Wednesday, March 04, 2020

GUEST POST Belloc, Chesterton and the Distributist League

In an extract from his Back to the Land, David Boyle looks at the emergence of Distrbutism as an ideology.

By 1918, and G. K.’s brother Cecil Chesterton’s death, and the reorganisation of his paper as GK’s Weekly, a Back-to-the-land ideology had begun to emerge among the new Distributists. They had backed allotments against town councils, backed tea parties in the street against officials or market stalls selling the produce of small farmers.

Hilaire Belloc was especially incensed by the growing power of Wall Street – forcing the defeated Germans to repay their war debts when the British had repudiated their own. But for Chesterton, the real battles were smaller scale. “It is time for an army of amateurs, for England is perishing of professionals,” he wrote.

It was in this spirit that I believe his poem ‘The Secret People’ needs to be understood. The words: “We are the people of England,/And we never have spoken yet”, have sent a frisson of fear down the necks of the technocratic left for generations.

If Chesterton was populist, he was also in favour of self-help and human-scale that he believed – quite rightly, in fact – were under threat. “Do anything, however small,” urged Chesterton in 1926.  “Save one out of a hundred shops.  Save one croft out of a hundred crofts.  Keep one door open out of a hundred doors; for so long as one door is open, we are not in prison.”

One of the first campaigns by the emerging new Distributists, that followed New Witness with enthusiasm, was one in favour of the former soldiers who had been encouraged to sink their war gratuities into buying buses, which they drove themselves.

But these had fallen foul of the monopolistic London General Omnibus Company, backed by the transport union who called the ‘pirates’ and – suspicious of self-employment – began to run them out and to deliberately deprive them of custom.

The Distributist campaigners took the unprecedented step of launching their own pirate bus service. They leased a series of ancient omnibuses, painted them in rainbow colours and called them ‘Morris’, ‘Ruskin’ and names with similar radical echoes – and took on the giant bus company on its most lucrative routes.

The campaign failed.  London General swept all before it, including the small bus operators the campaigners were defending, only of course to be nationalised under the auspices of the London Passenger Transport Board.

It was clear that Distributism was emerging as an ideology. There were even now two financial backers, the Olympic powerboat racer and Marylebone landlord Lord Howard de Walden, and Cedric Chivers, an alderman from Bath.

The first meeting of the new Distributist League took place in Essex Hall in Essex Street, off London’s Strand on 17 Septmber 1926. The launch was marked by the publication of Chesterton’s Outline of Sanity, and Back-to-the-land was at the heart of it – and the horror of wasting food when people remained desperate. “We are destroying food because we do not need it; we are starving men because we do not need them,” he wrote.

On their plans for the League itself, Chesterton said this: “We hope in the end to establish within the state a community, almost self-supporting, of men and women pledged to Distributism, and to a large extent practising it. Less and less, then, will the juggling of finance have power over us; for it does not matter what they call the counters when you are exchanging hams for handkerchiefs, or pigs for pianos.”

This kind of statement seemed deeply old-fashioned at the time, but – with its emphasis on being the change, and new kinds of barter – it now seems strangely forward-looking. But the central message – the vital importance of small-scale property ownership – has never been fashionable, hence

Chesterton’s frustration that the prevailing culture failed to grasp his critique of institutions inhuman in scale. “The choice lies between property on the one hand and slavery, public or private, on the other. There is no third issue,” wrote Belloc.

Painfully and slowly, he and Chesterton were beginning to develop their ideas, aware how out of kilter they were with the collectivist spirit of the time, emphasising always that not even property is an absolute – it is small-scale property they were underpinning, because it supported the medieval family unit of production.

For Belloc, the key was to defend the yeoman farmer tradition, only too aware that – for centuries – the yeoman families held their land by tradition, rather than by legal paperwork, and this could be overturned by statute at any time, and reduced to tenant status. It was important therefore to understand the history. That explained his prodigious production of history books and biographies, always dictated to long-suffering secretaries at great speed.

For Chesterton, on the other hand, the key argument was about corporate scale and retailers in particular. It was the great age of chain stores and ribbon developments reaching out beyond the suburbs. Chain stores undermined income and reduced people to wage slavery: where there were, say, 40,000 independent grocers, wrote Belloc, “there cannot be forty thousand managers, the wage slaves of a combine, because the cost of administration is less, and this economic advantage handicaps the small man against the great.”  Chesterton was writing poems like his ‘Song against grocers’.

Distributism also managed to dodge issues around public versus private. Yes, you would need to use the power of the state to end capitalism, with “its clique of masters and its myriad of dependents”. You would need to prevent the mergers and encourage de-mergers. You would need differential taxes on the small and on big combines, chainstores and multiples. But the purpose would also be to guarantee independence against the state. It was – as it so often was with Chesterton – a kind of paradox.

Even so, it was never entirely clear how they planned to make the change happen, whether by expropriation of the land or by enabling tenants to buy out their landlords along the lines of the Wyndham Land Act in Ireland that Belloc so admired.

But Chesterton always pointed out, in his set-piece debates with Shaw, that this ambiguity was shared by the socialists. The point was that life would be better. “The peasant eats not only of his own produce but off his own table and at his own house,” wrote Belloc.  “And he eats better food and brews better drink.”

At the heart of Distributism was the idea of going back-to-the-land, and that was not going to be easy. “We have got to say to our friends, ‘you are in for a rough time if you start new farms on your own,” said Chesterton. “But it is the right thing to do.’ There is no way out of the danger except the dangerous way.” 

Then there was the question of how in the meantime we could defend people’s small-scale property, given that they probably did not own it outright – it was “in the hands of the money-lenders”. Here it was another Distributist, the architect and promoter of ‘guild socialism’ Arthur Penty, who developed an answer: the revival of the medieval guilds. To fight back against the giant financial institutions, in other words, people would need to create institutions of their own.

“I cannot count how many vital and valuable human institutions have been sacrificed to this one simple and silly idea – the idea that, by making a thing large, we make it more orderly; whereas making it large is obviously more likely to make it loose.”

When the 1660 Restoration threw to the winds the “common morality of Europe”, wrote Belloc, our organisations of economic self-defence were destroyed. The only guilds left were the ones for doctors and lawyers. In the Distributist world, the banks would have to meet and come to terms with, for example, the small traders’ guild. You may not be able to get rid of the banks, but you could undermine their power by supporting small-scale property ownership.

It was simple in a sense, but it so flew in the face of conventional political categories, that many found it all too confusing. There were also more conventional, and increasingly bitter divisions among the Distributists themselves. These had begun four months before the launch of the League, when both Belloc and Chesterton were publicly on the side of the strikers in the General Strike.

On March 19 you can here David speaking on 'Could Distributism still change the world?‘ at the Ditchling Museum in Sussex.

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