Chesterton and Belloc: A Critique

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Ever since Thomas Babington Macaulay's 1830 reply in the Edinburgh Review to Robert Southey's Colloquies on Society (1829), the Industrial Revolution and its effects on the ordinary person's standard of living have attracted ongoing scholarly attention. Macaulay was among the first of those who have sometimes been called the optimists, who believed industrialization had on balance improved the material well-being of the English working class, whereas Southey, unconvinced, planted himself firmly in the camp of the pessimists. This standard-of-living debate continued in fits and starts in the decades that followed. The optimists gained significant ground from the 1940s onward--even if the idea of the Industrial Revolution as a catastrophe for workers remained fixed in the popular mind--owing in large part to the work of historians such as T. S. Ashton and R. M. Hartwell. In fact, Hartwell all but declared victory in 1970: "Is the controversy over? As regards the standard of living--the bundle of goods--it should be, and, indeed, appears to be. Even E. P. Thompson, the most convinced pessimist, now agrees that 'no serious scholar is willing to argue that everything got worse'" (1970, 178).

Although Catholic apologists Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton appear to have sided with the pessimists, their complaints about industrialization went well beyond factors that could be easily quantified. The significant aspect of industrialization, as they saw it, was that a nation of small landowners had been converted in relatively short order into a nation of wage earners. Because wage earners relied on employers for their well-being, they were in important ways less secure than small property holders, who in the last resort could always fall back on their own production of necessities to see them through difficult times. According to Belloc, "A family possessed of the means of production--the simplest form of which is the possession of land and of the implements and capital for working the land--cannot be controlled by others. Of course, various producers specialize, and through exchange one with the other they become more or less interdependent, but still, each one can live 'on his own': each one can stand out, if necessary, from pressure exercised against him by another. He can say: 'If you will not take my surplus as against your surplus I shall be the poorer; but at least I can live'" (1924, 125).

Even serfdom was preferable to the situation of the proletariat following industrialization, Belloc argued, for the serf or peasant working on the lord's plot could still say of it, "This is my land." "He could not be evicted from it. The dues which he was customarily bound to pay were but a fraction of its total produce. He could not always sell it, but ... the slave had become a free man for all the ordinary purposes of society" ([1913] 1977, 78).

According to Belloc, industrialization in and of itself was not responsible for this unfortunate situation. In The Servile State ([1913] 1977), he contended that English society had been substantially deformed in the sixteenth century by Henry VIII's confiscation of the monastic lands and the artificial enrichment of a class of landowners that benefited from this expropriation. This disparity in wealth persisted into the Industrial Revolution. These wealthy and powerful families used their influence to push legislation their way. We are therefore not entitled to assume, in standard libertarian fashion, that people's decision to go to the factories constituted prima facie evidence that they were making a voluntary decision aimed at the improvement of their well-being. They had been forced into this situation, Belloc argued, by an artificially created class of rich men who exploited the machinery of state to foreclose all options for them other than becoming wage earners in a factory.

Chesterton and Belloc, to reverse what they perceived as these negative effects of industrialization as it was carried out in England, advocated a system that came to be known as distributism, in which large accumulations of land and wealth would be discouraged through various means, not excluding state prohibitions of wealth concentration, and in which a society of small property holders would instead be the norm. …