Wednesday, May 10, 2006

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The Unstable System?

Hilaire Belloc's book "The Servile State" turns upon the idea that capitalism is an unstable system, and that capitalist states will resolve (in all probability) into what he calls the Servile State - that is, a state in which the masses are enslaved. Now he was particular in saying that "slavery" cannot be stretched to mean anything but this: the bondage of one person to labour for another. And it is clear, then, that his prediction has not been borne out by events. I phrase it thus advisedly, for I cannot say that events will not bear them out - yet the continued survival of capitalism, suggests we should at least ask ourselves: "is capitalism in fact stable? Was Belloc simply wrong to think otherwise? What made him think that it was unsustainable?"

Well, as far as enslavement is concerned, in comparison to our current system, who would benefit from the transition, and how? Of course it is the wealthy who should benefit, but what would be the character of such benefits? I believe they would consist of the following:

1. Saving money. If corporations could in fact own people instead of employing them, it would not be necessary to spend as much money on them.

2. Improving productivity. Employees may quit, and they cannot be threatened with anything more severe than dismissal. If they could neither quit, nor obtain legal recourse - as a rule - for punishment inflicted by their superiors (two necessary features of slavery), then they would work harder.

But the problem here is that we cannot simply have such a simple transition from a current, capitalist model to something like the old Roman. The reason for this is that the capitalist is selling something. That is, a corporation makes a product, which people buy. They need a spending populace. First this means that the populace must be encouraged to live beyond its means, but secondly this means that they must have some means to live beyond. In the old days, a slave would usually have performed work that directly benefited his master (cultivating his fields and pastures, in the main); today, a worker performs work that benefits his master indirectly, by facilitating (in whatever way) the sale of some product or products. To reduce him to bare subsistence (if he is not there already), is ultimately counter-productive, for if everyone is like this, then what does one sell to whom? You may say that companies would not be so far-sighted, and would wreck the economic structure that sustains them just to save a buck...perhaps, but in that case, would they be so far-sighted as to think of enslaving the bulk of the populace? Grant them imagination enough for one, and it is hard not to grant them enough for the other.

Furthermore, when we realize that a widespread habit of extravagant purchase, is the very pillar of modern capitalism, then we realize that they benefit not only from a degree of mere material prosperity on our part, but also from a certain frame of mind. More specifically, they want us to be more or less content. Not content with our possessions, or ourselves, but rather with the structure of society. Perhaps "distracted" is a better word than content, but in any case enslaving the populace, could well lead to a loss of enthusiasm in that quarter, for all the stuff that they ought to be buying. The threat is not so much active resistance from the populace, as that slavery can have a sobering effect on its subjects (which would be disaster). Can people be reduced to a state of slavery, without affecting their concern for useless frivolities? And it is more important that we keep on buying such things, than that we perform the greatest possible amount of work for the least possible amount of money.

I am not sure that Belloc sufficiently appreciated the difference between the old rich and the new rich, created by the mercantile character of our modern ruling class. He was aware of it no doubt, but I believe that in this way (that is, the necessity of producing consumers) the natural character of a mercantile plutocracy differs from that of, say, an agrarian plutocracy. It may be that the hypocrisies of modern capitalism, the lip-service it pays to freedom (and the real freedoms that we possess) are not a transitory feature, but is simply the flattering, "customer-is-always-right" ethos of the merchant, writ large.

In other respects - his rejection of collectivism or communism, and his advocacy of Property, or distributivism, or whatever you wish to call it - I concur with his thinking, but it may be that in the very thesis of the book he erred.

Of course, it may be that a mercantile plutocracy is not itself stable, but I cannot see why its instability would resolve into the Servile State by any natural and obvious way - for what, exactly, will the merchant become? What will his slaves do for him? It seems to me that if capitalism is unstable, the capitalist will not benefit from its collapse. Yet the various reasons put forth for its instability, do not seem to have ruined it yet. Perhaps it is really unsustainable because of what Chesterton described, as the transition from "the Good" to "the goods". That is, when commerce becomes not a part of society, but its very rule - when things are made to be sold, not to be used - the result is absurdity and chaos, which only multiplies with time. There, perhaps, he eclipsed the insight of his friend - he was a truly deep thinker, and those who find him a mere peddler of paradox are but placing their own superficiality on display.