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  An American Manifesto
Saturday August 30, 2014 
by Christopher Chantrill Follow chrischantrill on Twitter

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ROAD TO THE

MIDDLE CLASS

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Bibliography

Chapter 8:
Mutual Aid

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ACCORDING TO THE MYTH of the modern welfare state, the nineteenth century was a lethal battleground in which the poor and the unskilled wandered unprotected and forlorn against the power of employers and landlords, men who occupied the commanding heights of the economy through their two-pronged strategy of laissez-faire economics and Social Darwinism.  It was an age of take the meager wages or starve; pay the exorbitant rent for a slum tenement or sleep out in the streets.  There was no social safety net, no compassion, no recourse.  The common people were naked before their oppressors. 

There is a germ of truth to this.  When immigrants to the industrial city first arrive, either as peasants direct from rural idiocy, or as emigrants from a far away land, they lack, initially, the social support system enjoyed by those who are born to the city or who have already struggled their way up from indigence.  And there are a lot of them.  The nineteenth century saw the beginning of the worldwide human migration to the city that continues to this day.  It was a flood tide that engulfed and transformed the cities of the world.  The first people to experience it on the receiving end were the nineteenth century middle classes who had learned to live in the city in previous centuries.  Hardly indifferent to the plight of the poor, they understood that the flood of immigrants represented an enormous challenge that called for answers.  They started responding with answers almost before they knew there was a question; if they didn’t, they knew, the immigrant tide might inundate the whole city.

But the immigrants were not helpless.  They had not risked their lives in a hazardous ocean crossing or abandoned their scanty livelihood on the farm to molder in the city in helpless victimhood.  They were determined to thrive, and thrive is what most of them did.  In every city they planted and tended dense underbrush of social service agencies of all kinds, from local government, churches, mutual-aid societies, ethnic associations, labor unions, and service organizations.  There was a safety net, and it developed spontaneously, in response to the actions of millions of people.  It just wasn’t the system of the modern welfare state, a safety net consciously spun and woven by a national political elite and maintained by a national government’s laws and functionaries.  It was something else.

At the center of this social safety net, in the United States and the United Kingdom at least, was a system of fraternal organizations, descended indirectly from medieval guilds, that brought ordinary people together on the basis of some affinity, real or imagined, in which they could organize and deliver mutual-aid and social benefits to each other in a social framework of brotherhood and reciprocity.  Because they were not trying to impress anyone, they could indulge themselves with fanciful names and titles: Irishmen could come together in the Ancient Order of Hibernians; blacks in the Grand United Order of Galilean Fishermen; Jews in B’nai B’rith.  The British working classes came together in friendly societies, most prominently in the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows and the Ancient Order of Foresters.

These institutions of fraternity and mutual-aid do not enjoy the respect and reverence given to that other institution of medieval origin, the university.  The medieval guilds are considered in retrospect to be centers of monopoly and privilege, and the fraternal organizations have been attacked both as dangerous secret societies and laughable talking shops where men behave like boys playing dress-up and giving themselves comically overblown titles.  And there hovers like a ghost the white sheet of the Ku Klux Klan, a fraternal organization of less than perfect report.  But we moderns do not give these venerable organizations their due.  The great institutions of fraternity and mutual-aid were integral to the rise of the middle class. 

At the turn of the twenty-first century in the United States, most people have forgotten the colorful Moose, Elks, and Masons; they drive past their moldering lodges in incomprehension.  A century before, at the turn of the twentieth century, nobody wondered about the lodges and their purpose, for everybody in the city belonged to a fraternal organization.  No political philosopher called them out of the ether; no political activist demanded a comprehensive and mandatory subsidy for fraternity.  They did not blaze across the nation like itinerant preachers.  And yet they grew from nothing in the sixteenth century to ubiquity in the early twentieth century.  Nobody has done more to bring this uncelebrated phenomenon to attention than David T. Beito in From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State. As he shows, the penetration of these institutions at the height of their success was remarkable. In the United States in 1924 it was estimated that 48 percent of working class men in the United States belonged to a fraternal organization. (Beito 2000 p222)  In the United Kingdom fraternal organizations were just as ubiquitous. In 1910, it was estimated that 9 million of the 12 million adult males belonged to a friendly society (Green 1993).  And then they were chopped off at the knees, and replaced by the government welfare state.  But in 2004, finally, a Harvard sociologist took notice of the fraternal association.  In Diminished Democracy, Theda Skocpol noted that the humble First Sergeant Durgin who was a pallbearer of Abraham Lincoln was a member of no less than three membership organizations, as recorded on his gravestone:

William Durgin was a “G.A.R. Commander” —that is, the elected head of his local post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the post-Civil War association of Union veterans.  The next line of the stone indicates Durgin’s affiliation with the “P. of H.,” the Patrons of Husbandry, of Grange... Finally, in an oblong rectangle at the very top of the gravestone appear three intertwined loops—a sure signal to those in the know that Warren Durgin was affiliated with a leading U.S. fraternal association, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. (Skocpol 2003 p4)

Guilds, fraternal organizations, and labor unions seem to have thrived in all cities during the second millennium.  They represent the general instinct in all men to join together in social fellowship, the propensity that de Tocqueville found in the universal American spirit of organizing and joining voluntary associations.  They were, and are, as their names frequently advertise, benevolent and protective organizations, a way for people to join in good works, both for each other and for others less fortunate, and also to defend themselves against the vagaries of earning a living in the uncertain market of the city, usually by attempting to regulate the behavior of their members and attempting to reduce competition from outsiders. 

Before the Reformation, these fraternal organizations were integral to city life.  They included mercantile guilds, associations of merchants, traders, and shopkeepers, craft guilds, associations of skilled craftsmen, and confraternities.  These associations began as combinations to protect the business and working interests of their members, but almost all expanded their activities beyond purely practical interests to more general social activities that might include the sponsorship of an altar in the local church, participation in local festivals, and paid-up funerals for members. 

In some cities, as in Florence, the fraternal organizations became deeply involved in the machinations of power politics, but in the great commercial centers of the era, Venice, the Dutch Republic, and London, the guilds formed a social fabric, a weave of colorful and spontaneous organizations that ranged in function from religious societies to employers’ associations, to mutual-aid societies, and to workers’ labor unions.   Wise governments regulated and encouraged them in this intermediary role between government and individual.  Other governments used them as tools of power politics. Venice enjoyed a particularly vibrant and beneficial mix of these organizations that provided a rich mediating structure between the government of the ruling merchant aristocracy and the individual Venetian families and individuals.  In the Netherlands, the guilds formed one of the great interests engaged in the perennial struggle to preserve Dutch independence from the greedy embrace of European monarchs.  In London, the livery companies became fully integrated into the power politics of England’s capital city, extracting privilege and status for the City of London from their royal masters further up the river Thames in return for the eternal requisite of government: money.


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Click for Chapter 9: Living Under Law

 

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Your comments are welcome. Please e-mail to Christopher Chantrill at mailto:chrischantrill@gmail.com, and take the RMC test here.

 TAGS


Action

The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


Chappies

“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison


China and Christianity

At first, we thought [the power of the West] was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.
David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing


Churches

[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust


Class War

In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status... Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher... The academics lost their power and prestige and... have been gloomy ever since.
Freeman Dyson, “The Scientist as Rebel”


Conservatism

Conservatism is the philosophy of society. Its ethic is fraternity and its characteristic is authority — the non-coercive social persuasion which operates in a family or a community. It says ‘we should...’.
Danny Kruger, On Fraternity


Conservatism's Holy Grail

What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph


Conversion

“When we received Christ,” Phil added, “all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.”
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh


Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


 

©2007 Christopher Chantrill