The difficulties before us in the restoration of property are twofold. They are, first of all the philosophy under which the modern world, particularly in this country, has been created and has lived increasingly during the last 300 years; and secondly, the actual state of society produced by that philosophy. I distinguish between the two. A philosophy—or a religion, which is the only practical form of any philosophy—is a state of mind, a mood, an attitude towards the universe, and in the long run that produces its fruit in institutions, examples of action, of manner, of little daily details which flow from the philosophy. But you must distinguish between the two, because the first is not easily approachable in the same way in which the second is approachable.
Let us take things in their logical order. There is a certain philosophy called natural religion we all have in us, and under which we should all live were we free of tradition (which of course is impossible to man) or had we nothing but an unpolluted tradition; and it must be justly taken that under those conditions property exists, in the sense, that is, of property well divided. One can imagine no more normal human society, no society more normal to man as we know him, as he is. A society in which men live in security, such that every production of wealth with that which they possess maintains them in the community, and can be handed on to their posterity. That is normal to man. All our folklore, all our fairy tales, morals, proverbs, point to that as being our norm. If I steal my neighbour’s watch I am not punished—a poor man would be punished, but I should not be—I am blamed on the theory that it is property which I am infringing. We all think normally, in our human consciences, in terms of property. That, I say, is a fundamental which we must all admit.
Of course a man naturally owns, and naturally will have the tradition and security that goes with ownership, but to that philosophy was added another philosophy which came in slowly over the Greco-Roman world, and happily got through to our world, called the conversion of the Roman Empire. There was a slow transmogrification from the old Pagan religion into a more conscious, more active and more dangerous, but perhaps more developed state of mind, which was called Christendom, and under that again property was established, and in a very interesting way; because the Christian religion, having baptised the Greco-Roman world, had such an effect upon it that slowly and inevitably the slave became an owner. By very slow degrees it happened, and before the end of the Middle Ages, throughout the west of Christendom, on the whole and taking it by and large, there had been a commonwealth established in which most men owned and most men could transmit what they owned to their posterity. There was the guild for the craftsman and the village community for the peasant. That was the norm of that society, and men were pretty happy under that society, and the test of normality is whether people are happy or not. If you doubt whether they were happy or not, go to the places which they carved, and see the songs which they sang, and compare them with the songs which we sing. As for carving, well go and look at the carving.
Now that philosophy was warped by a great revolution which began after the Black Death, and was growing in the early 16th century; but after a tremendous fight, by the middle of the 17th century, Europe had decided to divide into two camps from exhaustion. The old tradition could not conquer the new revolt, and the new revolt could not conquer the old religion. One of the camps said, ‘I have done with all the old things, I have got some new principle altogether,’ and the other said, ‘No. I am going on,’ but did not only say it was going on, but organised itself for resistance lest it should be swamped; and those two camps in Europe went on. You will remember that in those days the Greek Orthodox Church hardly counted.
Now under those two philosophies, the first philosophy, the rebellious philosophy, won. The general term for it is Protestant, but it was much more, it was also the general emancipation from the clerical system of the Middle Ages spread out in all sorts of ways. There is no generic term for it, but it won, and having won it produced very slowly, by stages of which many are familiar, after generations, what is known as the Capitalist System, in which efficiency was produced not by the supervision of work or by the guild, but by competition; in which the peasant, because he was the less instructed, was destroyed under competition; in which, not exactly because men worshipped Mammon but because they worshipped the competitive idea, the rich man ate up the small man until we arrived at the state of affairs where we are now, called Industrial Capitalism…
Now let us proceed to the second point, which is part of the first. I say this philosophy has produced Industrial Capitalism. What do we mean by that? Not the use of certain machines, because they might just as well be held by a guild as by an individual. What we mean essentially is plutocracy. We mean that the mass of men have lost their security and their choice of how they shall live within the limits wherein men should normally have such choice. So that I cannot to-day, and Mr. Chesterton cannot to-day, write what we think, as we would have done in the 17th century or even in the 18th, without the agreement of a few vulgarians who happen to have the money.
Our second point is that this philosophy has produced a certain state of society. The change in philosophy is our root difficulty, but the second is that it has produced a certain state of society. It is a state in which by far the greater part of men are attuned to being wage slaves, that is, a state of society in which a man is more afraid of losing his job than of anything else. It is that which controls us all. Of course the mass of the people who are really poor are entirely wage slaves. They have withdrawn themselves from the worst of the conditions by certain amount of organisation, but still, that is the norm of our society; and the great struggle among the few who are free from this condition is to avoid being a wage slave, and the greatest misfortune is to die a wage slave. But we are all attuned to that state of mind in this country. Think for instance of the extraordinary phrase ‘Unemployment.’ The Rothschilds, if there are any left, are unemployed. It is not having nothing to do which is the disaster, it is not getting money for doing things. The disaster is in not having security…
We have had during the last fifty or sixty years inventions and discoveries, such as the internal combustion engine and the distribution of electric power, which might have aided enormously the distribution of property if our philosophy had been right. But more important in my judgment is this. Industrial Capitalism has broken down. It has broken down for a very simple arithmetical reason—it distributes less purchasing power than it creates. I am not going to speak of Major Douglas’s scheme of Social Credit, because that is merely an indirect method of distributing property, which I prefer to achieve by direct means. Industrial Capitalism has broken down, not because it is tired or old or wicked, but because it is producing an amount of wealth greater than it is distributing purchasing power for that wealth; and to put it very crudely indeed, if I want to make a hundred thousand boots, or rather employ men to make those boots, by the time the boots are made I have distributed to the men who make them the money wherewith to purchase thirty thousand boots, and what am I to do with the seventy thousand boots left? I must sell them to the Colonies. And supposing they also learn to turn a handle, and produce the boots themselves, where are you? That is why Industrial Capitalism has broken down.
One of the results is that people are getting disgusted and saying something must be done. We cannot tell people what to do in a cut and dried system. No man attempting the restoration of property, or Distributism as it is sometimes called, can say, “Here is my cut and dried plan.” You cannot do it, because it is normal to man, organic; it is not mechanical, it is not theoretical. What we can do is to advance something on the way, to propagate the idea, to propagate its results, to insist upon it here and there, in this reform and that, by blocking this abuse and that, until there shall be established in society a certain growth which will lead ultimately towards better distribution of property. We do not want, and it would be folly to attempt, and it is not human to regard, and it is futile to desire the equal distribution of property. If you have a society in which the norm, it may not even be the majority, but the determining number of men are possessed of security in what they do, producing with their personality and with their production fully secured for the future, you have established a healthy state, you have reconstructed property; and if you will consider that, doing it organically, without revolution, you may, in spite of the enormous obstacles in front of you, do the trick. That is the rule I put before myself, and which, if I could come back to life after my death, I should probably find completely ruined.
Originally published in G.K.’s Weekly, 8 June 1933.
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