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October 04th 2010 print

Claudio Veliz

The Big State and the Servile Mind

It would be remiss on my part not to use this opportunity to assert that this splendid book confirms the status of Professor Minogue as a most distinguished observer and analyst of our moment in history. Born in New Zealand and educated largely in Australia, he adorned the London School of Economics with his intellectual prowess and oratorical skills for several decades, and recently retired, fittingly acclaimed as Emeritus Professor of Political Science of the University of London. By this time some former students and colleagues feared that he could also be finding his way to join Martin Wight, Michael Oakeshott, Hedley Bull and Isaiah Berlin in Raphael’s exclusive School of Athens where places are reserved at the feet of Socrates (who did not set pen to paper and is therefore their patron saint) for exceptionally brilliant intellects who for one good reason or another failed to pour the insights gained during their unrivalled scholarly experience into substantial published works weightier than the lectures, articles, reviews and essays on which rested their immensely deserved contemporary reputation.

Such concerns can now be dispelled, for in The Servile Mind Kenneth Minogue has produced precisely what was required. I have only one minuscule reservation that it would be unfair not to state at the outset and this is that this thoughtful and illuminating work is not well served by its subtitle. To tell prospective readers that they are about to learn “How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life” is true, but it may also deter more than a few who would otherwise greatly enjoy and profit from the lucid prose, the incisive observations and the well-organised cogent, persuasive arguments with which Minogue continues to enrich our understanding of modern society and politics, and especially his original and meticulous demolition of the grand politico-moral project for the achievement of collective social salvation. The subtitle may suggest to some that he has indulged in a frontal attack on democracy. This is decidedly incorrect and I will risk the charge of impertinence by proposing an unashamedly Popperian alternative along the lines of, say, “The Open Democracy and Its Unintended Consequences”. This would be faithful to the text while helping to draw the readers’ attention to the more unexpected, unattractive and occasionally sinister dimensions of the matter at hand.

After all, we are discussing a term so elusive that it is enough to claim it as a feature of government for everybody to know that it is not, as, for example, in Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea or Democratic Republic of the Congo. Also, before going any further it is important to add that nothing in this excellent work detracts one iota from Winston Churchill’s reminder “that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

Professor Minogue’s book is descriptive, not prescriptive, and unlike “self-help” airport pulp, it does not include a plan of action to save democracy. One of its principal organising themes is the contrast between the creative individualism of the Western cultural tradition and the barren, intrusive and populist impulse towards collective salvation espoused by an intelligentsia committed to making us better. The individualism to which he refers has come down to us bearing the marks of Christian antecedents that date at least as far back as the eve of Agincourt when the bard had Harry musing that “Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every subject’s soul is his own”, as well as that of many generations accustomed to life under the rule of law.

It is clear that this individualism has not achieved universal acceptance, but has most certainly provided the measured energy and tenacity responsible for the civility, the social harmony and the economic prosperity characteristic of what Professor Minogue describes as Western European civilisation, an entity that only incurable pedants will be unable to recognise. Even more encouraging is that the partnership of creative individualism and the rule of law has not remained a culture-specific phenomenon, but “because the West has been the most open civilization imaginable” its arrangements are readily accessible for imitation, improvement, innovation or necessary modifications to adapt them to conditions elsewhere, even in distant latitudes in countries such as India, Chile, Japan and Singapore where the wealth-producing forms of living pioneered in Western Europe have proved as popular as they are successful because, as Professor Minogue indicates, “in general, people prefer being rich to being poor”.

Observing that in the world of abstract political theory “things that seem to have one function or significance can turn out to have a quite opposite effect” he points to the remarkable fact that while the idea of democracy is inextricably bound up with the exercise of individual freedom and responsibility, its present practice appears to be taking our world in the opposite direction, with society becoming an agglomeration of “vulnerable people whose needs and sufferings must be remedied by the power of the state”. As governments take over the tasks that individuals used to do for themselves, they add a politico-moral dimension to their intervention by relieving the citizenry of the burdens associated with thrift, self-control, prudence and civility, thereby encouraging a process that leads to servility. This is of crucial importance because our moral life rests on our ability to:

deliberate about our obligations to parents, children, employers, strangers, charities, sporting associations and other elements of our world … and 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.

The modern West is distinguished by the practice of individuals exhibiting this kind of moral authority, and in so far as it is appropriated by the state, it diminishes. It is this element of dehumanisation that Professor Minogue calls “the servile mind”. These and other consequences are so unprecedented and of such definitive importance that they may end up spawning one of the defining metaphors of our time. This has yet to be achieved, but with a history punctuated by such revealing metaphors as Hellenism, Reformation, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Belle époque and Cold War, future historians will almost certainly attempt to find a figure of speech that encapsulates a moment so replete with the unintended disheartening consequences of attending to the currently perceived political and social requirements of democracy.

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. Under such conditions, even if left to themselves individuals deprived of moral responsibility may well feel immensely disinclined to form little platoons and opt instead for a quiet, comfortable life because, as Professor Minogue affirms in the very last sentence of his book, “Few things are more destructive than political dreams of perfection.”          

Claudio Veliz is an Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University