Belloc’s Humane Defense of Personhood and Property

Although little read today, Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State is a classic of that distinctly modern genre called social theory. Part political philosophy, part sociology, Belloc’s book tried to describe the modern economic circumstances of England and the West as they stood early in the second decade of the 2oth century. Writing in 1912 after Tocqueville and Marx and in obvious debt to their practice of viewing social and economic life as expressive of more fundamental intellectual forms, and as sociology was emerging as an academic discipline, Belloc’s little book tried to explain the increasing discontent of modern “capitalist” societies.

Belloc examined the economic cause of social restlessness and instability, and saw lurking behind it the essential spiritual needs of the human person; he then set out the possible alternatives before us. In all this he would inspire the great conservative sociologist, Robert Nisbet, whose Quest for Community (1953) would become the classic American diagnosis of the spiritual consequences of the modern economy, four decades later. And though modern neoconservatism would be unlikely to acknowledge any debt to Belloc, his criticism of the modern state anticipates in some ways their own “law of unintended consequences” and qualified defenses of “democratic capitalism” against the planned economy.

Though lacking the flashy paradoxes of Alexis de Tocqueville or the dialectical provocations of Karl Marx, Belloc’s book owed something to both. It embraced the basic vocabulary of Marxism, accepting “capitalism,” “proletarian,” and “means of production” as essential terms, while it followed Tocqueville in providing a cleanly rational image of the historical past to suggest an ideal reformation for the future. Belloc’s thought also responded to the emergent social doctrine of the Catholic Church. Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) was the first great document in the Church’s summons to a “third way” that eschewed the brutality of industrial capitalism and the unnatural rationalism of socialist collectivism. Though Belloc’s mode of argument was about social forms and his vocabulary mostly secular, one has not really seen the power of his argument until one recognizes that his economic theory emerges entirely in response to what the Christian revelation and the Church’s tradition had taught us about the particular dignity conferred by Christ’s incarnation on the human person.

Unstable Markets

According to Belloc, modern capitalism is intrinsically unstable. As it progresses, the ever-smaller capitalist class acquires an ever-greater portion of the means of production; in the process, an ever-greater proportion of the population is expropriated and has nothing of value left to it but the price of its labor. A small class of owners and a great sea of insecure proletarians struggling for survival cannot endure; it will issue in some kind of revolution or reform.

Instability will seek stability, and these, Belloc argues, could come in three forms: the collectivist, the servile, or what he variously calls the “distributive” or proprietary state.

Collectivism, wherein the state seizes the means of production from private hands, he recognized, sounded increasingly attractive to his contemporaries. The workers were discontented with their station and many of those above them felt little less a sense of injustice. Would it not be better, therefore, to complete the consolidation of property that capitalism had begun by uniting all in the public hand of the state? Alas, Belloc concluded, every effort to effect such nationalization will be partial at best. As we strive toward what we believe to be the liberation of socialism we will, despite ourselves, arrive at servility.

In the ancient pagan West, the state was servile indeed. Whether in Greece or Rome, there was a class of free citizens, but the great mass of persons were effectively enslaved: Their material needs were met, but they had nothing properly their own and their labor was compelled by their masters.

Then, something happened: “Europe engaged upon that considerable moral experiment called the faith.” Slowly, almost invisibly, in the darkness of the Dark Ages, the Christian revelation of human dignity modified and dissolved the bonds of servility. Slaves became “serfs,” serfs became peasants. Law and tradition led the majority of people to be tied to their lands, yes, but it was a bondage not of slavery but of ownership. Europe had become “a society of owners.” All thanks, again, to that “experiment called the Christian Church.”

Next came the Reformation and the breaking up of Christendom. In England, Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and his subsequent redistribution of their properties to the aristocracy—out of necessity and his own political weakness—helped bring about the emergence of a capitalist class. In 1912, Belloc saw England at the last phase of capitalism’s career. Collectivism would not come, and so, in a Europe that had lost the Christian faith, a new pagan servile state was bound to emerge. Once again, men would receive their security and stability from the hands of those who owned the means of the production; and, once again, they would be compelled, in turn, to labor.

Losing Traditions

Belloc’s fear was that the proletarian masses had too much lost the tradition, the shared memory, of ownership. Their greatest worry was not punishment, as citizens, at the hand of the law, but suffering, as employees, loss of their positions. As Wendell Berry would argue decades later, the modern type increasingly is that of Dagwood Bumstead, whose life consists chiefly of trying to get through the workweek without being strangled by his boss so that he may come home to his beautiful blonde wife and a gargantuan sandwich. He will think of his political life purely in terms of leveraging his vote to gain employment and security; politically free, he will be willing to surrender economic freedom to bind himself as an employee. “They think of themselves,” Belloc judges, not as citizens but “as wage earners.” “We are reestablishing the slave,” the “wage slave.” We use this last term as a figure of speech; Belloc meant it.

In this revived servile condition, the state will begin to demand much of owners; it may institute a minimum wage or require collective arbitration with labor unions; and it will do this out of a sense of justice. But, in the state’s pursuing this spirit of “amelioration . . . by regulation,” men will be confirmed in their proletarian station; they will become permanent and perpetual employees who have given up all dream of the economic freedom that property ownership alone allows. Having secured a wage for the employee, the state will now be in a position also to compel the man to work and the children of the man into public education. Ancient chattel slavery may be no more, but the proletariat were to become “wage slaves” indeed, secure but unfree, and ruled by the servile state.

The reader will ask, if capitalism leads to such a constriction of ownership, why does Belloc resist the just, public ownership of collectivism so adamantly? However much socialists may press for public ownership, he contends, their program is destined to end not in collectivism but servility, where some few still own and the great many labor. Complete state seizure of the means of production would provoke revolt; in contrast, gradual, ameliorating, and halfway measures may not excite resistance but they will never go far enough to achieve their end.  The state will regulate rather than expropriate; the urge of the collectivist peters out, as it were, in new laws to control what remains essentially private enterprise. This claim of Belloc’s reminds one of the calls, a decade ago, for “single-payer” healthcare for all, and the answering of those calls with that mere hyper-regulation of insurance markets, coupled with an “individual mandate” to purchase insurance, called “Obamacare.”

Memories of the Proprietary Society

But Belloc draws back from the conclusion that a convenient union of collectivism and the servile state are inevitable. Even 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.

The Reformation shattered the unity of the Church in England and also the proprietary society that the Church had half-consciously, even mysteriously, brought into being over centuries. But such a long tradition of widespread ownership had not vanished outright and, moreover, the spirit of justice that often drove the socialist and regulating programs of modern reformers had themselves been implanted by this same Christian tradition. If men could be made to desire property and ownership once more, if they could be brought to desire political and economic freedom as the true fulfillment of justice, then capitalism could end not in a servile but what Belloc calls a distributive state.

State ownership could, in principle, establish a stable political order; the modern age could also enter into servility and remain there ever after. But, Belloc proposes, only the stability brought about by widely distributed private property could both endure and flourish.  All three could provide for bodily security, but only one of them, only property, also did justice to the dignity of the human being as a person, as a creature born for freedom and self-government.

Person and Property, not Person as Property

Belloc’s later writings on “distributism,” especially An Essay on the Restoration of Property (1936), will be concerned with how property might be restored once again to wide distribution. The state will have to effect it, he concedes, by graduated taxation. But the distinctive insights of The Servile State are more philosophical than practical. Decades before Hannah Arendt would do so  (in The Human Condition, 1958), he distinguishes between property and wealth, pushing back against the modern (post-Lockean) reduction of both to capital (exchange value). Property—land and the resources to furnish one’s needs—is qualitatively distinct from wealth or capital.

On the basis of this distinction, he suggests something about the human person that may initially be hard to accept. Since C.B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (1962), we tend to identify the anthropology foundational to liberal and capitalist societies as defined by property. By this, we do not mean that human beings own property, but rather that they have come to think of themselves—their bodies, their actions, their lives—as personal property subject to the ownership of their will. We “belong to ourselves,” this age says, contravening St. Paul.

If everything that I am is simply property that I own, then I am an isolated monad without debts to the past, to family, to tradition; without obligation to those around me; and nothing outside my will may place limits on what I may do with what is mine. For some in our age, treating the body or the self as the personal property of one’s will is deemed the height of enlightenment. For others, it appears a rather creepy decadence wherein the ideology of capitalism has at last conquered all, even the interior, formerly spiritual, domain of the person. In either case, property—whether through an individual’s being treated unjustly as the property of another, or conceiving of one’s self as best defined as the highest form of “personal” property—comes off rather poorly.

Belloc provides an incompatible and sounder theory. When, through the pedagogy of the Church, we discover the proper dignity of the human person, we come to see that he cannot be treated as the property of another. That would be slavery, and men are born for freedom. But political freedom before the state is incomplete by itself, because it requires, in addition, economic freedom. If we cannot own property and make our life upon it, we may be employees, we may be citizens, but we cannot properly live out our natures as persons.

Liberalism reduces the person to property; Belloc saw that distributed property and a society of ownership is the particular political form that elevates us, that allows us to live as persons—to become, in a word, fully human. It is for this reason that Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk fondly called property “the last metaphysical right.” It allows us to live in accord with our essence as persons.

Present Lessons from a Reactionary Revolutionary

Belloc would later write, “We are attempting a reactionary revolution,” and that was just so. Clearly informed by the anti-revolutionary conservatism of Edmund Burke and the agrarian principles and Catholic history of William Cobbett, Belloc saw that the truth about man revealed by the incarnation of Christ was itself a revolution in our understanding of human nature. The restoration of property would be, therefore, a reawakening of that spirit of revolution. Many in his day and afterward accused Belloc’s reactionary program for the distributive state of being an agrarian one, but he makes clear that the ownership society is, in the modern sense, a “middle class” society. The fruits of the industrial revolution could have been widely distributed had not the consolidating forces of capitalism arrived in Europe first and corrupted all. While many social critics of the age made the bourgeoisie into a bête noir, Belloc celebrated the idea of a vast middle class where as many households as possible shared in the dignity that ownership of home and industry made possible.

Most neoconservative defenders of “democratic capitalism” in our day would say that they too are defending that revelation. Jonah Goldberg’s recent plea on behalf of that regime works with a secular vocabulary similar to Belloc’s, though it pretends to ignore the divine revelation that reveals man to himself by proposing that we simply “crawled out of the muck” of servility on our own. To such persons, Belloc replies that freedom stems from property rather than wealth; wealth accumulates over time in the hands of those few who can invest capital, whereas property-ownership can endure widely distributed. Property rather than wealth liberates.

With the neoconservatives, however, he opines that socialist programs of justice often have malign effects despite the best of intentions. And so, to modern socialists and collectivists, Belloc offers praise for their desire for justice, but he would make clear to them the “law of unintended consequences.” In trying to help the proletariat by securing their livelihood through a regulated market, you may in fact be confirming them as a permanent underclass possessing not property but wages. Security is a fundamental need, but persons require the economic freedom only ownership confers.

This role of property was once a central principle of all Catholic social teaching with its ambitious language of “third ways” and “integral humanism.” Since the mid-20th century, unhappily, the Church has more sought to christen that unity of socialism and servility called the modern welfare state. It would do well to recover the more pugnacious revolutionist spirit of Belloc.

Belloc’s imagination regarding capitalism clearly was formed on the memory of the workhouses and poor laws of Victorian England, and also the age-old belief that the poor will not choose to work on their own, hence his fear that the worst indignity to the modern proletarian will be forced labor. But there are passages in The Servile State that anticipate the modern malaise of the welfare state, in which a permanent underclass has been created of superfluous persons who have never worked, have never known anyone who worked, and have never been asked to work. Their needs are taken care of by the state; they are asked in return merely to stay in their project, safely far from the nicer neighborhoods, and avail themselves of the local Planned Parenthood whenever possible. The British Empire’s expatriation of the superfluous masses was long established by Belloc’s day, but he seems not to have imagined that the worst indignity our society might impose would be in asking nothing of some of its citizens except that they keep out of the way.

In the past, American society has promoted the homestead farm, financial protections designed to encourage home ownership, and variant tax laws in favor of small businesses. They have not always worked as intended, alas, but they nonetheless signal a recognition of Belloc’s insight that ownership is conducive to human flourishing. As our society begins to fear that the United States will someday become what Silicon Valley already is—an intensely regulated, morally policed, society of coddled wage slaves toiling beneath a benign oligarchy of geniuses—we would do well to revisit The Servile State and consider whether the energy of the free market is justly used merely in the accumulation of capital. Perhaps the memory of that metaphysical right to property already informs our fears and may once again lead to a reformation of our political and economic lives so that they are conducive to a citizenry of free persons.