Introduction to Distribute or Destroy

Distribute or Destroy front coverby Carol Sill

Combining the work of various “heretical” economists into one accessible volume, this book by Brynjolf Björset (aka Bryn Beorse) leads up to a tested Scandinavian economic experiment. Nordic Clearing was established as a bridge to a new applied economy. Behind it was a radical overview dedicated to rethinking the nature of money, particularly in the climate after WWI.

Björset was asked to outline the basic work of the best known new economists of the day, offering an assessment of the situation of poverty in the midst of plenty. He produced  Efter Oss Kommer Overfloden (After Us the Glut),  his world economic survey published by Aschehoug in Oslo, Norway in 1934. It was immediately translated into English, and released in Britain and the US as Distribute or Destroy.

This book brought the young civil engineer, Brynjolf Björset, on to the world stage as a firebrand economic thinker who applied radical theories for the greater good.

His engagement with Nordic Clearing was reprised after WWII when he was selected to participate in the group that rebuilt the economy of Norway. Even today, Norway is an example of the kind of cautious innovative economic policy that serves the community and nation over excessive private profits.

Pushed by the dire global depression, the need for a new approach to distribution of goods and services sparked a variety of innovative thoughts on the economy. Redefining wealth, re-examining the gold standard, placing the new theories into historical contexts, this book gives a great deal of information for further discussion and exploration. It is a start in building a bridge from the old world-view to the new.

Each chapter is dedicated to one economic approach that had received reasonable traction in the thinking of the times. Some had been applied, others remained theoretical, so far untested in the world.

Now almost a hundred years since some of these theories were first drafted we can look with fresh eyes at the ideas that were emerging in those tumultuous times after WWI.

Rapidly increasing production power, expanding industrial output and the revolution in electric power met both left- and right-wing political ideologies in an arena of war debt and post-war shock.

The Great Depression caused economists the world over to re-examine the economic cycles of the century past. New fermenting ideas were everywhere, but were often dismissed by the status quo as merely the wacky fringe activities of marginal cranks and quacks. Each of the systems in this book has been so vilified, yet each has a merit that brings to the fore a new approach for the future.

Beorse foregrounds many of the new economists of the day, offering digests of their main tenets, with an invitation for interested parties to examine their work further.  He personally met with many of these distinguished economic thinkers, and worked closely with them, not only in creating Nordic Clearing but after WWII in rebuilding the economy of Norway. Applying these concepts, the Nordic Clearing Company’s regulations are listed in the appendix, for those who may wish to also create new non-gold based exchanges.

In today’s age of bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies, awareness of the 99%, various small applied barter systems, and much more, we can look back to some earlier efforts.

It is useful to compare our current thinking to the radical work of experimental economists who didn’t have the advantage of our advanced computer systems, but whose goal was reorganization for the common good.

The re-thinking of money as a means of exchange, of wealth as use and distribution of goods, of the health of a community based not simply on stores of gold but on useful enterprise is a noble ideal to strive toward.

The earlier English edition included this introductory quote: “The upper limit to human numbers is not set by any facts of nature, but by human ignorance and inadaptability.” (Professor Haldane in Possible Worlds)

It is easy to dismiss new economic theories as the nutty ideas of disenfranchised and uninformed on the margins of the mainstream. Far from the case, new concepts in the new field of economics were being tried and experimented with, either in thought or in test applications by noted accomplished theorists, and Björset reported on these forward thinkers in this book.

Dr. Robert Eisler’s book Stable Money is one of the main foundations of this new economic thinking, questioning the gold standard and its relation to currency. Eisler was a well-known Jewish historian of art and culture in Austria and a follower of Carl Jung. This great thinker was a guest professor at the Sorbonne while he was Assistant Director of the League of Nations Universities Interrelation Office in Paris, and he lectured at Oxford before the war. He survived internment in both Dachau and Buchenwald.

The book’s translator, Eric de Mare, who later became a prominent architecture photographer, was a utopian thinker.  A frequent visitor to Sweden, he perhaps connected with Björset at that time of intellectual ferment. Just graduated in 1933, de Mare supported New Architecture, and he looked to economic reorganization as a means to foster better architecture to provide better lives in community. He joined the Social Credit Party in 1933 and with his brother, Ian, prepared the English translation of Distribute or Destroy. Before WWII he was General Treasurer of the Social Credit Party in England, and over the years he wrote many inspired futuristic utopian articles about willing cooperation and a new civilization based on full employment. Many of de Mare’s ideas are consistent with Beorse’s vision, however, due to his strong bias, the tone of the English version of the book perhaps veers more closely to Social Credit. The original Norwegian book offered balanced assessment of various approaches, with Social Credit being only one.

The ideas of Social Credit have been discredited partly due to its mysterious morphing into a strange amalgamation of right-wing politics and evangelical Christianity – leaving behind its basis as a radical new economic system. In addition, there is a troubling shadow of anti-Semitism that still persists, based on some of the founder’s statements. However, these views do not necessarily impact the idea of the system itself.

The first Social Credit articles were published in Orage’s New Age magazine, one of the first early modern magazines of the 20th century. More interested in metaphysics than politics, Orage was a pupil of Ouspensky who went on to establish Gurdjieff centres in the USA.

Social Credit was applied in the 1930s (with some modifications) in the province of Alberta through a newly-elected Social Credit Party, led by the popular radio evangelist, William Aberhart. Its system of “currency” was short-lived, soon shut down by Canada’s federal government. It should be noted that well before WWII, Aberhart expelled anti-Semites from his legislature.

In correspondence with Samuel Lewis in 1966, Beorse openly offers his evaluation of the founder of Social Credit, Major Douglas:

“…Mr. Taylor recently of Alberta who confirmed my impression that Aberhart and Manning, Alberta Social Crediters, good, honest and astute men who had carried to great success, against tremendous odds, the weak but basically true ideas of social credit. Douglas, its “inventor” and champion was not very clear or wise, and his “equations” were never accepted in Alberta, luckily, nor was he ever willing to go to Alberta and see the only practical application of his theories, though he was invited while I was in London with him.”

In another letter he bluntly wrote:

“Social Credit– not a good name now. John F Kennedy was rising from ignorance to a good grasp of the main principles, until he uttered “The myth of the Federal Budget”. So true, but I asked Seymour Harris, his tutor and senior advisor to the Treasury if it wasn’t too blunt. “No no, just right! It had to be said.” US economists now are social crediters in the right sense as those Canadians (simple) in Alberta were years ago, but you do not now have to go to Canada to learn about what is now more developed here at home. Douglas, the creator of Social Credit was much of a Babbitt, too, fond of simple mathematical formulae which did not at all fit the complex economic structure (more advanced math may be used discernedly) and refused to go to Canada to see what was really then better than him, afraid he would be embarrassed. I still have a better overall view of economics of any country but less knowledge of details, than most. But if I am appointed anywhere I can collect, digest and use the details toward a solution. It is a complicated instrument, not to be played with.”

Beorse met and worked with many varied distinguished economic thinkers, and was more concerned with uplifting humanity than with the distinctions and differences that divide our communities.

Luther Whiteman and Samuel L. Lewis had quoted Distribute or Destroy in their book, Glory roads: the psychological state of California published by Thomas Y. Crowell Company in1936. Written during the Great Depression, it was prefaced as “an attempt to record only some of the better known crusades of the depression years, and to picture only some of the more important of recent messiahs.” In the book they reported on the new economic groups based on the ideas sweeping through the consciousness of Californians. From Distribute or Destroy they included the example of the ruined coal mining village, Schwanenkirchen in Bavaria, and the adoption of Wäras system that brought it back into activity.

They may have read this book as part of the background to their endeavour. It is more likely that they added the example as an afterthought, after meeting the Norwegian Björset in California when Distribute or Destroy had been released in English in the US. Beorse and Samuel L. Lewis shared another connection: both had been pupils of the great mystic, Inayat Khan. They had studied with him in the mid-1920s, attending the Sufi Summer School in Sursesnes, just outside of Paris. Retaining their close relationship in the decades to follow, they continued discussing and implementing socioeconomic theories and ideals for the betterment of humanity.

It was Whiteman who first told Beorse about the Dunes in Oceano, and the naturally curious Beorse was drawn to discover more. The Dunites had not been given a very positive assessment in their book, yet Whiteman and Lewis had both spent time in that open community. Frequently visited by California intelligensia, it was fostered in part by Gavin Arthur (grandson of Chester Arthur, former President of the United States) and the Irish Folklorist Ella Young. Beorse’s book, Fairy Tales are True, dedicates a long section to this Bohemian Shangri-la, which was home to eccentric characters ranging from hoboes to yogis, writers and artists. In Arthur’s magazine, The Dune Forum, each issue featured an article on some aspect or approach to new economics, along with the other ideas of the times that were looking toward a New Age. At Moy Mell,  Gavin’s cabin in the Dunes, differing viewpoints on economic directives were hotly argued. The Dune Forum reflects how paramount economic theories were in the Dunites’ passionate discussions.

Such varied views were similarly brought together in Distribute or Destroy. The book introduced an everyday reader to the principles behind some of the more prominent new economic approaches being discussed in the early 1930s.  From purely theoretical Technocracy to the partially implemented Social Credit system, all seen in the context of Stable Money and new approaches to the “idea” of money, the book’s range showed the reader of the time how many people in Europe and the UK were thinking beyond the status quo. They were not always in agreement, but all realized the need to create something new.

Visible in the writing are the attitudes of the time, and reading this book we realize that it was in current memory of many living in the 1930s that the “horsepower” of a vehicle related to the power of a number of actual horses. The statistics quoted here reveal the rapid accelleration of production and the need for society to catch up  with an effective mechanism of distribution.

At the time this book was written, the First World War is  the only war mentioned, and war debt refers to its aftermath. There was no inkling of the Second War to come. Perhaps if some of these theories had been implemented, that tragedy could have been avoided.

Seen from today’s vantage point, the decades between the World Wars of the 20th century were a time of upheaval and re-evaluation on every front. We are now in a similar crisis of poverty in the midst of plenty, with added looming environmental threats on the horizon. Perhaps revisiting some of the earlier radical economists can spark further innovative thinking and implementation toward active and lasting support for our global community.

As Beorse said in 1934, “A great many of our economists have not yet noticed that this world of unavoidable scarcity is by now as dead and gone as the stone age.”