The Servile Mind
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.
In place of yesterday’s hierarchy, authority, and deference, we now treat and regard everyone identically. In place of the formality by which we keep our distance, experience independence, and show proper respect, we now revere informality in dress, address, and action. In place of good manners we are intimidated by the tyranny of political correctness. In place of respectability we confess vulnerability. In place of the ambivalence of everyday action and choice we now see ambiguities merely as problems to be dissolved by universal and easy solutions. In place of prudent judgment about human limits we eagerly seek perfection. In place of living our own lives we are conscripted into the lives the state chooses for us. In place of responsible risks and mutual care in the family, we defer to a government that is always ready to take our burden. In place of special concern for ourselves, our loved ones, our associations, and our country, we are pushed or required to distribute resources and power equally.
In place of individuals with a host of family, professional, and religious obligations, we increasingly have detached “singletons” who are pliable material for politicians’ schemes and needy consumers of their promises and guarantees. In place of self-government we are oppressed by international bureaucracy and lulled by loose talk of governance, stakeholders, and corporate responsibility. In place of life as play, as a game in which we seek success and follow the rules, we see life as the endless filling of expanding wants. In place of healthy competition we are urged toward flaccid cooperation. In place of thoughtful, calculated desire we are mastered by impulse. In place of celebrating our civilization and its achievements we are bullied into bouts of guilt and orgies of apology.
The fault is always ours. Life for today’s “eudaimonic units” is often easy but hardly alive. Minogue’s indictment would be enough to make one head for the hills, had they not already been flattened by the egalitarian steamroller.
Many elements of Minogue’s indictment are familiar, but he brings them out with special force. His book is particularly useful for Americans because his European examples differ from our usual fare, and because Europe’s regress is more advanced than ours. Although we are in some ways tamer than Europe—ours is the land of soccer moms, not soccer hooligans—we, on the whole, remain more aggressively independent. The masters who seek to mold us are still within our power to push aside, not untouchable administrators beyond our control. The familiarity and accuracy of Minogue’s indictment, however, makes it evident that, although we may be a seat or two behind the Europeans, we are descending with them on the same device.
Minogue wishes to describe the unifying core of our concerns, not merely to list them. His worries are not random. The heart of the difficulty is rulers’ attempt to impose a way of life on their citizens. Such imposition displaces individual deliberation and responsibility. It usurps our moral space. In fact, enough such imposition may bring us back to the world of unquestioned habits, practices, and beliefs from which individualism liberated us. We would be even worse off than we were because the rational spirit that engineered the liberation will be unavailable in a political world that thinks it is already absolutely just and perfectly reasonable.
“Nationalizing the moral life,” Minogue warns us, “is the first step toward totalitarianism.” Rather than supplying “the framework of law,” our rulers are “busy turning us into the instruments of the projects they keep dreaming up.”
Minogue’s concern is not with moral rules and pious virtues narrowly understood but with our freedom to govern and organize ourselves. Moral life is the “inner experience in which we deliberate about,” and act on, “our obligations to parents, children, employers, [and] strangers.” In doing this, “we discover who we are and we reveal ourselves to the world.” This “self-management” or “moral autonomy” “emerges from the inner life and is the stream of thoughts and decisions that make us human.” Such individuality is the opposite of servility, for the “classical individualist’s . . . moral world” rose “from the coherence of self-chosen commitment. His basic duty was to his own conception of himself.” When political authority appropriates this autonomy it diminishes us, “and our civilization loses the special character that has made it the dynamic animator of so much hope and happiness in modern times.”
The evidence for this human self-belittling is the group of democratic practices, fantasies, and fears listed earlier. But Minogue’s primary focus is not this or that egalitarian outrage or absurdity but the general loss of freedom to which they contribute.
Minogue’s argument is unfailingly intelligent. His emphasis on individual coherence and commitment, however, might lead one to think that he favors rootless choice and self-invention. This judgment would be incorrect, for he has in mind responsible moral life within a given (although impermanent) complex social world. One wonders, nonetheless, whether his overall defense of individualism is adequate theoretically, or sufficiently compelling practically. I worry that his grounding of his view through brief discussions of John Austin, Hegel, and Oakeshott leaves individual freedom unanchored.
One gap in Minogue’s discussion is his distance from the importance of natural rights. The virtue of an argument that clarifies the presence of natural rights is that it shows the preference for freedom to be more than a prejudice because it gives it a reasonable basis. Natural rights describe an inalienable authority that each can recognize in himself because of his own unavoidable power to reflect, prefer, and choose. This authority can be occluded, and it is difficult to convert it to concrete liberty to, say, possess property or vote. Still, individual natural authority, or freedom, is not a variable possibility that one can wish away but a universal power among human beings that they can notice in themselves.
The existence of individual natural rights is not the whole truth about human happiness and choice. Still, the need to execute one’s equal rights in a regime of effective, limited government gives rise to the responsibility and deliberation that Minogue admires when he invokes the moral life. One can, of course, take demands disguised as rights too far, and this is properly one of Minogue’s concerns. Yet it is also true that a natural ground for rights provides a standard that allows us to understand them correctly as the basis of our own self-reliance rather than as rewards we exact from others.
The wish to expand and defend freedom, moreover, has shown itself to be an inspiring practical cause. It is an “idealism” that can counter today’s false idealisms, as it countered yesterday’s tyrannies. It gives us something to fight for and to honor, a pride and even reverence beyond mere material success or traditional loyalty.
A second gap in Minogue’s account concerns the status of what we choose to do with our freedom. Minogue’s discussion is too remote from the question of how to judge reasonably the goods we should select. Coherence and responsibility are not enough in themselves to orient us, or to provide a worthwhile or happy life. They trade on an implicit grasp of what is good about the generosity, honor, friendship, and knowledge to which one commits oneself, and on an implicit sense of how to pursue and enjoy these goods in an ordered and measured way. This implicit understanding must sometimes be surfaced and subjected to the universal light of reasoned reflection, even if the effect of such general discussion is often dubious.
The key is to learn to think well enough about ourselves to recognize and defend our freedom, and to grasp enough of what is good to use this freedom prudently. Minogue’s forceful, persuasive, and illuminating book helps us to accomplish this task.
Mark Blitz, the Fletcher Jones professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is the author of the forthcoming Plato’s Political Philosophy.