The thesis of Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State is summed up by a prediction offered by Mr. Belloc in the first paragraph of the book’s introduction (emphasis in original):
This book is written to maintain and prove the following truth: That our free modern society in which the means of production are owned by a few being necessarily in unstable equilibrium, it is tending to reach a condition of stable equilibrium by the establishment o compulsory labor legally enforceable upon those who do not own the means of production for the advantage of those who do.
Most everything appearing in the book is dedicated, directly or indirectly, to supporting this prediction.
Mr. Belloc’s argument for his prediction, in brief, is as follows. English society (and by inference other industrialized Protestant countries) at the time of the books writing are defined by Mr. Belloc as being capitalist. That is to say, it is a society where nearly everyone is politically and economically free as regards the law, but where the means of production (defined as ownership in land, capital goods, and savings) is concentrated in the hands of a few. This, Mr. Belloc argues, is necessarily unstable, as it tends towards the monopolization of the capitalists (i.e. those who own the means of production) and the emiseration of the proletariat (i.e. those who don’t). This emiseration gives rise to reform movements who seek to lessen the plight of the proletariat. While these movements will tend to be socialist in ideology, both the power of entrenched capitalist interests and the popular moral sentiment against outright confiscation of people’s property by the State will make actually implementing a socialist program infeasible. As a second-best alternative, therefore, reformers will end up regulating the employer/employee relationship, placing restrictions on the ability of employers and employees to freely contract for labor, establishing duties of the employer to the employee and visa versa. According to Mr. Belloc’s view, the ultimate effect of these regulations will be the reestablishment of legal slavery, and those who lack property will be compelled to work for those who do. In such things as worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance, and the minimum wage, Mr. Belloc sees the beginnings of this system already developing.
Mr. Belloc is quite explicit that it is the reemergence of actual, literal slavery, and not slavery in some figurative or metaphorical sense, that he is predicting. He refers dozens of times to the fact that work will be compelled by the positive law according to one’s status as a nonowner, and explicitly disclaims the label servile or slave for work undertaken for any other purpose:
That society is not servile in which men are intelligently constrained to labor . . . indirectly from fear of destitution, or directly from love of gain, or from the common sense which teaches them that by their labor they may increase their well-being.
The Servile State, then, is centered around a prediction, the reemergence of legal slavery in the form of legally compelled labor on the part of the majority of the population based on their status as nonowners of property. Nearly one hundred years after the publication of Mr. Belloc’s book, such a reemergence has failed to materialize. Nor, frankly, does the emergence of a servile state in Mr. Belloc’s sense appear to be on the horizon. If anything, the amount of legally compelled labor today is less than at the time he was writing (in the United States, for example, even the Armed Forces is made up of volunteers).
In the mid-nineteenth century, followers of the charismatic preacher William Miller believed that the second coming of Christ was due to occur on October 22, 1844. When this prediction failed to pan out, many were disillusioned. Some however, preferred to reinterpret the prophecy in a way that made it comport with subsequent events. Similarly, when various predictions made by Karl Marx didn’t pan out, a whole cottage industry grew up attempting to show that Marx hadn’t actually been wrong, but only that he had been misunderstood. No doubt there is a temptation among Mr. Belloc’s fans today to do something similar, and to allegorize his claims about the reemergence of slavery in order to keep them from being falsified. This, however, would not be in keeping with the spirit of The Servile State. Mr. Belloc takes great pains in the book to stress that he is to be taken literally, and if he were alive today, one hopes that he would be candid enough to admit that the central thesis of the book has been proved wrong.