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Living Under Law Liberals Just Don't Get It

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The Way of Mutual Aid

by Christopher Chantrill
January 01, 2005 at 12:18 pm

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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. It was an age of take the meager wages or starve; pay the exorbitant rents 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 in this. When immigrants to the industrial city arrived, either as peasants direct from rural idiocy, or as emigrants from a far away land, they lacked, initially, the social support system enjoyed by those who are born to the city or who have already struggled their way up from indigence.

But the immigrants were not helpless. They did not risk their lives in a hazardous ocean crossing or abandon their scanty livelihood on the farm to moulder in the city in helpless victimhood. They were determined to thrive, and thrive is what most of them did. In every city throughout the nineteenth century they planted and tended a dense underbrush of social institutions of all kinds, from local government, churches, mutual-aid societies, ethnic associations, labor unions, and service organizations. There was a safety net; it developed spontaneously, powered by 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.

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. Americans joined Moose, Elks, Masons, and the transplanted Oddfellows.

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. And yet, at the turn of the twentieth century “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. In the United Kingdom, in 1910, it was estimated that 9 million of the 12 million adult males belonged to a friendly society (Green 1993). 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 p.222) And then they were chopped off at the knees, and replaced by the government welfare state.

Today, the friendly society has dropped off the radar of British society, except for an occasional reference in some Labour politician’s speech praising the contribution of “friendly societies and trades unions” to the socialist movement. In the United States, the great ugly buildings of the fraternal organizations echo with the activities of sub-tenants, the old meeting rooms converted for dance classes. The Oddfellows and Foresters in England, the Elks, the Masons, the Eagles, and the Moose in the United States: what was the point of them? Fifty years to one hundred years ago, such a question would have been unnecessary. Everyone belonged, and everyone understood.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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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


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


Hugo on Genius

“Tear down theory, poetic systems... No more rules, no more models... Genius conjures up rather than learns... ” —Victor Hugo
César Graña, Bohemian versus Bourgeois


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


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


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


Postmodernism

A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ’merely relative’, is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.
Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy


Faith and Politics

As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable... [1.] protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; [2.] recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family... [3.] the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.
Pope Benedict XVI, Speech to European Peoples Party, 2006


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


Religion, Property, and Family

But the only religions that have survived are those which support property and the family. Thus the outlook for communism, which is both anti-property and anti-family, (and also anti-religion), is not promising.
F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit


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


US Life in 1842

Families helped each other putting up homes and barns. Together, they built churches, schools, and common civic buildings. They collaborated to build roads and bridges. They took pride in being free persons, independent, and self-reliant; but the texture of their lives was cooperative and fraternal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


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©2015 Christopher Chantrill