May 1999: The Life and Work of Anthony Cooney
Every now and again one comes along who is so inimitably
himself and so preternaturally stubborn that it is rare that his contemporaries
know what to do with him. Anthony Cooney is such a one, and the tragedy
of his life is not his tragedy but England's that she made so little use
of him. As an essayist, he employs the philosophy of distributism (the
individual quest as against the overriding function) to illuminate problems
in history, constitutionalism, economics, culture, and art. As a grassroots
campaigner he has fought to attain distributist objectives on a variety
of issues. In another time and place he would have figured among the great--a
Gandhi perhaps (who was also a distributist). But in late twentieth-century
England, Cooney simply smiled as one who knows a secret and carried on
on the scale that was permitted him.
How many political efforts have
been left unconsummated, their followers routed and demoralized, through
setting their sights too high? Cooney has survived forty years by being
content with small successes. He took his seat at the foot of the table
and, not being invited up, made himself at home there. Yet the record
of his life and work reveal, for those who are able to read it, a great
soul. He makes his own everything he touches and is original without meaning
to be. He can make the horizontal shedding loom or breast-fed waterwheel
interesting because he fits them into LIFE with such a sure instinct,
as if he cannot think of them apart from it. For every fact he simultaneously
sees a dozen tangents and makes it look easy.
Cooney is an Irish name. Anthony
Sr. of Toxteth, Liverpool (on the River Mersey) learned the carpenter's
trade of joinery. He served in the army in World War I, and for the rest
of his life plied his trade in the employ of the South End Flour Mills.
He was a Catholic and became a social crediter in the thirties. Douglas
visited the home. Our Anthony Cooney was born in Garston, Liverpool, in
July 1932, so will turn sixty-seven this year.
The elder Cooney remained in
Liverpool during World War II but evacuated his family to "Ardd Gron,"
a leased cottage in Wales. They were soon joined by a friend's family,
making in all three women and six children. They stayed there the second
half of every year from 1940 until September 1945 (and the whole of 1941).
A convent temporarily housed in a castle was their church, which gradually
became a large center of worship.
Young Cooney went to the Welsh
school. It was at this time that he read the Penny Catechism, serving
him, apart from its religious content, as a primer of Logic. In the land
of Arthur he became an avid reader of novels and poetry. The story of
Bonnie Prince Charlie inspired Cooney to write a novel set in the future.
A descendant of the Bonnie Prince returns to claim the throne, and Britain
becomes great again under his beneficent rule.
After the war, Cooney finished his education at night school, while working
days in the offices of the Liverpool City Council. He started a student
magazine. He discovered modernist poetry and music, which became a lifelong
For the next eight years, from
1950 to 1958, while making a modest living as a dock clerk (and also completing
his two years National Service in the R.A.F.), Cooney embarked on what
was to be his life's work as an author and activist. As a member of the
Catholic Evidence Guild, he became an outdoor speak- er on behalf of the
Faith and a certified catechist. He discovered the distributist ideas
of Chesterton and Belloc and wrote a distributist novel of resistance
to world tyranny, called The Twelfth Hour, based on a juvenile
manuscript incorporating his father's ideas. In 1954 the elder Cooney
died at the age of only fifty-six, of lung cancer.
At Liverpool's Pier
Head, "the most famous of all landfalls," a group of intellectuals
gathered to debate the ideas of the day, and crowds came to listen. In
1954 "the Pier Head Magazine" Platform was launched by
the twenty-one-year-old Cooney and two like-minded comrades, Chris Fitzsimons
and Charles McBride. The ideas of Platform were distributist, anticommunist,
modernist in the arts, and "subtly pro-Catholic." In 1955 they
formed the League of Independent Voters, which, the following year, augmented
by newcomers Alex (Anthony) Anderson, Paul Connor, and Ray Gradwell, became
the Liverpool Anti-Debt League. From 1955 through 1957 they publicized
issues and contested City Council seats. Platform became replaced
by a quarterly distributist and social credit journal, Forum. In
1956 Cooney, through the Catholic Evidence Guild, met his future wife,
Rita, whom he married two years later. Their home became the center of
the social credit movement on Merseyside.
In 1959 and 1960 the Anti-Debt
League offered a study course called "Money, Society, and the Debt
System." Out of this course came the brilliant lectures Cooney later
published as Social Credit: Economics and Social Credit: Politics.
And Forum was replaced by a monthly sheet, the Liverpool Newsletter.
The Liverpool Newsletter
embarked on a series of issue campaigns, in which, over the years, some
seven hundred people participated. The Merseyside Anti-Common Market Committee
was formed and leafleted throughout 1962 in opposition to the European
Common Market. The St. George's Day Association (later Gild of St. George)
was started in 1963 to get April 23 declared a national holiday and to
encourage people to fly the red cross and wear a red rose in honor of
England's patron saint and martyr. (For these efforts, in 1989, Cooney
was awarded the Silver Cross of St. George by This England magazine.)
The Anti-Fluoridation Campaign is described below. From 1963 through 1967,
Cooney also participated in a mock Parliament, drafting social credit
legislation and submitting it to formal debate, part of the transcripts
being subsequently published as The Social Credit Papers of the Liverpool
Parliamentary Debating Society.
In 1964 the couple bought their
present home, "Rose Cottage" in Lark Lane, Liverpool, where
they practiced self-sufficiency and raised two daughters. The following
year, at the age of thirty-three, Cooney burnt the Bonnie Prince Charlie
novel and The Twelfth Hour. Perhaps it was his way of formally
saying good-bye to his father and to his own youth, as he himself matured
in fatherhood and intellectually. He also quit the office job he had held
for eighteen years, returned to school for a teacher's certificate, and
taught primary school from 1971 to his retirement in 1991.
With the election of Heath in
1970, the European Economic Commission became a live issue again, and
the Merseyside Anti-Common Market Committee campaigned against it. They
leafleted door-to-door during the 1973 election and again during the 1975
Referendum, with the result that Liverpool returned the highest out vote
in mainland Britain. The Committee of Catholics and Anglicans Against
the Common Market (first formed in 1963) publicly challenged Christians
For Europe's claim that the churches were for the EEC, with the successful
result that representatives of both churches denied having any official
position. (Cooney's inspired concept of capitalizing on the built-in abstention
rate from the European elections by promoting abstention as the only loyal
act is recounted below.)
From the late 1970s Cooney published
a poetry magazine, the Old Police Station (including the critical
review Witana Gemot, Great Thought). The Liverpool Newsletter
saw twelve--then ten--issues per year till 1980 and is today a quarterly
review. Articles (sometimes under a pen name) discuss such disparate subjects
as Roman Britain, the real St. George, Alfred the Great, the Russian royal
family, the Holocaust, antisemitism, medieval painting and architecture,
the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts-and-Crafts movement, Shakespeare, imagism,
na- tion/empire, Ireland, South Africa, the "Fascist Grand Council
in Brussels," Rerum Novarum, the death penalty, and Standard Time.
Since 1995 the Liverpool Newsletter has been produced under the
auspices of the Third Way organization, but Cooney's contribution is still
decisive. (For subscription information, see panel on p. 2)
Apart from the works already
mentioned, Cooney's literary output includes Social Credit: Obelisks,
a tour de force consisting of an original philosophy of history with applications
to particular historical problems; a scholarly study of turn-of-the-century
poor relief in Toxteth; six books of poetry (one in the University of
Salzburg's prestigious English Literature, Poetic Drama, and Poetic Theory
series); two plays in verse; critical studies of Douglas, Chesterton,
and Belloc; a monograph on St. George; and a children's book.
The best compliment we can pay Anthony Cooney--and the one he would most
appreciate--is to build on his work.
It is useful to think of distributism
(the philosophy of the individual quest as against the overriding function)
as the larger concept into which social credit fits. Berkeley, Jefferson,
Cobbett, Leo XIII, Ruskin, Tolstoy, Morris, Gandhi, Belloc, Douglas, Orage,
and Chesterton were all distributists, but only Douglas and Orage would
be called social crediters. Distributism attracts people who are happiest
minding their own business and who would not be bothering with politics
if politics hadn't bothered them first. It does not attract people who
enjoy being part of something big and feel powerful when they rally and
shout in unison, nor does it attract people who are not happy unless they
are saving the world. It is therefore par for the course that its methods
of activism are different from others.
Cooney took his cue from Douglas,
who wrote: "Fix your objective in relation to your resources. This
is rather more than to say concentrate on a narrow front--it means narrowing
your front until you must break through. There are hundreds of spots in
the present position which are vulnerable to quite weak forces. The Housewives
face many of them" (Development of World Dominion 132). There
is nothing shameful about being a "weak force," and the British
Housewives League proved to be one of Cooney's most valuable allies.
Belloc expressed the idea in
a pretty metaphor:
When you are considering how a fortress
may be attacked with the means at your disposal it is your first business
to ask where its weak points are to be found. The weakness may seem slight,
the opportunity of action against such great and highly organized strength
may seem negligible, but the very first business is to find out, at least,
where there is an opportunity, even on a small scale, for beginning. .
. . The process may be compared to the killing of a tree by one who must
attack with some instru- ment--say, shears--too feeble for cutting the
tree down, let alone for uprooting it; too feeble even for inflicting
a serious wound upon its trunk; too feeble for cutting off main branches
or perhaps even secondary branches, but not too feeble for clipping leaves.
Now, if you cut enough leaves off a tree ["for several springs"
--Cooney] the tree dies" (Essay on the Restoration of Property,
pp. 39-40 out of 86).
obstacle to this method, says Cooney, is the Little Pigs Syndrome: "The
little pigs who could only say 'wee, wee, wee', heard the big pigs saying
'umph, umph, umph', and determined to do likewise. When they found they
couldn't say 'umph, umph, umph', they refused to say 'wee, wee, wee',
and as a result burst apart with frustration. There are any number of
journals and groups . . . who, in fact, cannot say 'umph, umph, umph',
but refuse our constant advice to say 'wee, wee, wee'" (Oct. 95,
p. 14; all such citations are to Liverpool Newsletter).
This relates to "the Conspiracy,"
on which subject Cooney offers these wise words: "Liverpool Newsletter
does not reject the conspiracy theory; it merely finds it boring. . .
. We are being realistic. The Conspiracy Theory vitiates initiative. It
induces people to beat their bosoms and cry 'Woe! Woe!'--and then do nothing!
After all, what can be done against an all-powerful, all pervasive force
which has backed every horse in the race? It may be said, 'Well at least
we can expose it'. But the exposure, repeated with ever greater urgency,
merely intensifies its vitiating effect, for how can such diabolical cunning
be out-witted and how can its aims be thwarted, by a few dozen men armed
with nothing more lethal than ball point pens and whose entire commissariate
is a pocketful of leaflets? . . . There is no need to 'expose the Conspiracy'
[in order] to launch a local 'Anti-Fluoridation Committee' or an 'Abstain
Committee' in Yurrophart elections. Indeed it would be counter-productive,
requiring that time and resources be devoted to convincing sceptical people
before actually getting them to join in the work. It need hardly be said
that a 'Committee to defeat the World Conspiracy' is simply ludicrous!"
(Dec. 94, p. 3).
Has wee, wee, wee ever worked?
Cooney tells how Norwegians fought the Nazis with paper clips: "After
the German occupation of Norway people began to wear paper binders in
their lapels; brass paper binders are after all cheap and plentiful enough,
a few coppers for a box of a hundred. The German occupying authority could
not determine what this rash of paper binders to be seen in thousands
in lapels, on the street, in the shops, in offices, in factories, signified,
and in a sense nobody could tell them. There is no law, after all, against
wearing a paper binder in your lapel, and any Government or Authority
which tried to pass a law against it would simply appear ridiculous. As
there was no organization behind, or centre to, the 'Paper binder movement'
there was no one the Germans could prosecute or imprison--'Are you urging
people to wear paper-binders in their lapels?' is an absurd question even
for a German!
"The 'Paper-binders Against
Tyranny' (an 'understood' label which appeared nowhere in writing) drove
the Germans crazy with frustration! They ran round in circles confiscating
paper-binders which made them appear ridiculous. They resorted to arresting
people for wearing a paper-binder, but not only were there too many for
all to be arrested, the very action engendered greater hostility"
(Apr. 98, p. 4).
Of course, the paper binder movement
didn't just happen. Some anonymous hero started it, and the idea was so
simple and demanding so little investment of time and trouble that it
caught on. Cooney has devoted his career to elaborating and perfecting
methods of Political Activity for the Weak.
The Anti-Fluoridation Campaign
throughout the sixties sidestepped all argument about the safety or benefits
of fluoridation, sticking instead to one simple point: "Our opposition
to fluoridation was based firmly upon the principle that fluoridation
is mass medication; that it is a claim by a public authority to have the
Right to medicate people en masse, against the stated objections of some
and in spite of the expressed fears of others. The concession of such
a Right to a local authority establishes a Precedent in English Law which
we saw as dangerous, even sinister. This case against fluoridation stands
whether or not it is eventually proven that fluoridation has no harmful
effects and has all the beneficial effects claimed for it.
"In this campaign we applied
Social Credit principles--Policy is the domain of the individual. Dispute
over the 'safety' of fluoridation we saw as a dangerous red herring. Probably
not one in ten-thousand people has a qualification to determine which
side of the argument is right, and the balance of credibility must always
rest on the side of the public authority's 'experts'. On the other hand
sovereignty of Policy--in this case what medicine I will or will not take,
rests wholly, entirely and properly with the individual. We were successful
in having fluoridation rejected by every local council on Merseyside,
however often the fluoridation lobby brought the matter up. The seeds
sown then have continued to bear fruit in a determined opposition to fluoridation
whenever it has been proposed" (Dec. 94, p. 11).
The most ambitious campaign of
Cooney's career was his attempt to mobilize a National Abstain Campaign
against elections to the Strasbourg Assembly (European "Parliament").
After the 1994 elections, in which (as Cooney had predicted) 37 of 43
anti-E.U. candidates suffered the humiliation of losing their deposits,
Cooney lamented the opportunity lost: "Imagine! Early in 1994 [two
or more of the four main anti-E.U. parties] come together. They say, 'We
have a common policy--to get Britain out. To have a common means we must
choose the simplest means. The sanction to hand is the combined indifference
and hostility of the British people to the E.U. This expresses itself
as a massive abstention in so-called 'Euro-elections'.
"We will advise our combined
memberships throughout the country to set up local National Abstain Campaign
Committees for the purpose of canvassing abstention by leafleting, posters,
car stickers, letters to the press, and, when the time comes, press statements
to local papers. . . . In doing this we do not in any way surrender our
separate identities nor compromise our post-election emergence from the
ad hoc organization. . . . After the election we will issue a triumphant
statement claiming victory for the British people, repudiating the claim
of those elected to represent anybody but themselves and calling upon
the Government to denounce the Treaties by which Great Britain is a member
of the E.U." (July/Aug./Sept. 94, p. 10; actual abstention rates
were 68% for 1979, 72% for 1984, and 63.8% for 1989 and 1994).
Who is the local branch? You
are! "A branch need be no more than one person (this also has been
field tested, never mind when) provided that person is not too inhibited
to put his/her name and address on a branch letter-head. This, and not
money or detailed organization, our experience shows, is the chief difficulty"
(Dec. 94, p. 4).
Cooney illumines his gospel of
Political Action for the Weak under the appealing heading "You Are
the Branches": "If a National Abstain Campaign is launched,
how can one start a village or town branch without waiting around to see
if someone else has pushed the boat out, or someone 'on high' has requested
it? Nothing is simpler. You need a branch letter-head and an address.
If you have a few bob to spare you can get a P.O. Box. If not you can
use your own address. . . .
"Next you must send out
a press release to your local newspapers and free-sheets . . . worded
more or less as follows: 'At a recent well-attended Meeting a --------
branch of the National Abstain Campaign was formed. Mr. -------- Miss
-------- was appointed Hon. Sec. All those attending pledged that they
would abstain from voting in the forthcoming elections for the so-called
European Parliament . . . and by mass-leafleting would persuade the electors
to do likewise, for the following reasons'. . . .
"Did such a meeting take
place? Of course it did. You were there. You didn't wait around for the
pussy-foot patriots to arrive; you stood in front of the mirror, nominated
yourself secretary and passed all the resolutions. When asked 'how strong
is the branch' you reply 'The party traitors will find that out soon enough
when we begin leafleting'. Surely through-out the country one thousand
people can be found to make this stand at a cost of a few £pounds
each? L.N.L. has been doing it for thirty years" (Oct./ Nov. 93,
pp. 1-2). It is not necessary for the local activity to be great. Local
activity merely supports the entity in place to claim credit for a two-thirds
majority: "The local activity proves that there was a campaign, the
result proves that it was successful" (July/Aug./Sept. 94, p. 15).
To the objection that abstention
is a negative thing, even an admission of defeat, the prophet of Political
Action for the Weak simply says yes: "We are an occupied, if not
yet defeated, country. . . . We must look to the weapons we have, and
the first such weapon is the 70% abstention. It may largely arise from
the venality and bovinity of the British, but it is a fact. Its significance
as a weapon would have been immediately apparent to Gandhi or Michael
Collins. It is apparent to the occupying forces, that is why they made
a multi-million pound slush fund available to the establishment parties
to finance their efforts 'to get out the vote'. If they see abstention
as a threat to their hegemony, why do we persist in regarding it as a
poor substitute for the adrenaline rush of 'fighting a seat'? Both Gandhi
and Michael Collins based their liberation strategy upon non-co-operation
with the occupying power. Our non-co-operation begins, and can only begin,
with ignoring the mechanisms by which the Brussels Fascist Grand Council
seeks to validate its rule" (Feb. 98, pp. 2-3).
It is to be noted that the "Strasbourg
Debating Society" is not a real Parliament because it lacks the power
of the Purse. In fact, no Government either emerges from it or depends
on its support: "The 'Government' of the E.U. is in fact the Fascist
Grand Council in Brussels, humorously called 'The Commission' but in fact
a combined Legislature, Executive and Administration, irremovable and
self-perpetuating. The Strasbourg Debating Society is merely a Body Which
Receives Reports" (Dec. 98, p. 1).
The anti-E.U. parties have yet
to take up Cooney's suggestion that they form a National Abstain Campaign.
After their 1994 humiliation, Cooney urged "carrying the war to the
enemy." How about a front organization to make obnoxious but logical
demands? Spanish motorbikes are noisy, Greek plumbing cloggy: demand European
standards. There are archaic frontiers in Europe that don't make sense;
for instance, Belgium was created as a buffer zone and as such is no longer
needed: demand rational frontiers. ("The French-speaking areas must
be reabsorbed into France and the Vlaams-speaking areas into Holland.")
The British "beerage" count on British Customs' right to seize
foreign beer that is not for personal use.
No treaty knows of any such right.
So inform the press and bring in a few crates declaring they are not for
personal use. If Customs seizes them, the ensuing court case will be informative
to everyone. If they do nothing, the door is open to any quantity, and
you have cultivated and involved the "beerage" in your struggle
(July/Aug./Sept. 94, pp. 13-14; Oct./Nov. 94, p. 15).
These various efforts have in
common that they are interestingly counterintuitive. They depending on
noticing and making use of the negative, the mere background, that the
average person sees but does not see. That is also why they strike us
as humorous. The Nazis knew the paper binders had to mean something, and
the secret of the paper binder movement was that they didn't mean anything
at all. (The Nazis might have countered by wearing paper binders themselves,
but if they could have thought of that, they wouldn't be the Nazis.) Everyone
had an opinion about the alleged benefits of fluoridation, and the fact
that the public authority's right to confer a benefit was the weakest
point almost went unnoticed. Everyone is so caught up in the voting that
the abstentions just don't register.
Every individual is a minority
of one, and one is, by definition, weak. Therefore, Political Action for
the Weak is Political Action for the Individual. In true distributist
fashion and with genuine charity (that is, good cheer), Anthony Cooney
shows us how to do more by doing less.