Zeitgeist

Slave Morality in Democracy

Kenneth Minogue has written what appears to be an interesting new book on the downfall of democracy as a viable political system. There are some excerpts at the New Criterion which are worth your attention. Minogue makes the point that the Managerial State and prosperity has more or less corrupted the national character and turned us into a nation of politically correct victims and limp wristed careerists. He doesn't explicitly recognize the checks on this put in place by the founding fathers to prevent this (aka only letting male freeholders vote), but it's worth keeping in mind as we degenerate into a nation of slaves.

My concern with democracy is highly specific. It begins in observing the remarkable fact that, while democracy means a government accountable to the electorate, our rulers now make us accountable to them. Most Western governments hate me smoking, or eating the wrong kind of food, or hunting foxes, or drinking too much, and these are merely the surface disapprovals, the ones that provoke legislation or public campaigns. We also borrow too much money for our personal pleasures, and many of us are very bad parents. Ministers of state have been known to instruct us in elementary matters, such as the importance of reading stories to our children. Again, many of us have unsound views about people of other races, cultures, or religions, and the distribution of our friends does not always correspond, as governments think that it ought, to the cultural diversity of our society. We must face up to the grim fact that the rulers we elect are losing patience with us...

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...

The problem about identifying servility in our modern Western societies results from the assumption that freedom and independence are admirable, and their opposites not. Hence the strong human tendency to trade off freedom for some other condition of things—money, security, approval—must take on the appearance of a virtue. A further problem with servility is that its opposite might seem to be a swaggering parade of one’s own independence, but this is just as likely to be a cover for a servile spirit. Since the essence of servility is dependence of mind, independence is compatible with situational caution, as in the case of the assistant to Lord Copper in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, who responds to whatever idiotic remark his press baron employer might make with the words “Up to a point, Lord Copper.” Wariness, tact, and hypocrisy are inevitable elements in the comic conditions of modern bourgeois life, and their significance is never obvious, even to those indulging them...

And if it should seem that invoking servility as characterizing some of the conduct of modern Westerners is excessively dramatic, let me observe that we do actually have a vocabulary that recognizes slavishness in the everyday life of our societies. It happens, for example, when we call someone a toady, creep, wimp, careerist, or some other such denigration. Indeed, our vocabulary reveals a variety of ways in which we recognize tendencies which are quite precisely servile. Any failure to perform a public duty unless some private benefit is given, for example, is an exercise in corruption, and such corruption is a derogation of the moral life characteristic of the slave.