Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction/Chapter 7

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From the consideration of the Realities presented by the geography of our Globe we have come to the conclusion that if the Freedom of Nations is to be secure, it must rest on a reasonable approach to equality of resources as between a certain number of the larger Nations. We have also seen that, given the imperious Reality of the Going Concern, it is necessary that the Nations should be so controlled in their economic growth that they do not tend to get out of hand and clash. But what have these principles to do with the Freedom of Men and Women? Will free Nations in a League be able to give more freedom to their citizens? Certainly the men who have been fighting, the men who have been sailing our ships through danger on the seas, and the mothers and wives who have been working, waiting, and mourning at home, are not looking for the mere defeat of a danger that threatened; they have positive visions of greater happiness in their own lives or in the lives of those dear to them.

Let us analyse from this point of view the successive stages of democratic idealism which were referred to in the opening pages of this book. The American Declaration of Independence claimed for all men the right to pursue happiness. The French Revolution crystallised this phrase into the single word Liberty, and added Equality, which implies control, and Fraternity, which implies self-control. Fraternity is of the essence of successful democracy, the highest but the most difficult of all modes of government, since it demands most of the average citizen. That is the first cycle of democratic thought; it pertains directly and obviously to the Freedom of Men.

In the middle of the nineteenth century began the second cycle, which has aimed at the Freedom of Nations. The claim of Nationality is to the right of a local group of men to pursue happiness together, with their own ways of control to secure equality among them. Fraternal feeling is not easy of attainment unless you have been brought up together; hence the part played by History in the National sentiment. But mere Nationalism claims only the right to pursue happiness together; it is not until we come to the League of Nations that we advance to an ideal which has been thought out to a stage equivalent to that of the great trilogy of the French Revolution. Some degree of control by the League is admittedly necessary to secure the equality of nations before the law, and I believe that in the ideal of the balanced development of each nation we have the self-control which is implied in fraternity. Without balanced development nations are sure to acquire special hungers, whether neglectfully or criminally, which can only be satisfied at the expense of other nations. In other words, we can only permanently secure equality among the nations by control from within as well as from without. But this involves the statement that home politics must be conducted with an eye to their effect on foreign politics, a truism in the superficial sense, but carrying deeper implications than are commonly admitted.

It carries, I believe, this implication among others, that, since nations are local societies, their organisation must, if they are to last, be based dominantly on local communities within them, and not on nation-wide 'interests.' That is the old English idea of the House of Commons. The word commons is. of course, identical with the French word 'communes,' signifying communities; the House of Communities—shires and burghs—would be the true modern translation. As a fact, the knights and the burgesses of the Middle Ages represented communities of far more complete and balanced life than the artificially equalised constituencies of to-day.

If the real organisation of the Nation be by classes and interests—and that is the alternative to organisation by localities[1]—it is quite inevitable that the corresponding classes in neighbouring nations will get themselves together, and that what has been described as the horizontal cleavage of international society will ensue. Fortunately the Tower of Babel was the beginning of certain great Going Concerns known as Languages, and these have impeded internationalism. But the development of the modern struggle between capital and labour has led to the use of some international phrases and words which have carried a few key ideas into common currency; they correspond unfortunately to certain social Realities which were rapidly gathering importance when this War came upon us. International Combines of Capital were obtaining such power as to overawe some of the smaller States of the world, and they were being used by Germany for purposes of penetration, or, in other words, to wreck the economic and social balance of rival nations. Labour could only follow suit, and also try to organise internationally. So came the idea of class warfare between the international proletariat and international capitalism. During the progress of the War we have gone to great trouble to break up the international organisation of Capital. Is Labour now to reverse all that has been achieved in this respect by persisting with an international organisation which sprang into existence for the very right purpose of fighting International Capital? No less than such a reversal is involved if the momentum of internationally organised labour becomes powerful, for a resuscitation of International Capitalism would then be inevitable. The economic war that would ensue could only end either in general Bolshevism or in the victory of one of the parties, and that party would then become the real Government of the World, a new Empire of organisers. If labour were to win, it would soon be found that Labour organisers would not differ from their Military and Capitalist predecessors in the essential respect that they would cling to power and continue blindly to organise until brought down by a new revolution. So the wheels of History would revolve again with the same recurrent phases of disorder and tyranny, and future students would be taught to recognise one more 'Age' that of the Proletariat, following on the Ages of Ecclesiasticism, Militarism, and Capitalism. Become supreme, the Labour leaders of the future would no more hesitate to use machine-guns against the mob than any other panic-stricken riders of the whirlwind.

But if it be held that organisation based on local communities is essential to the stable and therefore peaceable life of Nations, then those local communities must have as complete and balanced a life of their own as is compatible with the life of the Nation itself. In no other way can you prevent a 'class and interest' organisation from crossing powerfully your locality organisation. As long as you allow a great metropolis to drain most of the best young brains from the local communities, to cite only one aspect of what goes on, so long must organisation centre unduly in the metropolis and become inevitably an organisation of nation-wide classes and interests. I believe that whether we look at the matter from the point of view of the freedom of men or of nations we shall come to the same conclusion; that the one thing essential is to displace class organisation, with its battle-cries and merely palliative remedies, by substituting an organic ideal, that of the balanced life of provinces, and under the provinces of the lesser communities.

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Let us approach the matter from the other end of the argument, that of the Freedom of Men. What does the ordinary man want? [[Author: John Stuart Mill|Mill] says that after food and home he wants liberty, but the more modern democrat lays stress not merely on freedom to take Opportunity, but on the equality of Opportunity itself. It is for Opportunity to realise what is in him, to live a life of ideas and of action for the realisation of those ideas, that the healthy man—in ever-increasing number—is asking. His ideas may be of love and of the noble upbringing of his children, or of his craft and delight in his dexterity, or of religion and the saving of souls, or of excellence in sport of some kind, or of the constitution of society and its improvement, or of the appreciation of beauty and of artistic expression; but in one way or another he wishes for the glow of intelligent life, and incidentally for a recognition of his human dignity.

By general elementary education we have begun to teach the art of manipulating ideas to those who in Ancient Society were slaves. The wholly unlettered man thinks only in concrete terms; therefore it was that the great religious teachers have spoken slowly in parables. The unlettered man is not open either to the pleasures or the dangers of idealism. Undoubtedly our Western communities are passing through a dangerous stage in this generation. Half-educated people are in a very susceptible condition, and the world to-day consists mainly of half-educated people. They are capable of seizing ideas, but they have not attained to the habit of testing them and of suspense of mind in the meantime. In other words, most people to-day are very open to 'suggestion,' a fact well known to the experienced in elections, who rarely stop to reason with their audiences. Suggestion is the method of the German propagandist.

Now the expression 'Equality of Opportunity' involves two things. In the first place control, because, given average human nature, there cannot be equality without control; and in the second place it implies freedom to do and not merely to think, or, in other words, opportunity to bring ideas to the test of action? Mr. Bernard Shaw says that 'He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.' If you interpret the words 'can' and 'cannot' as implying opportunity and lack of opportunity, then this rather cynical epigram conveys a vital truth.[2] Those who are allowed opportunities of testing their ideas become responsible thinkers, but those who get no such opportunity may continue, for a time, to enjoy ideas, but irresponsibly and, as we say, academically. The latter condition is precisely that of a large part of our intelligent newspaper-reading working classes to-day, and some of them know it and regret it.

What is the bane of our modern industrial life? Surely monotony—monotony of work and of a petty social and communal life. No wonder our men took refuge before the War in betting on football. Most of the responsible decisions are reserved for a few, and those few are not even seen at their work, for they are away in the big centres.

What is it that in the last two or three generations has given such strength to the Nationality movement? Nationality had no great hold in the Middle Ages, or indeed in Modern Times until the nineteenth century. It has arisen as the modern States have not only increased in size, but have also grasped wider functions within the Community. Nationalist movements are based on the restlessness of intelligent young men who wish for scope to live the life of ideas and to be among those who 'can' because they are allowed to do. In the old Greek and in the Mediæval World, Society was so loosely knit that there was plenty of scope in any considerable town. Is it not that fact which makes town-history so interesting until we come to the eighteenth century and then so banal? Take up the history of one of our more significant British cities, and see whether that be not true. When you come to the last few generations it becomes mere statistic of material growth; at the best the town becomes specialised in some important way, but it ceases to be a complete organism. All its institutions are second-rate, because its best people have gone away, unless it have some one establishment or industry of more than local fame, and that establishment or industry usually crushes rather than develops real local life.

Why were Athens and Florence the wonderful founts of Civilisation which have made them the teachers of the world? They were small cities as we now count the size of cities, but they were sovereign cities both in the political and economic sense. The men who shook hands in their streets, and whose families intermarried, were not merely rival masters in the same industry or competing merchants on the same exchange; every principal category of supreme human activity was represented in one intimate circle. Think of the choice of activities open to the able young Florentine, to be practised, remember, in and for his native town, and with no need to go away to some distant capital. Instead of Mayor he might be Prime Minister; instead of captain of Territorials he might be a general leading the town-force in actual battle—a small battle no doubt, but enough to give the fullest scope to the activity of his mind; if he were a painter, sculptor, or architect he would be employed on the monuments of his own place instead of seeing them designed by some visiting great man. Of course no one suggests that you should or could return to institutions on the Athenian or Florentine scale, but the fact remains that you have drained your local life of most of its value and interest by the development of nation-wide class organisation.

Are you quite sure that the gist of the demand for Home Rule in Ireland, and in a less degree in Scotland, does not come mainly from young men who are agitating, though they do not fully realise it, for equality of opportunity rather than against the assumed wickedness of England? The Bohemians have achieved a very remarkable economic prosperity under the Austrian tyranny, and yet they fight for their Czecho-Slovak Nationality. Is there not something of the same human truth in the refractoriness of the shop stewards in our factories against the Union Executives away in London offices?

It is the principle of laissez-faire which has played such havoc with our local life. For a hundred years we have bowed down before the Going Concern as though it were an irreistible God. Undoubtedly it is a Reality, but it can be bent to your service if you have a policy inspired by an ideal. Laissez-faire was no such policy; it was mere surrender to fate. You tell me that centralisation is the 'tendency' of the age: I reply to you that it is the blind tendency of every age—was it not said nineteen hundred years ago that 'to him that hath shall be given'?

Consider the growth of London. A population of a million a century ago has risen to be more than seven millions to-day; or, to state the fact with more essential point, the London of a century ago contained a sixteenth of the population of England and now it has a fifth. How has it come about? When Parliament was originally set up, you had not only to pay the members to get them to attend, so busy were they with their absorbing local life, but before long you had also to fine the communities which failed to elect their representatives. That was the right condition of things, a federalisation against strong local magnetisms. When Macadamised roads were introduced a star of them was made, radiating from London; they brought the life of the country up to London, sapping it for the growth of London. When the railways were constructed the main lines formed a star from London, and the expresses run up and down, feeding London, milking the country. Presently the State also must needs step in to accentuate the centralising tendency by establishihg such services as the parcel post. Thus it has come about that the market-towns for a hundred miles around are degraded in respect of the variety of their life.

Not in four out of five cases does the Londoner profit in any true sense from the change. He lives in a suburb; he is shot through a tube to an office-room in the City, and then shot back to his bedroom in the suburb; only on Saturdays and Sundays has he time for communal life, and then he amuses himself with neighbours who are tied to him by nothing essential. In the great majority of cases he never comes into living contact with a large and trained mind except through the printed page: for him, as for the industrial worker in the country, his life of ideas is detached from his responsible life, and both suffer infinitely in consequence.

Centralisation, however, is only one form of a more general process which I would call the segregation of social and economic functions owing to the national fatalism in the presence of the Going Concern. You have allowed industrial life to crowd certain districts and to leave other districts poor. I grant that in the past that was inevitable to some extent owing to the need of generating power near the collieries, but not to the extent that has occurred. By proper control you could have substituted a 'village region,' with a community dependent on each factory or group of small factories, wherein rich and poor, masters and men, might have been held together in a neighbourly responsible realtionship; but you have allowed instead the East and West Ends to grow up in your great cities. Surely the essential characteristic of true statesmanship is foresight, the prevention of social disease; but our method for a century past has been to drift, and when things became bad we applied palliative remedies—factory legislation, housing legislation, and so forth. As things stand to-day, the only organic remedy is at any cost to loosen out the town.

These ideas apply not only to industry but also to our educational institutions and the learned professions. Our English system is to buy—we must use plain words, for the element of competition among the colleges exists—the best young brains by means of scholarships open to national competition. In the middle of last century we, in large measure, abolished the system of close scholarships, which tied particular schools to particular colleges; that was, in my opinion, by far the healthier system. By social custom you add to your scholars a number of other fortunate boys from well-to-do homes scattered over the country. So you recruit your public schools and your Oxford and Cambridge; from the beginning you lift your lads out of their local environment. From the Universities many of them pass into a centralised Civil Service, a centralised legal profession, and even a centralised medical profession. In London they wait, eating out their hearts during their best years. A few of them come through and shine in a great but unnaturally segregated competition of wits, and you complain of your Government by lawyers! The whole system results from historical momentum; when the Midlands, the East, and the South of England were all of England that counted, Oxford and Cambridge were local Universities, and London was the natural market centre of a single country-side. But in the past century the roads and the railways have enabled the Metropolis to attract to itself the careers that were destined for the inspiration of other country-sides. The natural place of an exceptional man is to be leading his own people and helping them to bear their burdens. Your exceptional brain is serving the nation best if it remains racy of its own particular soil.[3]

One of the most serious difficulties in the way of the realisation of the balanced local community Hes in the difference of dialect spoken by the common people and the upper classes. In England after the Norman Conquest our peasants talked English, but our knights French, and our priests Latin, with the result that a knight felt himself more at home with a knight from France than with his own people, and so was it also with the priests. To-day there is a curious difference, it seems to me, in this respect, between the Scottish and English peoples. In England the upper professional classes go to the same schools and universities as the landed classes, and the merchants and captains of industry also send their sons to those schools. Therefore the line of social cleavage, as shown by speech and bearing, is between the upper and the lower middle classes. In Scotland, on the other hand, the people of the highest tier of society send their sons for the most part to the English Public Schools and the English Universities, whereas the ministers of the Scottish Churches, the advocates in the Scottish Law Courts, and the doctors and schoolmasters are trained in the main in the local Universities, which are frequented by the sons of the shopkeepers and artisans to a greater extent than in England. The result, as I believe, is that the Scottish aristocracy has been, to a greater degree than in England, detached from the people. I do not blame them, for they have merely drifted in the grip of fate. It is said that a certain Scottish Baronet who had eight beautiful daughters approaching, some of them, to the age of marriage, put them all on a coach and drove them away from Edinburgh to London, because all the young Scotsmen of his acquaintance who had money, or the wits to make money, had already gone thither! In the end of the eighteenth century, and the beginning of the nineteenth, Edinburgh was one of the lamps of Europe, with its own particular tinge of flame. To-day it is one more instance of the futility of trying to separate the economic from the other aspects of the life either of a nation or a province.

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Whether we reason downward from the Freedom of Nations, or upward from the Freedom of Men, we come to the same conclusion. The nation which is to be fraternal towards other nations, must be independent in an economic as in every other sense; it must have and keep a complete and balanced life. But it cannot be independent if it is broken into classes and interests which are for ever seeking to range themselves for fighting purposes with the equivalent classes and interests of other nations. Therefore you must base national organisation on provincial communities. But if your province is to have any sufficient power of satisfying local aspirations it must, except for the federal reservations, have its own complete and balanced life. That is precisely what the real Freedom of Men requires—scope for a full life in their own locality. The organisation by nationwide classes and interests is the outcome of conflict, but it cannot satisfy, for it removes the larger careers away to the metropolis. Moreover the slums, and most other material afflictions of the people, are the outcome of impotence of local life, for they all result from offences against the principle of keeping that life complete and balanced.

Provinces of complete life, of course, imply federal system. It is not a mere decentralisation which is contemplated, but decentralisation of the different social functions to the same local units. Undoubtedly that is the tendency at the present time, in the Anglo-Saxon world, in regard to the administration of Government. The United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa are all, in greater or less degree, federal, and in Britain we seem to be not very far from becoming so. Only the Irish question blocks the way, but it is intrinsically a small question, and we ought not to allow the quarrels of four million people to impede permanently the organic remedy of the ills of more than forty millions. A division of England into Northern and Southern Provinces would probably be needed in order to remove the fact of the predominant partner, but from the point of view here taken that division would in itself be a good thing. To achieve the object in view it would not, however, be enough to give to your provinces merely 'gas and water' powers; they must be so involved in the economic life of their regions that both masters and men will base their organisations on the Provincial Areas. If every unit of society—the Nation, the Province, the locality—were entitled, nay, were desired, to take appropriate steps to maintain the completeness and balance of its life, the need for the wide-spreading organisation of any class or interest, save for informative purposes, would gradually cease to be urgent.

Consider the life of trees. In the forests of nature competition is severe, and no tree attains to the full and balanced growth of which it is capable. The trees of the middle forest struggle upward to the light; those of the border spread outward one-sidedly; and in the slum depths are all manner of rottenness and parasitism. If, as in Dante's dream, there were spirits imprisoned in the trees, one might imagine a forest league of the foliage against the roots for sending up too many trunks, and a forest league of the roots against the foliage for keeping away the sweet light and air. But they would be futile leagues, because each tree consists of roots and foliage. (The Landscape Gardener of civilisation with his organic remedies, can alone achieve the perfect beauty of trees. He plants them apart, so that they may grow independently, each according to the ideal of its kind; he guides the sapling, prunes the young tree, and cuts away disease from the mature tree. So we enjoy one of the most inspiring sights on earth, a park of noble trees, each complete and balanced in its growth. Only the monkeys and squirrels, which leap from branch to branch, have suffered—the elusive international exploiters and profiteers of the forest.

This parable of the Gardener contains also the idea that the functions of growth and control are separate and should be kept separate. When officials of the State become socialistic, and try to initiate instead of merely assuring growth, they become less capable of their own proper function, which is criticism—understanding and sympathetic, but still criticism. The temper of criticism is incompatible with artistic and formative enthusiasm. We have had too little criticism based on steady watchfulness for the signs of unbalance in growth. The British Board of Trade under the régime of Laissez-faire was so penetrated with the advisability of doing nothing, that it had no appreciable machinery for even watching what the Going Concern was doing. Federal authorities of every description, whether of the League of Nations or of the Nations, should consist essentially of defensive and of outlook departments, and the watching or outlook departments should issue warnings, and repeat those warnings, until, thus enlightened, public opinion in the localities concerned intervenes while there is yet time to prevent some monstrous outgrowth of the Going Concern from fatally upsetting the equilibrium of the world or of the nation. In the United States the care of agriculture is, I believe, left to the separate States, but the Federal Bureau of Agriculture it is which issues warnings of the need of conserving the natural resources of the country. In Rome we already have an International Agricultural Institute which collects the statistics of the world harvests, and seeks to steady markets and prices by timely warnings; it has rendered considerable service to the Allies during this War.

I have no doubt that I shall be told by practical men that the ideal of complete and balanced economic growth in each locality is contrary to the whole tendency of the age, and is, in fact, archaic. I shall be told that you can only get a great and cheap production by the method of world-organisation and local specialisation. I admit that such is the present tendency, and that it may give you maximum material results for a while. But if you breed animals, does there not come a time when you have gone as far as you can with inbreeding, and must you not then resort again to cross-breeding?

Athens and Florence were great because they saw life whole. If you pursue relentlessly the idols of efficiency and cheapness, you will give us a world in which the young will never see life but only an aspect of life; national and international organisers will alone hold the keys admitting to the Observatory of the complete view. Is it in that way that you will get a continuous supply of fruitful brains, and happy, because intellectually active workers? All specialisation contains the seeds of death; the most daring army must, at times, wait for the supply columns to come up. In the growth of brains and contentment something far more subtle is involved than any technical education or healthy housing. Is it quite certain that at the end of a century of refusal to get rich as quickly as possible, we should not have been far richer than we are?

I know that in this War you have set your controllers, and your international committees of controllers, to manage vast trades as single concerns, and that they have not let us starve. But in the crisis you have very rightly been using your capital of intellect and experience. Those men are the men that they are because they have built up private businesses with the fear of bankruptcy ever before them: they have grown up with their business lives always in their hands. Great organisations, whether of combines or Government services, in that they afford a sheltered life, will not give you unlimited crops of such men.

You urge that credit and insurance must have broad bases, and I agree: their function is to average away local deficiencies due to the varying seasons and the varying success of undertakings. But let us none the less recognise that they present the danger of a financial control of the world. Your League of Nations may have to take them in hand, lest we be ruled by one only of the 'interests' of society. There are two courses open to us in regard to them; to control them federally, or to fight them and balance them by the international organisation of other 'interests.' The federal authority, whether of the League or the Nation, is constituted of communities of complete growth, and cannot, from its nature, aspire to Empire, since it consists every-where of balanced humanity. But great specialist organisations, guided by experts, will inevitably contend for the upper hand, and the contest must end in the rule of one or other type of expert. That is Empire, for it is unbalanced.

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Do you realise that we have now made the circuit of the world, and that every system is now a closed system, and that you can now alter nothing without altering the balance of everything, and that there are no more desert shores on which the jetsam of incomplete thought can rest undisturbed? Let us attempt logical, symmetrical thought, but practical, cautious action, because we have to do with a mighty Going Concern. If you stop it, or even slow down its running, it will punish you relentlessly. If you let it run without guidance, it will take you over the cataract again. You cannot guide it by setting up mere fences, and by mending those fences if it breaks them down, because this Going Concern consists of hundreds of millions of human beings who are 'pursuing' happiness, and they will swarm over all your fences like an army of ants. You can only guide Humanity by the attraction of ideals. That is why Christianity wins on, after nineteen centuries, through all the impediments set up by criticism of its creeds and its miracles.

What we need, in my belief, to guide our Reconstruction is a presumption of statesmanship in favour of the balanced nation, and the balanced province, sinning neither with the Free Trader nor the Protectionist. If we persist for a generation or two, with such an ideal before us, we may gradually change the Going Concern, so that we shall have fraternal nations and fraternal provinces, instead of warring, organised interests ever striving to extend their limits to the international field in order to outflank opposing interests which still lag on the merely national scale. Remember how that curious negative ideal of Laissez-faire did through a couple of generations gradually assimilate the whole texture of British society, so that it has taken this World-War to overthrow the vested interests which grew up.

At present, it seems to me, we are thinking out our Reconstruction piecemeal, according to this and that detached ideal of the pre-War philanthropist—housing, temperance, industrial conciliation, and the rest of them. But if you build three hundred thousand new houses, and put them merely where they are 'wanted,' you may but be drifting again, though with heavier ballast.

In the War we have gradually risen to the conception of the single strategical command, and of the single economic control. Have you the courage for measures of like scope in regard to Peace, though more subtle and less executive, because they will deal with growth and not with destruction?

  1. As has been pointed out by Mr. H. G. Wells, though he would—wrongly as I think—yield to current tendencies and accept organisation by 'interests.'
  2. Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, 12th edition, p. 230.
  3. As a loyal son of Oxford who gratefully recognises what he owes to his Alma Mater, I would not have her flourish less but more in changing some of her lower functions for higher.