arizmendiarrieta – in the years immediately following the Spanish Civil and Second World wars using Catholic social teaching as his inspiration, the Mondragon coops remain an amazing example of what is possible.
The Mondragon co-ops are worker co-ops based in industrial and other enterprises but also include credit, producer and consumer co-ops and even educational institutions run on the cooperative model. Race Mathews has visited Mondragon regularly and has written extensively on this subject. His earlier book, Jobs of Our Own, deals extensively with Mondragon and is highly recommended.[i]
Mathews’s interest in this subject is intriguing for a number of reasons. Not a Catholic himself, he has done more than most to publicise and promote this aspect of Catholic social teaching.
Race Mathews has been a longstanding ALP member, was principal private secretary to ALP Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and later a Federal and then Victorian MP and Minister. Mathews was also a prominent member of the Fabian Society, an intellectual group within the ALP.
The best known member of the British Fabians was George Bernard Shaw whose polemical debates with Chesterton and Belloc became legendary. That Mathews has done most to expound the views of the latter in Australia is ironic.
But the latest book does not serve his subject as well as his prior effort. Indeed, rather than a consideration of Distributism in Victoria, Of Labour and Liberty has allowed itself to be distracted by other issues.
It presents a useful and readable account of the development of Catholic social teaching from the time of Cardinal Henry Edward Manning in England, to Leo XIII’s great encyclical Rerum Novarum, and its influence in Australia via Sydney’s Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran.
But when the focus eventually turns to Victoria, the account is distracted by his treatment of Archbishop Daniel Mannix and even more so by his concentration on issues related to Catholic Action.
Catholic Action was promoted by Pope Pius XI in 1927 to encourage the role of the laity in the work of the Church in society. Catholic Action groups of many types were established and members were encouraged to be active in promoting social reform based on the social teachings of the Church. The best known of these groups internationally has been the Young Christian Workers (YCW).
In Australia, Catholic Action also took the form of the Catholic Social Studies Movement [CSSM, – the Movement] headed by B A Santamaria which emerged at about the same time and which became dedicated to the elimination of Communist control of trade unions.
Tension emerged between these two strands of Catholic Action – one group held that Catholic Action should not involve itself in party politics but Santamaria’s Movement clearly had a political expression inasmuch as winning control of unions inevitably led to influence in the ALP.
What does this have to do with Distributism? In the view of Race Mathews, quite a lot, and he spends an inordinate amount of this new book dealing with this issue which this reviewer thinks has been authoritatively dealt with elsewhere.
Mathews’s opinion is best summed up in his own words in a long article he published in the journal Labour History in 2007 (on which key chapters of the latest book are clearly based). He then wrote:
Santamaria’s undoubted contribution to the removal of communists from trade union office in the 1940s and 1950s may be judged ultimately to have been less significant than his marginalising of Social Catholicism.[ii]
This is an unlikely claim, but it is greatly expanded upon in this book. To establish his case, Mathews seeks to completely downplay the issue of communist penetration of the Australian trade union movement in the period prior to and following the Second World War.
Mathews does not see the communist issue as a significant one for Australia and, in any case, suggests that the job of containing communism in the union movement was over by 1953.
This view can be contrasted with that of another prominent long-time ALP member Graham Freudenberg:
The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of communism in 1989-91 has rendered almost incomprehensible many aspects of the Cold War to 21st century generations…the ideological threat presented…now tends to be discounted. But it was real….[iii]
Mathews both minimises the local threat and ignores the significance of these issues worldwide. The threat to human rights, including worker rights, posed by the Soviet Union did not disappear until 1989-1991 and remain today in China and Viet Nam.
These matters have been debated elsewhere. Unfortunately, they dominate the latter part of this book to the extent that they obscure almost completely its central sub-theme. Apart from one chapter on the work of the YCW in Victoria, Of Labour and Liberty scarcely touches the issue of Distributism in Victoria.
The reader is left with two main impressions: firstly, that Distributism was largely only sought to be implemented through the work of the YCW but that its consumer and credit co-op work eventually fizzled out and, secondly, that this (and much else) was Santamaria’s fault.
Mathews argues this case extensively – but ultimately unconvincingly – and as a result leaves unexplored the existence of other possibly Distributist cooperative models in Victoria. The reader is left to conclude that nothing else happened.
For example, the rural Catholic community of Maryknoll just outside Melbourne is mentioned by name in passing just once. There is no attempt to search out and examine other cooperatives which may have been inspired by the ideas of the Distributists.
The reader is left with the feeling that cooperativism is dead in Victoria and elsewhere in Australia (and only alive in Spain). The penultimate chapter returns to the Mondragon example but Mathews has written better about this elsewhere and it hardly fits with the central sub-theme.
But cooperativism is not dead in Victoria or Australia. Mathews laments the fact that one of the credit cooperatives that he was involved in – the Waverley Credit Union – was deregistered in 2011. But the Waverley Credit Union became part of what is now the flourishing Bank Australia, a member owned mutual bank operating on cooperative principles.
Australian cooperatives are represented by the Business Council of Co-Operatives and Mutuals. Their 2015 National Mutual Economy Report estimates that there are about 1700 cooperative and mutual enterprises (CMEs) in Australia with nearly 15 million members – eight in ten Australians are members of mutuals in one form or another.
These include principally credit unions or mutual banks, auto clubs, sports clubs, member owned health funds as well as major producer co-ops. The combined turnover for the Top 100 Australian CMEs for FY2013/14 was just under $27.9 billion with combined assets of around $111.46 billion, according to the report. [iv]
While there are few worker (as opposed to producer co-ops), the mutual idea is not dead in this country. Race Mathews would have better served his readers and his topic had he given thought and space to what exists rather than to attempt to find blame in the distant past for what he thinks might have been.
Keith Harvey spent nearly 40 years working in the Australian trade union movement. He retired in 2011 from the Australian Services Union, of which he is a life member. He is a member of the ALP and a Director of an industry superannuation fund. Keith visited the Mondragon Cooperative Community in 2008.
[i] Mathews, Race, Jobs of Our own – Building a Stakeholder Society, Alternatives to the Market and the State, The Distributist Review Press 1999, 2009, Irving, Texas.
[ii] Mathews, Race, Collateral damage: B A Santamaria and the Marginalising of Social Catholicism, Labour History Number 92, May 2007, p 89.
[iii] [iii] Graham Freudenberg, in Forward to Murray, R, Labor and Santamaria, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016, p viii. Freudenberg worked as a speechwriter for 40 years for successive generations of ALP leaders, including federal parliamentary leaders such as Calwell, Whitlam and Hawke, as well as for NSW ALP leaders.
[iv] BUSINESS COUNCIL OF CO-OPERATIVES AND MUTUALS, 2015 National Mutual Economy Report, accessed on line: http://bccm.coop/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/NME-Report-2015_web1.pdf, pp 17-19