Of my first four years of life, lived in London under the shadow of war, I have very little recollection. Yet, like the rest of the Class of '53, my life was shaped by the experiences of my parents' generation, who grew to maturity in the English-speaking world of the 1920s and 1930s. From the very beginning of the 20th century the written word in the form of books and journals facilitated study and discussion of literature, the arts, religion, society and politics on an unprecedented scale. We hear tell of the evils of enclosure of the land, the rise of employment/waged slavery in the mills, mines and factories of the industrial towns, of slavery and empire. But we hear little of the working class movements, of the Diggers, the Chartists,William Cobbett, John Ruskin, William Morris, GK Chesterton, George Orwell, and so many, many others Their thinking, in part, served to shape the formation of the 20th century Welfare State. In the aftermath of the two World Wars the population as a whole found itself shrouded in a cosy blanket of materialism, tucked in by the Nanny State.
Presently we are being swept along on a tidal wave of misleading assumptions about how society is organised, how it came to be as it is, and how it might be in the future. The quest is for freedom. Freedom from the fake future of transhumanism to which technological 'progress' is leading us. And freedom from the blind acceptance of elite authoritarianism, where legal limitations on civil liberties are accepted by the majority who seek a quiet life. It is all too easy to assume that scientific progress is motivated by the desire of scientists to further the common good, whereas, all too often, the self-interested quest for an income is the dominant motivation. Similarly, The unquestioning observance of laws, rules and regulations laid down in the past can seem the right thing to do. Yet, all too often, laws set by church, state and military authorities may corrupt human interaction in unexpected ways. The health and educational services of the Welfare State, based on rules and regulations considered as necessary for promoting the common good of the whole, provide many examples of such provisions. We have only to read George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm to see how the slavish following of orders by the military and civilian police can lead to the totalitarian State. After all, as a young man, he fought in the Spanish Civil War, as did William Krehm, a remarkable character of my acquaintance who edited COMer for many a long year (see back numbers of The Social Artist).
Orwell is just one of a very large number of names of authors of the 19th and 20th centuries who became household names. Their writings were to be found on the shelves of municipal and university libraries, and in household collections across the British Isles and throughout the English-speaking world. The literary works, works of fiction and non-fiction were reviewed and discussed in innumerable periodicals, many of which circulated across the continents. To take just one example, the Catholic journal Commonweal, which is still published today (see Wikipedia), is described thus:
"Commonweal has published the writing of François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Hannah Arendt, G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Jacques Maritain, Dorothy Day, Robert Bellah, Graham Greene, Emmanuel Mounier, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Thomas Merton, Wilfrid Sheed, Paul Ramsey, Joseph Bernardin, Abigail McCarthy, Christopher Lasch, Walter Kerr, Marilynne Robinson, Luke Timothy Johnson, Terry Eagleton, Elizabeth Johnson, and Andrew Bacevich. It has printed the short fiction of Evelyn Waugh, J. F. Powers, Alice McDermott, and Valerie Sayers; the poetry of W. H. Auden, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, John Updike, Les Murray, John Berryman, and Marie Ponsot; and the artwork of Jean Charlot, Rita Corbin, Fritz Eichenberg, and Emil Antonucci."
The journal, described as "A Review of Religion, Politics, and Culture", is run as a not-for-profit enterprise. The word "commonweal" is a reference to an important term in the political philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, who argued that legitimate leaders must prioritize "the common good" or "the commonweal" in making political decisions.
The quest is for ordinary people to take charge of their destiny by becoming culturally, politically and spiritually informed citizens. Self-education - adult education - is not a preparation for unquestioning service to the corporate world. On the contrary, the corporate world holds sway over the political, cultural and economic spheres by deluding their workers into absorbing passive entertainment, watching films and documentaries under the illusion they are being well-informed. The time has come to investigate the local history of books. What books are to be found in the homes, private collections, libraries, bookshops, cafes, places of worship, and meeting rooms of our immediate locality? How did they get there? Who is conserving books now as one of our most valuable resources? Second only to the ability to care for the land itself, books are our most important cultural heritage, to be treasured like gold. (To be continued ...)