POLITICAL IDEAS: by Dr Allan CarlsonNews Weekly
Hilaire Belloc's The Servile State: a centenary reflection
, November 24, 2012
This year marks the centennial of Hilaire Belloc’s curious book The Servile State.
Commentators such as Robert Nisbet and Joseph Pearce have labelled his creed as “libertarian”, which implies a respect for free-market capitalism that simply cannot be found in The Servile State. In fact, Belloc deemed “the capitalist state” both “unstable” and deadly. And he went on to advocate the use of state power, particularly the power of differential taxation, to dismantle big corporations, to thoroughly soak the rich, and to massively redistribute their property to those without any.
Other biographers have labelled Belloc a kind of socialist. In reality, though, Belloc condemned public ownership of property and indicted the political order of early 20th-century Britain for introducing a new kind of slavery into the world.
Belloc looked back to Europe’s High Middle Ages (circa AD 1250) as an era when human society embodied inspiring ideals, and saw philosophical nominalism, scientific logic and capitalism (properly defined) as the modern enemies of those social ideals.
Belloc insisted that the critical parts, or cells, of this good society were productive families, secure in their property. The whole objective of his political economy was to break down the corruptions of modern capitalism and socialism, and re-establish families in working homes set on land in freehold tenure.
The inspiration for Belloc’s analysis in The Servile State was Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum. On the one hand, this document was “modern”, representing the Roman Catholic Church’s readiness to engage — rather than simply denounce — the new urban-industrial age and the place of wage labourers within it. On the other hand, Rerum Novarum was “reactionary”, for its program aimed at restoring a social-economic order that resembled — in its most important components — that of the High Middle Ages.
It was “just” that the labourer possess what he had made, and no one had standing to violate that right; but Leo rejected “the main tenet of socialism, [the] community of goods”. He said that private ownership should “be held sacred and inviolable”.
However, this meant something other than merely protecting the assets of the relatively few. Rather, as Leo explained, “the law … should favour ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners”.
Rise of the capitalist state
Belloc’s project in The Servile State was to analyse how that “gulf” had emerged, what had been the consequences, and how the elements of a good society might be put back together again.
An important component of this task was to reframe history, in order to understand how a system of ordered liberty and widely dispersed property had come to an end.
Belloc began the story shortly after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Between AD 500 and 1000, he said, the Christianised Europeans — just like the pagan Romans before them — took slavery for granted.
The end of European slavery, according to Belloc, came through “the experiment called the Christian church”. While no church dogma explicitly condemned slavery, the Christian emphasis on spiritual equality undermined its premises.
By AD 900, the market in men had come to an end. About the same time, cities began to re-emerge as trading centres. Craft guilds developed as self-governing enterprises to control competition among artisans, assuring good quality, “fair” prices, and secure incomes. Under these circumstances, there could be neither capitalist nor proletarian.
Indeed, by AD 1250, a well-developed “distributive system” existed in Central and Western Europe (including Britain), with three forms of labour: the serf, secure in his position, who paid regular but limited dues and services fixed by long custom; the freeholder peasant, who supported rulers through taxes; and the guildsman.
It was true that co-operative bodies, such as guilds and religious fraternities, placed certain restraints on personal economic liberty. However, this was for the preservation of a greater liberty resting on real economic democracy.
The end of the medieval-distributist order came in the 16th century, when there arose, according to Belloc, “the dreadful moral anarchy which goes by the name of capitalism”. While most economic historians trace the origin of this economic ideology in Britain to the 18th century, Belloc insisted that the change was much older. And in the course of three centuries, it transformed Britain from a land of owners into (by 1912) a place where a third of the people were indigent and 95 per cent were dispossessed of all capital and land.
Capitalism emerged through “the deliberate action of men, evil will in a few, and apathy of will among the many”. The first stage came in the 1530s, an “artificial revolution of the most violent kind”, involving the seizure of monastic lands by King Henry VIII. Prior to this revolution, about a third of England’s land belonged to the squires or county lords; a third belonged to free peasants; and a third to church entities.
Most of the land that Henry confiscated, as part of his “Reformation,” eventually wound up in the hands of the squires, who now emerged as a powerful, effectively uncontrolled economic oligarchy. In the 1640s, this group eliminated the monarchy as a threat to its power. The same small oligarchy controlled Parliament and used Enclosure Acts and a Statute of Frauds to chase free peasants off their customary lands and to seize the village commons for consolidation into corporate-style farms.
Reflecting on this startling departure from orthodox history, Belloc concluded that by 1700, “England had already become capitalist”, with “a vast section of her population” proletarianised. It was this change, he insisted, and not the later Industrial Revolution, “which accounts for the terrible social condition in which we find ourselves today”.
The introduction of industrial processes — Watt’s condenser, Hargreave’s spinning jenny, and King’s flying shuttle — were not the causes of monopoly. By the time they appeared, England had already been captured by an oligarchy. If these inventions had arrived in the 13th century, Belloc insisted, they “would have blest and enriched mankind” and would have been organised on a cooperative basis. Instead, they fostered still further consolidation through the trusts; such economic combinations brought “the ruin of the smaller competition through secret conspiracies entered into by the larger men, and supported by the secret force of the state”.
Socialism emerged in the 19th century as a movement to counter the oligarchy. However, “the effect of socialist doctrine upon capitalist society is [actually] to produce a third thing different from either of its two begetters — to wit, the servile state”.
The distributist alternative
How might a community escape this end? In The Servile State, Belloc offered little practical guidance. The clear alternative was rebuilding a social-economic order featuring widely distributed property. However, he asked, “Will man want to own?... Can I discover any relics of the cooperative instinct...?” Most of the unfree, Belloc mused, seemed content in their servility.
It would be in his subsequent The Restoration of Property (1936) that Belloc laid out a fairly complete distributist program of reform. Family freedom, he said, required “a jealous watch against, and destruction of, monopoly” and “the safeguarding of inheritance, especially the inheritance of small patrimonies”.
Regarding specifics, Belloc favoured the use of differential taxes to redistribute property. For example, he would tax “chain” retailers so that one company could run no more than a dozen stores. He would handicap department stores, like Harrod’s, in a similar way.
A “turnover tax” would be imposed on large wholesalers; small, family-held firms would be tax-free. Large industrial plants would face a tax on power used; artisans would enjoy protection and subsidised credit.
Electricity and the internal combustion engine — both favourable to family-scale production — would be encouraged; steam and water power would be taxed.
Agricultural land would be restored to families. State policy should support subsistence farming and “privilege” this peasantry “as against the diseased society around it”.
Taxes on real estate transactions should “make it easy for the smaller man to buy land from the richer man and difficult for the larger man to buy from the smaller man”.
Belloc noted that medieval guilds had not entirely disappeared; doctors and lawyers, for example, still maintained guild-like structures that controlled entry into the professions, mandated certain forms of training, and the like. The trade unions, which bore a “proletarian spirit”, should be replaced by similar guild structures that again controlled quality, regulated training and set just prices”.
The sweep of Belloc’s public-policy agenda would cause mass heart failure at a modern Tea Party rally.
Policy insights for today
Is The Servile State, with its strong whiffs of medievalism, actually relevant to America, circa 2012? The answer is yes. Certainly, the financial crisis of 2008 and its consequences underscored the reality and perils of a servile economy. The vast majority of Americans put their faith in wages, retirement accounts resting on stocks and bonds, and the government safety net.
Faith in all three has been shaken by subsequent events, just as Belloc would have predicted. Jobs were lost; the decline in real wages — evident since the 1970s — accelerated. Individual Retirement Accounts proved to be fragile, ephemeral forms of private property. And the government safety net revealed many holes, sure to become wider and more numerous as lawmakers deal with yawning federal and state budget deficits.
All the same, was not the “housing bubble” the cause of the Panic of 2008? And was it not a consequence, in turn, of the distributist goal of delivering widespread home ownership? Could not Belloc’s very scheme be indicted as the cause of current economic woes?
If still alive, Belloc would probably give three answers. First, he certainly would not have approved of issuing mortgages to persons without the means to pay for them.
Second, Belloc would have objected to the very nature of the modern American housing market. Laws favouring home ownership should have the purpose of settling families in proper structures and building stable communities. In America, however, home ownership has become in large measure a method of speculative investment. This is the very antithesis of distributist principles.
And third, Belloc would have stressed that distributists never sought just home ownership. The goal was to place families in productive homes, with small workshops, loom rooms, food-preservation facilities, chicken coops and gardens as the norm. Today, he would have added home offices, computer rooms, home-schooling rooms, and so on.
The typical American suburban home — commonly prohibited by zoning laws and restrictive covenants from housing any kind of productive work — is simply not part of the distributist vision.
From Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson to contemporary writers such as Wendell Berry, the linkage of property ownership and a vital home economy to true liberty and security has endured in the political vision of those who cherish liberty and the family.
The distributism of Hilaire Belloc delivers an economy fit for families. Far from being just a reactionary medievalist, Belloc actually represents the most prescient of analysts and guides to a sustainable and child-rich future.
Allan Carlson, PhD, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, is professor of history at Hillsdale College in Michigan. A longer version of this article, with footnotes and references, appeared in The Family in America journal (Vol. 26, No. 3, Fall 2012).