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The Man On Top

There is a fact at the root of all realities to-day which cannot be stated
too simply. It is that the powers of this world are now not trusted
simply because they are not trustworthy. This can be quite clearly seen
and said without any reference to our several passions or partisanships.
It does not follow that we think such a distrust a wise sentiment to
express; it does not even follow that we think it a good sentiment to
entertain. But such is the sentiment, simply because such is the fact.
The distinction can be quite easily defined in an example. I do not
think that private workers owe an indefinite loyalty to their employer.
But I do think that patriotic soldiers owe a more or less indefinite
loyalty to their leader in battle. But even if they ought to trust their
captain, the fact remains that they often do not trust him; and the fact
remains that he often is not fit to be trusted.

Most of the employers and many of the Socialists seem to have got a very
muddled ethic about the basis of such loyalty; and perpetually try to put
employers and officers upon the same disciplinary plane. I should have
thought myself that the difference was alphabetical enough. It has
nothing to do with the idealising of war or the materialising of trade; it
is a distinction in the primary purpose. There might be much more
elegance and poetry in a shop under William Morris than in a regiment
under Lord Kitchener. But the difference is not in the persons or the
atmosphere, but in the aim. The British Army does not exist in order to
pay Lord Kitchener. William Morris's shop, however artistic and
philanthropic, did exist to pay William Morris. If it did not pay the
shopkeeper it failed as a shop; but Lord Kitchener does not fail if he is
underpaid, but only if he is defeated. The object of the Army is the
safety of the nation from one particular class of perils; therefore, since
all citizens owe loyalty to the nation, all citizens who are soldiers owe
loyalty to the Army. But nobody has any obligation to make some
particular rich man richer. A man is bound, of course, to consider the
indirect results of his action in a strike; but he is bound to consider
that in a swing, or a giddy-go-round, or a smoking concert; in his wildest
holiday or his most private conversation. But direct responsibility like
that of a soldier he has none. He need not aim solely and directly at the
good of the shop; for the simple reason that the shop is not aiming solely
and directly at the good of the nation. The shopman is, under decent
restraints, let us hope, trying to get what he can out of the nation; the
shop assistant may, under the same decent restraints, get what he can out
of the shopkeeper. All this distinction is very obvious. At least I
should have thought so.

But the primary point which I mean is this. That even if we do take the
military view of mercantile service, even if we do call the rebellious
shop assistant "disloyal"--that leaves exactly where it was the question
of whether he is, in point of fact, in a good or bad shop. Granted that
all Mr. Poole's employees are bound to follow for ever the cloven pennon
of the Perfect Pair of Trousers, it is all the more true that the pennon
may, in point of fact, become imperfect. Granted that all Barney Barnato's
workers ought to have followed him to death or glory, it is still a
Perfectly legitimate question to ask which he was likely to lead them to.
Granted that Dr. Sawyer's boy ought to die for his master's medicines, we
may still hold an inquest to find out if he died of them. While we
forbid the soldier to shoot the general, we may still wish the general
were shot.

The fundamental fact of our time is the failure of the successful man.
Somehow we have so arranged the rules of the game that the winners are
worthless for other purposes; they can secure nothing except the prize.
The very rich are neither aristocrats nor self-made men; they are
accidents--or rather calamities. All revolutionary language is a
generation behind the times in talking of their futility. A revolutionist
would say (with perfect truth) that coal-owners know next to nothing about
coal-mining. But we are past that point. Coal-owners know next to
nothing about coal-owning. They do not develop and defend the nature of
their own monopoly with any consistent and courageous policy, however
wicked, as did the old aristocrats with the monopoly of land. They have
not the virtues nor even the vices of tyrants; they have only their powers.
It is the same with all the powerful of to-day; it is the same, for
instance, with the high-placed and high-paid official. Not only is the
judge not judicial, but the arbiter is not even arbitrary. The arbiter
decides, not by some gust of justice or injustice in his soul like the old
despot dooming men under a tree, but by the permanent climate of the class
to which he happens to belong. The ancient wig of the judge is often
indistinguishable from the old wig of the flunkey.

To judge about success or failure one must see things very simply; one
must see them in masses, as the artist, half closing his eyes against
details, sees light and shade. That is the only way in which a just
judgment can be formed as to whether any departure or development, such as
Islam or the American Republic, has been a benefit upon the whole. Seen
close, such great erections always abound in ingenious detail and
impressive solidity; it is only by seeing them afar off that one can tell
if the Tower leans.

Now if we thus take in the whole tilt or posture of our modern state, we
shall simply see this fact: that those classes who have on the whole
governed, have on the whole failed. If you go to a factory you will see
some very wonderful wheels going round; you will be told that the employer
often comes there early in the morning; that he has great organising power;
that if he works over the colossal accumulation of wealth he also works
over its wise distribution. All this may be true of many employers, and
it is practically said of all.

But if we shade our eyes from all this dazzle of detail; if we simply ask
what has been the main feature, the upshot, the final fruit of the
capitalist system, there is no doubt about the answer. The special and
solid result of the reign of the employers has been--unemployment.
Unemployment not only increasing, but becoming at last the very pivot upon
which the whole process turns.

Or, again, if you visit the villages that depend on one of the great
squires, you will hear praises, often just, of the landlord's good sense
or good nature; you will hear of whole systems of pensions or of care for
the sick, like those of a small and separate nation; you will see much
cleanliness, order, and business habits in the offices and accounts of the
estate. But if you ask again what has been the upshot, what has been the
actual result of the reign of landlords, again the answer is plain. At
the end of the reign of landlords men will not live on the land. The
practical effect of having landlords is not having tenants. The practical
effect of having employers is that men are not employed. The unrest of
the populace is therefore more than a murmur against tyranny; it is
against a sort of treason. It is the suspicion that even at the top of
the tree, even in the seats of the mighty, our very success is
unsuccessful.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton


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