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  An American Manifesto
Sunday November 23, 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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 TAGS


Faith & Purpose

“When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of ages—they seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.”
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990


Mutual Aid

In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society


Education

“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State


Living Under Law

Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures


German Philosophy

The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since 1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be inadequate. 
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West


Knowledge

Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then, once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities


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


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


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


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


 

©2007 Christopher Chantrill