I’ve recently found this book and was so impressed by it that after mentioning it a few times in the libertarian threads, I decided it was high time to have a discussion thread devoted to it. For starters, read or download it for free from http://archive.org/details/servilestate00belluoft.
Belloc was a writer and collaborator with the better-know G. K. Chesterton, and a ferocious critic of both capitalism as it then existed in Britain and proposed socialist/collectivist plans to replace it. Belloc was a “Distributionist” who held that Capitalism’s evils stemmed from the concentration of ownership by a minority, and that the ideal solution was a return to a society where most people owned the means of their own existence. But as he explains in his book, he regards that as the least likely solution to come about because it would require substantial active effort against modern tendencies.
Belloc defined Capitalism as a society and economic system categorized by the ownership of most means of production by a small minority, with the mass of the populace being propertiless workers- proletarians. More exactly, he considered modern capitalism to be a society where the mass of the populace had effectively no economic freedom but still retained political freedom- a condition he considered unstable. Given that such an unfettered system would produce increasingly Dickensian conditions until human life was no longer possible, some reform was inevitable. But the most popular proposed solution- some form of socialism or collectivism- Belloc considered an ideal doomed to failure for practical reasons and that the actual outcome would be what he called “The Servile State”- a sort of neo-slavery or neo-serfdom, in which the conflict caused by people having no economic freedom but retaining political freedom would be resolved by abolishing the latter rather than restoring the former.
Some of Belloc’s ideas seem prescient. Minimum wages, government regulation, worker’s comp and unemployment insurance, mandatory arbitration- Belloc criticizes them on the grounds that while seemingly in the working classes’ best interest, they do the backhanded favor of acknowledging workers as a lower class, actually cementing the owning classes hold on property; and establishing* de jure* the dependent status that had already been created de facto rather than making any move towards actually giving the masses real economic independence.
To be sure Belloc has to be taken with a grain of salt. Staunchly Catholic, Belloc regarded the seizure of the monasteries by Henry VIII as the great disaster that started it all, and went so far as to imply that the Protestant Revolution was synonomous with abandoning Christianity. He tends to romanticize the Middle Ages; although he has a point in that by the later Middle Ages most people were at least the immediate custodians, if not true owners, of their means of subsistance, and he briefly mentions a fascinating counterfactual: what if the Industrial Revolution had taken place within the medieval guild structure? Written before WW1, he has nothing to say about Communism and of course his writings have to be compared to the following 100 years of history.