How do you solve a problem like the proletariat?
19th August 2016
I was particularly struck on reading The Servile State by what appears to be a banal or asinine point:
A man politically free, that is, one who enjoys the right before the law to exercise his energies when he pleases (or not at all if he does not so please), but not possessed by legal right of control over any useful amount of the means of production, we call proletarian, and any considerable class composed of such men we call a proletariat.
Indeed, when lefties come out with such a statement, we are right to ignore them; they usually follow this by advocating state socialism, i.e. centralised control of the means of production by bureaucrats. When someone like Hilaire Belloc writes something like the above, however, I sit up and take note. Belloc, Chesterton, &co advocated not state socialism, nor state capitalism, but distributism, which they saw as the mediaeval economy adapted to modern times. The distributists often have a point, although I’m not necessarily a convert.
Instead, let’s explore where they have a point: the plight of the poor, or the economically dependent. One of Chesterton’s greatest epigraphs is that the opposite of employment is not unemployment, but independence. At the time Chesterton was writing, the drive towards simply “increasing employment” had begun. Its effects can now be felt, and you need not go much further than the etymology of the word itself; everyone below a certain level of intelligence in this country is “used” or “employed” by a firm, and usually quite a large and faceless firm which might spring up anywhere and not look out of place and almost certainly a firm for whom they have little love. The same goes for almost all of us today as consumers. Gone are the days when you knew the man behind the till at the local newsagents or groceries so well that, if you had left your purse at home, you might be permitted to pay him the next time you saw him. Likewise, gone are the days of other little niceties at most people’s places of work, and indeed it seems the only thing that keeps some firms from wearing their employees down is EU law, but such niceties are inefficient.
There are always going to be have and have-nots, and there are always more intelligent and less intelligent people. There will always be a problem of social order and a problem of what to do with ultimately useless people.
One solution is the manorial system, with rents paid by villani replacing taxes, and agricultural work replacing wage slavery. This maintains order and a certain amount of freedom, but voluntarily abolishes a market system in which too many people at the bottom will fail and be of no use to anyone.
Another solution is the distributist model of total economic independence and self-sufficiency of every family unit, with every man having three acres and a cow. This is perhaps ambitious, and would take at least a generation to establish. It would require the removal of consent not just from big government but also from big business, and would require intensive vocational training and apprenticeships for the working classes so that everyone had a trade or a profession. Again, there would be a sacrifice of “efficiency” here, but it would be voluntary, for the sake of human dignity and socio-economic stability.
Or there is radical laissez-faire, which might, within a few years, produce so much technology and wealth that nobody would need to do a great deal of physical or mental exertion, scarcity might effectively be abolished, and we would all be in a state of near-permanent bliss, with every area of life, even our most intimate areas such as love – a kind of barter market at the moment – could be provided for by a perfectly competitive market. This would happen if we abolished all state controls on competition and so forth, radically cut or abolished taxes and subsidies, and waited. The only trouble is that we’ve been saying this for a long time now and the reality is that we never get there, but instead as big government retreats, big business steps in and sucks the benefits of the new technology and wealth upwards. Yes, let us have a genuinely freed market, but not before certain structural changes, which may happen without any need for compulsion, but which require the removal of privileges for big business before we can proceed any further.
There are a number of solutions to the problem of an increasingly pointless, undignified, and miserable existence of the poor. Yes, they are getting fatter. Yes, they have flat screen TVs. Yes, they usually have roofs over their heads. But none of these comforts are a substitute for the sense of purpose and the security of work that hardworking members of the working classes had in the 1950s and prior to that.
The solutions to the problem, however, are most certainly not more bureaucracy or more plutocracy or corporatocracy. Freedom, and therefore either genuine independence of meansor some measure of dignity, has been threatened since the 19th century in particular by two increasingly powerful and illiberal forces. One of these is the mob and its democratic socialism. The other threat comes from plutocratic elites hostile to the nation and all singing from the same state capitalist and globalist hymn sheet. In their diagnosis and analysis of the basic problem, the distributists are certainly spot on: both state socialism and state capitalism have centralising tendencies, the former by overtly political means and the latter by more subtle economic means, which rob the family unit of dignity, security, and purpose.
Genuine solutions to the problem of the proletariat becoming what Noam Chomsky calls a “precariat” involve, to my mind, voluntarily giving up on the market system but nevertheless within a free market framework, in favour of a politics and an economy based not on money but on land, not on efficiency but on dignity, not on employment but on independence. These solutions do exist, and I think we are, in light of the capital we have accumulated throughout the centuries, and in light of recent technological advances, better able to make something like allodial feudalism or the society of artisans work properly today than ever before.