Monday, January 07, 2008

The Return to Mediaevalism

by Arthur Penty


A consideration of the issues raised in the foregoing chapters points to the conclusion that capitalism is about to commit suicide. Having reared the industrial system upon a basis of social and economic injustice, capitalists are driven from one desperate expedient to another in a vain effort to attain economic stability. But these efforts will avail nothing, for the crisis ahead cannot be met by men whose primary interest is in maintaining the capitalist system. Hence their dilemma.

It is because industrialism is finally based upon social injustice that the balance between demand and supply has been upset For this phenomenon is but the reflection in the economic sphere of the destruction of the balance of power in the body politic which followed the destruction of the Guilds at the time of the Reformation, when the people lost control of those things which immediately affected their lives uncontrolled by Guilds, industry could no longer be related to human needs. It became subject to mass movements entirely incapable of control by any human agency whatsoever, whether collective or individual, and it has gone on floundering ever since, while Parliament, which came to usurp all power in the State, has in turn been drawn into the sweep of these invisible world-currents.

In one sense it is true to say that the present state of things marks a condition into which civilization has drifted, and is the result of no policy, no forethought, no design. And yet in another sense this is not true. The modern State has become what it is because for the last four hundred years the governing class have sought to perpetuate the injustices established by the Reformation. It was because the governing class was living on the plunder of the monasteries and the Guilds that they were in the past led to blacken Catholicism, to condone usury, to misrepresent the Guilds and to give support to false political and economic theories. They did this because in no other way could they justify themselves. While they denied the people the right to manage their own affairs through the agency of Guilds the only institution through which the people are capable of exercising control they found that they themselves were unable to control the economic situation. When they found that their meddling only made matters worse, they came to drift, to adopt the policy of laissez-faire, which the force of circumstances has brought to an end, but which leaves them in a sad dilemma. For whereas things have reached such a pass that something must be done, they find that not only are they without any rational social theory to guide them in the task of reconstruction, but that the prejudice against Mediaeval society which has been created by lying historians in the past stands in their way, because it has led men to look with suspicion upon all normal social arrangements. In rejecting the Guild, political philosophers denied the chief corner stone of any sane political theory, and have in consequence been driven into error after error and into compromise after compromise in a vain endeavour to find solutions to problems which for minds with their perverted outlook are insoluble.

To Mediaeval social arrangements we shall return, not only because we shall never be able to regain complete control over the economic forces in society except through the agency of restored Guilds, but because it is imperative to return to a simpler state of society. Further development along present lines can only lead to anarchy. For anarchy is the product of complexity. It comes about in this way : the growth of complexity leads to confusion, because when any society develops beyond a certain point the human mind is unable to get a grip of all the details necessary to its proper ordering. Confusion leads to misunderstandings and suspicions, and these things engender a spirit of anarchy. No one will deny that such a spirit is rife to-day, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is a sign that modern society is beginning to break up. We are certainly beginning to turn the corner, and once it is turned there will be no stopping until we get back to the Mediaeval basis. We shall travel of course by stages. But we shall get there eventually because we shall find no rest, no stability, until we reach our destination. There will be no stopping at any half-way house; so much is certain.

Meanwhile it is interesting to note how Mediaeval economic principles are insinuating themselves into latter-day practice as a consequence of the force of circumstances. We have not yet attained to the Mediaeval conception of a Just Price, but the necessity of putting a boundary to the depredations of the profiteer has revived its Mediaeval corollary the Fixed Price. Being a practical people with machinery as our god, we indignantly repudiate the idea that it is in the interests of society that machinery be controlled. Yet all the same machinery is being controlled in Lancashire and Yorkshire to-day it is true as measures of war emergency consequent upon the shortage of cotton and wool, but it is none the less significant on that account; for if the war is not to be regarded as a colossal accident but as something towards which the whole modern polity inevitably tended, then we may be sure that the forces at work which make control necessary to-day will make it necessary in the future. The cotton shortage may come to an end ; but Lancashire is losing its Indian market because of an adverse tariff, as indeed it is losing other markets through the growth of competition circumstances which bring home to us the fact that industrialism has reached its limit of expansion. Wisdom might have suggested years ago the desirability of regulating the output of cotton. For it would surely have been better to have introduced such regulations than to be for ever lowering the standard of quality in order to adjust the balance between demand and supply which the use of an ever-increasing number of spindles necessitated. Is it not strange that nothing short of a war of universal dimensions could induce Lancashire to face up to the situation? I should like to believe that wars would be impossible in the future, but the unwillingness or inability of mankind to face the simple facts of society apart from them does not leave much room for hope.

The examples I have given of the tendency of latter-day economic practice to follow Mediaeval lines are interesting, but the strongest evidence of all in support of the hypothesis that a return to Mediaevalism is essential to the preservation of society is to be found in the success of the National Guild movement which proposes to transform the Trade Unions into Guilds. For there is historical continuity in the idea, inasmuch as the Trade Unions are the legitimate successors of the Mediaeval Guilds, not only because the issues with which they have concerned themselves have arisen as a result of the suppression of the Guilds, but because they acknowledge in their organization a corresponding principle of growth. The Unions to-day with their elaborate organizations exercise many of the functions which were formerly performed by the Guilds such as the regulation of wages and hours of labour, in addition to the more social duty of giving timely help to the sick and unfortunate. Like the Guilds, the Unions have grown from small beginnings until they now control whole trades. Like the Guilds also, they are not political creations, but voluntary organizations which have arisen spontaneously to protect the weaker members of society against the oppression of the more powerful. They differ from the Guilds only to the extent that, not being in possession of industry and of corresponding privileges, they are unable to accept responsibility for the quality of work done and to regulate the prices. The National Guild proposal therefore to transform the Trade Unions into Guilds by giving them a monopoly of industry is thus seen to be an effort to give conscious direction to a movement which hitherto has been entirely instinctive which is, to use Mr. Chesterton's words, "a return to the past by men ignorant of the past, like the subconscious action of some man who has lost his memory." And the propaganda has met with a phenomenal success a success which I have some right to say has been out of all proportion to the amount of work put into it or the means at the disposal of its advocates, and which therefore can only be finally explained on the assumption that it voices a felt need; that the balance of power in society has become so upset that men instinctively support the Guild idea as a means of restoring the equilibrium.

It is safe to say that the Guild propaganda would not have been followed with the success it has had but for the co-operation of certain external happenings. In the first place there is the growing distrust of Parliament and centralized government. In the next there is the increasing sense of personal insecurity and loss Jof ^personal independence which has followed the growth of large organizations. Then there is the war and the Munitions Act, which gave the workers a taste of Collectivism and the enormous growth of bureaucracy, which has brought home to many people the utter inadequacy of such a method for meeting really vital problems. In consequence almost everybody has come to feel that some fundamental change must be made, and as the road forward is impassable, there is no alternative but to go back. I am aware of course that many National Guilds- men would not go to such lengths. Their concern is with the problem of transforming the Unions into Guilds, which they can justify as going forward. All the same it is a step backwards of a very fundamental order, for it is nothing less than a proposal to reverse the practice and judgment of the last four hundred years. I say "practice and judgment," but I place practice first because I do not seriously think that the present state of things owes its existence to any reasoned judgment whatsoever. It was established first by force and attempted justifications were made afterwards. That is the history of all modern ideas.

Interview with Thomas Storck

On Cooperative Ownership

John Médaille Interview in Romania

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