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The Chesterbelloc on Industrialization (A Response to John Medaille)

December 19, 2010

The following post is an extension of a discussion that began in the thread to my previous post.

I have noticed a strong correlation between blogging and my dinner getting cold, with last night being no exception. If I butchered Chesterton and Belloc in my rebuttal to John Medaille, it was only so that I might have something to eat — which I hope can be forgiven.  At the same time, while only a caricature would attribute to the Chesterbelloc the view that industrialization was an “unqualified evil,” the caricature does emphasize a real feature of distributist thought.

In part IV of the Outline of Sanity, Chesterton discusses “machinery” (a metonym for industrialization) at some length, so I’ll excerpt from that book.  Chesterton’s remarks on machinery are fraught with ambivalence.  On the one hand, if you want to make the case that Chesterton was no Luddite, his remarks in the chapter titled “The Wheel of Fate” provide ample support:

Now it is exactly those who have the clarity to imagine that the instant annihilation of machines who will probably have too much common sense to annihilate them instantly.  To go mad and smash machinery is a more or less healthy and human malady, as it was in the Luddites.  But it was really owing to the ignorance of the Luddites, in a very different sense from that spoken of scornfully by the stupendous ignorance of the Industrial Economists.  It was blind revolt as against some ancient and awful dragon, by men too ignorant to know how artificial and even temporary was that particular instrument, or where was the seat of the real tyrants who wielded it.  The real answer to the mechanical problem for the present is of a different sort . . . (p. 156 in Volume 5 of the Collected Works).

While no mere Luddite, Chesterton never really brings himself to accepting machinery as a plain fact of modern life.  Rather, he says that, “instead of the machine being a giant to which the man is a pygmy, we must at least reverse the proportions until man is a giant to which the machine is a toy” (p. 156).  Similarly, in a passage a few pages prior, Chesterton worries that that supporters of “modern mechanical civilization” fail to maintain a sense of wonder about machinery (p. 154).  Here is the answer Chesterton says he is “disposed” to give to those who boast that window glass, which was once a necessity, has become a necessity:

Yes, and it would be better for people like you if it were still a luxury; if that would induce you to look at it, and not only to look through it.  Do you ever consider how magical a thing is that invisible film standing between you and the birds and the wind?  Do you ever think of it as water hung in the air or a flattened diamond too clear to be even valued?  Do you ever feel a window as a sudden opening in a wall? And if you do not, what is the good of the glass to you? (p. 154)

I should note in passing that this heightened sense of wonder is one of the things that drew me to Chesterton in the first place — and something I think we could use far more of these days!  So the point is well taken.  At the same time, Chesterton treats the point as somehow uniquely applicable to machinery when it is, in reality, universally applicable.  No one would make the argument that we should get rid of coffee because college students tend to mindlessly gulp it down towards the end of each semester.  Or that all trees which my neighbors do not fully appreciate should be cut down.  Why then pick on the machine?

In a few places, Chesterton lives up to the caricature I made of him in last night’s comment.  At the outset of “The Free Man and the Ford Car,” for example, he writes:

I am not a fanatic; and I think that machines may be of considerable use in destroying machinery.  I should generously accord them a considerable value in the work of exterminating all that they represent (p. 165).

That’s venturing into “unqualified evil” territory, if you ask me.

Much to his credit, Belloc did not in this respect share Chesterton’s reactionary streak.  If Chesterton dwells at length on the importance of maintaining a sense of wonder about machinery — which is essentially a red herring — Belloc carefully lays out a proposal in “An Essay on the Restoration of Property” (the most viable, best articulated statement of distributist philosophy to date) for integrating it into the distributist vision. I don’t have the book in front of me, but I think this quote from my notes is accurate:

In the matter of units which are necessarily large . . . we must watch for every opportunity of substituting the smaller units for the larger whenever a new discovery permits this; but where there is no such opportunity, where the large unit is inevitable, we must have control either for the purpose of creating well-distributed property in the shares thereof, or for the purpose of managing the use of it as a communal concern.

Belloc goes on to spell out a fourfold policy for managing large units, which includes a qualified endorsement of communal ownership by the State or a Guild.

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