The Servile State in 2022

Emergency Powers are interesting, because the law becomes very nearly “whatever you think you can get away with.” No need to bother with direct intervention from legislatures and courts. Emergency Powers expose the Freudian id of the executive; they show the absolute will of how our ruling class would rule if not for the niceties of due process and checks and balances. 

The desperate and pathetic Justin Trudeau recently invoked Emergency Powers for himself against a truckers convoy. As part of it, he suggested that tow truck drivers who refuse to remove the semis from transit routes could be arrested. In other words, these tow truck drivers can either work or go to jail. 

In a better, freer time, this would be called for what it is: Slavery. “Work or go in the hole” is not a proposition you put to free men. I don’t know that Trudeau has the political capital to follow through with his threat, but the fact that he can retain any legitimacy at all after such a threat says a great deal about the power of the state, and the degradation of the working class. Where are the unions? Where are the social democrats? The raving snaggletoothed Slavoj Zizek has dismissed the truckers’ uprising, as has the living ghost of Noam Chomsky. In terms of capitalist vs. socialist, everything is inexplicable. 

There could be no better time to put away Marxist drivel and pick up Hilaire Belloc’s 1912 book ‘The Servile State.’ It was written two years after Belloc’s four-year stint in the House of Commons, and it is written with the fervor of a young radical, yet the stolidity of a man who knows the system. Though 110 years old, it is still an important work. 

The servile state is one in which individuals are constrained by positive law to labor for the advantages of others to such an extent that the society as a whole is characterized by such labor. The servile state was dominant in the ancient world, when slavery was universal; it was only through a millennium of applying Christian morals that a peasant and later freeholder system arose in Europe. In the New World the institution returned, only to be destroyed by the forces of capitalism or, as Belloc prefers to term it, proletarianism. For the primary characteristic of a capitalist state is that, while all in the society are politically free, a small class of men own the means of production, while most of the remainder become propertyless, and can earn their daily bread only by selling their labor to this small class of owners.

Belloc saw the capitalist status quo as one of fundamental disequilibrium. In short, political freedom could not long endure where nineteen-twentieths of the population did not have access to the means of production. The resulting equilibrium could be either a servile capitalist state, the collective state, which is his term for the socialist or communist state, or the distributivist state, one in which the widespread possession of property is encouraged through active state policy. Already in 1912, Belloc saw that the socialist dream was unrealizable. The state did not realistically have the ability to purchase the means of production in most industries. Belloc does not address the Bolsheviks (in later works he loves referring them by their translated name, the “whole-hoggers”). But even their collectivization was achieved only through mass murder, and even then only for a matter of time. 

No, the socialist program is not realistic. The only alternatives are the servile state and distributism. As the past century has proven, the distributivist dream did not play out. The law has more and more recognized the capitalist and proletarian not as different parties to a contract, but as separate and increasingly inalienable classes through which power can be effected. Belloc notes changes in liability law, wherein employers can be deemed liable for damages done by one workman to another to no fault of the employer’s own. Minimum wages and compulsory arbitration laws likewise create a separate class of proletarians at law, and disincentivize the laborer from making any claim to the means of production. All this makes it clear that employer/employee is no longer a question of contract, but one of enshrined legal status. 

Some of Belloc’s best insights come in his analysis of the socialist mindset. In theory, there should be nothing more disparate than the socialist and the promoter of the servile state. The former sees all of history as a kind of progress towards the freedom of the working man; the latter, of course, works explicitly or implicitly to enslave him. The socialist desires the common ownership of the means of production; the promoter of the servile state wants the divide between property owner and proletariat to be all the more pronounced.  

And yet if given the opportunity to support a reform that tends towards the increase of servility, however much it may strengthen capital against labor, the socialist will almost invariably support the reform. The “idealist” reformer does not object to legislation like a minimum wage or insurance requirements placed on employers, for while this reform tends to entrench the distinction between capital and worker, and bolster the strength of the former, it nonetheless lends the worker a degree of stability, and therefore can be justified on humanitarian grounds. The other kind of socialist is simply an autocrat. He cares about “socialism” because he cares about having a level of rational control over others. The servile state is abhorrent to his formal philosophy, but the socialist’s philosophy is less important than his poor character. 

This insight helps explain why modern “socialists” are so manifestly tools for statism, and thus tools for capital. In modern terms, “socialism,” just means the idealistic political good; when it is opposed, it is usually attacked only for its idealism, not its perversions of the moral law. But sham debates about socialism are only possible because the concept of property itself has been so thoroughly debased. Modern men have lost their taste for property ownership; their love for independence has been overruled by their desire for safety. It is no mystery why the Canadian truckers, many of whom are of that rare class of owner-operators, are also the West’s best testament to political freedom. 

Hilaire Belloc’s legacy suffers from his universal greatness. The man wrote on too wide a variety of topics, and his knowledge of those topics was deep enough so that no given area of his work can be easily disregarded. My personal favorite example is the book he wrote called “The Road,” a book about not any particular road, but rather the road as a concept. One might be tempted to say it was the kind of book to fill a publishing quota, but at least one surveying company disagreed: It thought the book so thorough and insightful that it bought up the copyright to the work and distributed it to management. 

‘The Servile State’ is as good as any introduction to Belloc’s work. It is equal parts history, theory, and polemic. One is free to doubt whether Belloc’s desire for a distributivist state is feasible; as a matter of historical fact, it clearly did not come about. But his description of the problem is still trenchant, and his prescriptions are still true, even if unattainable. 

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Aeoli Pera says:

    Excellent essay.


  2. AGuy🇨🇦 says:

    Socialism in respect to its means. Socialism is the visionary younger brother of an almost decrepit despotism, whose heir it wants to be. Thus its efforts are reactionary in the deepest sense. For it desires a wealth of executive power, as only despotism had it; indeed, it outdoes everything in the past by striving for the downright destruction of the individual, which it sees as an unjustified luxury of nature, and which it intends to improve into an expedient organ of the community. Socialism crops up in the vicinity of all excessive displays of power because of its relation to it, like the typical old socialist Plato, at the court of the Sicilian tyrant;11 it desires (and in certain circumstances, furthers) the Caesarean power state of this century, because, as we said, it would like to be its heir. But even this inheritance would not suffice for its purposes; it needs the most submissive subjugation of all citizens to the absolute state, the like of which has never existed. And since it cannot even count any longer on the old religious piety towards the state, having rather always to work automatically to eliminate piety (because it works on the elimination of all existing states), it can only hope to exist here and there for short periods of time by means of the most extreme terrorism. Therefore, it secretly prepares for reigns of terror, and drives the word “justice” like a nail into the heads of the semieducated masses, to rob them completely of their reason (after this reason has already suffered a great deal from its semieducation), and to give them a good conscience for the evil game that they are supposed to play.
    Socialism can serve as a rather brutal and forceful way to teach the danger of all accumulations of state power, and to that extent instill one with distrust of the state itself. When its rough voice chimes in with the battle cry “As much state as possible,” it will at first make the cry noisier than ever; but soon the opposite cry will be heard with strength the greater: “As little state as possible.”


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