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.