This article stemmed from reading a paper written by an Indian chap on a proposal for a National Dividend for India. An excellent paper, it has just one small historical error: from his readings, the chap believed that A.R. Orage coined the term ‘social credit’ which was published in an edition of 'The New Age'. Historically, this was not so, and historical accuracy is important, so this error will be corrected.
But it did send me back to Charles Ferguson’s 'The Great News' (1915).
Fellow American Michael Lane researched the life of Charles Ferguson, originally published in Triumph of the Past January to June, 2002 and republished by the Australian Heritage Society as 'Charles Ferguson: Herald of Social Credit'.
Bill Daly of the New Zealand League of Rights wrote an Introduction to Michael Lane’s book and had this to say:
There are a variety of ways of interpreting history. One method is to observe the dates of various events without connecting them. The risk here is always that the influence of people and even cultures is overlooked, and sometimes even denied, so that we are left with a sort of predestination worldview — that history is a predetermined evolutionary movement and the best that a suffering humanity can hope for is a new trend. This idea of history pervades our modern world.
Michael Lane has clearly rejected that notion. He is not alone, of course. Hilaire Belloc would have argued that history cannot be understood without accounting for the influence of religion. Thus the history of Europe, for example, took a different path from that of, say, Asia, because the religion of the people was different.
Clifford Hugh Douglas offered this description: “History is crystallised politics” (The Big Idea, I942), meaning that the freely chosen policies of people, individually and collectively, is what has given us our history. I believe Michael Lane had this realistic conception of history in mind when he set himself the task of investigating and recovering the work and thoughts of Charles Ferguson.
Ferguson himself clearly was an outstanding scholar, thinker and researcher with a brilliant grasp of real history. He could speak favourably and with authority on Bacon’s method of inductive investigation and the advantages this has brought to science. He wrote with equal authority on the Medieval Church and society of that period, and could point to the modern world’s need to grasp that in its essence society is “not Ptolemaic, but Copernican” (meaning dynamic, rather than static).
Ferguson’s life (1863-1944) spanned a period when industrial technology was making huge leaps. It should have been leading to previously unconsidered advantages for people everywhere. Instead millions had been reduced to wage slavery, there were regular cyclical recessions and widespread poverty amidst great abundance. While a developing union movement — together with better intentioned businessmen, churchmen and politicians — was helping to reform some of the worst aspects of industrial poverty, this could only at best lead to a relieving of conditions, never a solution.
The same period saw a growing interest in the systems proposed by Marx, the Fabian Socialists and the less collectivist Guild Socialists. While attracting many well intentioned people they, particularly the first two, were like magnets to some whose interest lay in seeking power. This explains the attraction they held to a number of wealthy monopolists.
But the Socialist and union movements made the mistake of believing the problem lay solely with the arrangements and ownership of the production system. Ferguson, like Douglas a little later, recognised that this was not where the problem lay at all. The production system, after all was only doing what the production system was meant to do. That is making the things that people wanted. There was no shortage of production even then and many businesses often operated below capacity. The real problem was one of distribution and this required examination of the financial credit system which was an entirely different thing altogether. It is to Douglas, the British engineer, that the primary credit must go for highlighting the fact that modern technology displaces labour without any decrease in productive output. Douglas pointed to the social inheritance of past inventions and infrastructure — the cultural inheritance which is owned by all — and the unearned increment of association as the primary factors in modern production, with labour playing a diminishing role.
Douglas’s books and lectures were read or heard by millions in the troubled times between the two world wars. The movement which formed around this and known as Social Credit has played the dominant role in demystifying money, helping to lead to today’s proliferation of alternative money schemes, and calls to governments to reform or rectify national money systems. But Douglas and his ideas did not come from a vacuum. He acknowledged that he had brought together a number of streams of thinking.
A study of Ferguson’s work so closely reveals similarities between the two great minds, even in phraseology, that it is clear, as Michael Lane shows, that Ferguson was one whom Douglas drew heavily upon. Ferguson used the term social credit several years before Douglas. Both men were closely associated with mechanical engineering and engineering societies.
Both understood that to solve an engineering problem with a machine you must understand what the machine is supposed to do, identify and correctly understand the problem, then rectify it. This is how they both, sensibly, approached the industrial-financial problem. Neither were theorists.
Both professed Christianity but understood too that it had something to do with the practical aspects of the world and society and the production and financial systems. If it didn’t, then it really is irrelevant, and neither believed that.
When Michael Lane launched his quality monthly publication Triumph of the Past in 1996 he set himself the mammoth task of researching the streams of thinking mentioned by Douglas. This clearly included the work of people like William Morris and John Ruskin, as well as G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Arthur Penty and others. Before this investigation began, Charles Ferguson was unknown to us today, but he was widely read in his own times, both in the United States and Europe. His practical ideas, encapsulated in his proposal of the Capital College for rejuvenating towns and cities or the building of new ones, may surpass even now much of our thinking and knowledge about alternative, localised financial-credit systems.
Charles Ferguson did not believe the business system was evil as some moralists may from time to time contend. He observed that when allowed to function properly, that is, to provide the things people need and want, business enhances civilisation. The Capital College proposal would mean, in application, that the more skilful and entrepreneurial a businessman the more he would contribute to the civilisation of his locality. Ferguson knew that the world is made up not of masses measured by statistics but of localities and that localities are made of real people.
Our future world will not be determined by any trend, but by what we ourselves do now as free and creative human beings. By his discovery and recovery of Charles Ferguson’s contribution to society, and his penetrating comments on Ferguson’s writing, Michael Lane has rendered all of us an invaluable service. But more, it is a most timely challenge. This essay on Charles Ferguson, his thoughts and observations on society, and his Capital College proposal first appeared as several articles in Triumph of the Past between January and June, 2002. It is to be hoped it will receive wide distribution and study.
Ferguson’s work adds, l believe, a powerful arrow to the bows of those who want to make a practical contribution to a prosperous and free world for all. If it can be applied constructively the Capital College idea, married up with technological advances and today’s renewed interest in monetary reform and local credit schemes, could prove one of the most powerful weapons, if not the most powerful, against the anti-cultural and uncivilised drive of globalisation. The power of globalisation derives from centralised international finance, and the still little-understood power of credit creation. The power of localisation will come from decentralised local finance. The path to the resurrection of sovereign governments controlling their own national financial systems for the benefit of their own populations may very well need to begin with what we do in our own local town or suburb.
Editor, On Target