Tenth Anniversary Conference
Welfare in the Servile State
Earlier this month the Shadow spokesman on financial affairs in the British Labour Party remarked that the encouragement of saving would be an important part of Labour's economic strategy. He went on to suggest that everyone should have 'an individual savings account'to serve as a nest-egg against unemployment and ill-health as well as to provide for old age.1
This may seem like a rather underwhelming bit of news, but I regard it, in my optimistic moments, as Noah regarded the dove returning to the Ark with a twig in its mouth. At the beginning of this century in Britain, the Lloyd George budget introduced old age pensions. The burdens of old age, in other words, began to move from the individual---or more realistically, the family---to the state. Now, at the end of this century, it seems that the burden may be moving back, in this case to the individual, since we have made rather a mess of the family in recent times. We are dealing, then, with an experiment that has failed.
At the beginning of the century, something like nine million out of twelve million workers in Britain contributed to saving through friendly societies. To acquire a pension from the state was no doubt a benefit, and its redistributive effects, from rich to poor, may or may not have been undesirable. (In my view the desirability might well vary according to the level of economic development, but that is a side issue). What is certainly true is that the provision of such pensions weakened the virtue of thrift. And the developing apparatus of the welfare state throughout the century had the same effect. In fully developed welfare states, taxation and social services are both high, and the consequence is that what people are allowed to keep, their earnings, is as it were, pocket money. They are not allowed to become destitute. Everything, including medicine, is catered for.
Sometimes this issue is discussed in terms of choice, which is thought to be a good thing. That, however, is a mistake. Choice in the sense of having an available supermarket loaded with material variety is no doubt desirable, but it has no moral significance. We are no better for supermarkets than we were in my youth when the local grocery had a few tins of jam, some cheddar, butter, sugar and a few other basic commodities. What makes choice important is responsibility. The alternatives are responsible choice on the one hand (which includes the possibility of failing) and what on the other side we may call 'regimentation'.
By 'regimentation'I mean a form of society in which each person is provided with what are thought the essentials, and is guaranteed all necessities, including a job. In such a society, the social surplus is administratively distributed to individuals according to need. Communist societies were of course dramatic versions of such a society, and that makes clear that the essence of a regimented society is that there is only one, single way of life to be lived. Certainly no rich and poor. And indeed even economic differences tend to be under attack, so that everything turns into a single mode of production---in the Communist case, approximating to the production line factories which were so fashionable when that movement came to power.
Regimentation, to bring me abruptly to my main theme, is for slaves. It is appropriate to a population which is willing to have its basic decisions made for it by managers, and to have its thought made for it by experts. In the Soviet Union life was determined, so far as authority was able to dictate, by the five year plan. There was no need for politics---the Party supplied guidance---and public communication was censored.
It might seem that in talking of the Soviet Union I am flogging a dead horse. All that stuff is finished, you say wearily---why bother with it now? My answer is that I believe that Communism, far from being an abandoned aberration, responded to something very deep in our civilisation, and that the fact that the revolutionary version of it has disappeared makes no difference to the power of that impulse---the impulse to manage society in terms of an expected perfection. But who would tolerate being managed in this way? The answer, I shall suggest, may be found in a certain tendency towards servility, the fear of which understandably haunts our civilisation. And to get it into focus, let us go back to the beginning---to Aristotle.
Aristotle's conception of the natural slave is where we must begin, for that conception formalises what had already been achieved by the citizens of the Greek polis: namely, placing the idea of freedom at the centre of our civilisation.
Aristotle is not, let us emphasise, defending or justifying slavery. He takes the institution for granted---it has, after all, been universal in all civilisations until our own---and asks what might make it rational. And his answer lies in pointing to a natural fact: that some people lack the capacity and the enterprise to manage their own lives. 'For he who can be, and therefore is, another's, and he who participates in reason enough to apprehend but not to have, is a slave by nature', as Aristotle puts it in Book I of The Politics. And it becomes clear that a natural slave is not simply someone at the bottom end of an IQ bell curve, but also someone lacking in moral enterprise.
Aristotle is here describing what he takes to be the character of a class of people in any society---in fact he goes further and sometimes speaks as if some societies (such as the despotisms of the Near East) are entirely made of up slaves. And if it is self-management which is at issue, then he is no doubt right to think that some human beings are largely incapable of it---the mentally defective for example. What is more interesting, though, is the fact that the notion of servility which was explored by the Greeks has continued to agitate our civilisation.
The reason may well be that ours is the civilisation which abolished slavery. What we did was to replace slavery by the economy: we turned the whole of society into an exchange relationship between individuals. And once we had done so, we developed a powerful loathing of the whole idea of slavery as the opposite of the right to pursue happiness. We therefore even abolished the institution in other civilisations as far as we could get our hands on them.
But for all our lip service, we recognised that this was a precarious achievement. The American colonists in the late eighteenth century (and millions of nationalists ever since) believed that they had to throw off their chains. 'Give me liberty or give me death' proclaimed Patrick Henry, ignoring, of course, conditions even in his own state of Virginia. Slavery was the benchmark of ignominy, a rhetorical weapon to equal that of 'racism' in our own day, and no less wildly used. Socialists like Marx affirmed that to earn a wage was to be something called a 'wage slave'. In our century, we have recognised totalitarianism as a system of enslavement. In 1912 Hilaire Belloc, responding to the Lloyd George budget of 1909 thought he detected the emergence of something called 'The Servile State'.
It was this phrase which the philosopher John Anderson took up in Sydney during the last war, in 1943, in the course of diagnosing the development of regimentation and servility in Australia. In 1961, Michael Oakeshott took up a similar theme in 'The Masses in Representative Democracy'. I want to make some comments on these last two writers.
Anderson in 1943 was in the process of liberating himself from 'the worker's movement'---though not from a belief in the reality of 'movements'. But what he wanted to insist on was that workers are different from slaves: different both economically and politically, and the difference lies in the moral fact he called 'enterprise'.2 What did he mean by 'enterprise'? The most obvious thing he meant by enterprise was opposition. 'The servile state', he remarks at the end, 'is the unopposed state'. But then opposition is a relational term, and depends rather on what one is opposing. Anderson was happy to live in a world of abstractions and did not much go into concrete practical matters. But it is clear that in Anderson's view a worker on strike would be enterprising as long as he was striking for some sort of principle, exhibiting independence. If he were striking for higher wages, or a better society, on the other hand, and thus exhibiting ends-means rationality, he would (on my reading of Anderson) be exhibiting the spirit of servility. '...the attitude of putting the economic first' '(he wrote) 'leads straight to that servility whose growth Belloc undoubtedly deplores.'3 For Anderson at this point was a follower of George Sorel. The point of strikes was opposition itself, for its own sake, and any idea of 'betterment' was just, as Sorel put it, a myth. By myth he did not mean anything so vulgar as a lie, but a passionate if unreal belief which generated heroic action.
Following this line, Anderson attacked the 'propaganda' of social improvement. His target was wartime solidarism, the notion that we must all pull together in order to achieve victory, and that all other activities ranging from education to art and science must be subordinated to this aim. ' Servile' is thus a term properly applied to ' those States which are marked by the suppression of all political opposition and thus of all independent enterprise.'4 He recognises that in wartime many voluntary sacrifices will be made, and such spontaneity is in his view a sign of the strength of free societies. It is always repression, direction, central planning which he dislikes, partly for the Hayekian reason that ' the anomalies and confusions of directed work are only too apparent.'5 And for Anderson, the moral suasion of a feeling that one ought to do something is part of that repression. He is at heart an anarchist. That is perhaps why he is so exhilarating.
Looking again at Anderson after so many years, I find that it is the energy and exhilaration, and the iconoclasm, which can still captivate. And at the centre of the argument is one central thought which I might modishly call Anderson's central insight. Let me put it this way: My point of view in any situation is limited, and so is yours, by being merely points of view. But we may ascend step by step, transcending points of view by putting together what is testably true in each of them, until we arrive at something like the philosopher's eye view, in which all the points of view have been transcended and we understand the world as completely as is humanly possible. (Aristotle himself operated in this way.) This understanding of the whole is what some idealists call the Absolute. Anderson passionately opposed idealism, and that was no doubt part of the reason why he was so acute in sniffing out the debased misreading of idealist philosophy by which governments purport to be that higher, more expert level of understanding which is superior to what we as individual citizens might think. The state must never be confused with the absolute. Governments can be as fallible as we can, and when they are, the disasters they make are bigger disasters.
So Anderson is a good man to read in this time of supercharged rhetoric and talk of ' national strategies' . Not for all seasons, perhaps, but useful in this.
There is however one point worth making before we move on. Anderson praises (and thus, it must be said, recommends, contrary to his own moral philosophy) enterprise---the life of initiative enterprise and risk. But he was a respectable philosopher with tenure and a pension to look forward to. What of the poor miner, or factory worker, or the unemployed scholar? These people are much more likely to want to act in ways that please those who may benefit them, and thus to exhibit servility.6 I don't want to move to some sort of Shavian position: ' freedom's great when you can afford it, governor!' as Eliza's father would have said. But I do think that one ought to keep certain elementary realities in view.
Michael Oakeshott on the theme of servility is quite different---indeed he does not even use this vocabulary. He is responding rather to the cold war realities of the mid-century, and above all to the current sociological view that this was the century of 'mass man.'7 What was 'mass man'? Oakeshott's answer took the form of an historical sketch of the emergence of individuality in Europe at the end of the middle ages. The whole 'culture' of modern Europe was reconstructed in response to this new disposition to take life as the expression of one's desires, arising from the fact that 'Men examined themselves and were not dismayed by their own want of perfection.'8 The business of life was the pursuit of happiness, but this, like most other formulations suggests something too light and inconsequent to capture a disposition which often found its profoundest expression in religious conviction. The individual, as Oakeshott presented him (and only later 'her', for Oakeshott observes that the first individualists tended to be men) was someone who rejected traditional pigeonholes and had choices of his own to make, projects to pursue. And it was to open up a society in which this became possible (especially in cities) that everything, including government, was transformed from its mediaeval forms to something quite new. Government had to be a power strong enough to extinguish feudal rights but not strong enough to threaten the very individuality which had provoked its new form.
There were many, however, who missed communal solidarity, and who had no projects of their own. They found choice a burden, and resented what their fellows were doing. As Oakeshott puts it in characterising this figure, whom he calls the anti-individual: with the emergence of individuality, 'The familiar anonymity of communal life was replaced by a personal identity which was burdensome to those who could not transform it into an individuality.'9
Oakeshott's account of the 'anti-individual' is a Weberian ideal type, and it owes something to the study of crowd behaviour which was popular at the turn of the last century. This figure, Oakeshott remarks 'can have no friends (because friendship is a relation between individuals), but he has comrades. 'Here then is someone who has 'feelings rather than thoughts, impulses rather than opinions, inabilities rather than passions'10---and was only dimly aware of his power until he discovered that his type constituted the considerable majority of modern populations. It was this which led to the politics of leadership (as we might call it)---the 'godly prince', the 'enlightened absolute despot' and the modern dictator. Individuals don't want a leader, merely a ruler, which is quite different.
I don't think that this essay is one of Oakeshott's more successful ventures in this territory, partly because it covers too much ground, and partly because it largely characterises its target negatively. It is that very negativity, however, which in one case does attract my attention: The anti-individual, mass man, has 'no choices of his own to make'. Clearly all the people we run across can certainly ask for something they want. They certainly have wants and preferences. But by 'choice' Oakeshott clearly means something a great deal more serious than a mere preference. He means a commitment to some 'plan of life' which guides the individual to take responsibility for himself within an ordered society.
The theme of servility, as an idea by which we might understand the way society is going, contrasts enterprise and responsible choice on the one hand with a controlled, mechanical concern for security and material abundance on the other. What does this tell us about our own situation? It seems clear to me that modern governments have a specific conception of their role as one of managing society in the interests of prosperity. Prosperity has become what victory was in Anderson's conception of wartime Australia: the all-justifying, all-directing goal turning everything and everyone into a function. Management, is a relationship between the rational and the irrational (originally horses), and thus generates as its civil counterpart the servile subject, what I have called the regimentee. It is this form of the relationship between ruler and ruled which constitutes the servile state.
Welfare is the central component of a managed state, because it exploits and cultivates a class of beneficiaries or pensioners who are dependent on the government, not to mention an apparatus distributing these benefits which has, of course, an interest in its continuance and expansion.
It is not the only component. Society is a network of exchanges whose broad forms are determined by the law of contract. The idea of contract is of a social arrangement responding to whatever projects individuals may choose for themselves. It assumes a fully responsible and competent class of contractor prepared to take risks, and if necessary suffer the consequences resulting from an unwise contract. No doubt there are broad limits on contracting---one cannot, rationally or legally, sell oneself into slavery for example. In our time, these rational limitations have been judged insufficient. The legislator and the judge increasingly seek to determine general limiting terms on the contracts that may be made between individuals and firms. The labour contract is perhaps the most notable example of the tendency to erode contract in the name of a state-determined notion of what is fair. Thus some lawyers conceive the role of legal scholarship as concerning 'law as an instrument of government and social control aimed at an assessment of its effectiveness in steering behaviour and transforming the meaning of social relations.'11
What kind of subject, one might ask, would want to have lawyers, judges, governments 'steering' his or her behaviour? The answer, of course, irresistibly suggests the presence of natural slavery in our midst, a suggestion supported by the way in which governments increasingly interfere in family life, health judgements, sexuality, cultural subsidy and many other areas which were in earlier and more vigorous times left to the individual citizen. What used to be the five year plans of the Soviet world have become the 'national strategies' of ours.
Government as bringer of justice as fairness complements an assumption about government implicit in the entire conception of the managed state. It is that governments are not only wiser than their citizens, but also morally superior. They take the wider view. They help the poor, whereas the citizens are engaged in pursuing selfish pleasures.
Indeed, their help extends further. They help employees above all. Governments have turned having a job into enjoying a substantive right. And that brings us back to Belloc, the servile state, and Mr. Darling and his rediscovery of the benefits of saving.
Belloc used a very simple piece of intellectual machinery in advancing his argument: Henry Maine's famous argument that the movement of modern societies was from status (=feudalism) to contract (=capitalism). But in the laws protecting the employee, Belloc saw this process going into reverse. The employee became the holder of a privileged status which distinguished him from the rest of society, and this servile status was precisely achieved by supplying benefits: '...you are an employee; and that status gives you a special position which would not be recognised in the other party to the contract' as Belloc reports it.12 Pensioners, similarly, enjoyed a status by virtue of being given money. Their votes counted.
In our terms, however, the point is not the creation of a form of privilege---a kind of re-invention of the ancien regime, though that is an aspect of modern welfare and of modern correctness well worth discussing. The point is the steady enfeeblement of the worker. In earlier times, a worker blocked in promotion, or a woman pestered by the boss, would stomp off and go find another job. No doubt times are sometimes hard and jobs can't easily be found, but we judge that in part because jobs have become legislatively immobile. Dissatisfaction today leads not to the dynamism of job changing, but to recourse to the complaints tribunals. And the possibility of a more dynamic attitude to our lives no doubt depends in part upon the virtue of thrift. It is hard even to think of being courageous when you have nothing in the bank, and when family ties are negligible. Welfare and protection are thus Greek gifts. They tend to appeal to the weaker members of the community.
Put it this way: the promise, the lure as they say in fishing, is that the world will adapt to you, but the reality is that you will soon find yourself having to adapt, in a servile way, to the world.
1. Quoted in 'Memo to Major: Tax cuts are not enough' by Tim Congden, Sunday Telegraph, (London) 5 May 1996.
2. John Anderson, 'The Servile State' in Studies in Empirical Philosophy, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1962, p. 329.
3. Anderson, pp. 330---331.
4. Anderson, p. 333.
5. Anderson, p. 335.
6. On reflection, I wonder about this. Consider the remarkable servility of university teachers, most of them enjoying security of tenure, ever since the 1960s. Servility is a cast of mind marked by lack of courage, most notably the courage to face being reviled because one has unfashionable opinions.
7. Michael Oakeshott, 'The Masses in Representative Democracy' in Timothy Fuller (ed.) Rationalism in Politics and other essays, Indianapolis: The Liberty Press, 1991, p. 363.
8. Oakeshott, p. 366.
9. Oakeshott, p. 371.
10. Oakeshott, p. 373.
11. Hugh Collins, 'The Sanctimony of Contract', an inaugural lecture delivered at the London School of Economics in 1995.
12. Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State, T.N.Foulis: Edinburgh, 1912, p. 161.