A Review of “The Restoration of the Guild System”

In this article I am going to discuss The Restoration of the Guild System by Arthur J. Penty, a pre-fascist essay written in 1905 which contains some issues that it might benefit us to revisit.

Background

At the time this essay was written, several things were happening in the economy which Arthur Penty saw as evil. Factories were replacing artisans and skilled tradesmen. Many workers were employed in “sweatshops” while trusts were gaining control of various industries. The wealthy were getting wealthier as the working class suffered.

Socialism (termed Collectivism by Penty) was often looked to as the solution to “the social problem”. However, Penty did not agree with this. He predicted that since Socialism’s goals were focused on transferring the ownership of the factory to the public, that the various evils of these factories would be transferred with them. He maintained that an economic structure of the past – the Guild System – was superior in many ways to both the Laissez-faire Capitalist and Socialist economic models, and saw that the strength of the Guild System lied in how it viewed man.

Is Man a Consumer or Producer?

The Socialists number one concern was with the distribution of wealth. Their great political fallacy, he argued, was the belief “that Government should be conducted solely in the interests of man in his capacity as consumer.”

Penty saw man’s role as a producer being the cornerstone of his life, and believed that his well being could not be separated from his productive role in society.

“the subjective standard of human happiness, not the objective monetary standard assumed by previous political economists, [is] the final test of the social utility of production. If we accept [this] position, surely we must consider man primarily in his capacity as producer. From this standpoint a man’s health, mental and moral, must depend upon the amount of pleasure he can take in his work.”

Penty used the example of the Parisian artisan economy to illustrate his point:

“These small workshops, in which artistic finish and rapidity of work are so much praised, necessarily stimulate the mental powers of the producer; and we may safely admit that if the Paris workmen are generally considered, and really are, more developed intellectually than the workers of any other European capital, this is due to a great extent to the work they are engaged in…and the question naturally arises: Must all this skill, all this intelligence, be swept away by the factory, instead of becoming a new fertile source of progress under a better organization of production? must all this inventiveness of the worker disappear before the factory levelling? and if it must, would such a transformation be a progress, as so many economists, who have only studied figures and not human beings, are ready to maintain?”

Laying the Blame for Corruption

Penty also disagreed with the Socialists in terms of culpability, placing the blame for corrupt business practices on the consumer rather than the producer.

“The policy of exalting the consumer at the expense of the producer would be perfectly sound, if the evils of the present day were caused by the tyranny of the producer. But is it so?…The cause of [corrupt business practices] is not to be found in the preference of producers generally for crooked ways, but in the tyranny of consumers which forces the majority of producers to adopt malpractices in self-defense.”

Happiness Through Consumption

Penty also rejected the idea of placating the working man with consumption.

“we deprive the worker of this means of happiness [from his profession] and strive to replace it by such institutions as free libraries and popular lectures, which all lie outside the sphere of his real life. This policy would appear to be based on the idea that man should live a conscious double life. In the first place, he must submit to any indignity he may be called upon to suffer by the prevailing system of industry, and secondly, he should aim in his leisure time at self-improvement. He thus destroys in the morning what he has built over-night…To unite these warring forces in man and to make him once more simple, harmonious and whole, he must again be regarded first and foremost in his capacity as producer.”

If workers were living double lives back then, it is certainly much more so today. However, the double life of drudgery and self improvement is being replaced by a double life of drudgery and escapism. While studies find that the majority of Americans still don’t like their jobs, the number of hours spent on cell phones, video games, and TV has expanded to fill the majority of our free time.

Is Man an Artist or a Machinist?

Penty’s view of man was that of a spiritual being. He saw him as an artist, and saw our extensive use of machinery as anti-artistic.

“there is no temperament in work produced by machinery, and…its use tends to separate the artist and craftsman more widely than ever.”

He also noticed that expertly handcrafted goods were superior to those made in the factory.

Work and Vice

Penty’s view of man as a spiritual being also included his ability to resist temptation, including that of consumerism.

“To resist commercialism is in these days to resist the Devil in the nearest and most obvious sense of the word, since until a man has successfully overcome his temptation he is incapable of really valuable work, for he will lack clearness of vision.”

He also saw creative work as having the ability to strengthen resolve against vice, and drudgery as a compelling force towards it.

“it is becoming apparent to an ever increasing body of thinkers that gambling, drink, and many other social ills have their roots in modern industrial conditions; that so long as the majority are compelled to follow occupations which give no scope to the imagination and individuality of the worker, nobler conceptions of life, in other words, spiritual regeneration, are strangled at their roots; and that the cultivation of the aesthetic side of life is the great need of the day.”

Loss of Culture and Globalism

Penty saw Consumerism as both a cause and result of spiritual decline, a usurper who takes the place of the cherished traditions of a culture.

“According to the old conception, art, religion, ideas, integrity of work, the pursuit of perfection, were looked upon as the serious things of life, while business and money-making were subservient things, considered relatively unimportant…Unless a Society acknowledges the real things of life, and is true to them, it cannot remain healthy. It is not economic causes outside our individual control which have given rise to the social problem, but the degradation of the spiritual which has followed the usurpation of life by business and money-making.”

Although the rejection of Globalization has gained popularity in recent years, the effects of what Penty called “Internationalism” were also noticed back then 

“If railways and steamboats have brought Chicago nearer to London, the world is more commonplace in consequence, and it is very much open to question whether the romance, the beauty, and the mystery of the world which mechanism seems so happy in destroying, may not in the long run prove to be the things most worth possessing”

Solutions: First Revive the Artist and the Farmer

Penty believed there were are two directions in which an immediate increase of government expenditure was called for:

“In the first place there can be no doubt that a serious attempt should be made to revive agriculture in this country…Secondly, a substantial increase should be made in our national expenditure upon art, particularly by a more generous and sympathetic patronage of the humbler crafts; for not only would such expenditure tend to relieve the pressure of competition, but since the true root and basis of all art lies in the health and vigor of the handicrafts, a force would be definitely set in motion which would at once regenerate industry and restore beauty to life – industry and beauty being two of the most powerful factors in the spiritual regeneration of the race.”

Solutions: The Guilds

Penty sought to revitalize the culture by harkening back to the medieval Guilds. Although he discouraged a dogmatic reverence of this institution, he recommended some of their methods such as price controls, allowing artisans to compete on quality rather than price. Moreover, he saw their potential of bringing elements of society together for the benefit of the individual as well as the society.

“Being social, religious, and political as well as industrial institutions, the Guilds postulated in their organization the essential unity of life.”

Reflections and Ideas

For me, Penty’s ideas represent a forgotten way of thinking and a lost way of living. But technology has progressed quite far since 1905, and many of the goods we consume today cannot be produced by artisans. Could you imagine an affordable car being produced from scratch by two or three men? Or a cell phone? It doesn’t seem possible. However, there are some industries which invite us to contemplate Pentian solutions:

Clothing – Many youths dream of becoming fashion designers, but few are capable of achieving their dreams. The fashion industry consists of very few creative people designing clothing mainly for outsourced “sweatshop” labor to create. If there were ways to limit this and bring back more tailors to the clothing profession, creative expression and quality of life could be restored to clothing producers

Restaurants – Mastery of cooking is both arduous and admired. There are many who love cooking as a hobby but few who can become creative chefs. Unfortunately, the fast food cook is looked down upon as one of the least desirable professions. It would be nice to lower the number of fast food chefs and increase the number of professional chefs.

Farming – There are many who dislike the city and love contact with nature. “Homesteading” on small farms is gaining popularity, but the vast majority of food in America is produced on factory farms. Small time farmers have had over a century’s worth of corporate and governmental pressure pushing them out of the business. It might be time for some encouragement to move back.

Art – And what to do with the plethora of individuals who love art enough to study it, but graduate into a market with so few patrons that they never practice professionally. Penty’s call for an increase of spending on the arts seems to have sympathy for their souls.

Music – It used to be that instead of getting a minimum wage job, a high school student could form a band and play gigs for money. Nowadays it seems that the musician, like the artist, can only make it huge or completely fail. There is not much in between.

Conclusion

Penty saw that however clever any legislation or reestablishment of organizations are, eventually we will come up against ourselves.

“And yet, do what we can, sooner or later we come into collision with the spiritual degradation of society. So long as people persist in their present extravagant habits of life their expenditure must always tend to get ahead of their incomes, and they will put up with the jerry and false in consequence.”

As we walk down our streets wearing t-shirts, eating McDonalds hamburgers, and looking around at monotonous buildings with franchise signage, it is easy to notice the lack of passion in the creations of modern culture. Retrieving some of the creative industries we’ve lost has the potential to stimulate creativity and passion for work.

There are some who would take the exact opposite goal and strive for a “universal basic income”, giving up completely on their role as producer. 

I suppose it really comes down to what people want out of life, and this is a consequence of where we are spiritually. Penty concludes:

“More important to a nation than the acquisition of material riches is the welfare of its spiritual life. This is the lesson the social problem has to teach us; not until it is learned shall we emerge from the cloud of darkness in which we are enveloped.”