July 2nd 2016

  Buy Issue 2975

Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY CFA dispute may end up burning Victorian Labor electorally

CANBERRA OBSERVED July 2: Independence Day or Groundhog Day?

EDITORIAL Expect shockwaves as Britain votes on EU exit

CLIMATE CHANGE Coral bleaching way overdone by reef saviours

EUTHANASIA Victorian report closer to truth in dissenting voices

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Trump v Clinton race revealing of state of U.S.

SEXUAL POLITICS Transgenderism and the triumph of marketing

EDUCATION Deconstruction and other rot at school

POLITICS AND ECONOMICS Two heretics: Hilaire Belloc and R.H. Tawney

FREE SPEECH From disagreement to discrimination: section 18C

LITERATURE Tolkien, Golding and Hell

SOCIETY New lease on life for freedom machine

MUSIC AND ENTERTAINMENT Talent shows grind down singers, grind out drivel

CINEMA Puppet people pull the plug: Me Before You


BOOK REVIEW Friendship under fire

Books promotion page

Two heretics: Hilaire Belloc and R.H. Tawney

by Brian Coman

News Weekly, July 2, 2016

The political commentators are still struggling to explain the phenomenon of Donald Trump. But it seems that, not just in America but in many other countries as well, “populist” figures bereft of any real policymaking skills, are on the rise. In short, a great many people are showing their dissatisfaction with mainstream political parties, and the rise of mavericks like Trump in America, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and even our own Clive Palmer is material evidence of this dissatisfaction.

 Hilaire Belloc, left, and R.H. Tawney

More and more commentators are coming to the view that the root cause of this dissatisfaction is what American commentator Christopher Lasch once dubbed “the age of diminished expectations”.

The rich and the rest

Back in 2012, American political scientist Charles Murray published Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. In that book, Murray produced a mass of evidence to show that the great American dream of equal opportunity for all had failed. There were now two classes in America – the very rich and the rest (many of whom are becoming poorer by the day).

This book, which aroused much controversy at the time, was followed in 2014 by Joel Kotkin’s The New Class Conflict. Like Murray, Kotkin, charts the rise of two new dominant classes – the “technical Oligarchy” (largely situated in Silicon Valley) and the “Clerisy” (the policy, media and academic elites). The rest – what used to be called “middle class America” – are in a phase of diminished expectation and, not surprisingly, they are venting their anger towards their traditional political masters, Democrat and Republican. Hence Trump.

The problem is that anyone who suggests that this state of affairs is due, in any way, to the unhindered operation of “market forces” is labelled either a “socialist ratbag” or a “romantic fool”. The “free market”, with its promotion of rampant consumerism, is regarded as sacrosanct – even if it leads to the quaintly named “subprime” mortgage scandal. What particularly upsets the defenders of this system is any suggestion that questions of moral propriety are involved. We are asked to accept the proposition that “the market” is morally neutral.

Many decades ago, two prominent historians, R.H. Tawney (1880–1962) and Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953), challenged such a view. Their work in this area is hardly ever mentioned today. I doubt that any young student of economic and social theory today has read Belloc’s The Servile State, or Tawney’s The Acquisitive Society. Indeed, if you do manage to find reference to either work, it will almost always be in the form of negative comment – Tawney a naïve socialist, and Belloc a hopeless romantic with fairytale visions of a society based on the notion of distributism.

Now it is certainly true that Tawney was, for a time, a member of the British Labour Party and of the Fabian Society, but to label him simply as a “socialist” (and therefore, by implication, a Marxist, Communist, Fellow Traveller, etc. etc.) is ridiculous. Likewise, to label Belloc as “anti-capitalist” (and, again, by implication a socialist) just because he maintained that one could have a capitalist system which was, indeed, a servile state, is to wholly misunderstand his approach to social and economic matters. Nonetheless, today both Tawney and Belloc (but especially the former) are regarded as heretics by all sides of politics.

In fact, what underpinned the ideas of both Tawney and Belloc was a deep commitment to the proposition that the Christian Gospel had application in all areas of human life – including economic and political matters. Both were committed Christians who were convinced that the Christian religion had a role to play in public affairs. Underpinning that conviction was their idea that the human person, and human work itself, was possessed of a dignity and worth because it was divinely ordained. Human work ought to provide for the worker a pathway or means towards the proper conduct, and goal or telos, of a human life.

For Belloc, both socialism and capitalism were problematical because both systems placed the means of production into the hands of a minority at the expense of the masses. In capitalism, land and capital are controlled by a small number of powerful business people, while in socialism that same power was held by a small number of politicians. In these scenarios, the vast majority of citizens had little control over their own economic fortunes.

This led Belloc to define the Servile State as follows: “That arrangement of society in which so considerable a number of the families and individuals are constrained by positive law to labour for the advantage of other families and individuals as to stamp the whole community with the mark of such labour we call the Servile State.”

To clarify and somewhat narrow his definition, Belloc went on:

“That society is not servile in which men are intelligently constrained to labour by enthusiasm, by a religious tenet, or indirectly from fear of destitution, or directly from love of gain, or from the common sense which teaches them that by their labour they may increase their wellbeing.

“A clear boundary exists between the servile and the non-servile condition of labour, and the conditions upon either side of that boundary utterly differ one from another, Where there is compulsion applicable by positive law to men of a certain status, and such compulsion enforced in the last resort by the powers at the disposal of the state, there is the institution of slavery; and if that institution be sufficiently expanded the whole state may be said to repose upon a servile basis, and is a Servile State.”

To put these ideas into a modern context, we might imagine the position of, say, an automobile worker in a large factory. The international company that owns the factory announces that it is an uneconomic investment and decides to close it. The worker here has no input into this decision.

Again, think of a small irrigation farmer growing produce under contract for a large food processing company. The owners of the company decide to close it because of poor returns on investment. Here again, the worker has little or no say in the decision. In both these situations the worker cannot exercise free choice in relation to his or her labour – it has been taken away from them. Hence Belloc’s notion of “compulsion” as against “enthusiasm”, “religious tenet”, “love of gain”, etc.


Belloc’s proposed solution – a sort of third way between socialism and capitalism, was the notion of distributism. The idea here was to arrange the production of goods in such a way as to maximise personal ownership. Worker cooperatives are an obvious example. Distributism is underpinned by another principle, that of subsidiarity. Put briefly, the principle of subsidiarity demands that no larger economic, political or social unit should perform a function which can be carried out, with equal efficiency, by a smaller one.

Tawney’s proposed solution to the economic ills he saw about him was to promote Christian Socialism. There is, it is true to say, a certain naivety in his hope that a largely secularised population in the industrialised West would take any heed of the Christian Gospel message in its public life. Nonetheless, one can only admire his stance as a Christian.

What particularly informed Tawney’s view of the world was his prodigious knowledge of European history (the same can be said for Belloc). Tawney had traced the fortunes of human societies from medieval times though the Renaissance and Reformation and saw in that history the gradual dissociation of Christian morality from the sphere of economics. The transformation of usury from a serious sin to a respectable trade was for Tawney a negation of the Gospel message.

It is fitting perhaps that I end with a pertinent quotation from Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, published in 1926. The modern reader might note, in passing, Tawney’s magnificent command of the English language, reminiscent of Dr Johnston or Edward Gibbon:

“Few who consider dispassionately the facts of social history will be disposed to deny that the exploitation of the weak by the powerful … has been a permanent feature in the life of most communities that the world has yet seen. But the quality in modern societies, which is most sharply opposed to the teaching ascribed to the Founder of the Christian Faith, lies deeper than the exceptional failures and abnormal follies against which criticism is most commonly directed. It consists in the assumption … that the attainment of material riches is the supreme object of human endeavour and the final criterion of human success.

“Such a philosophy, plausible, militant, and not indisposed, when hard pressed, to silence criticism by persecution, may triumph or may decline. What is certain is that it is the negation of any system of thought or morals which can, except by a metaphor, be described as Christian. Compromise is as impossible between the Church of Christ and the idolatry of wealth, which is the practical religion of capitalist societies, as it was between the Church and the state idolatry of the Roman Empire.

“… The language in which theologians and preachers expressed their horror of the sin of covetousness may appear to the modern reader too murkily sulphurous; their precepts on the contracts of business and the disposition of property may seem an impracticable pedantry. But rashness is a more agreeable failing than cowardice, and, when to speak is unpopular, it is less pardonable to be silent than to say too much.”

With those words of Tawney’s still resounding in your mind, you might, then, forgive my own rashness in suggesting that both he and Belloc had something useful to say about our present political and economic climate.

All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

Join email list

Join e-newsletter list

Your cart has 0 items

Subscribe to NewsWeekly

Research Papers

Trending articles

SPECIAL EDITORIAL Has Cardinal George Pell been wrongly convicted?

OPINION Judge treats Cardinal Pell to a spot of 'open justice'

SOCIETY The pervasive and pernicious online porn epidemic

COVER STORY Federally, the pro-family voter is starved for choice

COVER STORY Budget 2019: The dark side of 'back in the black': no vision

ENERGY Hundreds of years of oil and gas reserves; if we want to use them

EDITORIAL For politicians: lessons from Europe's emerging pro-family parties

© Copyright NewsWeekly.com.au 2017
Last Modified:
April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm