Michel Houellebecq, the French novelist, might at first glance have little to do with family businesses. For the most part that’s true. But his latest novel Submission mentions them in an interesting context - how they are linked to a little known economic movement called distributism.
Houellebecq’s controversial book portrays a France in the future ruled by a coalition of political parties in which the Muslim Brotherhood is the biggest member. The president of France becomes Ben Abbes, the charismatic leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in the book. Abbes proves to be a moderate leader, and according to the book, is influenced by the theory of distributism, as well as, of course, the teachings of Islam.
As Houellebecq, says in Submission: “...distributism was an English economic theory espoused at the turn of the last century by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. It was a ‘third way’, neither capitalism nor communism…For distributists, the basic economic unit was the family business…”
There is, of course, one big caveat when it comes to distributists’ love of family businesses, they liked them small. They wouldn’t have approved of IKEA, VW, or Wal Mart. For distributists, small was beautiful when it came to business activity.
Distributism has never really taken hold of economy policy in any country, but its influence on politicians and economists pops up from time to time. Perhaps its most notable influence has been on the “third way” policies of the former British prime minister Tony Blair and a number of other politicians including Bill Clinton and the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi.
But it has also had an influence on business - at least indirectly. Despite distributists saying that family businesses are at the heart of their thinking, it’s probably right in saying that few family businesses know much about distributism. Nevertheless, those businesses committed to the concept of stakeholder capitalism - where their companies aren’t just driven by the interests of their shareholders, but other stakeholders including their employees, the community and the environment - might be practicing, unknowingly or not, a form of distributism.
And maybe many more companies will do so in the future. The global B Corp movement might be indicative of this trend. The movement wants corporations to consider all stakeholders in their work, by changing their governance structures. B Corps are legally required to serve workers, communities and the wider environment - as well as shareholders.
There are apparently more than 1,400 B Corp certified companies globally. OK, many of them are small, but there’s also some big brand members like Ben & Jerry’s and Natura, one of Brazil’s biggest cosmetics companies with revenues of more than $3 billion annually.
Of course, many family businesses would say they have been practicing stakeholder values for years and don’t need “legal” recognition to prove that they are doing so. Nevertheless, the B Corp movement is an interesting development, and something that could appeal to many family businesses.
Given that it never caught on during their lives, the founders of distributism might of felt their movement would disappear into the ether of forgotten ideas. But it appears to be alive and well - even gaining influence in the 21st century - albeit with a contemporary twist.
Houellebecq and his fictional character Ben Abbas might be onto something.