October 6, 2010


The Big State and the Servile Mind: a review of The Servile Mind by Kenneth Minogue (Claudio Veliz, October 2010, Quadrant)

Democracy was born in Athens 2400 years ago and in Thucydides’s account of Pericles’s Funeral Oration we have the earliest reliable description of what it meant to the Athenians:

Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty.

The functioning democracy of fifth-century Athens institutionalised equality before the law and equality of opportunity for every citizen regardless of the obviously existing inequalities of class or income that neither Pericles nor his fellow legislators felt necessary to address.

The demise of the Athenian empire shelved the democratic alternative, which remained dormant for the next two millennia until it resurrected as a hesitant intimation in seventeenth-century England. By then the Christian belief in the uniqueness of the soul and its value in the eyes of God had added a third dimension to the two egalitarian claims inherited from Athens; now it was equality before the law, equality of opportunity and equality in the eyes of God. It is from such impeccable sources that a monumental distortion emerged that helped to extend the perfectly clear egalitarian application of democratic rights and responsibilities to an implicit understanding that only in a society of equals would democracy attain its harmonious consummation.

What Professor Minogue has done in this book is to act as our cicerone on a meticulously guided tour of a project to equalise the world that looks very much like a road to serfdom signposted with frequently amusing and occasionally disconcerting initiatives adopted by diverse governments to homogenise the societies over which they preside, democratically. The basic assumption is that the generalised propensity to indulge individualist passions for consumer satisfaction has resulted in prejudices, excesses and antipathies that can presumably be corrected by rhetorical or legal enforcement of what is now generally described as “political correctness”. This in turn has brought about a systematic intrusion into the private life of citizens that translates into bureaucratic arrangements of truly exquisite post-Orwellian inanity such as a “Head of Behaviour” to help Londoners do the right thing, or “Minister of Respect” in the fair state of Victoria, an appointment that probably has Gilbert and Sullivan fans writhing in the aisles. How long before the West is regaled with its first Ministers of Happiness? One wonders.

The real problem is distant from these vaudevillian frivolities and it has been familiar to serious students of society for a very long time, certainly since Johann Gottfried Herder, and more recently, since Isaiah Berlin in his justly famous essay on “Two Concepts of Liberty” and other writings, reminded us that worthy human values are not necessarily compatible and that:

The notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution in which all good things coexist seems … not merely unobtainable—that is a truism—but conceptually incoherent [and] to allow [such a notion] to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep and more dangerous moral and political immaturity.

The classic example of this insurmountable obstacle to collectivist social engineering is that of freedom and equality. They are both immensely valuable, but it is impossible fully to achieve them simultaneously. Free individuals will invariably get different results in everything they do while even the most benevolent attempt to construct an egalitarian society can only proceed if freedom is restricted. Worse, even the most brutal curtailment of freedom will not necessarily bring about a society of equals, as was conclusively demonstrated by the disastrous communist attempts of the last century.

To this almost mechanical understanding of the problem, Kenneth Minogue has now added a new moral dimension that makes matters vastly more alarming. Reflecting precisely on the apparent antithesis between the individual and society, Bruce Anderson, one of the most perceptive observers of contemporary European political life, has written recently that “without creative individualism, there can be no healthy society, but left to themselves, individuals will form the little platoons that create a strong society”. This was certainly true until a few decades ago, but if the trend persists as described in this book, the people of modern Western democracies could find themselves joyously embraced by “the one right way of living, characterized by a kind of justice, a kind of tolerance, a kind of harmony, indeed by a kind of moral system dictated from above”.

This is possible because as morality merges with management, a servile readiness to fit both thought and conduct to what is politically correct becomes the passport for continuing dependence on the considerable benefits flowing from an intrusive state.

...between freedom and equality (security).

Morals & the servile mind: On the diminishing moral life of our democratic age. (Kenneth Minogue, June 2010, New Criterion)

By “the moral life,” I simply mean that dimension of our inner experience in which we deliberate about our obligations to parents, children, employers, strangers, charities, sporting associations, and all the other elements of our world. We may not always devote much conscious thought to these matters, but thinking about them makes up the substance of our lives. It also constitutes the conditions of our happiness. In deliberating, and in acting on what we have decided, we discover who we are and we reveal ourselves to the world. This kind of self-management emerges from the inner life and is the stream of thoughts and decisions that make us human. To the extent that this element of our humanity has been appropriated by authority, we are all diminished, and our civilization loses the special character that has made it the dynamic animator of so much hope and happiness in modern times.

It is this element of dehumanization that has produced what I am calling “the servile mind.” The charge of servility or slavishness is a serious one. It emerges from the Classical view that slaves lacked the capacity for self-movement and had to be animated by the superior class of masters. They were creatures of impulse and passion rather than of reason. Aristotle thought that some people were “natural slaves.” In our democratic world, by contrast, we recognize at least some element of the “master” (which means, of course, self-managing autonomy) in everyone. Indeed, in our entirely justified hatred of slavery, we sometimes think that the passion for freedom is a constitutive drive of all human beings. Such a judgment can hardly survive the most elementary inspection of history. The experience of both traditional societies and totalitarian states in the twentieth century suggests that many people are, in most circumstances, happy to sink themselves in some collective enterprise that guides their lives and guarantees them security. It is the emergence of freedom rather than the extent of servility that needs explanation.

Servility is not an easy idea with which to operate, and it should be clear that the world we live in, being human, cannot be fully captured in ideal structures. But in understanding Western life, it is difficult to avoid contrasting courage and freedom on the one hand with servility and submission on the other. We think of freedom as being able to do what we merely want to do, but this is a condition cherished no less by the slave than by the master. When the cat’s away, the mice will play! Here is the illusion that freedom is merely having a lot of options available. What freedom actually means is the capacity not only to choose but also to face the consequences of one’s choice. To accept employment, to marry, to join a cause, to sustain a family, and so on, all involve responsibilities, and it is in the capacity to sustain self-chosen responsibilities, the steadiness to face up to the risks and inevitable ennui inseparable from a settled life, that we exhibit our freedom. And its essence is that each individual life is determined by this set of chosen commitments and virtues (whatever they may be) rather than by some set of external determinants or regulations. Independence of mind requires thinking one’s own thoughts: poor things many of them may be, but they are our own, and we have found some reasons for thinking them.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 6, 2010 5:27 AM
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