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servile stateSeveral months ago I lamented that a normally astute conservative commentator had dismissed Hilaire Belloc’s classic work, The Servile State, as being “strikingly similar” to The Communist Manifesto. Although such a claim is patently absurd, it did set me wondering why it was that otherwise sane and sensible people should have such a blind spot about Belloc’s advocacy of Catholic social teaching. My curiosity aroused, I thought I’d revisit The Servile State to see why it provokes such animosity.

A major reason for the hostility that Belloc’s work arouses is its polemical stance against the evils of “capitalism.” For those who self-identify as capitalists it is indeed understandable that such a polemical approach will raise hackles. It is, however, important to understand what Belloc means by “capitalism” before we presume that he is a socialist or that his views are strikingly similar to those expressed by Marx and Engels. In section one of the book, he defines capitalism in the following terms:

A society in which private property in land and capital, that is, the ownership and therefore the control of the means of production, is confined to some number of free citizens not large enough to determine the social mass of the state, while the rest have not such property and are therefore proletarian, we call capitalist. …

Later, in section five, he reiterates this definition, describing a capitalist society as that “in which the ownership of the means of production is confined to a body of free citizens not large enough to make up properly a general character of that society, while the rest are dispossessed of the means of production, and are therefore proletarian”.

It is likely that those who self-identify as “capitalists” will not accept this as a definition of the capitalism that they espouse. It is, however, necessary to meet Belloc on his own terms if we wish to understand what he is advocating. We might wish that he had used a different label for the thing that he is describing but we need to get beyond the label to the thing itself. Indeed why don’t we remove the problem caused by the label by simply relabeling it? For our present purposes, let’s call it economic proletarianism because it is the economic system characterized by a relatively powerless proletarian majority and a relatively powerful capital and land owning minority.

So much for what Belloc labels as “capitalism” but which we, for the purposes of avoiding an unnecessary argument on mere semantics, have relabeled economic proletarianism.

Let’s now proceed to Belloc’s definition of “socialism”: “An ideal society in which the means of production should be in the hands of the political officers of the community we call collectivist, or more generally socialist.”

Lest we should misunderstand Belloc’s meaning, he is not calling socialism an “ideal society” in the sense that it is idyllic, i.e. good, but in the sense that it is merely an idea, a theoretical ideal, or what we might now call an ideology. He was writing in 1912, five years before the Bolshevik Revolution would turn the theoretical idea into an all too real nightmare.

51FbO9QhctL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In point of fact, Belloc had always been a staunch and uncompromising critic of socialism. In 1908 he had written An Examination of Socialism and the following year had published The Church and Socialism, in both of which he had articulated the Catholic Church’s opposition to socialism as taught by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical, Rerum novarum (1891). In 1911, the year before The Servile State was published, he had argued against the socialist position in a debate with Ramsay Macdonald, the future Labour Prime Minister.

In essence, Belloc’s view of socialism is that it is strikingly similar in practice to “capitalism” insofar as both systems place the means of production into the hands of a privileged few at the expense of the proletarianized masses. Whereas “capitalism” or economic proletarianism centralized the ownership of land and capital into the hands of a small number of powerful businessmen, socialism centralized or collectivized it into the hands of a small number of powerful politicians. In both cases the vast majority of ordinary people remained without either land or capital and was therefore proletarianized. As such, the choice between “capitalism” (as Belloc defines it) and socialism was a choice between economic proletarianism and political proletarianism. It was a choice between being ruled by Big Business or Big Brother, a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum, or between Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber!

In many respects The Servile State is as pessimistic as it is prophetic. His conclusion is that the two forms or proletarianism, economic and political (“capitalist” and socialist), would not fight to the death, with one or the other ultimately emerging triumphant, but would meld into a single politico-economic proletarianism, in which Big Business and Big Brother reach a mutually agreeable modus operandi. This understanding between Big Business and Big Government at the expense of the perennially powerless majority would herald what Belloc calls the servile state and which we might prefer to call the welfare state.

The editors highly recommend Mr. Pearce’s biography Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc.

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10 replies to this post
  1. Yes indeed,The Servile State never advcated state-socialism, and our modern politicians would trigger Belloc’s gag-reflex. But long after his death, most families have become middle-class, and they now own the so-called means of production – via shares, their individual retirement funds, company or union pension funds, etc. My four Victorian-born grandparents, largely educated, owned no shares while their children do; and the definition of middle-class is now almost by definition share-owners. As such, share-owners or their proxies can attend most corporate board meetings, but usually prefer to do other things with their time. Both Marx and Belloc (very different men) failed to see the future: Marx missed the expansion of credit, permitting families to buy houses in their own lifetimes, and Belloc never anticipated the wealth of the ever-growing middle-classes and their need to invest it in business and industry. But it’s not perfect? Christians can explain that easily enough.

  2. It seems from the article above that there are misconceptions about both Capitalism and Socialism. Both make the identity of the group, rather than size, the basis for its definition. For Capitalism, those whose wealth was used to obtain property run the show. In socialism, if we are going use the idea of the proletariate dictatorship that it espouses, then letting the state be in control of the means of production does not socialism make. Rather, what makes state control of production socialism depends on who is running the state. In addition, what makes socialism also depends on who is managing the property as well. When workers are democratically managing both the state and the property, we could then call that kind of control ‘socialism.’

    But something else needs to be added. For in, what Martin Luther King Jr. called a ‘thing-oriented,’ or materialistic, society both socialism and capitalism are nothing more than two sides of the same coin. Both depend on one class ruling the other. BTW, to King, a thing-oriented society was one where gadgets, profits, and property rights were more important than people. In addition, King asserted that we could never escape racism, materialism, and war unless we changed from being a thing-oriented society to being a ‘person-oriented’ society.

    If what King says is true, then what is left is to determine whether a society that more emphasizes individualism could produce a more person-oriented society than one that more values collectivism in power and property.

  3. As a young man, in my 20’s, I flirted with socialism, but gaining a family erased such foolishness. As a somewhat more mature individual, I embraced capitalism in all its glory, only to discover capitalism suffered the same terminal illness as socialism, it was administered in bureaucracies by very fallible human beings. (In neither case, by totally “depraved” human beings, just by normal everyday SOBs.)

    The problem, as I perceived it, was the nature of bureaucracies. Within bureaucracies, rules are paramount, closing ranks against outsiders is the norm, and obfuscation is a rite of passage into the inner circles. These apply whether IBM, the Pentagon, the IBEW, the Curia, the Chicago PD, or your local Rural Electric Co-op.

    Libertarians and other big business apologists say, “Get the gummint off people’s backs, and paradise will ensue.” The socialists and other control freaks will say, “Get the capitalists off people’s backs, and Paradise will ensue.” Just in the same manner, hard-core Freudians will advocate their magic Bullet of sexual liberation, and Gaia-worshipers proclaim the abolition of humanity as necessary for the flourishing of their goddess.

    My creepy cynicism which has grown with old age and retirement from the economic fray informs me that neither Distrtibutism nor Randian anarcho-capitali$m, nor any other panacea will offer surcease from sorrow.

    Like the little lady with the sharp tongue once wrote:

    “Razors pain you;
    Rivers are damp;
    Acids stain you;
    And drugs cause cramp.
    Guns aren’t lawful;
    Nooses give;
    Gas smells awful;
    You might as well live.”
    — Resumé, Dorothy Parker

    • David,
      You have some good points. I would add that any ideology that externalizes evil or scapegoats others for current problems is not looking to share or distribute power, but to consolidate it. Such an ideology assumes that they are above accountability and correction.

      I would add one note of disagreement here, it isn’t bureaucracy or the size of gov’t that is a problem, it is whom the gov’t is serving and who is controlling it.

      • With respect, I have no idea of your life experiences, but mine have demonstrated beyond the shadow of doubt, ANY bureaucracy, however small, has itself as its point of service and control. (I worked for over a score of years for a rural-electric co-op, and small as it was, the “staff” were far more interested in serving themselves than the customers or the other workers — I was a blue-collar grunt, BTW.)

        Different mileage may apply for other vehicles, as I try not to operate on ideology or theory, but on experience and observation. It has been by cynical confirmation that structures are less important than the character of the individuals involved. A small example: A pastor of a small parish is not necessarily more virtuous than the large staff of a megachurch. I have seen virtue and corruption in both instances.

        It is with sadness, not glee, I have established that whenever someone comes and says, “I represent Organization X, and I am here to help you,” I should immediately grab hold of my wallet. If he approaches to shake hands, I should count my fingers afterwards. This applies whether they come from the United Anarchists, the Workers Liberation Front, the Parakeet League, or the Save-a-Soul Mission.

        However, do not allow my pluperfect pessimism dissuade you from your chosen faith (in humanity). Just, after all these years, I take no credence in the notion a “structure”, a “movement”, or an “ideology” will save humankind from itself. Only individual humans being toward each other as God says we should be has any chance.

        • David,
          To say that a government can’t represent someone is to forget how government can represent interests very well.

          To get government to represent us, we need to be vigilant. But what gets in the way of our vigilance is our pursuit of the American dream.

          • It is a matter of perspective. You appear to perceive government often as a powerful servant, which it can be. I see it can be a fearful master, which it often is. Vigilance is indeed the dues of Liberty, but you must recall, mere economic affluence is not the entirety of the American Dream, its most prominent feature is the pursuit of Freedom. That sounds rather libertarian, but libertarians dismiss community as being antithecal to freedom (as a general rule). Socialism promotes community and equality over liberty. Conservatives prize liberty and community as formed by tradition and the totality of culture (Western Civ in my case).
            All these things are not hardcore opposites, but components of social interaction. A conservative knows, or should know, how to balance the components of The Good Life. Part of that balance is recognizing the limits of government as well as its benefits; the limits of community as well as benefits; the limits of liberty as well as benefits; the limits of equality as well as benefits.
            Whenever humans have allowed ideological, theoretical, thinking to trump experience, he result has been sad and bad and society takes a long time to recover. I wish to conserve the good, reform the bad, and not throw everything into chaos for the sake of a weak and ill-conceived notion of how things OUGHT to be.

          • Mr. Day, above all else government represents those closest to it, for example, its employees, its donors to the political parties, the elected officials, all those most able to feed at the government teat. Last comes those groups or voting blocs who can raise the most noise, who can paint themselves best as victims and in turn vote most reliably pro big government.
            Democracy is and has always been an insiders game, perforce it must be, cliques being what they are.

  4. “Socialism promotes community and equality over liberty. ”

    Socialism promotes only one thing – power for socialists. They get to boss us around, and we get to beg for whatever scraps they throw at us.

  5. No, Belloc was a villain. The graduated income tax is immoral – see I-II, Q. 96, Art. 4 of the Summa, which condemns “disproportionate” and “unequal” taxation. The graduated income tax is manifestly neither. Distributism comes from democracy, not tradition. The proof is that the defunct royal houses of France and Brazil both oppose it.

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