Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton’s 1910 book, What’s Wrong with the World, is a “great masterpiece of social criticism that speaks urgently to our moment,” writes Catholic political and theological analyst Sohrab Ahmari. He opens this classic essay with a forward to a new edition by Sophia Institute Press that reveals how Chesterton’s foresight remains vitally relevant a century later.
Chesterton, a “veritable cultural meteorologist”, predicted “‘woke capital’ coming some 110 years ago,” Ahmari notes. “A regime that honours no limits to material accumulation… also acts against limits in the social realm; economic and social liberalism run in parallel,” he explains.
“Chesterton, in other words, wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised to note the snot-nosed children of the American managerial classes leading Antifa riots and militating for the right of men to change in women’s locker rooms.”
Against many such a “plutocratic assumption behind progressive fads,” Chesterton grounded his thinking in a perennial human ideal. “All institutions shall be judged and damned by whether they have fitted the normal flesh and spirit,” such that meeting future challenges entail looking to the past.
“The originality of Michelangelo and Shakespeare began with the digging up of old vases and manuscripts,” Chesterton observed. “There is no new ideal imaginable by the madness of modern sophists, which will be anything like so startling as fulfilling any one of the old ones.”
Chesterton found the ideal socioeconomic arrangement in “Peasant Proprietorship”, or what he later called “distributism”, namely the wide distribution of property in a middle-class society.
“Property is merely the art of the democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of Heaven,” he opined. Thus, a common man “wants an objective and visible kingdom; a fire at which he can cook what food he likes, a door he can open to what friends he chooses.”
Femininity vs feminism
Describing a feminist as “one who dislikes the chief feminine characteristics”, Chesterton examined how a sexual division of labour shaped his bourgeois ideal. Men focus on earning their daily bread in the marketplace through specialised professions, while women tend to domestic arrangements.
“Tradition has decided that only half of humanity shall be monomaniac. It has decided that in every home there shall be a tradesman and a jack-of-all-trades,” or rather “jill-of-all-trades”, he wrote.
This female homemaker “does not ‘give her best,’ but gives her all,” Chesterton wrote, and “should have not one trade but twenty hobbies; she, unlike the man, may develop all her second bests.”
Natural sex differences dictated that the “female became the emblem of the universal and the male of the special and superior,” he stated. A woman bears and mothers “very young children, who require to be taught not so much anything as everything. Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world.”
Chesterton dismissed any modern, feminist suggestion that private domestic life paled with comparison to public life. “If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar,” Chesterton perceptively observed.
A “government is only one side of life. The other half is called Society, in which women are admittedly dominant,” he wrote. Accordingly, the “huge fundamental function upon which all anthropology turns, that of sex and childbirth, has never been inside the political state, but always outside of it.”
The upper crust
Foreshadowing modern radical chic, Chesterton had little faith in ruling classes upholding sound social orders. “The god of the aristocrats is not tradition, but fashion,” he wrote. “The simple key to the power of our upper classes is this: that they have always kept carefully on the side of what is called Progress” or “whatever was being most talked about among university dons or fussy financiers.”
Societal establishments and radical thinkers often worked in tandem, Chesterton noted. The “quarrel they keep up in public is very much of a put-up job,” and the “way in which they perpetually play into each other’s hands is not an everlasting coincidence,” he wrote. For example, the “plutocrat wants an anarchic industrialism” and his supposed opposite, the “idealist, provides him with lyric praises of anarchy.”
By stark contrast, Chesterton offered a “plain truth to be told pretty sharply to the Tory.” If this supposed conservative “wants the family to remain, if he wants to be strong enough to resist the rending forces of our essentially savage commerce, he must make some very big sacrifices and try to equalise property.”
“We can now only avoid Socialism by a change as vast as Socialism. If we are to save property, we must distribute property, almost as sternly and sweepingly as did the French Revolution,” Chesterton concluded.
Contra the socialist state
As Ahmari reviewed Chesterton’s thought, the “precarious state of the worker, his inability to escape wage-drudgery into modest ownership of the kind accessible to his forebears, leaves him vulnerable to the siren song of statism.”
Chesterton noted how the “Socialist says that property is already concentrated into Trusts and Stores: the only hope is to concentrate it further in the State.” Yet Chesterton’s “only hope is to unconcentrate it; that is, to repent and return; the only step forward is the step backward.”
In pre-revolutionary France, the “richest nobles before the revolt were needy middle-class people compared with our Rothschilds and Roseberys,” wrote Chesterton with words that might as well describe Bill Gates or George Soros today.
Dusting off Chesterton’s writings from the gilded Edwardian era reveals insights that have stood the test of time. Moderns would do well to study Chesterton’s ever-relevant maxims underlying a freeholding yeomanry society, for which past is indeed prologue.