Mr. Jebb is a British educator, editor, and journalist.
The great social drift in England during the past forty years has been toward a kind of totalitarianism. This fact is all the more depressing when it is realized that outstanding books written by widely read authors have appeared here during this period, showing in somberest colors the consequences of the trend. The drift, nevertheless, has accelerated. Three books come to mind, two of them works of fiction: Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State (1912), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and George Or-well’s 1984 (1949).
Belloc’s book was critical of "capitalism," which word he used in a special sense, not as an equivalent to "the free market economy" but as descriptive of the kind of interventionist state which existed in his England. "Capitalism"—in this sense—was under constant attack by Socialists. The result of this onslaught, Belloc foresaw, would not be the Cooperative Commonwealth of socialist fantasy; it would be a state in which the mass of men were reduced to servility.
Both Belloc and Huxley anticipated a generally accepted serfdom. Freedom would not be exchanged for tyranny in the harsh sense. There would be plenty of bread and circuses. Even in Orwell’s horrific picture of the future, the majority were adequately fed and cared for, and those outside the state’s detailed supervision were too weak and degenerate to cause the rulers any trouble. They simply did not count.
It is this ready acceptance by the people of the loss of freedom that is the most alarming feature of these three books, for even though the hero of 1984 rebels against the intolerably subservient conditions imposed on him, his rebellion ends in a mad ecstasy of submission.
Why is it that these three remarkable books have had little or no influence on the course of events? They are not mere guesses at the future, brilliant but founded on nothing more solid than the imagination of their authors. The Servile State reads more like the solution of an algebraic problem than a prophecy, and Huxley can point, in his recent revision of Brave New World, to developments that bear out his original thesis. All three books are confirmed by events.
Perhaps the answer to the question of their small influence is to be found in the appearance of the Welfare State. The lure of irresponsible ease and a rise in the so-called standard of living have blotted out from the minds of a big proportion of the population the price to be paid for governmental ordering of their lives. Because a large measure of freedom is still left to them and because the immediate prospects appear to be pleasant, they do not trouble to look at the hard logic of common sense. Neither the gloomy forebodings of thinking men nor the actual financial crises that the country has been undergoing affect them.
This insensitiveness to cause and effect is increased by the propaganda both of governments in power and the political parties of the Left. Governments invariably seek to enlarge the area of their influence, for the appetite for power, once acquired, is insatiable. But the propaganda of the Left is more sinister and nauseous. It sets out to assume a high moral purpose—protection of the weak against the heartlessness of the Right—and on this plea it proceeds to press for centralized control, so as to be able to distribute wealth as it thinks fit. This is a useful vote-catching device and at the same time tightens the bonds restraining individual freedom. Yet it would be difficult to find a single politician who condemns the principle underlying the Welfare State as it is organized in England.
England is wealthier today than it was a generation ago. Motor cars, television sets, washing machines, refrigerators, and a host of other modern inventions have come into the possession of millions who never dreamed of such amenities before. There is a superficial prosperity in many parts of the country. People have been led to attribute this progress to the Welfare State, ignoring the advance of technology, the aid given by the United States, the mortgaging of the future, and so on. But they do not realize—or at all events do not admit—either the insecurity of what has been built up or the loss of vigor and human satisfaction that the system involves.
If we leave the display window and penetrate into the store, the picture is very different. Here we find anxiety, discontent issuing in litigation and strikes, the growth of a wholly materialistic outlook combined with an almost total absence of thrift. We find, too, the professions, notably the medical profession, becoming bureaucratized, business interfered with and slowed up by red tape, taxation increasing, and prices rising. All this not only clouds the minds of those receiving benefits with a dread of their impermanence, but also encourages irresponsibility which grabs at what it can while the going is good. That adds to the general economic insecurity, weakens human morality and, hence, increases crime and governmental restrictions to combat it.
Clearly with this burning of the candle at both ends—state subsidies at the one end and lack of personal effort at the other—the system is bound to break down, and our three prophets will have been vindicated. The longer it lasts, the less virility will remain to effect a recovery.