“[Chesterton] knows, as I do, that humanity stands at a solemn parting of the ways. Towards some unknown goal it presses through the ages, impelled by an overmastering desire of happiness. …It is, apparently, deserting the path of religion and entering upon the path of secularism. Will it lose itself in quagmires of sensuality down this new path, and pant and toil through years of civic and industrial anarchy, only to learn it had lost the road, and must return to religion? Or will it find that at last it is leaving the mists and the quagmires behind it; that it is ascending the slope of the hill so long dimly discerned ahead, and making straight for the long-sought Utopia? This is the drama of our time, and every man and every woman should understand it.”
So writes one Mr. McCabe, responding to G.K Chesterton. This got me to recall something I read in Jacques Barzun’s book, From Dawn to Decadence. Before diving into what that is and why I recalled it, keep in mind that Chesterton wrote the essays complied in this book in 1905. It was a tremendously transitional time in Western history.
After the Franco-Prussian War ended in 1871, Europe entered a period known as La Belle Époque – the Beautiful Era. It was a period of peace in Europe, commerce, travel, industrialization, progress, and liberalization in as good a sense of the word as the West has ever achieved. All of the promise of the Enlightenment was to be found in this era.
This era ended with World War One, the Great War as it was called at the time. The promise of the Enlightenment saw perhaps forty years, at best, of success. During this intervening period, progressivism took root in all of its glory – turning what we now call Classical Liberalism into something approaching its opposite. And it is this that reminded me of something from Barzun’s book.
Barzun labels this “the Great Switch”: “By Great Switch I mean the reversal of Liberalism into its opposite.” He notes that it began quietly, with Bismarck in the 1880s, enacting old-age pensions and other social programs. By the early part of the next century, Lloyd George “started England on the road to the Welfare State.”
Why the connection? Why does the crossroads noted by McCabe remind me of Barzun’s Great Switch? I am thinking of the time – the turn of the last century. Socialist and communist ideas were taking root. The Revolutions of 1848 were, perhaps the first strong manifestations; in 1864, the First International was founded in London, and seven years later, the Paris Commune.
But the ideas of Marx and Engels really began to take root in the latter part of the nineteenth century; the Second International was founded in 1889. By 1893, the Social Democratic Party of Germany took, perhaps, one quarter of the votes.
The Fabian Society was founded in 1884. Barzun writes that the name Fabian was chosen in honor of a Roman general: Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus. They chose his name because they advocated his strategy:
Facing an outstanding commander with superior numbers, he pursued a then-novel strategy of targeting the enemy's supply lines, and accepting only smaller engagements on favourable ground, rather than risking his entire army on direct confrontation with Hannibal himself. As a result, he is regarded as the originator of many tactics used in guerrilla warfare.
In the United States, two of the key events were the installation of an income tax, and the establishment of the Federal Reserve.
All of these events occurred in about a thirty-year window, at a time of peace and prosperity in both Europe and America – save against native populations in the colonies and in the American West, of course.
And right in the middle of it, we have this conversation between McCabe and Chesterton. But there is more still from Barzun:
Although fiercely debated, the Great Switch legislation was not seen as the beginning of a profound change, social or political. Two writers, Chesterton and Belloc, did express alarm at the coming of The Servile State, but they were not heeded in the tumult of violent ideas and events.
And this is what I was remembering – the objection of Chesterton to these events, as noted by Barzun, and during the same time as he was having this dialogue with McCabe.
And this sent me looking for The Servile State. It turns out that this is a book by Belloc (PDF):
The definition of the Servile State is as follows: ‘‘That arrangement of society in which so considerable a number of the families and individuals are constrained by positive law to labour for the advantage of other families and individuals as to stamp the whole community with the mark of such labour we call THE SERVILE STATE.’’
The Servile State is not the market economy. It is also not simply socialism. Instead, it is a creation of the State to benefit a class, which is considered free, and for which class the system is perpetuated by force of law. Essentially, it is a State marked by artificial, government-created monopolies.
To summarize: The Servile State is the state we live in: the wealthy and powerful using government to control the rest of us, all in order to extend their wealth and power.
But now, for more backstory: Friedrich Nietzsche wrote The Parable of the Madman in 1882. It was here that he announced the death of God – not as a declaration; a news story. He was reporting that which he saw in the society around him. His solution was the Übermensch (the superman); this superman would develop the new ethics, replacing the lost Christian ethics. From Nietzsche’s book, Thus Spake Zarathustra:
I TEACH YOU THE SUPERMAN. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man?
All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and ye want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man?
What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.
The Servile State is where much of humanity works at the pleasure of and for the favor of the superman. The superman established a system of monopoly control through state power. The monopoly benefits the superman, and the monopoly gains broad support by benefitting many of those who could never be supermen – those who are Nietzsche’s laughingstocks, or things of shame. These are the exploited class, most of whom do not recognize that they are being exploited.
It is here where, in Belloc’s words, a “considerable a number of the families and individuals are constrained by positive law to labour for the advantage of other families and individuals…”
One hundred years ago it was the working class in the early industrial age. As these quickly figured out that life in the factory was better than life on the farm, the target became what we ultimately see today – those who make up the intersectionality of every social justice grievance.
The left – and by this, I include all democrats and almost all republicans – favor two groups: big business (the supermen) and the so-called exploited classes (in order to keep broad support for the program). By this, the rest of us are disadvantaged.
Which comes back to the opening quote from Chesterton – or, more precisely, from McCabe referring to Chesterton. What does this have to do with the choice of secularism or religion?
I think that the road of secularism could lead nowhere else – to nowhere other than Nietzsche’s Übermensch and the completely dysfunctional West that we live in today. But buried in McCabe’s statement is a ray of hope:
Will [secularism] lose itself in quagmires of sensuality down this new path, and pant and toil through years of civic and industrial anarchy, only to learn it had lost the road, and must return to religion?
It will return to religion. It already has, as we see the practices of religion even in the protests and riots of today. It is a bastardized religion, and it will not stop here. From an earlier post on Chesterton, where he provides the answer to McCabe’s question:
But if we do revive and pursue the pagan ideal of a simple and rational self-completion we shall end—where Paganism ended. I do not mean that we shall end in destruction. I mean that we shall end in Christianity.
It will return to this, because it must.