Belloc and the debate about empire, racism and inequality

 

What follows is controversial. I do not say it is true, only that it might be true; and true or not, it might be worth pondering on. The doings of recent weeks, both here and in the US, made me wonder what Belloc’s response might have been to the whole debate about empire, racism and inequality. He is not here to ask, so I just share these thoughts and observations with you.

Hilaire Belloc had mixed feelings about the British Empire, but as time went on he became increasingly convinced the whole enterprise was about making money and nothing more. the Boer War sealed his opinion on the matter: a war fought primarily about who controlled the diamond mines and the gold mines in South Africa..

In 1925 he wrote of the old idea of “alien races once so easily governed” having fallen into disrepute: “The vulgarians who invented this music-hall cry of empire now suffer the vacillation and the increasing peril into which their own base bullying have led them. They must live a little time longer and dree their weird, and learn what happens to those forms of pride which have not even the merit of dignity.”

Belloc, although blessed of a great intellect, he was like the simplest of peasants when it came to religion. He knew some things were beyond human comprehension. He had his Faith, which held that all were created by the one God and all would answer to that God be they ever so high or ever so low, regardless of race or gender.

Darwin and his theories, Belloc thought, were highly dangerous; as concepts of ‘natural selection’ and the ‘survival of the fittest’ were likely to suggest there were greater and lesser forms of humans. He knew many of his contemporaries were bemused or even amused that a graduate of Balliol College could believe in the foolish stories and superstitions of Christianity. Belloc, of course, had his riposte –

“There is a whole mythology of ‘prehistory,’ which has grown up, mushroom-like, in less than a life time, which pretends to explain the unknown past of man, and which has already become more fixed and sacred to the multitude than any mythology accepted by our fathers.”

For Belloc, Darwin, and the ‘Social Darwinists’ and racial nationalists that followed him were deluded and if ‘Modern Man’ were to follow this line of thinking it would not end well-

“He begins to make a new religion and a new mythology for himself, to talk of an ‘Ascent of Man;’ he thinks himself a summit and a glory – and at the same time he rids himself of morals. It will be interesting to see the end of the process.”

Belloc foresaw the rise of the Nazis, and along with Chesterton, warned of this coming danger. He also saw the evil latent within the ‘scientific socialism,’ advocated by Marx and Engles, and implemented in Russia with such devastating brutality by Lenin and Trotsky.

These evils have been exposed and few today would wish to applaud Nazi concentration camps or Soviet gulags, but Belloc was no less fearful of what would become of liberal democracies that, even in his day, he saw becoming servile to the interests of banks and corporations. He perceived, long before the phrase ‘consumer society’ was coined, how such a society could only be created if abiding cultures, traditions and identities were eroded away and replaced with ideas, pleasures and pastimes fed to them, as if through a drip by the ‘money system.’

Belloc and Chesterton believed in ‘Distributism,’ whereby everyone would be apportioned enough land to feed themselves and their families, believing that this was the only way people could be truly free – they would not be dependent on employers or the state for their livelihood. By 1936 however, Belloc had become very doubtful as to whether this was any longer a practical option. How many people retained the skills of farming and husbandry required to make such a programme of land distribution viable?

He believed that only the great world religions were strong enough to resist the powerful forces at work, determined to create a population of obedient consumers. Do not discount “The flaming spirit of Islam,” wrote Belloc long before any of us were born. People at the time thought this idea was absurd: how could Islam survive science and capitalism? Belloc understood its power and its enduring ability to resist. If only Christianity could be this resilient. He complained that many modern Christians had turned God into a ‘vagueness’ and were no longer secure in their faith.

We have all been brought up to believe that our way of living and thinking is normal and reading Belloc today can be a jarring and uncomfortable experience. He foresaw our world of vast economic inequalities, cultural inequalities, stress and fear. He saw it all very clearly nearly 100 years ago –

“What I think will spring out of the filth is a new religion…This conception of a new religion (and therefore, an evil one) arising out of the rottenness of the grave of truth, seems to-day at once fantastic and unpleasant. unpleasant I admit it is; fantastic I do not believe it to be.”

Are not the scenes being played out on the streets of Western cities today the inevitable consequence of the New Religion? “It will be interesting to see how this ends,” wrote Belloc. Perhaps we are now beginning to see how it ends?

Many of you reading this will no doubt say, “but this is madness, it makes no sense.” Perhaps so; or perhaps the real madness lies in our New Religion of unceasing economic growth, an endless stream of ever-changing consumer products that all end up in landfill after a few years, and the ‘divide and rule’ tactics that pits black against white and poor against poor.’ We sit passively watching ‘The Apprentice’, ‘Dragon’s Den,’ and unquestionably accept this model of money before people. Those who seriously question it are treated like the heretics of old. Do we even hear voices asking if our new priests may be deceiving us? Perhaps ‘Lord Sugar’ and ‘The Dragons’ may not, after all, be the most suitable persons to guide our children along the path of life?

Just as in the days of the Reformation, the right to disagree is under severe threat. Government legislation increasingly bears down on individual liberty. Surveillance, ever more sophisticated and intrusive imposes itself on our daily lives in a way that would have horrified our forebears. One of our leading political parties has adopted rules that mean people who express views on Zionism or transgender issues that do not conform to the new party orthodoxy will be expelled (my point here is not to imply which view is correct, only that disagreement on these issues is no longer tolerated). These are hazardous times for the ancient concept of freedom of speech. Generations of English people suffered arrest, imprisonment, and even death to uphold this right; and now it just seems to be withering on the vine.

Whatever you think or whatever you believe, at least allow yourself to question the orthodoxies of our age and decide for yourself what matters and what is true. It may not be an easy ride and the journey to truth is bound to be rocky, and at times perilous. As Belloc wrote in 1925 –

“….it is always worthwhile I think, to hammer at truths which one knows to be important, even those which seem, to others, at their first statement mere nonsense. For though you may die under the imputation of being a man without a sense of proportion, or even a madman, yet reality will in time confirm your effort.”

You may disagree. You may be right to disagree, but at least know why you disagree!