Hilaire Belloc's The Servile State

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.

I’ve read the book and been impressed by it as well. It was written in the first decade of the 20th century, at a time when many intellectuals and opinion makers took Marxist thought seriously and were sure that the implementation of state socialism would usher in a workers’ paradise. Belloc instead predicted that socialism would lead to the workers being “enslaved by positive law” and forced to work for the benefit of the rich and powerful. Obviously this is what happened, more or less, in the Soviet Union and other communist countries. However, the free, democratic countries never reached the point of mass seizure of property, and proposals for forced labor were defeated (narrowly, in some cases).

I do agree that Belloc’s has much to say that’s useful to us regarding the psychology of government, economics, and big business. It struck me particularly when considering the notion of “too big to fail”. Almost everyone in politics today agrees that we have these massive institutions and that it’s the government’s responsibility to keep them. They simply can’t imagine an economic system that’s much different from the one we have now, complete with its big banks, big Wall Street trading firms, and big insurance companies. So when those institutions are in danger, they automatically assume that the government should step in and rescue them. On the other hand, small companies have no such guarantee. The result is a huge benefit to the largest companies, and consequently they grow larger and larger while the small companies are gradually pushed out of business.

Did Chesterton ever explain how an industrial economy could possibly be run on a distributist basis?! (If he considered industry a “modern tendency” we should reject, then he is not worth listening to at all.)

I haven’t read Chesterton, but Belloc suggests that industrialization could have happened under a structure similar to the medieval craft guilds, with the guild providing startup capital and people owning the individual machines (lathes and so forth) that they worked, in coordination with others. I’m not sure how you would run a steel foundry on this basis.

I think the book starts off well but descends into vague whining about “freedom” whatever that is. I started it a long time ago, thought it was pretty neat, put it down for ten years, picked it up a year ago, thought, “well, this is libertarian-right twaddle after all,” & still haven’t finished it.

Considering it was written in 1912, I’d say it predates the libertarian-right. :stuck_out_tongue:

Sorry – it’s easy to get them confused.

Judging from the “alt-right” blogs I run across - some of them zealously, even slavishly, pre-Vatican-II Catholic in orientation - I wouldn’t be surprised to see a long half-assed exegesis in praise of Belloc pop up sometime.

Well, I should finish it. But I think Belloc started out with some good points and then got really worked up over the idea of central ownership, which he saw as taking away freedom. I think there is more opportunity for the common man if he gets a share of the nation’s wealth, and a central authority can do this a measure of public ownership and redistributive taxation. If I have economic opportunity due to transfer payments, do transfer payments make me servile? I’m not convinced of that.

But I agree with Belloc that trying to borrow money from the rich to do social programs for the poor is madness. And I got that observation* from The Servile State.*

Where I differ with H. B. is that I just think we should bite the bullet and have confiscatory taxation on the elite, letting those who just can’t stand it move to Monaco or whatever.

Well, yes. It does. And it does so in a way that’s much more personal and immediate that most tyrannical government, even. Even pretty high-ranking employees of many organizations much submit to piss tests, take lunches or breaks when the business allows, and must accept a lot of interference in their work.

Now, we generally accept this as worth the price of wealth. But it’s also very different from the world of craftsmen which once exuisted, and which men liked Chesterton and Billoc remembered. (And of course, as writers they knew what it was like to work according to their own pace and interests.)

Well… yes, it does. Acceopting [impersonal] handouts of any kind are pretty much the definition of servility. It may be neccessary for the desperate or needy. But, especially when ongoing and indefinite, transfer payments basically amount to bought loyalty - the state buying you off in exchange for loyalty, votes - and servitude.

First, I find the odds that the rich are going to let you do this without getting something in return in exchange. More to the point, confiscatory taxation mneas that, well, you won’t have any more rich or more more to do those programs in a very short while. The plain fact is that the rich don’t actually have enough money to fund the kind of progarms we have right now, let alone the ones we’d see if politicians thought they had a source of free money.

I was going to say something about Keynes, but hey, you got me. I concede, then. I stipulate that there is no real multiplier to real purchasing power, and the “gains” of the last century in quality of life will be reversed completely when the fossil fuels run out.

So you admit that “economic growth,” in the right’s worldview, is a total fraud and cannot exist? That ultimately, “multiplier effects” are nothing but price inflation? And raising up the poor by spreading the wealth is really just forced poverty (in real terms) for everyone?

That it’s all really zero-sum? That we are working off of scarce resources, and the “growth” enjoyed at the top can only happen by robbing the poor?

Then why shouldn’t we just cap wealth so as to maximize the number of the comfortable? Sure, the vast mass of humanity will die in squalor, but no reason for the elite to keep getting richer if wealth cannot be created.

Belloc didn’t realize the concept of economies of scale. A nation of millions of gentlemen craftsmen couldn’t produce an auto industry or national highway system, establish a postal network, form a central bank, or build a fleet of merchant ships. The size of any one enterprise would be sharply limited by how many people could coalesce into one mass sharing the same goal–which begins to sound like how capitalism works.

Of course, Belloc wrote his work when the massive private/public enterprise was in its infancy.

Of course–all life is zero-sum. I can’t get healthier except by sucking your blood. Every man’s death increases me.

(Singing: I’m Republican and I’m OK/I sleep all night and I work all day :D)

I think greenslime1951 hit the nail on the head - the reality is capitalism is just an extension of guilds on a much grander scale, and with a lot less legal restrictions on membership, and what they can demand of members. The capitalism vs socialism debate is really quite similar to the old merchant nobility arguments of the renaissance. The rich merchant gets richer by profitting off the work of the craftsman; the guilds took fines and fees for entrance and membership, and would crush independent craftspeople who operated in ways they thought were harmful to the guild.

No single merchant could afford to buy a warehouse full of looms, just like how we need investors today. Even Ford still has to raise capital when it wants to establish a new factory somewhere. You could claim that the investors don’t de jure own the means of production they help finance, but that’s because no single person does, or even really can. Hence the origin of corporations.

Servitude as a concept implies limitations - limits to what you can and can’t do, and how you do it. If you work for a greedy, callous and overbearing boss, you can always quit. May not be a fair choice, considering he just hires the next guy to walk in the door, but it’s still a choice and not a limitation. I’ll start worrying about if The Man owns my soul when I start being told where to work, what I can and can’t buy, and that I can’t quit. Until then, it’s just an unequal playing field that exists as part of the nature of our very concept of economics.

For a short time around the start of the 20th century, it actually looked like we were heading for Belloc’s vision of quasi-serfdom. Some industries ran “company towns” where the house you lived in was rented from the company and the store you shopped at was run by the company. A few tried to get away with paying their workers in scrip, redeemable only at the company store. And if you were homeless and unemployed, you could be convicted of “vagrancy” and end up doing so many months in a workhouse or on a chain gang. Fortunately, such measures were so shocking to our ideas of freedom, and even the poor retained enough political power, that they were struck down.

Another big change from Belloc’s time was that most workers gained the ability to put at least a little aside after the bare necessities. People could get mortgages to buy their own homes, invest in retirement funds, buy stocks and bonds, etc. By early 20th century standards, the majority of workers today are petty bourgeois rather than proletarian. At least so far our society hasn’t sunk to the late-Roman Empire/ early-Dark Age level.

OTOH, somehow I doubt Belloc would have had much good to say for decentralized anarcho-syndicalism (or libertarian socialism, if you prefer), as was tried during the Spanish Revolution, where all industrial enterprises were in the hands of local workers’ cooperatives owing no obedience to state or party.

I think the biggest lesson we got from that though, is that it doesn’t work anymore. Maybe it’s only thanks to the Enlightenment, and Locke in particular, but it’s just untenable. The world is far too different for feudalism and serfdom to survive on any large scale.

I think we tried that again in the hyper-capitalist response to communism at the beginning of the cold war, didn’t we? Even then, it was just an aside. It was more a result of the large influx of workers and the economy trying to quickly adapt than a change in the socioeconomic system as a whole.

I’m sorry, to whom are you responding?

You. But I sort of forgot this was the Belloc thread. Sort of worked as a defense of distributism on scarcity lines, maybe?

Sure, why not? :smiley: I was definitely thinking, “Uhh… I don’t get it, and I definitely don’t think of medium-term scarcity as an economic fact.*”

I would certainly say, now that I think about it, that Distributionism inherently assumes that scarcity in the medium term doesn’t exist. Else there’d be no reason to bother: whether you tried to put production into individual hands, you’d still never be able to increase human wealth as a whole, and you’d likely not increase individual wealth noticably.

And in a manner of speaking, we did eventually go down the Distributionist route, just in ways they couldn’t have foreseen. It’s easier than ever to run a small business using the internet, which has put immensely powerful tools in ordinary hands. And if that’s not to your taste, these days every man can invest in the stock market and reap the risks and rewards, or take the more modest returns offered by mutual funds. Don’t like that? There’s still opportunity in all kinds of consulting gigs. It’s true that the family farm and piecework industries mostly the went of the dodo, but land reform was still an issue in Chesterton and Belloc’s day, and history in South American, Africa, and Asia (mostly China, Russia, and India) would be far different, and like much better had mankind gone down a gentler path.

In the short term, all resources are scarce. In the long run, all resources are nonexistent. Macroeconomics looks at things in the short term (where a specific supply and demand curve create a price and quantity sold) and the medium term. In the medium term, production and wealth can indeed increase. Thankfully, they have indeed done so. These are my terms, partly because I never enountered a economics text which had a convenient shorthand for distinguishing them with non-economists*, although economists do consider the issue.

**Seriously, economists use the most ridiculous jargon of any science I can name, and way more than any Social Science I’ve had the pleasure of encountering. Sure, they’ve all got a bit of their own lingo, but hot damn, economists go out of their way to use the most obscure and technical terms for everyday events.