The late Gilbert K. Chesterton, in his Autobiography, reviewed recently in these columns, paid the respect of critical tribute to his friend, Hilaire Belloc. Of the latter’s book, The Servile State, Chesterton wrote:
The thesis of this book is that the socialist movement does not lead to socialism. This is partly because of compromise and cowardice; but partly also because men have a dim indestructible respect for property, even in its disgusting disguise of modern monopoly. Therefore, instead of the intentional result, Socialism, we have the unintentional result: Slavery. The compromise will take the form of saying: ‘We must feed the poor; we won’t rob the rich; so we will tell the rich to feed the poor, handing them over to be the permanent servants of a master-class, to be maintained whether they are working or no, and in return for that complete maintenance giving complete obedience.’ All this, or the beginnings of it, can be seen in a hundred modern changes, from such things as Insurance Acts, which divide citizens by law into two classes of masters and servants, to all sorts of proposals for preventing strikes and lockouts by compulsory arbitration. Any law that sends a man back to his work, when he wants to leave it, is in plain fact a Fugitive Slave Law.
In his latest book, “An Essay on the Restoration of Property” (published by Sheed & Ward, New York), Belloc has provided an all but indispensable source-book of principle for those who can accept neither uncontrolled finance-capitalism as we see it today, nor the communist-collectivism as we may see it tomorrow.
“The object,” says Belloc, “is not only to restore purchasing power, but to restore economic freedom.” The writer explains that a manager at $6,000 a year, who may be dismissed at the caprice of his employer, has plenty of purchasing power, but he has not economic freedom.
Belloc asserts that it is obvious that whoever controls the means of production controls the supply of wealth. If, therefore, the means for the production of that wealth which a family needs are in the control of others than the family, the family will be dependent upon those others. It will not be economically free.
The family is ideally free when it fully controls all the means necessary for the production of such wealth as it should consume for normal living.
Today in England, and to a lesser degree in many other countries, widespread property has been lost. Ownership is not a general feature of our society, determining its character. On the contrary, absence of ownership, dependence on a precarious wage at the will of others is the general feature of our society and determines its character.
The family does not possess that freedom which is necessary for its full moral health and that of the state of which it is the unit. Hence, our society has fallen into the diseased condition known as ‘industrial capitalism.’ In this state the control of the means of production is vested in a comparatively small number; consequently economic freedom has ceased to be the note, giving its tone to society.
Industrial capitalism has attached to it, besides the loss of freedom, the twin evils of insecurity and insufficiency. The main body of citizens—the proletariat—are not sufficiently fed, clothed or housed, and even their insufficient supply is is unstable. They live in a perpetual anxiety.
Now those two evils of insecurity and insufficiency might be eliminated and yet economic freedom be absent from the mass of society. There are two ways in which they could be eliminated without the restoration of freedom.
The first way is through what I have called elsewhere The Servile State. In this form of society, the minority controlling the means of production supports all the vast majority of the dispossessed. That is the direction in which We are drifting today. The capitalists keep men alive by exploiting them at a wage, and when they cannot do this, still keep them alive in idleness by some small subsidy.
The second way is Communism—of its nature unstable but practicable for only a comparatively short space of time. Under it the means of production are controlled by the officers of the state, who are masters of all the workers (slaves of the state), and the wealth produced is distributed, at the discretion of the state officials, among the families, or, if an attempt be made to abolish even the family, then among the individuals of the community.
There is a third form of society, and it is the only one in which sufficiency and security can be combined with freedom, and that form is a society in which property is well distributed and so large a proportion of the families in the state severally OWN and therefore control the means of production as to determine the general tone of society; making it neither Capitalist nor Communist, but Proprietary. If, then, we regard economic freedom as a good thing, our object must be thus to restore property. We must seek political and economic reforms which shall tend to distribute property more and more widely until the owners of sufficient means of production (land or capital or both) are numerous enough to determine the character of society.
Men voting under strong emotion on one single clear issue may instruct others to carry out their wishes; but the innumerable acts of choice and expression which make up human life can never work through a system of delegation. Even in the comparatively simple field of mere political action, delegation destroys freedom. Parliaments have everywhere proved irreconcilable with democracy. They are not the people. They are oligarchies, and those oligarchies are corrupt because they pretend to a false character and to be, or to mirror, the nation. They are in reality, and can only be, cliques of professional politicians. Ownership by delegation is a contradiction in terms.
When urgent material necessities are unsatisfied, they must be satisfied first. Shipwrecked men on a raft at sea live, exceptionally, under Communism. The dispossessed in a capitalist society must at least be kept alive. But it is not true that, such exceptional remedies for an unnatural evil having been used, we must go on to destroy the good of economic freedom for the advantage of enjoying greater material wealth.
This last argument is one of the many which we find common to those who defend the Capitalist system and those who defend the Communist system; for Socialism and Capitalism are twin successive products of the same false philosophy.
Well-divided property will not spring up of itself in a capitalist society. It must be artificially fostered. Communism will spring up of itself and flourish in a capitalist society, for it is a product of capitalistic thought and moves along the same lines as capitalism. But well-divided property will not so arise.
Private property acting unchecked, that is, in the absence of all safeguards for the preservation of the small man’s independence, tends inevitably to an ultimate control of the means of production by a few; that is, in economics, to capitalism, and therefore, in politics, to plutocracy.
The idea that capitalism arose of itself, and necessarily, from the mere institution of private property, is the fruit of bad history pressed into the service of bad philosophy.
It is not true that capitalism arose inevitably from the necessary development of economic institutions under the doctrine of private property. Capitalism only arose after the safeguards guaranteeing well-distributed private property had been deliberately broke down by an evil will insufficiently resisted. It was not capitalism that came first and gradually dissolved the institution of well-divided property; it was the conditions under which alone well-divided property could survive, and had survived for centuries, which were first destroyed. Only then, after their destruction, was the field free for the growth of plutocracy in politics and capitalism in the economic structure of the state.
The first great blow was the destruction of the guilds, coupled with the seizure of collegiate property in all countries transformed by the Reformation, but most thoroughly and universally in England. This was followed up in England by a series of positive enactments of which that one called “The Statute of Frauds” was perhaps the chief instrument in destroying the English land-owning peasantry.
The Statute of Frauds, made law by the Big Landlords and the Lawyer’s Guild under Charles II, after the breakdown of the English monarchy and the beginning of aristocratic government in its place, provided, among other things, that no title to land should be valid unless there were written proof of the same. Now the mass of small English yeomen had no such documents to show. They held their land from father to son under the village landlord in fee-farm tenure, paying only small quit rents. They were thus owners and hereditary owners of their tenures by traditional and immemorial custom and hereditary free-holders. But after the iniquitous Statute of Frauds, the local village landlord could, and gradually did, claim ownership of the land and thus reduce this class of peasants to a tenant. He gradually sank to become a proletarian laborer.
Nor is it true that machinery In its various forms, including the modern conquest of space (rapidity of transport in material things and ideas) lies at the root of this modern evil. The machine does not control the mind of man, though it affects the mind of man; it is the mind of man that can and should control the machine.
The whole attitude of the old-fashioned socialist—or, as he has now logically become, the Communist—with his well-worn argument of inevitability, is rooted in a wrong conception of what men are—that is, a false philosophy—supported by a wrong conception of the historical process reached by the putting of events in the wrong historical order.
And though it is true that unchecked competition must ultimately produce the rule of ownership by a few, yet it is also true that mankind has always felt this to be a danger, and has instinctively safeguarded itself against that danger by the setting up of institutions for the protection of small property. These institutions have never broken down of themselves, but always and only under the conscious action of a deliberately hostile attack. So the carefully planned irrigation of the Tigris and Euphrates combated with success the natural tendency of the swamp and the desert till the Mongol deliberately destroyed such safeguards of civilization.
There are seven main avenues whereby unchecked competition tends to put a few into the control of the means of production, transport and exchange, and therefore society as a whole. There are seven ways whereby healthy, normal human society with a mass of well-distributed ownership can degenerate into a capitalist society, the mark of which is the exploitation of the many by the wealthy few.
These seven avenues may be tabulated as follows:
1. The larger unit is in proportion less expensive than the smaller in management, rent, upkeep, and all things that are called in commercial jargon ‘overhead charges.’ The only limit to this tendency is the difficulty of organizing and conducting units beyond a certain size; and that difficulty is more and more easily overcome by practice and the development of perfected organization.
2. The larger economic unit is better able to purchase all the more expensive instruments for the production, distribution and exchange.
3. The larger unit can borrow more easily in proportion than the smaller. It can especially tap bank credit more easily and bank credit is, today, the chief factor in economic activity of all kinds.
4. The larger institution can undersell the smaller one at a loss, until the smaller one is imperiled or killed. The richer man, or combination, can thus ‘rope in’ the smaller man, or ‘freeze him out,’ that is, compel him to alliance on onerous terms or actually destroy him.
5. The larger unit will accumulate capital under easier conditions than the smaller.
6. Plutocracy will corrupt the legislature so that laws will be made in its favor, increasingly handicapping the small man and advantaging the larger.
7. Plutocracy, once established, will equally corrupt the administration of justice, weighing the scales in favor of the rich man against the poor man.
Speaking of bank credit, the author realizes its omnipotence keenly. Banks, he points out “hold the throttle valve of the whole economic machine.” “It is of no use attempting to restore the institution of property here in England until we have given the small owner some power of reaction against this universal master,” Belloc concludes.
We can spread (and it is the duty of every good citizen to spread) a knowledge of the arbitrary power possessed by the Bank of England and proclaim the duty of controlling it. That general motion is open to us, and a great service it is. But we cannot rapidly produce a well-divided control of credit nor attack on any ready-made plan the gigantic network of credit control which has arisen almost within living memory and half strangles society. What we can do is to establish small co-operative credit institutions duly chartered and legally protected from attack.
Originally published in Social Justice Weekly.