This morning at The Catholic Thing, Francis X. Maier reminds us about an old atrocity in the Sceptered Isle:
On August 16, 1819, some 60,000 hungry, unarmed workers, with their wives and children, converged on St. Peter’s Field in Manchester to peacefully demand economic and political reform. Barely 11 percent of Britain’s people had the right to vote at the time. Factory conditions in the early years of the Industrial Revolution were abysmal. Meager pay, widespread unemployment, and child labor savaged family life. The poor sank more deeply into poverty. The rich got richer on profits from a system structured to benefit England’s ruling class.
The response of authorities that day was instructive. Cavalry and bayonet-wielding infantry charged into the protesters. They killed 18 and wounded up to 700. Despite public outrage at the slaughter, the government followed up with a national crackdown on dissent. This involved police raids, mass arrests, harsh anti-sedition laws, and jail sentences. It took decades for the British reform movement to recover and succeed.
Men determined to rule absolutely do things like that. They eventually provide a rationale – usually something like “public order was at stake” or “there’s a war on” – but the central point is the maintenance of their power.
Maier’s column is focused on the thesis that “Enlightenment-inspired liberal society” has failed, and must be replaced by a “common-good conservatism.” This is an evasion of the central point, which, ironically, Maier makes early in his column:
Every society has an elite leadership class, no matter how well disguised. That includes democracies. It thus includes our own.
Yes, there will always be an “elite” of some sort. The inequality of human ability guarantees that in a free society, some will be smarter, richer, more accomplished, and more admired than others…but that does not justify allowing them power over others. The infamies Maier deplores arise from political power, not from the existence of an “elite.” There is no conception of the “common good” that is immune from such corruption.