Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Glastonian Ghosts - Liberalism and the Zeitgeist

It was the custom of Macaulay and other representative writers of the Dark Ages to speak of the mediaeval era in Europe as one of savage and unenlightened barbarism. There is something particularly amusing to the twentieth century observer in the patronizing tone adopted by men, who lived in what could hardly be called a community at all, in writing of the splendid civilization which flourished under Frederick II. and St. Louis. For it is becoming obvious to us all now that the great movement of the world from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century was not a movement towards civilization but a movement away from it. Civilization does not imply a collection of mechanical contrivances brought to a high state of perfection it may or may not possess such contrivances. But it does imply a Civitas, a commonwealth, a conscious organization of society for certain ends. This the age of St. Louis had, and the age of Cobden had not. The great movement which we roughly call "Liberalism" may therefore be very properly described as a reaction against civilization. I do not say it was wrong. Let none suppose that I have any share in the factitious dreams of the "Young England"enthusiasts or their con- temporary imitators. I know that Feudalism died in the fifteenth century of its own rottenness, and that its revival is as hopeless and undesirable as the revival of Druidism (much favoured I believe in some literary quarters just now) would be. I recognise that Liberalism in getting rid of its obsolete relics did good and necessary work and cleared the way for better. I merely state the case historically because it is impossible to understand the present position and prospects of Liberalism without realizing that Liberalism is in its essence destructive and in the strict sense of the word anti-social.

Look at the track of Liberalism across English history. It begins practically with the Reformation and the Great Pillage, wherein it showed its true character very vividly in the combination of a strictly individualistic religion with the conversion of communal property into private property for the benefit of the new "Reforming" oligarchs. Then it appears in the Civil War, which we are beginning to under- stand better than the Whig historians of the late century understood it. On its economic side Puritanism was the seventeenth century counterpart of Cobdenism a middle-class movement striking at once at the old aristocracy, whose lands it confiscated and divided, and at the proletariat, whom it robbed of what was left of their common heritage and to whom it denied their traditional holidays, avowedly on religious grounds but pratically in the interests of the employing class. One could continue the story further if it were necessary. But all that need be said is that in the middle of the nineteenth century we find Liberalism everywhere dominant and victorious with the result that Englishmen had practically ceased to form a community at all.

It is a common taunt in the mouths of Tariff Reformers just now that Cobden and Bright opposed the Factory Acts; and Liberals, driven into a corner on the subject, generally affect to regard this as an unfortunate and unaccountable lapse from grace on the part of the two Free Trade Apostles. Of course it was nothing of the sort: it was the only possible line for them to take as honest men and consistent political thinkers. The matter of the Factory Acts does not stand alone: state education, when first proposed was met with Radical opposition of a very similar kind. If anyone will look through the speeches of the opponents of the early Factory Bills he will find that they were attacked, just as the present government's Education Bill was attacked, not as revolutionary but as reactionary measures. They were constantly compared to the Sumptuary Laws and to the statutes regulating the position of apprentices which figure in mediaeval legislation. And the comparison is a perfectly fair one. Cobden and Bright were fundamentally right in their contention that Factory Acts were contrary to the first principles of Liberalism. Such acts were only passed, because the application of Liberal principles to the questions involved had resulted in a welter of brutality, child torture and racial deterioration, so horrible that no decently humane man, no reasonable enlightened citizen could think of Lancashire and its cotton trade without a shudder. When the Sovereign gave her assent to the first effective Factory Bill she passed a prophetic sentence of death on Liberalism and the Liberal Party.

Doubtless the execution of the sentence has been long deferred and may yet be deferred longer. But the backbone had been taken out of Liberalism as soon as that concession had been made. It could not claim any longer to have a coherent or intelligible political philosophy. For the arguments used by the Manchester School against import duties were precisely the same as those used against factory legislation. The two propositions were based upon the same axioms and postulates; if one was wrong, why not the other? And if the worship of "doing as one likes" were unsound in the region of economics what reason was there for supposing it to be sound in the region of politics?

If Free Contract were an untenable foundation for society, what became of Free Trade? And, if Free Trade were to go, might not the demand for a Free Church have to follow? The fortress of Liberalism still looked imposing enough, but the foundations were sapped and there were ominous cracks and fissures in the walls.

Indeed the passing of the great Factory Acts marks the turning of the tide. It was the public confession of the English nation that Cobden's and Bastiat's Utopia of 'economic harmonies ' was a foolish and impossible one, based on bad economics and worse history. It was the beginning of the reaction in favour of what I have called civilization, that is of the conscious and deliberate regulation and control of commerce in the public interest. Everything that has been done since in the way of industrial reform Housing Acts, Public Health Acts, compulsory and free education, municipal ownership and municipal trading has proceeded in this direction. We are working towards what Herbert Spencer called "The New Toryism," that is back to civilization.

It is no matter for surprise that most of the measures mentioned above have been the work of Tory governments. Doubtless the Tories are stupid and ineffectual enough, doubtless they are too much controlled by landed interests and capitalist rings, to deal with social evils very courageously. But at least they have this great advantage over their enemies, that they are not obliged to reconcile everything they do with the exploded economic dogmas of Benthamism, so that the insight and progressive instincts of their abler leaders have been able to force them farther along the path of progress than the sheer pressure of political necessity has been able to force the equally reluctant Liberals. So long as social reform remains a matter of pickings, we shall get the best pickings from the Tories.

But if, as I have suggested all meaning has long ago gone out of Liberalism, how does it come about that Liberalism insists on surviving? Are we not all expecting a big Liberal majority at the next General Election, and would not such a majority prove that Liberalism was very much alive? My answer is that it would not. Doubtless the Liberals will win at the polls next year; probably they will get a good majority. But this will prove nothing as to the spiritual vitality of the thing they represent. It will prove that the people of this country are annoyed with the present government and want a change. It will not prove that they are in any real sense of the word Liberals; still less that Liberalism has anything vital or valuable to say in relation to current problems.

The fact is that a party which has parted with its convictions may continue to exist for a long time by living on its prejudices. This is the ordinary history of movements, whether political, social or religious, during the period of their decadence, and it is briefly the history of Liberalism during the last fifty years. The Factory Acts, by their obvious necessity and their equally obvious indefensibility from the Liberal stand- point, knocked the bottom out of Liberalism and made a consistent Liberal philosophy impossible for the future. But only new and growing movements require a philosophy. When a movement has been going long enough to accumulate a fair number of catch-words and a collection of common likes and dislikes, it can make enormous use of these and even win great electoral triumphs on the strength of them long after they have become completely separated from the doctrines from which they originally sprang, and indeed long after these doctrines have become so obsolete as to be universally incredible. An almost exact parallel may be drawn between the recent history of Liberalism and the recent history of Nonconformity. English Nonconformity was founded on the doctrines of Calvin as English Liberalism was on those of Lock and Adam Smith. Where are the doctrines of Calvin now ? I do not suppose there is one chapel in London perhaps in England where the doctrine of Reprobation is taught in all its infamous completeness. The ordinary London Nonconformist minister at any rate is the mildest and vaguest of theologians, and talks like the member of an Ethical Society about little but "Truth and Righteousness." So far from preaching Calvinism with its iron and inflexible logic and its uncompromising cry of " Come out and be ye separate! " he is the first to tell you that the age of dogma is gone by and that modern religion must be " undenominational." Yet, in spite of the complete disappearance of its intellectual basis, Dissent remains powerful enough to thwart the execution of great reforms and wreck the careers of great statesmen. And if you ask what (if not a common theology) holds the Nonconformists together and makes. them so potent a force, the answer will be a common stock of prejudices a prejudice against Catholic ritual, a prejudice against horse-racing, a prejudice against established churches, a prejudice against public houses and music halls, a prejudice in favour of Sunday observance. All these (except in the case of church establishment where the prejudice is the result of a political accident erected into a religious dogma) are natural consequences of the Calvinist theology, but in that theology the modern Dissenter does not believe. Nevertheless, the foundation gone, the prejudice remains, and may be found strong enough among other things to destroy the value of one of the most beneficent reforms which the last thirty years have seen.

Now what has happened in the case of Nonconformity has happened also in the case of Liberalism. The philosophy of Bastiat has followed the philosophy of Calvin into the shades of incredibility. Yet the prejudices born of that philosophy remain and can still be played upon with considerable effect.

They may briefly be summarized as follows : A prejudice against peers (though not against capitalists), a prejudice against religious establishments, a prejudice against state interference with foreign trade (the case of home industry having been conceded), a prejudice against Imperialism, a prejudice against what is vaguely called "militarism" that is to say against provision for national defence. Add prejudices borrowed from the Nonconformists against publicans and priests and you have the sum total of modern Liberalism.

Now I regard all these prejudices as mere hindrances to progress. I wish to show in the pages which are to follow that they are not, as the enthusiastic Radical imagines, the very latest manifestations of " progressive thought," but that on the contrary they are the refuse of a dead epoch and an exploded theory of politics, that considered as a message for our age they are barren and impossible, that a party dominated by them is unfitted for public trust, and that, unless newer and more promising movements can emancipate themselves from their influence, they are likely to share the same ultimate fate.

Peel is said to have caught the Whigs bathing and stolen their clothes. But the present apparel of the Liberals is not such as to tempt any self-respecting party to theft.

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