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The Servile State

A book by Hilaire Belloc

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Fascinating and prescient

  • Aug 7, 2011
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+5
The Servile State was written a hundred years ago as a criticism and analysis of the sort of plutocratic capitalism which had evolved in England and a description of where it was leading.  In this vein Belloc is picking up the same task of economic history and prediction that was attempted also by Karl Marx.  Belloc's approach however takes a different direction, looking not only at the negative side of capitalism but also pulling apart collectivist reforms, suggesting instead that imposing communist or collectivist reforms on a capitalist system necessarily is deflected by the moneyed elite into a system where they own the people, recreating the institution of slavery as it existed in the ancient world.

The first half of this book consists of Belloc's view of European, and particularly English history as it regards economics of production.  He suggests that the ancient Europeans generally accepted slavery as preferable to indigence, and discusses how this worked in practice.  He points out that for the most part slaves were of the same ethnic group as the masters, that the Greek owned a Greek slave, the Roman a Roman one, the Celt a Celtic one, etc. and that this was the basis for production of goods within the ancient world.  He further discusses mechanisms that recruited new slaves either by force or circumstance (slavery being seen as preferable to indigence), and also briefly notes that emancipation was frequent too. He does not go so much into the mechanisms that encouraged emancipation in the ancient world preferring to gloss over it as a sort of good deed (in fact there were political and economic advantages to be had in emancipating worthy slaves in the ancient world).

He then discusses the transformation of slave to serf and the mechanisms by which this occurred in the Middle Ages.  His sense of history here lines up very closely with my own study of the times.  He points out that by the end of the Middle Ages, slaves had become free peasants who owned their own land, and who generally  merely owed the lord of the area a specific production quota.

He then goes on to discuss in detail the effect of the Reformation in England on the development of a great mass of people without access to the means of production.  He points out that this was caused by attempts to nationalize Catholic holdings, but instead largely ended up entrenching those already wealthy with more power than the crown (a fact he seems to imply might have been responsible for the English Civil War).  He goes out of his way to point out that the development of a large mass of free people who had to work for others preceded the industrial revolution in England, and may have allowed that to take the form it did.

While Soviet Communism did not evolve in the way Belloc envisioned because the state actually owned the means of production, I think Belloc would suggest that this was due to implementing it by a government that already tightly controlled the economy.

This book has been immensely influential in certain segments of workers' movements.  Dorothy Day of the Catholic Workers Movement opposed the creation of social security because she felt it was a step towards the slave-based state that Belloc describes.

He sums up his theory as:  "The Capitalist State breeds a Collectivist Theory which in action produces something utterly different from Collectivism:  the SERVILE STATE." [emphasis in original]

Belloc's ideas are generally considered fairly radical but they work remarkably well.  For example, inmates in federal prisons are required to work by federal law (the 13th Amendment btw specifically exempts slavery on the basis of criminal conviction from its prohibition), thus creating a class of slaves by Belloc's definition-- people who are legally compelled to work for the benefit of those who own the means of production.  Belloc's examples of servitude in early 20th century England as well seem to fall under the label of internal pressures from Capitalism even in the absence of reform.

Like Marx, Belloc's theories suggest that Capitalism (at least as it existed in those days) is fundamentally unstable and this encourages a trend towards socialism.  Whare Belloc disagrees with Marx is where that trend leads.  Belloc argues that a sufficiently powerful moneyed elite is able to twist the reforms around to their benefit, re-instituting slavery in form if not name until once again the society is run by the owners of production, but the actual work is done by the slave whose property is not protected, but is given guarantees of subsistence.

Belloc's theories are still relevant a hundred years later where they seem to be running their course in the United States.  Here we have a welfare system which corrodes communities, rounding up poor people into housing projects where the only economic opportunities are criminal in nature.  Then they are arrested and sent to prisons where they are forced to work for corporations for minuscule wages and mere subsistence.  The percentage of our population in our prisons is slowly increasing and they are providing profit to the moneyed corporations who run prison industries.

Whether you are on the left or on the right, Belloc's work will make you rethink where our society is going and what needs to be done to turn things around.  It's an extremely important book, and I'd highly recommend it.

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December 21, 2011
Intriguing review, thanks for sharing!
 
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Chris Travers ()
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   I live in a haunted house Beneath a tall and mighty tree   With my wife Mia and my sons Wilhelm and Conrad   Where I write software and carve runes   It is a … more
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Author: Hilaire Belloc
Genre: Economic Conditions, Economic History, General, Economics, Political Science

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