Saturday, April 25, 2015

On Error

THERE is an elusive idea that has floated through the minds of most of us as we grew older and learnt more and more things. It is an idea extremely difficult to get into set terms. It is an idea very difficult to put so that we shall not seem nonsensical; and yet it is a very useful idea, and if it could be realized its realization would be of very practical value. It is the idea of a Dictionary of Ignorance and Error.

On the face of it a definition of the work is impossible. Strictly speaking it would be infinite, for human knowledge, however far extended, must always be infinitely small compared with all possible knowledge, just as any given finite space is infinitely small compared with all space.

But that is not the idea which we entertain when we consider this possible Dictionary of Ignorance and Error. What we really mean is a Dictionary of the sort of Ignorance and the sort of Error which we know ourselves to have been guilty of, which we have escaped by special experience or learning as time went on, and against which we would warn our fellows.

Flaubert, I think, first put it down in words, and said that such an encyclopaedia was very urgently needed.

It will never exist, but we all know that it ought to exist. Bits of it appear from time to time piecemeal and here and there, as for instance in the annotations which modern scholarship attaches to the great text, in the printed criticisms to which sundry accepted doctrines are subjected by the younger men to-day, in the detailed restatement of historical events which we get from modern research as our fathers could never have them—but the work itself, the complete Encyclopaedia or Dictionary of Ignorance and Error, will never be printed. It is a great pity.

Incidentally one may remark that the process by which a particular error is propagated is as interesting to watch as the way in which a plant grows.

The first step seems to be the establishing of an authority and the giving of that authority a name which comes to connote doctrinal infallibility. A very good example of this is the title "Science." Mere physical research, its achievements, its certitudes, even its conflicting and self-contradictory hypotheses, having got lumped together in many minds under this one title Science, the title is now sacred. It is used as a priestly title, as an immediate estopper to doubt or criticism.

The next step is a very interesting one for the student of psychical pathology to note. It seems to be a disease as native and universal to the human mind as is the decay of the teeth to the human body. It seems as though we all must suffer somewhat from it, and most of us suffer a great deal from it, though in a cool aspect we easily perceive it to be a lesion of thought. And this second step is as follows:

The whole lump having been given its sacred title and erected into an infallible authority, which you are to accept as directly superior to yourself and all personal sources of information, there is attributed to this idol a number of attributes. We give it a soul, and a habit and manners which do not attach to its stuff at all. The projection of this imagined living character in our authority is comparable to what we also do with mountains, statues, towns, and so forth. Our living individuality lends individuality to them. I might here digress to discuss whether this habit of the mind were not a distorted reflection of some truth, and whether, indeed, there be not such beings as demons or the souls of things. But, to leave that, we take our authority—this thing "Science," for instance—we clothe it with a creed and appetites and a will, and all the other human attributes.

This done, we set out in the third step in our progress towards fixed error. We make the idol speak. Of course, being only an idol, it talks nonsense. But by the previous steps just referred to we must believe that nonsense, and believe it we do. Thus it is, I think, that fixed error is most generally established.

I have already given one example in the hierarchic title "Science."

It was but the other day that I picked up a weekly paper in which a gentleman was discussing ghosts—that is, the supposed apparition of the living and the dead: of the dead though dead, and of the living though absent.

Nothing has been more keenly discussed since the beginning of human discussions. Are these phenomena (which undoubtedly happen) what modern people call subjective, or are they what modern people call objective? In old-fashioned English, Are the ghosts really there or are they not? The most elementary use of the human reason persuades us that the matter is not susceptible of positive proof. The criterion of certitude in any matter of perception is an inner sense in the perceiver that the thing he perceives is external to himself. He is the only witness; no one can corroborate or dispute him. The seer may be right or he may be wrong, but we have no proof—and only according to our temperament, our fancy, our experience, our mood, do we decide with one or the other of the two great schools.

Well, the gentleman of whom I am speaking wrote and had printed in plain English this phrase (read it carefully):—"Science teaches us that these phenomena are purely subjective."

Now I am quite sure that of the thousands who read that phrase all but a handful read it in the spirit in which one hears the oracle of a god. Some read it with regret, some with pleasure, but all with acquiescence.

That physical science was not competent in the matter one way or the other each of those readers would probably have discovered, if even so simple a corrective as the use of the term "physical research" instead of the sacred term "science" had been applied; the hierarchic title "Science" did the trick.

I might take another example out of many hundreds to show what I mean. You have an authority which is called, where documents are concerned, "The Best Modern Criticism." "The Best Modern Criticism" decides that "Tam o' Shanter" was written by a committee of permanent officials of the Board of Trade, or that Napoleon Bonaparte never existed. As a matter of fact, the tomfoolery does not usually venture upon ground so near home, but it talks rubbish just as monstrous about a poem a few hundred or a few thousand years old, or a great personality a few hundred or a few thousand years old.

Now if you will look at that phrase "The Best Modern Criticism" you will see at once that it simply teems with assumption and tautology. But it does more and worse: it presupposes that an infallible authority must of its own nature be perpetually wrong.

Even supposing that I have the most "modern" (that is, merely the latest) criticism to hand, and even supposing that by some omniscience of mine I can tell which is "the best" (that is, which part of it has really proved most ample, most painstaking, most general, and most sincere), even then the phrase fatally condemns me. It is to say that Wednesday is always infallible as compared with Tuesday, and Thursday as compared with Wednesday, which is absurd.

The B.M.C. tells me in 1875 that the Song of Roland could have no origins anterior to the year 1030. But the B.M.C. of 1885 (being a B.M.C. and nothing more valuable) has a changed opinion. It must change its opinion, that is the law of its being, since an integral factor in its value is its modernity. In 1885 B.M.C. tells me that the Song of Roland can be traced to origins far earlier, let us say to 912.

In 1895 B.M.C. has come to other conclusions—the Song of Roland is certainly as late as 1115 ... and so forth.

Now you would say that an idol of that absurdity could have no effect upon sane men. Change the terms and give it another name, and you would laugh at the idea of its having an effect upon any men. But we know as a matter of fact that it commands the thoughts of nearly all men to-day and makes cowards of the most learned.

Perhaps you will ask me at the end of so long a criticism in what way error may be corrected, since there is this sort of tendency in us to accept it, to which I answer that things correct it, or as the philosophers call things, "Reality." Error does not wash.

To go back to that example of ghosts. If ever you see a ghost (my poor reader), I shall ask you afterwards whether he seemed subjective or no. I think you will find the word "subjective" an astonishingly thin one—if, at least, I catch you early after the experience.

~Hilaire Belloc: in First and Last

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Once More

THERE is an elementary truth which has been repeated over and over again in this paper and elsewhere. The repetition must be continued because it is only thus that even obvious truths can be made to pierce in the days through which we are now living. The excuse for repeating it and hammering it in is that the very highest political consequences depend upon its appreciation. That truth may be formalized as follows: “Under capitalism the producer has every motive for not producing wealth.”

Another defect from which our time suffers is lack of definition. Words are used in all manner of different senses, and to hardly any one of those senses is the exact meaning adapted. In such an atmosphere it is impossible to reason or to analyse without clearly defining the terms one is using.

Let me repeat therefore that definition without which all discussion is meaningless: “We mean by capitalism a system under which wealth is produced by a mass of citizens, politically free but dispossessed, and these working for the profit of a far smaller number of effective owners and controllers of the means of production.”

It is no objection to this definition that a great number of dispossessed who are occupied in the production of wealth own something; they nearly own the clothes they wear, and most of them own a few sticks of furniture. Great numbers own small units of capital, a few certificates, or a few shares, or a policy; but the governing condition of their lives is that they are working for the profit of other men and, further, or under the inhuman control of those other men.

Now, that word “inhuman” is of first importance. Human servile relations, domestic control, are tolerable things. Mere mechanical control exercised by anonymous wealth impersonally is not tolerable. It will kill itself and the society which it governs. Meanwhile it is an increasing plague.

The typical unit of production under modern capitalism is a factory or a transport system in which citizens of the disposed kind (commonly call proletariat) work at a wage, on the reception of which at comparatively small intervals depends their existence. This wage must be less than the total amount they produce by their labour; that is, there must be a margin of profit (normally) between the wage paid by the capitalist to the proletarian worker and the value of what the latter makes: for if there were no such profit, actual or prospective, there would be no reason for the capitalist to set the machinery of production in motion. For instance, if a capitalist body hires ten thousand men to dig out of the earth a million tons of coal in a given unit of time, the mine cannot be carried on unless the values received in that unit of time, as wages by the miners, is worth a good deal less than the million tons of coal which they have extracted by their labour from the earth.

Under these conditions of work undertaken for the advantage of another, it is necessary and self-evident that the less the wage of the worker the greater the profit to his employer. It is further necessary and self-evident, that the advantage of the worker is to do as little work as possible for as much money as possible, and the advantage of his capitalist master is to give the worker as little money as possible for the wage he receives. Whatever form the question takes, that is the truth which it expresses. The proletarian worker may be aiming at shorter hours or less pressure during those hours or for an equal number of hours at a larger wage, but it is all a form of producing as little as possible.

In whatever way you put it, it always comes out to the same thing. The man who is producing the wealth tends to produce as little wealth as possible per unit of time. It is of no advantage to him to produce as much as possible, it is of every advantage to him to produce as little as possible, short of losing the wage upon which he lives. The worker is necessarily out to kill profit, and yet is the motive whereby the whole system is kept going!

It is no answer to this clear truth to say that organization and scientific work and all the rest of it bear their part in production quite as much as manual labour or the tending of machines. Of course they do. But vastly the greater part of the organization and scientific work and the rest is done at a wage just as much as manual labour or the tending of machines is done at a wage. The man who looks after his own individual business in which he exploits a number of proletarians and successfully directs their labour himself is an exception to-day; and even he, as a rule, in proportion to his success, takes less and less direct action as his life proceeds. The mass of all work, intellectual as well as manual, even in a successful individual business, proletarian; in company business it is all proletarian.

The direct consequence of this paradoxical state of affairs, in which he who produces wealth is, by every economic motive, driven not to produce wealth, is the necessary breakdown of the whole system. There comes a point after which it cannot carry on, but must, in order that society shall survive, be transformed into one of the two alternative types, the one fully servile, the other based on property. Either the mass of the proletarian workers must be compelled to work by force for the profit of others and under the control of wills not their own, or the motive of property must be restored whereby the man who works can profit from his own labour.

The intermediate or preliminary stage which may be called “the formative period” of capitalism is a lure. Men who have lived under it, and especially those who have prospered under it were vaguely of a mood that it could last indefinitely. It could not so last, for plain arithmetic forbade its endurance. So long as there was an indefinite supply of unorganized proletarian labour or so long as the proletarian worker inherited the traditions of a better time when his ancestry were possessed of small property, capitalism could expand and flourish. But those conditions were of their nature ephemeral, and they are now passing away so rapidly that the effects of their departure are already threatening the whole body of our civilization.

Attempts to reconcile capitalism and contented industrial labour have in them self-contradiction. They are often called “palliatives,” but they are worse than that. They are the attempt, or the pretence, at reconciling contradictories.

We have a very fine example of such folly in the French “Social Laws” as they are called. The hours of labour are shortened by compulsion. The scale of wages is raised by compulsion. What follows? What obviously and necessarily follows under a capitalist system of production is an increase in the cost of production, and therefore in the price the worker himself has to pay for the things he consumes. Finding that the price of these things has risen the worker again organizes to demand a further rise of wages which, if, the profit is to be maintained, means a further cost added to the produce—and so on indefinitely.

It is a good thing that this particular “experiment” (as its author called it) has broken down so quickly and so thoroughly, for it has exposed the radical error which vitiates all such policies. You cannot be and not be at the same time. Not even the most muddle-headed fool, enamoured of what he calls “compromise” or “gradualness,” can be such an ass as to conceive that being and not being are simultaneously possible. Hard and strenuous work cannot be—cannot exist—at the same time as slack work and little of it. High production of wealth cannot be coincident with low production of wealth.

There are no issues from the situation (whether you call it a vicious cycle or a blind alley or whatever metaphor you choose) save servitude or the restoration of property. You may restore property collectively through the guild, the corporation, or individually or by families, where the method of production makes that possible. But if you don’t restore property, you restore slavery.

You may compel men to work, and the servile compulsion is of the same character and effect whether it is exercised by an individual, or the State itself; or you may leave a man free from such compulsion and give him citizenship. You cannot do both at the same time. The whole of our civilization has now to make up its mind, and that quickly, whether it will take the road to civic freedom or the road to servitude.

~Hilaire Belloc

From One Thing and Another: A Miscellany from His Uncollected Essays, chosen by Patrick Cahill. First published 1955.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Epitaph on the Politician Himself

Here richly, with ridiculous display, 
The Politician's corpse was laid away. 
While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged 
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.

Another on the Same

This, the last ornament among the peers, 
Bribed, bullied, swindled and blackmailed for years: 
But Death's what even Politicians fail 
To bribe or swindle, bully or blackmail.

On Another Politician

The Politician, dead and turned to clay, 
Will make a clout to keep the wind away. 
I am not fond of draughts, and yet I doubt 
If I could get myself to touch that clout.

On Yet Another

Fame to her darling Shifter glory gives; 
And Shifter is immortal while he lives.

Epitaph Upon Himself

Lauda tu Ilarion audacem et splendidum, 
Who was always beginning things and never ended 'em.

~Hilaire Belloc

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