Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Union Request

Tom, a union worker, requested that I post something about distributism and guilds for the "union guys" (meant in the fullest, and most universal sense of "men and women") out there.
Here is a little something to chew on and discuss:

ILN September 4, 1920" "The Bad and the Good Old Days"

I see that Mr. Robert Blatchford, whose comments generally contain at the best sagacity, and at the worst sanity, has been considering the question of the disparagement of the present in comparison with the past, in an article called "The Bad Old Days." The period chosen for praise by the writer he criticises was apparently about fifty years ago [meaning 1870-ed.]; and he has no difficulty in suggesting particular and definite advantages in connection with that particular and definite date. But
when he seems to imply, in his concluding paragraphs, that the present period is better than any other, and that by some natural progress we shall arrive at a period that is better still, he raises a very different question.

To begin with, of course, it is equally irrational to talk of the "Bad Old Days" and of the "Good Old Days" for the reason with which we are all familiar in daily life: that no two days are alike. Even if we take some modern commercial type, whose
days are far too much alike, the fallacy is obvious. If we ask a clerk sitting on an office stool whether he prefers his present to his past, he will very rightly regard the question as absurd. He will want to know whether he is to compare that particular moment, of moderate though monotonous work in an office, with the time when he had toothache in the east wind at Margate; or the time when he won ten pounds in a newspaper competition; or with twenty other conditions that were either much better or much worse. Our present civilization is far too much a civilisation of clerks and office stools; but certainly there were many past civilizations that were much better and much worse. He might be much worse off if he were a slave in a half-barbaric Byzantine decadence; he might be better off if he were a guildsman in the brief but promising golden age of mediaevalism. But I agree that the average poor man was in many ways worse off at the particular time Mr. Blatchford was considering.

Of course, there is another fallacy also involved, when Mr. Blatchford says, for instance, that there were once no trades unions for the protection of labour. In the Middle Ages there were far stronger trades unions; but that is not the fallacy I mean. It should also be realised that if trades unions have grown stronger, trusts have also grown stronger. A thing may be a good thing because it is a good medicine; but medicine implies a disease. Trades unions arose to combat a theory of competition more cruel than any that had ever been preached in the world before. It is as if we were to say that ten years ago, before the War, our soldiers had not such miracles of surgery as their mechanical legs. They had not; before the War they had real legs. And before the modern capitalist corruption they had real land and real guilds and real rights and religion.

But whether or no people will accept this praise of the past, there is surely no doubt of their doubt about the present. It is surely extraordinary that men should be so optimistic about the future when they are so pessimistic about the present. For my part, I wonder how long we are going on with the double process of cursing the position we are in and blessing everything that has brought us to it. It is considered realistic to say that we are in the ditch, but is considered merely reactionary to say that we fell into the ditch, and still more reactionary to hint that it would have been better if we had continued to walk along the road.

As it is, I repeat, we are at once lamenting that all our affairs have gone wrong, and yet still explaining how it is that they have always gone right. We are talking about the danger of commercial bankruptcy; but we are still talking of the secret of our commercial supremacy. We are complaining of mismanagement, and even of misrule, in every part of our Empire; but we are still arguing from the universal peace of our dominions and the general acceptability of our rule. We are already in practice taking the corruption of our politics for granted; but we are still in theory explaining why our politics are free from corruption. Most of us are every day accusing half our countrymen of raving insanity; but most of us are still making appeals
to the well-known sanity and solidity of our country. We show our great manufacturing towns to everybody else as a boast, while we are ourselves treating them as a problem; and we tell the foolish foreign peasant that he may well wish he were living in London, while we ourselves go and live in the country. We represent the English gentleman and public school-boy as a Paladin and perfect ruler of men, until he begins to do real work at the Foreign Office or the Colonial Office; and then we represent him (often very unjustly) as a worthless noodle and slacker, doing no work at all. We are by this time talking in terms of sheer panic about the power of the Jews when they erect a tyranny in Russia, or force our hand perilously in
Palestine; but we still sneer at the mediaeval superstitions and benighted racial bigotry of the most exasperated peasants rising against the most execrable usurers. I myself, for one, have been twice in my life rebuked for being a Zionist; originally, because it was a disparagement of the Jews, and recently because it is a defence of the Jews. As a fact, it is neither, but merely a recognition of the Jews, or a desire to recognise them, if not in Palestine, then somewhere else. But the point here is that people are now talking anti-Semitism in the present, while they are still claiming a superiority to the anti-Semitism of the past. And while they are already crying out about the Jewish peril, it never occurs to them that it may be their own fault for having refused to discuss the Jewish problem. But this is only one of a long list of examples such as I have already given. Men are actually denouncing the fact of degeneration, while they are still dogmatically affirming the faith in progress; and
while they themselves clamorously declare that we have come to the wrong place, they still obstinately insist that we have come by the right road.

Now, I not only deny that we have come by the right road, but I deny that we have come by a road at all. At any rate, we have come by a road that had so zigzag a direction that it would be truer to say it had no direction. Whatever else is true, it is certainly not true that the history of our thought for the last three hundred years has been a steady progress, or even a slow evolution. It has not only been a series of experiments, but a series of extremes. The thought of the seventeenth century was more pessimistic than the thought of the thirteenth. The thought of the eighteenth century was more optimistic than the thought of the thirteenth. Grey cannot turn white by turning black; and London cannot be on the way from York to Edinburgh.

The truth is that the world first tried being more Puritan than the Christian tradition, and then tried being more Pagan than the Christian tradition. This may be a change, or even a lark; but it cannot possibly be a progress, or even an evolution. The same is true, of course, of the more modern morals which are concerned rather with ethics and economics than with religion and theology. The competition of Herbert Spencer and the collectivism of Bernard Shaw cannot by any possibility be represented as successive steps, either in a Spencerian evolution or in a Shavian progress. They are flatly contrary, moving
in opposite directions, away from the more normal thing which existed before, and which (I take leave to hope) will exist afterwards.

To that more normal thing I hope we shall return: in philosophy to a real recognition of the struggle of good and evil, instead of insane simplifications of optimism and pessimism; in politics to a redistribution of personal property and liberty, instead of the further concentration of Trusts into a Servile State. But a reform will be a return; and in that sense reform will be the very reverse of progress.

So far from linking up all our late movements in one long series of improvements, it must recognise them as a tangle of cross-purposes that has to be cut away. For our reform is not only a reform, but a repentance, and the point of all repentance is beginning afresh. The only fresh beginning is that which starts from first principles; and that will always be fresh when all novelties are stale.

It's kind of long, but worth reading.

Well, what do you think? Is thinking about a "return" to the "good old days" of guilds a nice daydream for those union workers who struggle, or is it something to work towards in the future? Does that mean (if we succeed in re-creating guilds) that we've made progress--or regress? [Does it matter what we call it?] Will the modern world be for it or against it?


  1. Union workers are more likely having daymares in the place of daydreams. My plant, the St. Paul Ford Assembly Plant is closing, among with 14 other Ford factories. All this is excused by the UAW as another shakeout by the "free" market. In fact, today's union workers are mostly left without true unions, or at least, the sort of union that fights agsinst the capitalists for workers and the poor.

    The reform alternative left for rank and filers is offered by the New Left. Not much interest there.

    I know very little about the Guilds othet than that they were patterned after the family, were fairly democratic, protected their members, their crafts and their quality and produced nice goods for the community.

  2. I wonder if the difference between guilds and unions is that the guilds existed to ensure that what was being made was of highest quality, so sort of holding everyone to the highest standard, and unions exist to ensure that workers are protected, and sort of hold everyone to the lowest standard (workers should at least get health benefits, etc). I see them fundamentally functioning differently.

    Sorry to hear about your job situation. But maybe this is an opportunity to start your own business (very Chestertonian) or join in a small business?

  3. Here's my latest rejected letter to the editor to give you a better idea of my view:

    October 4, 2006
    Minneapolis Star Tribune
    To the Editor:

    Over recent months, the Tribune has published several stories about Ford’s intention to close the St. Paul Ford Assembly Plant.

    The useful, story was about the UAW’s demand that the State give several hundred million to Ford to retool the plant for an efficient auto. The State then actually offered Ford the technical and scientific expertise of Mankato State University for a high-value, efficient auto pilot program AND millions for retooling. Typically, the great Ford Motor Company blew them off and is now walking away.

    The currently missing big story should be why doesn’t the proposed, natural working alliance between the Ford Plant Workers and Mankato U. Engineers make even more sense now that the greedy corporation is departing? After all, Ford and the rest of Big Auto have repressed auto technology and efficiencies for decades and wasted $3500 bucks per unit with Madison Avenue covering their mistakes.

    How about reviving the Mankato U. – Ford Plant partnership story? How about some coverage on what we might call the Mankato – Ford Plant Auto Guild? This Auto Guild would democratically unite creativity, engineering and design with craft and production. Value and community service, not consumerism’s planned obsolescence, would drive innovation, design, production and sales.

    The Auto Guild would be owned and run by the real experts, the auto workers. The auto workers would include scientists, engineers, designers, skilled trades and the production line pros and responsible, quality managers. The Auto Guild would bring the academic engineers and natural engineers (the finest car builders in the world, the guys we see at the drag strips) in friendly, inspirational settings. Designers, managers and production workers would be friends, freely sharing ideas on the job on how to build safe autos that easily run for 500,000 miles and get 100mpg. Or, run on water. And if this Auto Guild could just be started, it would revolutionize auto production by qualifying, downsizing, democratizing and returning to service to the community instead of serving the tiny elites, the rich and powerful. If such an auto organization could get off the ground, it would also use those workers who are good at arithmetic to count and produce for the buyers, thus solving those pesky problems of overproduction.

    St. Paul and Minnesota have a big opportunity here to step away from the cheap but wasteful, dictatorial, corporate production that is destroying our country and world.

    So, please come back to the big story, the truly useful, common sense, true auto value program about the Mankato U. - Ford Plant partnership, a partnership that can inspire and unite the true auto experts, revolutionize auto production and give us the best autos in the world.

    Tom Laney
    Retired Ford Worker

    E6304 866th Ave.
    Colfax, WI 54730

  4. Hi Tom,

    There is a puzzling contradiction between your first post and the subsequent letter - you say you don’t know much about Guilds, but in your letter you have suggested a rather complex Auto Guild. Have you actually thought it through, or is this just a wishful wild goose chase? (Or are you daydreaming? :-) Do you really think that such an Auto Guild is a viable enterprise?


    Wild Goose,


    Mrs. Brown, where did you get the e-text version of the ILN article? Have you typed it from the Collected Works or is there an electronic source that hasn’t been published yet? (There aren’t many ILN articles published as e-text yet.)

  5. Dear Wild Goose,
    Are you a member of the ACS? Have you heard of the "Amber Project"? (If you click on the "Donate" button over there on the left side of this web page you will see a brief description of it). The ACS would LOVE to get all of Chesterton's work in electronic format (and we're working on it, with the help of your generous donations). I happen to know the very cool gentleman who is working on Amber (and has been for years) scanning till his arms grow weary. He it is (unnamed but very Chestertonianly Chestertonain that he is) who provided me with this e-text.

    Tom: Sounds like a great letter, probably rejected because of it's length. I bet if you got it down to a two sentencer, it would get in.

    How about: I'm anxious to read a story in this newspaper about creating a partnership between.....

    just the basics.

    And I agree with Wild Goose. You've given this guild thing some thought. Any possibilities of it really happening? Could YOU connect Mankato and the auto workers?

  6. Hello Mrs. Brown,

    Over the years I bought many of my GKC books and other materials from the ACS. I read somewhere about the Amber project, but it was a long time ago. Is it nearing its completion by now? And once finished, will it be available via the ACS? I would be willing to buy it, just, as I am sure, many other Chestertonians would.

    How about publishing what has been done so far? And, as you probably know, Martin Ward has a wonderful website with many Chesterton’s works available for download, and his collection is slowly but surely growing. Perhaps the ACS wants to make some money on this project, but I really think and hope that all Chesterton’s works will be eventually freely available to anybody in the world.

    Perhaps the Amber project could adopt a similar approach to Mr. Ward’s - ask Chestertonians to contribute with some volunteer work and supply scanned or typed e-texts. I am sure many people would be willing to contribute with their favorite essays, poems or book chapters.

    BTW, I still prefer to read printed materials. I find reading many pages on the computer screen, even on a high quality one with high resolution, rather troublesome and bad for eyes.

    Wild Goose,



    Mrs. Brown is correct about your letter. I have written my share of letters to the editor and I agree that shorter is better, if you can manage to express your idea. It is hard to do, especially with a complex idea like you have suggested, especially when most readers and editors don’t know anything about Distributism or Chesterton.

    Many newspapers today print only very short letters, sometimes only 2 or 3 sentences, and it is usually next to impossible to say what one wants to say without using what seems like cryptic code words. I usually don’t bother any more to write such short letters, especially to the publications that shun complex ideas (like morality, religion, philosophy), and I focus on those that will allow you to write at least 250 to 300 words. But it is still tough, so don’t repeat the same phrases or words, stick to the core ideas, read your letter over and over and to try to eliminate unnecessary words, and then cut some more if you can. Try to imagine you are a reader who has no idea about Distributism and present your letter accordingly.


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