Review of “The Servile State” by Hilaire Belloc

If you were to ap­proach those mil­lions of fam­ilies now liv­ing at a wage, with the pro­pos­al for a con­tract of ser­vice for life, guar­an­tee­ing them em­ploy­ment at what each re­gard­ed as his usu­al full wage, how many would refuse?

Such a con­tract would, of course, in­volve a loss of free­dom: a life-​con­tract of the kind is, to be ac­cu­rate, no con­tract at all. It is the nega­tion of con­tract and the ac­cep­ta­tion of status. It would lay the man that un­der­took it un­der an obli­ga­tion of forced labour, cotermi­nous and co­in­ci­dent with his pow­er to labour. It would be a per­ma­nent re­nun­ci­ation of his right (if such a right ex­ists) to the sur­plus val­ues cre­at­ed by his labour. If we ask our­selves how many men, or rather how many­ fam­ilies,would pre­fer free­dom (with its accompaniments of cer­tain in­se­cu­ri­ty and pos­si­ble in­suf­fi­cien­cy) to such a life-​con­tract, no one can de­ny that the an­swer is: “ Very few would refuse it.” That is the key to the whole mat­ter.

Indeed, it is the key – it is unfortunate, but it is undeniable. And where does this take us?

The fu­ture of in­dus­tri­al so­ci­ety, and in par­tic­ular of En­glish so­ci­ety, left to its own di­rec­tion, is a fu­ture in which sub­sis­tence and secu­ri­ty shall be guar­an­teed for the Pro­le­tari­at, but shall be guar­an­teed at the ex­pense of the old po­lit­ical free­dom and by the establishment of that Pro­le­tari­at in a sta­tus re­al­ly, though not nom­inal­ly, servile. At the same time, the Own­ers will be guar­an­teed in their prof­its, the whole ma­chin­ery of pro­duc­tion in the smooth­ness of its work­ing, and that sta­bil­ity which has been lost un­der the Cap­ital­ist phase of so­ci­ety will be found once more.

I believe I’m reading this book because it was recommended by a reader, however I have forgotten by whom it was recommended. Anyway, it was a very good recommendation. I certainly have quibbles with the book – particularly with Belloc’s understanding of capitalism and his inability to speak in non-Marxist terms – but the good stuff in the book is very good.

Belloc’s argument is that capitalism is inherently unstable and people abhor instability. Therefore, capitalism will not last. It will, in the end be replaced by the "servile state."

The servile state is one in which two classes are distinctly recognized: owner and slave, though you may change the terms to suit you fancy. Certain laws that exist in our society reflect this legal division. This is best illustrated by example:

The prin­ci­ple is pushed still fur­ther when an em­ploy­er is made li­able for an ac­ci­dent hap­pen­ing to one of his em­ploy­ees at the hands of an­oth­er em­ploy­ee.

A gives a sack of wheat to B and D each if they will dig a well for him. All three par­ties are cog­nisant of the risks and ac­cept them in the con­tract. B, hold­ing the rope on which D is low­ered, lets it slip. If they were all three men of ex­act­ly equal sta­tus, ob­vi­ous­ly D’s ac­tion would be against B. But they are not of equal sta­tus in Eng­land to-​day. B and D are employ­ees and are there­fore in a spe­cial and in­fe­ri­or po­si­tion be­fore the law compared with their em­ploy­er A. D’s ac­tion is, by this nov­el prin­ci­ple, no longer against B, who accidental­ly in­jured him by a per­son­al act, how­ev­er in­vol­un­tary, for which a free man would be re­spon­si­ble, but against A, who was in­no­cent of the whole busi­ness.

Now in all this it is quite clear that A has pe­cu­liar du­ties not be­cause he is a cit­izen, but be­cause he is some­thing more: an employer; and B and D have spe­cial claims on A, not be­cause they are cit­izens, but be­cause the­y are­ some­thin­g less: viz. employees. They can claim pro­tec­tion from A, as in­fe­ri­ors of a su­pe­ri­or in a State ad­mit­ting such dis­tinc­tions and pa­tron­age.

It will oc­cur at once to the read­er that in our ex­ist­ing so­cial state the em­ploy­ee will be very grate­ful for such leg­is­la­tion. One work­man can­not re­cov­er from an­oth­er sim­ply be­cause the oth­er will have no goods out of which to pay dam­ages. Let the bur­den, there­fore, fall up­on the rich man!

Ex­cel­lent. But that is not the point. To ar­gue thus is to say that Servile leg­is­la­tion is nec­es­sary if we are to­ sol­ve the p­rob­lem­s raised­ by­ Cap­ital­ism. It remains servile leg­is­la­tion none the less. It is leg­is­la­tion that would not ex­ist in a so­ci­ety where prop­er­ty was well divid­ed and where a cit­izen could nor­mal­ly pay dam­ages for the harm he had him­self caused. . . .

Such schemes def­inite­ly di­vide cit­izens in­to two class­es, the Cap­ital­ist and the Pro­le­tar­ian. They make it im­pos­si­ble for the sec­ond to com­bat the priv­ileged po­si­tion of the first. They in­tro­duce in­to the pos­itive laws of the com­mu­ni­ty a recog­ni­tion of so­cial facts which al­ready di­vide En­glish­men in­to two groups of eco­nom­ical­ly more free and eco­nom­ical­ly less free, and they stamp with the au­thor­ity of the State a new con­sti­tu­tion of so­ci­ety. So­ci­ety is recog­nised as no longer con­sist­ing of free men bar­gain­ing freely for their labour or any oth­er com­mod­ity in their pos­ses­sion, but of two con­trast­ing sta­tus, own­ers and non-​own­ers. The first must not be al­lowed to leave the sec­ond with­out sub­sis­tence; the sec­ond must not be al­lowed to ob­tain that grip up­on the means of pro­duc­tion which is the priv­ilege of the first.

Belloc gets some things wrong, for example, he believes that people who are put out of work by minimum wage laws (an example of a servile law) will be put into forced labor. He couldn’t imagine that it would be cheaper just to pay them to do nothing. Slaves they are, by his definition, nonetheless.

Belloc’s book is mostly about the servile state, but he briefly discusses the "distributive state," which seems to be his ideal:

With the close of the Middle Ages the so­ci­eties of West­ern Chris­ten­dom and Eng­land among the rest were eco­nom­ical­ly free.

Prop­er­ty was an in­sti­tu­tion na­tive to the State and en­joyed by the great mass of its cit­izens. Co-op­er­ative in­sti­tu­tions, vol­un­tary reg­ula­tions of labour, re­strict­ed the com­plete­ly indepen­dent use of prop­er­ty by its own­ers on­ly in or­der to keep that in­sti­tu­tion in­tac­t and­ to pre­vent the ab­sorp­tion of small prop­er­ty by great.

This ex­cel­lent state of af­fairs which we had reached af­ter many cen­turies of Chris­tian de­vel­op­ment, and in which the old in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery had been fi­nal­ly elim­inat­ed from Christen­dom, did not ev­ery­where sur­vive. In Eng­land in par­tic­ular it was ru­ined. The seeds of the dis­as­ter were sown in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry. Its first ap­par­ent ef­fects came to light in the sev­en­teenth. Dur­ing the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry Eng­land came to be fi­nal­ly, though in­se­cure­ly, es­tab­lished up­on a pro­le­tar­ian ba­sis, that is, it had al­ready be­come a so­ci­ety of rich men pos­sessed of the means of pro­duc­tion on the one hand, and a ma­jor­ity dis­pos­sessed of those means up­on the oth­er. With the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry the evil plant had come to its ma­tu­ri­ty, and Eng­land had be­come be­fore the close of that pe­ri­od a pure­ly Cap­ital­ist State, the type and mod­el of Cap­ital­ism for the whole world : with the means of production tight­ly held by a very small group of cit­izens, and the whole de­ter­min­ing mass of the na­tion dis­pos­sessed of cap­ital and land, and dis­pos­sessed, there­fore, in all cas­es of se­cu­ri­ty, and in many of suf­fi­cien­cy as well. The mass of En­glish­men, still pos­sessed of po­lit­ical, lacked more and more the el­ements of eco­nom­ic, free­dom, and were in a worse pos­ture than free cit­izens have ev­er found them­selves be­fore in the his­to­ry of Eu­rope. . . .

In oth­er words, by the first third of the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, by 1630-40, the eco­nom­ic rev­olu­tion was fi­nal­ly ac­com­plished, and the new eco­nom­ic re­al­ity thrust­ing it­self up­on the old tra­di­tions of Eng­land was a pow­er­ful oli­garchy of large ­own­ers over­shad­ow­ing an im­pov­er­ished and dwin­dled monar­chy.

In pre-industrial England, Belloc does not see a weak government. He sees a monarchy weakened by a more powerful new oligarchy. This oligarchy destroys the distributive state and imposes the capitalist state which leads to the servile state.

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One Response to Review of “The Servile State” by Hilaire Belloc

  1. […] to someone who was wrong (Marx), it takes credit away from people who were correct. Burnham and Belloc come much closer to the actual truth of the modern class division, in my […]

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