Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Drama of Distributism: The Later Battles

by Paul David Phillips, Jr.

It is important to realize that Belloc and Chesterton were democrats of the most ardent and un-English sort. They sincerely believed that government was one of the basic human acts, like “writing one’s own love letters or blowing one’s own nose,” that should be done by the people and not to them:

man is not meant merely to receive good laws, good food, or good conditions, like a tree in a garden, but is meant to take a certain princely pleasure in selecting and shaping like the gardener.

The Chesterbelloc’s democratic convictions were rooted in profound respect and trust for what they called the Common Man, and a corresponding suspicion of rule by “aristocrats” or “experts” of any kind: “…the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves – the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state.”

These sentiments helped shape the Chesterbelloc’s special regard for the poor, which joined outrage at their plight with a somewhat romantic notion of their virtues:

Caught in the trap of a terrible industrial machinery, harried by a shameful economic cruelty, surrounded with an ugliness and desolation never before endured among men…the poor are still by far the sanest, jolliest, and most reliable part of the community…

“…the living and invigorating ideal of England must be looked for in the masses,” wrote Chesterton in 1908.

This feeling for the poor helps explain the violence of the Chesterbelloc’s attacks on laws or schemes of reform which tried to impose upper-class morality or bureaucratic control on the lower classes. Aware of the defenselessness of the poor, Belloc and Chesterton were similarly alarmed by two ideas in contemporary social thinking. One was an extreme social determinism, viewing character as the product of environment, which reformers like Robert Blatchford used to bolster their arguments against the slums. Chesterton, while recognising the reformers' humane intentions, feared that determinism could as easily be used to justify repression as reform

On the basis of the [determinist's] view...the case for the aristocracy is quite overwhelming. If clean homes and clean air make clean souls, why not give the power...to those who undoubtedly have the clean air?

The determinist does not believe in appealing to the will, but he does believe in changing the environment. he must not say to the sinner, "Go and sin no more," because the sinner cannot help it. But he can put him in boiling oil, because boiling oil is an environment

In similar fashion, Chesterton' sense of human nature as a fixed, sacred entity made him wary of those who uncritically applied evolutionary theory to man and society:

...when once one begins to think of man as a shifting and alterable thing, it is always easy for the strong and crafty to twist him into new shapes for all kinds of unnatural purposes....The rich man may come to breeding a tribe of dwarfs to be his jockeys, and a tribe of giants to be his hall porters.

The importance of these warnings is not whether or not they were justified, but that they reveal the Chesterbelloc's intense, protective concern for the individual, especially for those individuals too poor or weak to speak up for themselves. It was the uncompromising nature of this concern, coupled with their democratic faith, that brought them into violent conflict with the Fabians, with G.B. Shaw, and with H.G. Wells.

Someone once described the Fabian Socialists as "more grieved by the world's mess than hurt by the world's wrongs," and indeed the Fabians often seemed to look upon England as a kind of untidy house which they wree to put in order. They pictured themselves as the vanguard of a corps of expert bureaucrats who, armed with the sociological theory and sufficient statistics, would devise and administer solutions to England's social ills.

The influence of the Fabians on English life is debatable, for it is difficult to know whether they were more product or cause of England's gradual evolution towards the Welfare State. However, in Edwardian times they were the most articulate spokesmen of socialism, and the Chesterbelloc attacked them accordingly, without always discriminating between Fabianism and more extreme forms of socialism.

The Chesterbelloc's main fear was that socialism would lead to the suppression of the individual to the state.* Specifically, they feared that under socialism the existing plutocratic elite would be replaced by an even more oppressive ruling elite of faceless bureaucrats, able to control men absolutely in the name of the "common good." But basics believing that socialism might "amount to little more than putting the largest number of people in the despotic control of Mr. Bumble," Chesterton and Belloc objected to collectivist solutions to social problems for three reasons.

First, both believed that social reform simply could not be achieved by the imposition of massive schemes from above, however well-designed. To the Chesterbelloc, a kind of personal conversion or commitment to change among the ordinary people was morally and practically necessary for successful reform.

Mere state systems could not bring about and still less maintain a reign of unselfishness, without a cheerful decision on the part of the members of society to forget selfishness even in little things.

Second, collectivist schemes, even if applied wth perfect fairness and humanity, tended to make of man more a tree than a gardener, destroying his opportunities for self-rule and the joy of personal creation.

Finally and most improtant, the Chesterbelloc contended that socialists' emphasis on efficient, centralized social arrangements belinded them to certain basic human desires, notably the desire for privacy and for family life.

...Socialists are specially engaged in mending...the state; and they are not specially engaged in strengthening and renewing the family...they are not tightening [the family] up again; they are not blackening in again the fading lines of the old drawing. With the state they are doing this; they are sharpening its machinery, they are blacking in its black dogmatic lines...

The following interview record of Beatrice Webb illustrates the differences between Chesterbelloc and Fabian: "Robinson, soclalistic dock labourer...Ritter and hopelessly illogical. The right to live and to marry and to have children, the basis of his argument." Where the Fabian saw "hopeless illogic" Chesterton and Belloc would have seen the honorable desire of the Common Man for a family and home of his own.

If their disputes with the Fabians centered on the family, the Chesterbelloc's debates with Bernard Shaw were shaped by their view of the human individual as something priceless and unalterable.

Shaw, who liked to shock his allies as well as his enemies, always insisted that he objected to capitalism not because it was cruel or unjust, but because it was wasteful and because it produced bad living conditions and therefore bad men. A character in Widower's Houses (1892) declares, "I'm poor; that's enough to make a rascal of me."

Shaw's deterministic linking of poverty and vice made him more explicitly anti-democratic than the other Fabians. In The Revolutionist's Handbook, which accompanied Men and Superman (1903), Shaw declared that "a democratic majority is simply a majority of ignorance and passion." He adds, "We are all now under what Burke called 'the hoofs of the swinish multitude.'"

Saddled with this gloomy distrust of the people he was trying to help, Shaw seized on the desperate hope that somehow a race of Superman could be bred to create a new and better society: "The only fundamental and possible Socialism is the socialization of the selective breeding of Man..." It is difficult to know how seriously Shaw took his Superman, but statements like "what can be done with a wolf canbe done with a man" seemed less witty than sinister to the Chesterbelloc.

Naturally, Chesterton and Belloc attacked Shaw's determinism and anti-democracy, but far more disturbing to them was the "huge modern heresy" which the Superman symbolized of wanting to "alter the human soul to fit its conditions, instrad of altering human conditions to fit the human soul." To the Chesterbelloc, even the whims of human nature were sacred and deserved protection against would-be human engineers: "...the thing which is valuable and lovable in our eyes is man - the old beer-drinking, creed-making, fighting, failing, respectable man." The proposals by Shaw and other eugenicists of the time seemed to the Chesterbelloc to show the old elitist desire to shape and dominate the common people, instead of letting them build a society to their own design.

H.G. Wells was trained a biologist, and his attack on capitalism reveals the orderly mind of a scientist, for above all he deplored its lack of any "plan...intention...or comprehensive design." Wells described England as a "limitless spectacle of inefficiency...millions of people not organized as they should be..."

In a series of books which included Anticipation (1901) and The Modern Utopia (1905), Wells developed the idea of a tightly-organized World State, based on "order and discipline," as the solution to the world's disorder. This utopia would be socialistic and highly centralized, directed by a giant "World Brain Center" in Barcelona. An elite class of "Samurai" (or "volunteer nobleman") would administer the State. A super-Ministry called "Behavious Control," combining medical, police, and educational functions, would implant uniform "scientific" values in all, making dissent impossible. The least capable members of society would be prevented from reproducing; the family would be made unnecessary by granting each child a sum sufficient for upkeep and education at birth.

Not suprisingly, the Wellsian World State seemed to the Chesterbelloc much more like a nightmare than a utopia. Its emphasis on centralization and uniformity clashed with their belief in the worth of small social units and human diversity. The "Samurai" they saw as a resurrected English fallacy that aristocratic rule guarantees better rule. Most important, Chesterton and Belloc were firmly and happily convinced that men were too wonderfully complex and mysterious ever to be fit into such neat scientific patterns.

This over-rapid survey has emphasized only what the Chesterbelloc emphasized about Shaw, Wells, and the Fabians, for these three opponents were the flint against which the Chesterbelloc struck the bright spark of Distributism. In all three, Chesterton and Belloc sensed distrust of the common man, the arrogance of the expert, and a totalitarian urge to impose a fixed and rational order on the superb diversity of human nature. In reaction, the Chesterbelloc felt compelled to formulate a systematic social doctrine built around those simple realities which they saw as the common desires of the common man: the family, freedom, self-rule, and the experience of life as an adventure and romance.

Interview with Thomas Storck

On Cooperative Ownership

John Médaille Interview in Romania

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