The State of the State

The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life by Kenneth Minogue

You don’t have to be a Grumpy Old Man, or any variety of fogey, to find some aspects of contemporary life unpleasing. Intrusive governmental campaigns, telling us what to eat or drink; the attempt to alter the way we think by changing the words we use; the decay of discipline in schools, and of manners in daily life; the reduction of our publicly expressed moral values to a strident demand for “rights” and “respect” on the one hand and a sentimental display of “caring” on the other — these are just some of the aspects of modern life that can rub most of us, psychologically and morally, the wrong way.

But are they connected? Is there some underlying pattern here, or are things — not all things, but at least some quite important things — just getting worse in a random multiplicity of different ways? It’s easy to spot some connections here and there, but very hard to construct a general theory that would make sense of the whole predicament. For that, we need more than just a cultural commentator. We need a social and political philosopher, who can take the argument to the level of abstraction where essential connections begin to emerge.

Kenneth Minogue, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the LSE, is just the man for the job. His new book, The Servile Mind, is a bold and wide-ranging study of the ills of contemporary politics and society in the West. The argument is elaborated in fairly abstract terms, but the abstractions are always aimed at making sense of the concrete irritations and idiocies of modern life. 

The tone, however, is never merely fogeyish: this eminent Antipodean has an engagingly wry sense of humour, with a more than occasional flash of sharp-edged intellectual steel just beneath the surface of his prose.

The subtitle, How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life, sounds as if it is putting forward the master-thesis of the book. It may also make it seem, therefore, that Minogue is a political arch-reactionary in the tradition of Joseph de Maistre. But this is quite misleading. Minogue distinguishes between two notions of democracy, and directs his accusations against only one of them. The first notion is procedural and legal: democracy as a method for creating and replacing governments. Against this, Minogue has no objection.

The second, however, is a notion of “democracy” as a set of values or ideals, a substantive programme that is to be gradually realised as our society becomes more and more “democratic”. The watchwords of a truly democratic society, according to this notion, are “equality” and “inclusiveness”. Inequalities and distinctions are signs of injustice and oppression, and it is the role of the state to liberate the people from oppressions of all kinds. 

But in taking this transcendent moral role upon itself, the state drains away from ordinary life many of those moral responsibilities that used to characterise us as individuals. The result, sooner or later, is the development of what Minogue calls (with a nod to Hilaire Belloc) a “servile” mentality.

What brings about the shift from the first notion of democracy, which seems not just harmless but positively beneficial, to the second? I am not sure that Minogue has a direct answer to this question; but he does have a rich analysis of what goes wrong when people adopt the second version of the democratic idea. What happens, he says, is that they confuse politics and morality, creating a hybrid set of values which he labels the “politico-moral”. The task of government becomes that of implementing a quasi-moral blueprint. And the notion of compassion (a moral feeling which has real value in relations between individuals) is incoherently invoked to justify projects of social engineering aimed at entire categories or blocks of people.

Clearly, the “politico-moral” is a phenomenon that extends beyond democracies: any despotism (including 20th-century totalitarianisms) that has ever claimed to be building an ideal society on earth would qualify. The key development leading towards it would seem to be a loss of understanding, or a loss of nerve, on the part of individuals who once possessed a sense of their own moral responsibilities, and who therefore also had a sense of the rather different way in which government was meant to operate as the provider of a framework for their own moral life.

So long as a population retains those proper senses of the moral and the political, it should actually benefit from a democratic constitution, as this will enable it to express more decisively, through the ballot-box, its dislike of those who want to introduce “politico-moral” projects. Minogue emphasises that democracy in itself does not give rise to the servile mentality; that mentality may be the product of many cultural and social changes. But once the servile mind exists, it has a mutually reinforcing relationship with the “politico-moral” approach to government; and when it develops in a democracy, all three — servility, politico-morality and democracy — link hands in a viciously circling danse macabre.

If this all sounds rather abstract, well, it is. Minogue is a philosopher; there are pages here devoted to the nature of individualism, or the difference between a desire and an impulse, or the concept of a right. His closest affinity is with the philosophy of Michael Oakeshott, whose distinction between the state as a “civil association” (good) and the state as an “enterprise association” (bad) is invoked at key moments. 

Other affinities are with Thomas Hobbes and Eric Voegelin, and there are even some surprisingly respectful invocations of Hegel. While the prose is marvellously jargon-free, some non-philosophical readers may find that real effort is required to keep all Minogue’s distinctions and sub-arguments in their heads as they go along.

But the effort will not be wasted; and there are many incidental aphoristic pleasures to be had along the way. For example, here is Minogue on the educationalists’ desire to avoid exposing children to the experience of failure: “Common sense tells us that failure might well be regarded as a discovery process. It tells people what they are not good at.” Or on the rhetoric of liberation: “There are few liberations without some undertow of a new servitude.”

Or on the syndrome of Westerners developing an ideology of anti-Westernism: “It is an interesting question whether those who reject their civilisation on moral grounds exemplify moral abasement or moral megalomania. The answer, of course, is that the abasement is collective, and the megalomania is personal.” Or on the need for elementary realism in politics: “Realism here rests on the one empirical proposition that no perfecting of the world would be possible without entrusting to rulers such a plenitude of power as would addle their wits.”

This is a book that may leave readers, at the end, still puzzling over some of the reasons for the fundamental changes it describes. But they will find their wits distinctly less addled than before.

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