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Equality & Servility

There are dangers in the democratic trends of democracy.

Sep 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 01 • By MARK BLITZ
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The Servile Mind

Equality & Servility

Queen Elizabeth, Tony and Cherie Blair at the Millennium Dome, 1999

Anwar Hussein

How Democracy Erodes
the Moral Life
by Kenneth Minogue
Encounter, 384 pp., $25.95

Sensible people worry today about the West’s direction. What recently seemed to be merely a slow decline now seems to be a steady and even headlong slide. A thousand hands push us downward into a prisoner’s cell where we must share every dollar, watch every word, and bless every bureaucrat. The cell is roomy and secure, with exotic vines creeping up the bars. But it is a cell nonetheless. Looming over it are the strangely chilling apparitions of Obama and Brown, and the oddly manic specters of Clinton and Blair. Or should we say Gordon, Barack, Bill, and Tony because, as Kenneth Minogue points out in this bracing new book, galloping informality is one aspect of our new egalitarian world. No wonder that Tony’s comic attempt to restore a “respect” society in Britain was bound to fail.

Why was it Tony’s business anyway to tell us how to live, or Jimmy’s to tell us to snap out of our malaise? As Minogue tells it, we are becoming rats for politicians’ experimental schemes, patients for their white-coated therapy, objects for their fantasies of perfection. The utopianism which, in the wake of the Marxists’ collapse and defeat dares not speak its name, has regrouped as the piecemeal perfectionism that believes it can harmlessly and step-by-step overcome all inequality, poverty, and war. The woebegone electorate sometimes seems, to its nominal political servants, to be unworthy of their inspirations. (One thinks of President Obama’s arrogant lectures about constitutional rights and racial profiling.) But this lingering public recalcitrance will soon enough disappear, as hitherto independent citizens learn to recognize the endless vulnerabilities they should feel and the endless injustices they have caused. Only the state can put things right.

Minogue is a distinguished professor emeritus of political science at the London School of Economics. In his case, one may actually say distinguished without choking on ironic bile, not least because he laments a world in which the deference has disappeared that “distinguished” should call to mind. He is clearly a conservative whose conservatism owes much to Michael Oakeshott and Edmund Burke. He is not a friend of the effect of abstract and universalistic arguments in political life. He is not an enemy of religion, or unconcerned with it. He mentions economic vitality, but it is not his chief concern. His conservatism is not libertarian, or even focused on natural rights. He worries that we are losing, or have already lost, the attachments and respect for attachments that guide common sense. 

He is, nonetheless, focused on the independent individual, his primary point of co-ntrast with the overweening state. He admires our daily world of home, place, and profession not simply in themselves but primarily because they help to convert impulse and license into responsible freedom. At the end of the day, what is morally worthwhile in our actions results from our own choices, commitments, and integrity, not from unthinking obedience to immemorial custom. We might call Minogue’s standpoint Thatcherism in a human space.

Minogue’s purpose in The Servile Mind is to explore the elements of current life that justify and define sensible concern about it. He does not offer “policy” solutions, as if a tax cut could cure a crisis of the soul, and his tone is more analytic than prescriptive. But it is certainly prescriptive in its own way, gently mocking, replete with characterizations that push one’s sentiments in the proper direction, and filled with accurate and arresting formulations. One does not call a mind servile to praise it, even if one claims only to be describing things as they are.

Minogue advances his indictment largely by developing a series of dichotomies, and by showing us that the servile side is the one to which our leaders have been driving us. He does not deny countervailing forces—as he could not, given the complexities of democracy. Nor does he fail to praise the features of modern life that make it attractive to citizens and immigrants. Wealth, vitality, and freedom abound. Nonetheless, the general tendency to sap the moral responsibility at our core is unmistakable.

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