THE SERVILE MIND:
How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life
by Kenneth Minogue
(New York: Encounter Books)
Hardcover: 379 pages
Reviewed by Symeon Thompson
Professor Kenneth Minogue’s The Servile Mind is an impressive attempt to diagnose the ills that plague modern Western democratic states, but one that sadly, and surprisingly, fails to achieve its aim. Its problem is not so much in the rightness or wrongness of its diagnosis, but its chosen method of argument and explanation.
It reads more like a conversation between intelligent men after dinner with drinks and cigars at the club, and therefore suffers from the same problem — to wit, asserting rather than arguing and demonstrating. Whether or not Professor Minogue is correct, anyone seeking to advance his thesis in discussion will be somewhat hampered by the fact that most of his premises, and his conclusions, can be knocked down by a simple “How do you prove that?”
Despite claims to the contrary, this is not a magisterial work of intellect and incisive analysis, but a much more lightweight tome that is essentially an intellectual entertainment for the conservatively inclined and well-read. With that in mind, this reader decided that the proper approach to the book should involve liberal quantities of whiskey and soda and snuff tobacco, which do go some way to helping it all make sense.
The fundamental thesis of Professor Minogue’s work, if one can be discerned through the fumes of brandy and cigars, is that modern Western democracies are built upon a “politico-moral” premise that seeks to build an “equal” and “inclusive”, “perfect” society; and that this process involves the handing-over of individual personal responsibility to the state, thus creating a servile mindset within the population, as per Aristotle’s definitions of natural slaves being those who have no control of themselves and in need of an external order to provide them with some structure to their lives.
This servility can be seen in action in the ever-increasing red tape and administrative paperwork that free individuals from the necessity to think and discern courses of right and wrong action. Instead, they need only ensure that they’ve followed the instructions to the letter and than they cannot be held responsible for the outcome, if the outcome is not the one that is expected.
It can be seen in the way that individual moral agents are not really responsible for their actions; rather, it’s their upbringing, or their genes or their socioeconomic background or some such other factor that renders it unjust for them to be held accountable. And it can be seen in the focus on “educating” persons about correct ways of action, thought and speech from an early age; where “tolerance” and “understanding” and “acceptance” are the height of “ethical” behaviour.
Professor Minogue defines the “politico-moral” as the prevailing paradigm of modern democratic involvement. The “politico-moral” is defined as an understanding of the state that grants it the status of the moral arbiter, and that it is its response to questions of right and wrong that is taken as the be-all and end-all. It is the moralising of the polis that defines it; it is the role, and promise, of the polis that it can create a perfect society without suffering and setbacks, and that it is therefore its duty to ensure that its citizens live up to its ideals.
This is contrasted with the liberal, Western democratic state, in that the liberal, democratic Western state is fundamentally about competition, about “playing the game”, as the good professor remarks often with reference to Hobbes and the English obsession with cricket as examples of this attitude.
The point is the successes of Western democracy come about due to a competition between free individuals, bound by social norms as much as by legal ones, that necessarily involves “winners” and “losers”, but, like winners and losers in cricket, they take it gracefully and accept their lot, and don’t carp about it. Much ink is spilled, and many trees pulped, for Professor Minogue to make the point that life is not fair, that it cannot be expected to be fair, and that the modern democratic state subverts this idea, replacing it with mandated equality.
This idea is all well and good. In G.K. Chesterton’s The Poet and the Lunatics, there is the line that “all God wants is for us to play the game”, with all that implies. And it comes as no surprise that a society that takes “equality” as its watchword must either come down in favour of the lowest common denominator or find a way to strategically cull those who do not fit in.
But the problem with Professor Minogue’s account is that he doesn’t provide an argument from first principles, or from empirical evidence, that proves conclusively why this should not be the case.
Why ought the state not level out the differences between individuals? Why ought it not be the arbiter of the foibles of its citizens? Why ought it not ensure that everyone gets a fair go? Because competition is better? Because it leaves people at the mercy of state intervention? Because it makes the state a sort of secular religion, offering salvation in this life? Because it doesn’t work? — when the easy retort is that there are so many forces trying to make sure it doesn’t work.
Professor Minogue’s attitude to religion is instructive in this regard. While he sees Christianity as somehow foundational to Western civilisation, he still critiques it as bringing about the modern democratic state that he obviously holds in some distaste; and furthermore he considers questions of religion — that is to say, questions about ultimate and eternal things — to be somehow outside his scope of discussion.
The implication in his work, by the short shrift given to theological considerations, is that he considers them fundamentally man-made; whereas any red-blooded believer will assert — and has done, often with recourse to dramatic measures — that they are God-made and therefore of crucial significance to questions of a societal nature.
The Inquisition, the Crusades, the Reformation and 9/11 were due to large numbers of people taking the claims of their faith quite seriously, if a little simplistically. This is because things relating to eternity, i.e., all of time, are seen as a little bit more important than things that only pertain to our meagre allotted span on this earth.
It noteworthy that Professor Minogue is of Anglo heritage. Initially a Kiwi, he then ended up in the great “Golden Siberia” of Oz, where the sun always shines, the sheilas tend to be gorgeous and work is a distraction from the important things in life, like beer and barbecues (at least in south-east Queensland from whence I hail). From there he went on to the United Kingdom, a land famed for drizzle and detective stories.
The great English vice, or virtue, depending upon how one looks at it, is one of intelligent compromise. John Locke’s political philosophy hinges upon justifying the existing order of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 in such a way that it is comprehensible to his contemporaries — while avoiding the messier implications of some of his ideas (it is noted that Professor Minogue makes much more reference to the rather more logically extreme Hobbes).
Anglicanism (with all apologies and due respects to any Anglican readers, and coming from one who has incredibly strong Anglo-Catholic sympathies) has become a strange creature hinging upon elegant compromises that enable the faithful to be fundamentally Protestant and Catholic at one and the same time, to say nothing of a communion that can have some members who consider women bishops a jolly good idea, and others who consider them an abomination; and they’re all apparently members of the same church.
The Latin-blooded (as such is this reviewer, in the interest of full disclosure) are left scratching their heads at this juncture. Latins get the idea of saints and sinners, those who live up to standards and those who don’t, and allow for the compromise of the confessional for the sinner to still be a decent member of society; but compromise, and allow one to be both a saint and sinner, depending upon whose asking? This leads to much confusion, and yet this is the attitude that Professor Minogue puts forth.
Is The Servile Mind a solidly empirical work grounded in the social sciences and close reading of historical documents? It seems not, as references to those works seem few and far between. Anecdotal recollections are all well and good for after-dinner conversation; but in an almost 400-page book attempting to argue fundamental questions in the face of the modern onslaught, it is not unfair, or unjust to ask for a few more sources to throw in the faces of nicey-nicey friends.
Is it, then, a philosophical work seeking to operate from first principles and fundamental concerns, that can be discerned from reasonable statements? It seems not, as its anthropology, or understanding of the human person, seems based on “what everyone knows”. This is marvellous — if the only audience consists of those who already agree with the fundamental presuppositions, and the implications that come from them. But for anyone who operates outside the wonderfully rarefied world of privileged gentlemen of a certain class and understanding, this presents tremendous difficulties.
What then is left? Are we to consider Professor Mingoue’s treatise as akin to Marshall McLuhan’s “thought-probes”, designed, as they were, to get other scholars thinking and doing the leg-work? It seems a little rich considering the weight and breadth of The Servile Mind, and seems more of a lack of secretarial assistance finding quotes and sources to justify the good professor’s arguments.
As a cheerful reactionary, I ought to agree with Professor Minogue, or at least, I think I ought to. He praises the monarchy, hierarchy and the importance of traditions; he lambasts the “equality”-focussed “inclusive” culture, and the ways in which democratic representation has brought it about, and the current lowest common denominator mess that is enacted throughout the West. But I cannot agree.
If arguments are to be made, they ought to be made in such a way that the other side cannot wriggle out of them, or claim unjust treatment in their making. It is a basic truth of Aristotelians, so lauded by Professor Minogue, that truth that is true can be shown to be true in such a way that its only challenges can come from those who reject its premises and reasonability.
Professor Minogue provides an admirable spur to further thought in The Servile Mind, but one that needs to be dragged away from the cigars and brandy of its audience so that it can make some headway amongst the water-drinking, healthy-eating, nicey-nice set who is the target of his ire. Otherwise, it’ll just remain an after-dinner conversation starter at the club. Cheers!