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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Chesterton and the "ownership society"

Why does a fly have to fight the whole universe? - The Man who was Thursday

He defended the common man and his freedom; therefore he defended the institution of property and particularly defended and preached the doctrine that property to survive must be founded on so considerable a division of land and the instruments of production that widespread ownership should be the foundational institution of the state. He appreciated, of course, as all must, the immense difficulty in re-establishing property in a society which has become, as ours has, proletarian and controlled in every activity by an ever-narrowing plutocracy. He saw that the weapon to be used against this mortal state of affairs was perpetual influence by illustration and example upon the individual. It was his to change as far as might be the very lethargic mind of his fellow-citizens in these affairs. This political preoccupation of Gilbert Chesterton's was of special importance because it is the major temporal concern of our time.

The group to which he and I belonged recognized that the main social event of our generation was the destruction of freedom through the universal growth of Capitalist monopoly, and the ruin of economic independence in the mass. – Hillaire Belloc, On Chesterton.


I have been asked to republish these notes--which appeared
in a weekly paper--as a rough sketch of certain aspects of
the institution of Private Property, now so completely forgotten
amid the journalistic jubilations over Private Enterprise.
The very fact that the publicists say so much of the latter and so
little of the former is a measure of the moral tone of the times.
A pickpocket is obviously a champion of private enterprise.
But it would perhaps be an exaggeration to say that a pickpocket
is a champion of private property. The point about Capitalism
and Commercialism, as conducted of late, is that they have really
preached the extension of business rather than the preservation
of belongings; and have at best tried to disguise the pickpocket
with some of the virtues of the pirate. The point about Communism
is that it only reforms the pickpocket by forbidding pockets.
- Chesterton, An outline of sanity


Since LI has been writing so much about Voltaire – who did so much, perhaps more than any other single figure, to produce what the Vatican lamented last week as “Christianophobia” in Europe – I thought I’d write a little about the opposite mindset. Or opposite in the common view – Belloc, who managed to find Danton a perfectly respectable Roman Catholic, might have had another view.

Chesterton’s humor is the perfect opposite of Voltaire's wit. Humor always preserves sincerity as a virtue; wit always suspects it as a hypocrisy. A few weeks ago, my friend T. bought Chesterton's Orthodoxy to read on the train to work. He sent me some good bits in a couple of emails – Chesterton always made his prose a mine from which you could extract good bits – but I felt like his excitement with the book cooled as he read it. Or was it my imagination? I know with myself, reading Chesterton is an exercise in short term reading satisfaction. I go through the same cycle reading his Father Brown stories and his essays -- they lead me on, one to the other, until suddenly I am more than crammed with Chesterton – I am slightly disgusted. I am slightly appalled. It isn’t the fullness, say, of reading too many Sherlock Holmes stories. I permanently read too many Sherlock Holmes stories when I was twelve. Now I read them less for excitement than for the calm they give me, the familiar progress, the phrases that have grooved themselves into my mind, the way in which, mysteriously, they have become like Bible parrables. The Father Brown stories, on the other hand, I forget immediately – until I read them again. Then it all leaps back rather dismayingly into life. I forget by which trick Father Brown catches his man, but I don't forget (or forgive) that it will be a trick. Perhaps that is the genius of Doyle's Watson -- he absorbs Holmes' trick into his larger astonishishment, taking the sting out of them.

A few of Chesterton’s books don’t suffer like this. The masterpiece is, of course, The Man who was Thursday. I’ve read that three or four times, and will no doubt read it again one of these days. It is completely one piece – it doesn’t exhaust itself, or the reader, with self-enclosed passages of cleverness. There’s the History of England, which Shaw so much admired. A few tracts.

I suspect that the Bush slogan of the Ownership Society came into his speechwriter’s mind from some Chestertonian/Bellocian holdouts among the Right. Neuhaus, the presiding spirit of First Things, is of the school of Chesterton. The old National Review crowd, from the sixties, was packed with Chestertonians. Gary Wills, Buckley’s discovery, was one.

But the quotes above should disabuse anybody who seriously wants to back up “compassionate conservatism” with Chesterton’s defense of private property – or Belloc’s criticism of the Servile State. The idea of the workingmen of America investing their money in equities would have appalled them. Equities were the original evil – the crack that opened between ownership and presence. When the boss is an appointee, when the owners consist of mutual funds – it is this that Chesterton condemns as piracy and pickpocketing, without the flair of pickpocketing. When Chesterton wrote, “The practical tendency of all trade and business to-day is towards big commercial combinations, often more imperial, more impersonal, more international than many a communist commonwealth-- things that are at least collective if not collectivist,” he meant it. NAFTA wouldn’t have surprised him at all, although he would have found it funny that the same people who want ever more NAFTA turn around and criticize the U.N. for abridging American sovereignty.

Chesterton and Belloc were products of the late Victorian age – an age influenced, to a point very unappreciated today, by John Ruskin. Gandhi was in the same boat. The two former writers took, from Ruskin, a highly romantic view of the Middle Ages. While Ruskin progressively lost his faith, Chesterton and Belloc discovered a whole new faith – in Roman Catholicism – which they then decided was arch-English. Or rather, Chesterton did – Belloc was always longing for the old Catholic Europe. It goes without saying that the old Catholic Europe had no place for Jews. This is an old dispute: did Belloc influence Chesterton with his anti-semitism, or was Chesterton even an anti-semite?

He was probably the last popular English writer to believe in every bit of the traditional order, down to the political disenfranchisement of women and, of course, sexual mores that St. Francis of Assisi could swear by. Even Evelyn Waugh, ever the crusty, or even crustacean, conservative had his little male flings when he was at Oxford, and seemingly looked back with a becoming lack of shock at the whole thing.

D. Keith Mano, a novelist whose work is at present oddly neglected, wrote an essay about Chesterton, once, in which he quoted the passage from The Man Who was Thursday with which we started this post. The whole passage goes: "Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? Why does a fly have to fight the whole universe? ... So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist. So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter." For Mano, that was the most glorious creed of conservatism imaginable. In certain moods, LI would subscribe to it too. But we would insert a codicil about the particular order in question that would be very un-Chestertonian. You see, I am the real man who would be Thursday.

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