Progress and Poverty (George)/Chapter XXV

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Chapter XXV How modern civilization may decline[edit]

The conditions of social progress, as we have traced the law, are association and equality. The general tendency of modern development, since the time when we can first discern the gleams of civilization in the darkness that followed the fall of the Western Empire, has been towards political and legal equality - to the abolition of slavery; the abrogation of status; the sweeping away of hereditary privileges; the substitution of parliamentary for arbitrary government; the right of private judgment in matters of religion; the more equal security in person and property of high and low, weak and strong; the greater freedom of movement and of occupation, of speech and of the press. The history of modern civilization is the history of advances in this direction - of the struggles and triumphs of personal, political and religious freedom. And the general law is shown by the fact that just as this tendency has asserted itself civilization has advanced, while just as it has been repressed or forced back civilization has been checked.

Where there is anything like an equal distribution of wealth the more democratic the government the better it will be; but where there is gross inequality in the distribution of wealth, the more democratic the government the worse it will be; for while rotten democracy may not in itself be worse than rotten autocracy, its effects upon national character will be worse. To give the suffrage to tramps, to paupers, to men to whom the chance to labour is a boon, to men who must beg, or steal, or starve, is to invoke destruction. To put political power in the hands of men embittered and degraded by poverty is to tie firebrands to foxes and turn them loose amid the standing corn; it is to put out the eyes of a Samson and to twine his arms around the pillars of national life.

To turn a republican government into a despotism the basest and most brutal, it is not necessary formally to change its constitution or to abandon popular elections. It was centuries after Caesar before the absolute master of the Roman world pretended to rule other than by authority of a Senate that trembled before him.

Forms are nothing when substance has gone, and the forms of popular government are those from which the substance of freedom may most easily go. Extremes meet and a government of universal suffrage and theoretical equality may, under conditions which impel the change, most readily become a despotism. For there despotism advances in the name and with the might of the people. The single source of power once secured, everything is secured. There is no enfranchised class to whom appeal may be made, no privileged orders who in defending their own rights may defend those of all. No bulwark remains to stay the flood, no eminence to rise above it.

The accidents of hereditary succession or of selection by lot (the plan of some of the ancient republics) may sometimes place the wise and just in power - but in a corrupt democracy the tendency is always to give power to the worst. Honesty and patriotism are weighted and unscrupulousness commands success. The best gravitate to the bottom, the worst float to the top, and the vile will only be ousted by the viler. Since national character must gradually assimilate the qualities that win power and consequently respect, that demoralization of opinion goes on which in the long panorama of history we may see over and over again transmuting races of freemen into races of slaves. A corrupt democratic government must finally corrupt the people, and when a people becomes corrupt there is no resurrection. The life is gone, only the carcass remains; it is left but for the ploughshares of fate to bury it out of sight.

This transformation of popular government into despotism of the vilest and most degrading kind, which must inevitably result from the unequal distribution of wealth, is not a thing of the far future. It has already begun and is rapidly going on under our eyes. Voting is done more recklessly; it is harder to arouse the people to the necessity of reforms and more difficult to carry them out; political differences are ceasing to be differences of principle, and abstract ideas are losing their power; parties are passing into the control of what in general government would be oligarchies and dictatorships. These are all evidences of political decline.

The under-currents of the times seem to sweep us back again to the old conditions from which we dreamed we had escaped. The development of the artisan and commercial classes gradually broke down feudalism after it had become so complete that men thought of heaven as organized on a feudal basis, and ranked the first and second persons of the Trinity as suzerain and tenant-in-chief. But now the development of manufactures and exchange, acting in a social organization in which land is made private property, threatens to compel every worker to seek a master, just as the insecurity which followed the final break-up of the Roman Empire compelled every freeman to seek a lord. Nothing seems exempt from this tendency. Industry everywhere tends to assume a form in which one is master and many serve. And when one is master and the others serve, the one will control the others, even in such matters as votes.

The very foundations of society are being sapped before our eyes while we ask how it is possible that such a civilization as this, with its railways, and dally newspapers, and electric telegraphs, should ever be destroyed? While literature breathes but the belief that we have been, and for the future must be, leaving the savage state farther and farther behind us, there are indications that we are actually turning back again toward barbarism.

Though we may not speak it openly, the general faith in democratic institutions, where they have reached their fullest development, is narrowing and weakening; it is no longer the confident belief in democracy as the source of national blessings that it once was. Thoughtful men are beginning to see its dangers, without seeing how to escape them; they are beginning to accept the view of Macaulay and to distrust that of Jefferson. The people at large are becoming used to the growing corruption; the most ominous political sign is the growth of a sentiment which either doubts the existence of an honest man in public office or looks on him as a fool for not seizing his opportunities. That is to say, the people themselves are becoming corrupted.

Where this course leads is clear to whoever will think. As corruption becomes chronic; as public spirit is lost; as traditions of honour, virtue and patriotism are weakened; as law is brought into contempt and reforms become hopeless; then in the festering mass will be generated volcanic forces which will shatter and rend when seeming accident gives them vent. Strong, unscrupulous men, rising up upon occasion, will become the exponents of blind popular desires or fierce popular passions, and dash aside forms that have lost their vitality. The sword will again be mightier than the pen, and in carnivals of destruction brute force and wild frenzy will alternate with the lethargy of a declining civilization.

Whence shall come the new barbarians? Go through the squalid quarters of great cities, and you may see, even now, their gathering hordes. How shall learning perish? Men will cease to read, and books will kindle fires and be turned into cartridges!

It is startling to think how slight the traces that would be left of our civilization did it pass through the throes that have accompanied the decline of every previous civilization. Paper will not last like parchment, nor are our most massive buildings and monuments to be compared in solidity with the rock-hewn temples and titanic edifices of the old civilizations. And invention has given us not merely the steam engine and the printing press, but petroleum, nitroglycerine and dynamite.

Yet to hint today that our civilization may possibly be tending to decline seems like the wildness of pessimism. The special tendencies to which I have alluded are obvious to thinking men, but with the majority of thinking men, as with the great masses, the belief in substantial progress is yet deep and strong - a fundamental belief that admits not the shadow of a doubt.

But anyone who will think over the matter will see that this must necessarily be the case where advance gradually passes into retrogression. For in social development, as in everything else, motion tends to persist in straight lines and therefore, where there has been a previous advance, it is extremely difficult to recognize decline, even when it has fully commenced; there is an almost irresistible tendency to believe that the forward movement, which has been advance and is still going on, is still advance. The web of beliefs, customs, laws, institutions and habits, constantly being spun by each community and producing, in the individual environed by it, all the differences of national character, is never unravelled. That is to say, in the decline of civilization, communities do not go down by the same paths as those by which they came up.

And how the retrogression of civilization, following a period of advance, may be so gradual as to attract no attention at the time; nay, how that decline must necessarily, by the great majority of men, be mistaken for advance, is easily seen. For instance, there is an enormous difference between Grecian art of the classic period and that of the lower empire; yet the change was accompanied, or rather was caused, by a change of taste. The artists who most quickly followed the change of taste were in their day regarded as the superior artists. And so of literature. As it became more vapid, puerile and stilted, it would be in obedience to an altered taste, which would regard its increasing weakness as increasing strength and beauty. The really good writer would not find readers; he would be regarded as rude, dry, or dull. And so would the drama decline; not because there was a lack of good plays, but because the prevailing taste became more and more that of a less cultured class, who, of course, would regard that which they most admire as the best of its kind. And so too of religion - the superstitions that a superstitious people will add to it will be regarded by them as improvements. As the decline goes on, the return to barbarism, where it is not in itself regarded as an advance, will seem necessary to meet the exigencies of the times.

Whether in the present drifts of opinion and taste there are as yet any indications of retrogression, it is not necessary to inquire; but there are many things about which there can be no dispute that go to show that our civilization has reached a critical period and that, unless a new start is made in the direction of social equality, the nineteenth century may to the future have marked its climax.

The tendency to inequality, which is the necessary result of material progress where land is monopolized, cannot go much farther without carrying our civilization into that downward path which is so easy to enter and so hard to abandon. Everywhere the increasing intensity of the struggle to live, the increasing necessity for straining every nerve to prevent being thrown down and trodden underfoot in the scramble for wealth, is draining the forces that gain and maintain improvements. When the tide turns in bay or river from flood to ebb, it is not all at once; but here it still runs on, though there it has begun to recede. When the sun passes the meridian, it can only be told by the way the short shadows fall- for the heat of the day yet increases. But as sure as the turning tide must soon run full ebb, as sure as the declining sun must bring darkness, so sure it is that though knowledge yet increases and invention marches on, and new states are being settled, and cities still expand, civilization has begun to wane when, in proportion to population, we must build more and more prisons, more and more almshouses, more and more insane asylums. It is not from top to bottom that societies die; it is from bottom to top.

There is a vague but general feeling of disappointment, an increased bitterness among the working-classes and a widespread feeling of unrest. If this were accompanied by a definite idea of how relief is to be obtained, it would be a hopeful sign; but it is not so accompanied. Though the schoolmaster has been abroad some time, the general power of tracing effect to cause does not seem a whit improved.

What change may come, no mortal man can tell, but that some great change must come, thoughtful men begin to feel. The civilized world is trembling on the verge of a great movement. Either it must be a leap upward, which will open the way to advances yet undreamed of, or it must be a plunge downward, which will carry us back towards barbarism.