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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


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.

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