Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Reformers And The Reformed Are Alike/1

by Hilaire Belloc



(i) Of the Socialist Reformer:

I say that men attempting to achieve Collectivism or Socialism as the remedy for the evils of the Capitalist State find themselves drifting not towards a Collectivist State at all, but towards a Servile State.

The Socialist movement, the first of the three factors in this drift, is itself made up of two kinds of men: there is (a) the man who regards the public ownership of the means of production (and the consequent compulsion of all citizens to work under the direction of the State) as the only feasible solution of our modern social ills. There is also (b) the man who loves the Collectivist ideal in itself, who does not pursue it so much because it is a solution of modern Capitalism, as because it is an ordered and regular form of society which appeals to him in itself. He loves to consider the ideal of a State in which land and capital shall be held by public officials who shall order other men about and so preserve them from the consequences of their vice, ignorance, and folly.

These types are perfectly distinct, in many respects antagonistic, and between them they cover the whole Socialist movement.

Now imagine either of these men at issue with the existing state of Capitalist society and attempting to transform it. Along what line of least resistance will either be led?

(a) The first type will begin by demanding the confiscation of the means of production from the hands of their present owners, and the vesting of them in the State. But wait a moment. That demand is an exceedingly hard thing to accomplish. The present owners have between them and confiscation a stony moral barrier. It is what most men would call the moral basis of property (the instinct that property is a right), and what all men would admit to be at least a deeply rooted tradition. Again, they have behind them the innumerable complexities of modern ownership.

To take a very simple case: Decree that all common lands enclosed since so late a date as 1760 shall revert to the public. There you have a very moderate case and a very defensible one. But conceive for a moment how many small freeholds, what a nexus of obligation and benefit spread over millions, what thousands of exchanges, what purchases made upon the difficult savings of small men such a measure would wreck! It is conceivable, for, in the moral sphere, society can do anything to society; but it would bring crashing down with it twenty times the wealth involved and all the secure credit of our community. In a word, the thing is, in the conversational use of that term, impossible. So your best type of Socialist reformer is led to an expedient which I will here only mention as it must be separately considered at length later on account of its fundamental importance the expedient of "buying out" the present owner.

It is enough to say in this place that the attempt to "buy out" without confiscation is based upon an economic error. This I shall prove in its proper place. For the moment I assume it and pass on to the rest of my reformer's action. He does not confiscate, then; at the most he "buys out" (or attempts to "buy out") certain sections of the means of production.

But this action by no means covers the whole of his motive. By definition the man is out to cure what he sees to be the great immediate evils of Capitalist society. He is out to cure the destitution, which it causes in great multitudes and the harrowing insecurity, which it imposes upon all. He is out to substitute for Capitalist society a society in which men shall all be fed, clothed, housed, and in which men shall not live in a perpetual jeopardy of their housing, clothing, and food.

Well, there is a way of achieving that without confiscation.

This reformer rightly thinks that the ownership of the means of production by a few has caused the evils which arouse his indignation and pity. But they have only been so caused on account of a combination of such limited ownership with universal freedom. The combination of the two is the very definition of the Capitalist State. It is difficult indeed to dispossess the possessors. It is by no means so difficult (as we shall see again when we are dealing with the mass whom these changes will principally affect) to modify the factor of freedom.

You can say to the Capitalist: "I desire to dispossess you, and meanwhile I am determined that your employees shall live tolerable lives." The Capitalist replies: "I refuse to be dispossessed, and it is, short of catastrophe, impossible to dispossess me. But if you will define the relation between my employees and myself, I will undertake particular responsibilities due to my position. Subject the proletarian, as a proletarian, and because he is a proletarian, to special laws. Clothe me, the Capitalist, as a Capitalist, and because I am a Capitalist, with special converse duties under those laws. I will faithfully see that they are obeyed; I will compel my employees to obey them, and I will undertake the new role imposed upon me by the State. Nay, I will go further, and I will say that such a novel arrangement will make my own profits perhaps larger and certainly more secure."

This idealist social reformer, therefore, finds the current of his demand canalised. As to one part of it, confiscation, it is checked and barred: as to the other, securing human conditions for the proletariat, the gates are open. Half the river is dammed by a strong weir, but there is a sluice, and that sluice can be lifted. Once lifted, the whole force of the current will run through the opportunity so afforded it; there will it scour and deepen its channel; there will the main stream learn to run.

To drop the metaphor, all those things in the true Socialist's demand, which are compatible with the Servile State can certainly be achieved. The first steps towards them are already achieved. They are of such a nature that upon them can be based a further advance in the same direction, and the whole Capitalist State can be rapidly and easily transformed into the Servile State, satisfying in its transformation the more immediate claims and the more urgent demands of the social reformer whose ultimate objective indeed may be the public ownership of capital and land, but whose driving power is a burning pity for the poverty and peril of the masses.

When the transformation is complete there will be no ground left, nor any demand or necessity, for public ownership. The reformer only asked for it in order to secure security and sufficiency: he has obtained his demand.

Here are security and sufficiency achieved by another and much easier method, consonant with and proceeding from the Capitalist phase immediately preceding it: there is no need to go further.

In this way the Socialist whose motive is human good and not mere organisation is being shepherded in spite of himself away from his Collectivist ideal and towards a society in which the possessors shall remain possessed, the dispossessed shall remain dispossessed, in which the mass of men shall still work for the advantage of a few, and in which those few shall still enjoy the surplus values produced by labour, but in which the special evils of insecurity and insufficiency, in the main the product of freedom, have been eliminated by the destruction of freedom.

At the end of the process you will have two kinds of men, the owners economically free, and controlling to their peace and to the guarantee of their livelihood the economically unfree non-owners. But that is the Servile State.

(b) The second type of socialist reformer may be dealt with more briefly. In him the exploitation of man by man excites no indignation. Indeed, he is not of a type to which indignation or any other lively passion is familiar. Tables, statistics, an exact framework for life these afford him the food that satisfies his moral appetite; the occupation most congenial to him is the "running" of men: as a machine is run.

To such a man the Collectivist ideal particularly appeals.

It is orderly in the extreme. All that human and organic complexity which is the colour of any vital society offends him by its infinite differentiation. He is disturbed by multitudinous things; and the prospect of a vast bureaucracy wherein the whole of life shall be scheduled and appointed to certain simple schemes deriving from the coordinate work of public clerks and marshalled by powerful heads of departments gives his small stomach a final satisfaction.

Now this man, like the other, would prefer to begin with public property in capital and land, and upon that basis to erect the formal scheme which so suits his peculiar temperament. (It need hardly be said that in his vision of a future society he conceives of himself as the head of at least a department and possibly of the whole State but that is by the way.) But while he would prefer to begin with a Collectivist scheme ready-made, he finds in practice that he cannot do so. He would have to confiscate just as the more hearty Socialist would; and if that act is very difficult to the man burning at the sight of human wrongs, how much more difficult is it to a man impelled by no such motive force and directed by nothing more intense than a mechanical appetite for regulation?

He cannot confiscate or begin to confiscate. At the best he will "buy out" the Capitalist.

Now, in his case, as in the case of the more human Socialist, "buying out" is, as I shall show in its proper place, a system impossible of general application.

But all those other things for which such a man cares much more than he does for the socialisation of the means of production tabulation, detailed administration of men, the co-ordination of many efforts under one schedule, the elimination of all private power to react against his Department, all these are immediately obtainable without disturbing the existing arrangement of society. With him, precisely as with the other socialist, what he desires can be reached without any dispossession of the few existing possessors. He has but to secure the registration of the proletariat; next to ensure that neither they in the exercise of their freedom, nor the employer in the exercise of his, can produce insufficiency or insecurity and he is content. Let laws exist which make the proper housing, feeding, clothing, and recreation of the proletarian mass be incumbent upon the possessing class, and the observance of such rules be imposed, by inspection and punishment, upon those whom he pretends to benefit, and all that he really cares for will be achieved.

To such a man the Servile State is hardly a thing towards which he drifts, it is rather a tolerable alternative to his ideal Collectivist State, which alternative he is quite prepared to accept and regards favourably. Already the greater part of such reformers who, a generation ago, would have called themselves "Socialists" are now less concerned with any scheme for socialising Capital and Land than with innumerable schemes actually existing, some of them possessing already the force of laws, for regulating, "running," and drilling the protelariat without trenching by an inch upon the privilege in implements, stores, and land enjoyed by the small Capitalist class.

The so-called "Socialist" of this type has not fallen into the Servile State by a miscalculation. He has fathered it; he welcomes its birth, he foresees his power over its future.

So much for the Socialist movement, which a generation ago proposed to transform our Capitalist society into one where the community should be the universal owner and all men equally economically free or unfree under its tutelage. Today their ideal has failed, and of the two sources whence their energy proceeded, the one is reluctantly, the other gladly, acquiescent in the advent of a society which is not Socialist at all but Servile.

(2) Of the Practical Reformer:

There is another type of Reformer, one who prides himself on not being a socialist, and one of the greatest weight to-day. He also is making for the Servile State. This second factor in the change is the “Practical Man” ; and this fool, on account of his great numbers and determining influence in the details of legislation, must be carefully examined.

It is your "Practical Man" who says: "Whatever you theorists and doctrinaires may hold with regard to this proposal (which I support), though it may offend some abstract dogma of yours, yet you must admit that it does good. If you had practical experience of the misery of the Jones' family, or had done practical work yourself in Pudsey, you would have seen that a practical man," etc.

It is not difficult to discern that the Practical Man in social reform is exactly the same animal as the Practical Man in every other department of human energy, and may be discovered suffering from the same twin disabilities which stamp the Practical Man whereever found: these twin disabilities are an inability to define his own first principles and an inability to follow the consequences proceeding from his own action. Both these disabilities proceed from one simple and deplorable form of impotence, the inability to think.

Let us help the Practical Man in his weakness and do a little thinking for him.

As a social reformer he has of course (though he does not know it) first principles and dogmas like all the rest of us, and his first principles and dogmas are exactly the same as those which his intellectual superiors hold in the matter of social reform. The two things intolerable to him as a decent citizen (though a very stupid human being) are insufficiency and insecurity. When he was "working" in the slums of Pudsey or raiding the proletarian Jones's from the secure base of Toynbee Hall, what shocked the worthy man most was "unemployment" and "destitution”: that is, insecurity and insufficiency in flesh and blood.

Now, if the Socialist who has thought out his case, whether as a mere organiser or as a man hungering and thirsting after justice, is led away from Socialism and towards the Servile State by the force of modern things in England, how much more easily do you not think the "Practical Man" will be conducted towards that same Servile State, like any donkey to his grazing ground? To those dull and short-sighted eyes the immediate solution which even the beginnings of the Servile State propose are what a declivity is to a piece of brainless matter. The piece of brainless matter rolls down the declivity, and the Practical Man lollops from Capitalism to the Servile State with the same inevitable ease. Jones has not got enough. If you give him something in charity, that something will be soon consumed, and then Jones will again not have enough. Jones has been seven weeks out of work. If you get him work "under our unorganised and wasteful system, etc.,"he may lose it just as he lost his first jobs. The slums of Pudsey, as the Practical Man knows by Practical experience, are often unemployable. Then there are "the ravages of drink": more fatal still the dreadful habit mankind has of forming families and breeding children. The worthy fellow notes that "as a practical matter of fact such men do not work unless you make them."

He does not, because he cannot, co-ordinate all these things. He knows nothing of a society in which free men were once owners, nor of the co-operative and instinctive institutions for the protection of ownership, which such a society spontaneously breeds. He "takes the world as he finds it" and the consequence is that whereas men of greater capacity may admit with different degrees of reluctance the general principles of the Servile State, the Practical Man, positively gloats on every new detail in the building up of that form of society. And the destruction of freedom by inches (though he does not see it to be the destruction of freedom) is the one panacea so obvious that he marvels at the doctrinaires who resist or suspect the process.

It has been necessary to waste so much time on this deplorable individual because the circumstances of our generation give him a peculiar power. Under the conditions of modern exchange a man of that sort enjoys great advantages. He is to be found as he never was in any other society before our own, possessed of wealth, and political as never was any such citizen until our time. Of history with all its lessons; of the great schemes of philosophy and religion, of human nature itself he is blank.

The Practical Man left to himself would not produce the Servile State. He would not produce any thing but a welter of anarchic restrictions, which would lead at last to some kind of revolt.

Unfortunately, he is not left to himself. He is but the ally or flanking party of great forces which he does nothing to oppose, and of particular men, able and prepared for the work of general change, who use him with gratitude and contempt. Were he not so numerous in modern England, and, under the extraordinary conditions of a Capitalist State, so economically powerful, I would have neglected him in this analysis. As it is, we may console ourselves by remembering that the advent of the Servile State, with its powerful organisation and necessity for lucid thought in those who govern, will certainly eliminate him.

Our reformers, then, both those who think and those who do not, both those who are conscious of the process and those who are unconscious of it, are making directly for the Servile State.

(3) What of the third factor? What of the people about to be reformed? What of the millions upon whose carcasses the reformers are at work, and who are the subject of the great experiment? Do they tend, as material, to accept or to reject that transformation from free proletarianism to servitude which is the argument of this book?

The question is an important one to decide, for upon whether the material is suitable or unsuitable for the work to which it is subjected, depends the success of every experiment making for the Servile State.

The mass of men in the Capitalist State is proletarian. As a matter of definition, the actual number of the proletariat and the proportion that number bears to the total number of families in the State may vary, but must be sufficient to determine the general character of the State before we can call that State Capitalist.

But, as we have seen, the Capitalist State is not a stable, and therefore not a permanent, condition of society. It has proved ephemeral; and upon that very account the proletariat in any Capitalist State retains to a greater or less degree some memories of a state of society in which its ancestors were possessors of property and economically free.

The strength of this memory or tradition is the first element we have to bear in mind in our problem, when we examine how far a particular proletariat, such as the English proletariat to-day, is ready to accept the Servile State, which would condemn it to a perpetual loss of property and of all the free habit which property engenders.

Next be it noted that under conditions of freedom the Capitalist class may be entered by the more cunning or the more fortunate of the proletariat class. Recruitment of the kind was originally sufficiently common in the first development of Capitalism to be a standing feature in society and to impress the imagination of the general. Such recruitment is still possible. The proportion which it bears to the whole proletariat, the chance which each member of the proletariat may think he has of escaping from his proletarian condition in a particular phase of Capitalism such as is ours to-day, is the second factor in the problem.

The third factor, and by far the greatest of all, is the appetite of the dispossessed for that security and sufficiency of which Capitalism, with its essential condition of freedom, has deprived them.

Now let us consider the interplay of these three factors in the English proletariat as we actually know it at this moment. That proletariat is certainly the, great mass of the State: it covers about nineteen twentieths of the population if we exclude Ireland, where, as I shall point out in my concluding pages, the reaction against Capitalism, and therefore against its development towards a Servile State, is already successful.

As to the first factor, it has changed very rapidly within the memory of men now living. The traditional rights of property are still strong in the minds of the English poor. All the moral connotations of that right are familiar to them. They are familiar with the conception of theft as a wrong; they are tenacious of any scraps of property which they may acquire. They could all explain what is meant by ownership, by legacy, by exchange, and by gift, and even by contract. There is not one but could put himself in the position, mentally, of an owner.

But the actual experience of ownership, and the effect, which that experience has upon character and upon one's view of the State is a very different matter. Within the memory of people still living a sufficient number of Englishmen were owning (as small freeholders, small masters, etc.) to give to the institution of property coupled with freedom a very vivid effect upon the popular mind. More than this, there was a living tradition proceeding from the lips of men who could still bear living testimony to the relics of a better state of things. I have myself spoken, when I was a boy, to old labourers in the neighbourhood of Oxford who had risked their skins in armed protest against the enclosure of certain commons, and who had of course suffered imprisonment by a wealthy judge as the reward of their courage; and I have my self spoken in Lancashire to old men who could retrace for me, either from their personal experience the last phases of small ownership in the textile trade, or, from what their fathers had told them, the conditions of a time when small and well-divided ownership in cottage looms was actually common.

All that has passed. The last chapter of its passage has been singularly rapid. Roughly speaking, it is the generation brought up under the Education Acts of the last forty years which has grown up definitely and hopelessly proletarian. The present instinct. use, and meaning of property is lost to it: and this has had two very powerful effects, each strongly inclining our modern wage-earners to ignore the old barriers which lay between a condition of servitude and a condition of freedom. The first effect is this: that property is no longer what they seek, nor what they think obtainable for themselves. The second effect is that they regard the possessors of property as a class apart, whom they always must ultimately obey, often envy, and sometimes hate; whose moral right to so singular a position most of them would hesitate to concede, and many of them would now strongly deny, but whose position they, at any rate, accept as a known and permanent social fact, the origins of which they have forgotten, and the foundations of which they believe to be immemorial.

To sum up: The attitude of the proletariat in England to-day (the attitude of the overwhelming majority, that is, of English families) towards property and towards that freedom which is alone obtainable through property is no longer an attitude of experience or of expectation. They think of themselves as wage-earners. To increase the weekly stipend of the wage-earner is an object which they vividly appreciate and pursue. To make him cease to be a wage-earner is an object that would seem to them entirely outside the realities of life.

Taken from Hilaire Belloc's The Servile State

Interview with Thomas Storck

On Cooperative Ownership

John Médaille Interview in Romania

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