Thursday, February 20, 2014

What's Wrong with the World

What's Wrong with the World
© 1910 G. K. Chesterton
200 pages
What’s wrong with the world? Too many people are proposing answers to the wrong questions.  What’s Wrong is a curious collection of thoughts, voiced at the turn of the 20th century, in response to the merry hell industrialism was wrecking on traditional forms of human society as the fields became the province of machines, not people, and the cities swelled with displaced farmers. Such urban swelling led to mass movements – spectator sports, popular politics,  and the odd mob, and sociologists, economists, and the like began to view society as one great machine, with ordered parts.   Written in opposition, What’s Wrong is a defense for the human-ness of people,  which examines flaws in the way men, women, children,  education, and politics were being handled – and have been handled further, from our  viewpoint. 

What’s Wrong with the World is from the start an eccentric book, for its author was an eccentric man, a personality given to wandering around in a cape and swordstick. He is neither ‘conservative’ nor liberal, and not moderate;  unlike Russell Kirk-esque conservatives, he scorns practicality and preaches the values of ideals and the abstract. How can we change society, he writes, if we do not have a conception of what it is supposed to look like?  What is the picture of health for human society, and what prescription might be writ to achieve it?  Chesterton’s goal here is not prescription, however, but description, and in several sections he writes about  the mistakes we have made concerning man, woman, and child.  The arguments he builds are steeped in religion and tradition, and a kind of sexual psychology.  They probably do not credit his reputation today, for he writes in defense of traditional gender roles and against female suffrage, but to dismiss him as an mere traditionalist is to miss the point.  The question, he writes, is not whether women deserve the vote, but whether the vote deserves women.

The prevailing spirit of What’s Wrong is, as its title suggests, that there is something wrong with the world of progress the people of the West were creating in the 19th century.  Civilization is a forced endeavor in specialization;  at least since the agricultural revolution, certain groups of men have had to make their life’s work a matter of doing one thing; one man is a farmer, another a potter.  This is sad, since the good life consists of a variety of experience, but required. What is not required is the way industrialism forced that monotask tendency to become so extreme that one man might spend his entire day doing the same simple movement over and over again. Such work is not fit for men, and the idea of  taking women from the home – where they are masters of many different tasks, from sewing to cleaning to teaching  -- and forcing them into the place of a machine-cog is beyond the pale.   The same applies to politics, and here Chesterton plays the anarchist as he criticizes all governance as being based on the use of coercion. It is bad enough that men have to participate in such foulness; they at least can enjoy the war-like antagonism of party politics, which allows them to bear it.   The solutions to societal problems have been in the main a case of more of the same, a case of eating the hair of the dog;  to counter the monopolization of property by big business trusts, people  propose letting it be monopolization by the state.   The issue is monopolization;  the bigness of society itself has to be addressed.

While Chesterton doesn’t go into any solution, he does address the ideal form that society ought to have: people need to be regarded as the image of God, not a mass to be managed; property must be distributed  more equally across the population so each man will have his Home. The home is enormously important to Chesterton; it is a sanctuary of natural law, of the order of ancient anarchy; it is where children ought to receive their education, to learn from their father and mother’s wisdom and trade;  public education is good for nothing more than becoming than little coglets. It is the accumulation of trivial information, grounded in neither tradition nor skills.   What’s Wrong with the World is thus considered one of the fountainheads of distributism, with its  emphasis on decentralization, locality, and widespread property ownership.

Although some of its points are moot now (women’s suffrage is not a political issue these days),  What’s Wrong still has lingering relevance; we are more specialized these days than the 19th century, not less; the gulf between the propertied and the poor is wider, not diminished;  education is wholly institutionalized, and considering how much time adults spend at work and children in school, even if parents knew a great deal about anything in particular they haven’t the time to teach it.  We are even less the image of Chesterton’s god;  even more ants on the anthill he predicted with such dread.  The book has its varied flaws; Chesterton’s opposition to evolution is on ideological grounds, for instance, as he abhors anything that looks on people as a mass, even as a biological ‘population’. His enthusiasm for writing about something he clearly does not understand (his perception of evolution resembles Lamarkianism, with the rich breeding bow-legged stable boys and such)  casts doubt on other criticisms, but he did live in the age of the insidious dream of eugenics, so his intentions were not terrible.  Discussion of actual evolution would have out of place in a work like this, loaded with literary references, chatty social critiques, and aphorisms aplenty. (This is the source of his “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has  been found difficult and not tried.”)  

What’s Wrong with the World is a peculiar book, dated but relevant, hopelessly old-fashioned but in an endearing way. The author’s convivial contrariness makes considering his arguments possible,   as does the fact that he is seemingly against modern work and modern politicking in general, not just women doing them. But in his day,  the political and labor arguments were a lost cause as far as men went, at least barring the distributive revolution, but the women and children can or could still be saved.  I think he is serious in his criticism, but I am predisposed to like him given my own contempt for inhumane work and corporatism. Readers will find Chesterton odd, but personable and thought-provoking, even if they have objection against his ideas. It’s not the easiest read, but considering his chattiness  the work isn’t difficult, either; just look out for the flourishing sword-stick and  spectacular prose.

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