Friday, July 13, 2007

The Fortress of Property

by G.K. Chesterton

The old parties of our political life are not only old but dead. They are dead by this decisive test; that they are dead to the particular appeal that should and once did rouse them like a trumpet. Liberalism does not want to liberate anything. Conservatism does not want to conserve anything. The Tory can hardly be stung to life even by an insult to patriotism. The Radical can hardly remember when he resented regimentation as the soul of militarism. Of this ugly truth two unquestionable tests of examples may be taken.

For instance, if the Conservative might be expected to wish to conserve anything, he might wish to conserve England. The English life, the English landscape, and especially the old English monuments, might be supposed to be left in the trust to the Tories. If so, the trustees have broken their trust. Individuals have made admirable protests; but there has been no real rally to the defence of old England by all that body that votes and speaks for Conservatism. The painful explanation is that it really votes and speaks only for Capitalism. An English village must cut down its trees because an American factory wants to sell its cars; and the trees are cut down, very often, not only without a protest from the villagers but even from the squire or parson. The gentry seems to have surrendered to the plutocracy and ceased to defend England against foreign invasion. It is the same in every department. Tories will sometimes rave feebly against Jews revolutionizing Russia. But when an insolent German Jew organises a gigantic British combine, they dare not protest against Jews revolutionising England. Suburban Conservatives will sometimes make feeble jokes about the American chasing the dollar. But when an absurd American not only chases dollars down Oxford Street but chases all our own shopkeepers out of their own shops, they dare not even laugh; in the respectful silence there is not so much as a giggle. Moreover, they all go to his shop; a shop decorated outside in a highly florid and ornamental fashion. But among those decorations should be a design of the Caudine Forks, under which pass a conquered people.

Just in the same way, if Radicals rebel against anything they might rebel against Dora. They might resent the extension of merely military discipline, of regulations only defensible in wartime and even only defended as a sort of martial law. Of these restrictions the most ridiculous, the most rigid and the most unpopular, are those limiting the sale of liquor to a few inconvenient hours in a normal working day. All the old champions of liberty would have been stunned with incredulity at such a sight. They would have found their tongues only to thunder against it as they thundered against the tyrants of Turkey or Russia. The modern Radical dares not whisper a word against it. He knows it is wise to be silent when tyrants are agreed; when the Liquor Trust and the Cocoa Trust are met together; when Russia, Prussia, and Austria have kissed each other, partaking of the sacramental body of Poland; when Herod and Pilate have shaken hands.

Amid all these deaf ears and dead instincts there is for us only one thing to say. The moral of all this is still in two words; private property. For the present, and for some time, private property will be a refuge. It will be a refuge for national tradition; it will be a refuge for personal freedom. A man’s garden can still be English when his very town or village has turned foreign. He can drink in his own house as if in an English inn, even when the English inn has been turned into an American hotel. Putting aside the question of economic support for the moment, any moderate sized house and garden like my own would serve well enough as a working model of my meaning. As a matter of fact, I suspect that in the last resort a family could even live on its own eggs and vegetables on a pretty small area, if it all worked with that object; but I am not arguing that practical point now. I am dealing only with the cultural and not the agricultural question. I have not got three acres and a cow, but only two acres and a dog. But even such tradition of property and privacy as still remains is enough to make a difference between the treatment of these things within the area and the treatment of everything else outside. My garden could still remain an English garden even if my town has been entirely changed to an American town. My dog could still be treated like an English (or more strictly Scottish) dog, even if everybody else had fallen in with some new fashion suggested by modern movements; such as sacrificing dogs to science or sacrificing human victims to dogs or training dogs to be vegetarians or any other evolution of the kind. Beaconsfield, where I live, was until lately and is still very largely, a beautiful English town. It is already being cut up to some extent by that curious passion for sacrificing everything to motoring which is the superstition of the hour. Everything is subordinated, not, of course, to the mere miserable inhabitants of Beaconsfield, not even to the visitors who come to Beaconsfield, but entirely to the people who want to get through Beaconsfield; and especially those who want to get through without looking at it. All that process might go on; until every stick and stone had been destroyed in the triumph of the cad in the car, the latest version of the god in the car. The whole place might look exactly like the town of Thermopylae, Neb.; that is it might consist of large advertisements and small sheds made of tin and wood. But so long as my garden is mine, I can still within a reasonable space walk about in the English countryside; even if I am walking on a sort of island like Napoleon at St. Helena.

The time is not come, though I think it will come, when private property can be like the ship Argo, manned by heroes and sailing to find the Golden Fleece; no inappropriate symbol, since it once suggested the medieval link between the English countryside and the guilds of Flanders. It is at present not in the position of the Argo, but of the Ark. It is the refuge into which all truly living things must retire, and all truly precious things be gathered; against a deluge of things that will be worse before they are better; a welter and chaos preceding a creation and a dawn.

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