Tuesday, 12 October 2010

What's Wrong with the World?

A hundred years ago, in 1910, G.K. Chesterton published a book with this title – probably one of his most important, certainly on Distributism. It contained a critique of modernity, with a focus on imperialism, feminism, education and economics. 

It is, in fact, quite tempting and easy to discourse on what is wrong with the world. Let me have a go right now. (I apologise in advance for spoiling anyone's day.)

Around the globe our democratic political systems are either corrupt, or if not corrupt then blinkered by short-termism, since many of our politicians are only interested in the next term of office, and so can’t deal with profound long-term or systemic problems. The alternatives to democracy, however, are far worse.

Our economic system is inherently unstable, being based on an ideal of unlimited growth fuelled by ever-increasing production and consumption, financed by a vast Ponzi scheme in which tomorrow’s money is spent on today’s problems.

Our natural environment is being destroyed by unsustainable economic policies. The accelerating destruction of species, increasing likelihood of man-made disasters (oil spills, reactor melt-downs, new plagues), and scarcity of vital resources (including fresh water) threaten massive social conflicts and the degradation of quality of life in the years ahead.

There is a population crisis that has two aspects – the ageing population in the West will not be sustained by the declining number of workers, while the growth of poor urban populations especially in the third world and Asia increases pressure on the environment and also contributes to the likelihood of social unrest and terrorism.

The evolution of technology is leading to the inevitable spread of increasingly deadly nuclear and biological weaponry to unstable political regimes and terrorist groups around the world.

So far, so depressing. But there is also something very wrong with talking about what is wrong with the world, or at least with the way we tend to do it, and this is how Chesterton ended his first chapter:
I maintain, therefore, that the common sociological method is quite useless: that of first dissecting abject poverty or cataloguing prostitution. We all dislike abject poverty; but it might be another business if we began to discuss independent and dignified poverty. We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity. The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal. We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity? I have called this book "What Is Wrong with the World?" and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.
We can argue about what is wrong, but it is more important to decide what is right. What is the ideal? What is the real? In fact, a lot of what is wrong with the world comes from having lost the sense of what is right. And that is what Chesterton’s book is really about. The negative always depends upon a positive. “For the present chaos is due to a sort of general oblivion of all that men were originally aiming at. No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get. Soon people forget what the man really wanted first; and after a successful and vigorous political life, he forgets it himself.”


  1. I’m interested in Chesterton and his ideas on Distributism, but must admit don’t know much about this particular book, What’s Wrong with the World. Can you highlight the key distributive argument GKC raises in the volume that makes it unique?

  2. There is too much good stuff in this book to summarize in a comment. You can read it on the web, via the link provided at the top of my piece. The book ends with one of the most stunning flights or rhetoric I have ever read, as follows:
    'Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with a little girl's hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict's; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.'

  3. Thanks for the message; I’ve begun to read the book and do look forward to Chesterton’s distributist message that leads to the conclusion you quote above (particularly his working definition of redistribution).

    Both terms—distributism and redistributionism—are highly contentious in to-day’s political climate, especially in the idea of property, essential to both. Yet for the former, property is to lean toward private consumption and for the latter to privilege communal ends.

    Even this short-hand distinction is controversial—and how!—so I was intrigued to see this passage in the early pages of What’s Wrong with the World:

    ‘This definite ideal is a far more urgent and practical matter in our existing English trouble than any immediate plans or proposals. For the present chaos is due to a sort of general oblivion of all that men were originally aiming at. No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get. Soon people forget what the man really wanted first; and after a successful and vigorous political life, he forgets it himself. The whole is an extravagant riot of second bests, a pandemonium of pis-aller. Now this sort of pliability does not merely prevent any heroic consistency; it also prevents any really practical compromise. One can only find the middle distance between two points if the two points will stand still.’

    For many, private property is just such an ideal, and we can see the troubles that arise from the shifting goal-posts of ends and means.

  4. Thanks, guys, for picking out this focal point in Chesterton's argument, which I'd missed with my own "landscape" focus on its overall structure.

    Stephen, if Distributism and Redistributism are interpreted as ends and means, then redistribution is privileging communal means, not ends. But where is the little girl with red hair in this, and why is 'Whats Wrong With the World' divided into three parts (in the context of a home) dealing with men, women and the education of children? And how much privacy does one get in the context of a home? Isn't "the homelessness of Jones" about privacy from outsiders whose concern is the appearance rather than the education in self- and other-respect of little girls with red hair? Does a family consume a home, or is that too a means, i.e. to the procreation and education in humanity of children?

    I would like to suggest there is an inside as well as an outside to ends and means. Outside the home, redistribution is a means to property (i.e. homes for families and facilities for inter-family activities); but property is itself a means to activities within these geographically and functionally distributed homes, and these activities are a means to the intellectual development of the less-developed people within them. These in due time are themselves redistributed, to become the means to creation of new homes within which a new generation of children will grow towards maturity via phases of experience, training, education and growing understanding.

    Looking backwards rather than forwards to see what is driving us, gratitude to God and our ancestors, and hope - rather than pride and ambition - are in truth what stand in need of expression and perpetuation. But that is what the aim looks like given understanding. Without that, what we see is the pursuit of instrumental ends congenial to our personality and the extent of its development.

    WWWW was the sequel to books expressing humour, personality types, in 'G F Watts' highly significant insights into the causes of these, and in 'Orthodoxy' the difference between insane and sane [healthy, wholesome] views of the world. Sequels to it were Belloc's 'The Servile State', Huxley's 'Brave New World' (c.f. WWWW ch.V.1) and Orwell's '1984', but more hopefully Chesterton's 'Outline of Sanity' and the good years of Keynesian redistribution following Braintree's argument for the insufficiency of demand in 'The Return of Don Quixote' (perhaps the best that could be hoped for after the USA in 1913 let loose its fraudulent Federal Reserve Bank).

  5. In the next weeks this book will be published also in Italy, for The first time.
    We Are very interested in distributism.

    I'll follow you and I'll speak about this blog in our blog.

    Marco Sermarini, Italian Chesterton Society Chairman