Tuesday, September 20, 2011

In Praise of Serfdom

"Hello there John, nice to hear from you. Look, you don't want to go getting any funny ideas, do you? I mean we all think about it sometimes, but, well... Here's some stuff I wrote a while ago to answer exactly those doubts you're having. Hope it helps you:

Now a lot of people say that they want to be free. If they understood what freedom meant, they wouldn’t want it. Most of them wouldn’t, anyway. Freedom requires courage. Do you have courage? Freedom requires resourcefulness, energy, vision, relentless hard work. It requires the ability to do your duty to those who you have made your responsibility. Do you have these qualities? Are you prepared to strive, every moment of every day, to cultivate them? Are you prepared for the consequences if you are not suited to freedom? I think not.

You have certain aptitudes and qualities, I’m sure. Not as many as you think, but certainly some, and I’m sure they can be improved. You are thinking about this question, which is a start. But I don’t for one moment believe you have understood it.

I advocate serfdom because for the great majority of people it really is the best way to live. For me, too. I do not see myself as some philosopher king, condemning the rabble to tyranny in their own best interests while I live like a lord on the fruits of their labours. Not at all. I want to be one of them. In fact, I am one of them. Most people are serfs, in the sense that I use the term, and are quite happy with their lot.

Do not imagine that freedom means having a lot of money and doing what you want. There are those who inherit vast sums, never want for anything, never have to do anything they don’t wish to, and can, if they are lucky enough that their imagination matches their resources, live with very considerable freedom. But such people are few, and in any case, you are not one of them, so they cannot serve you as models.

Those people who make a lot of money have invariably spent most of their life working to do it. They have sacrificed their health, their family, their leisure, their youth and many other things you and I take for granted, for the success that gives them freedom of action in the later stages of their lives. Or rather, for the chance of success, because despite all that sacrifice, most of them never achieve a situation in which they can simply do what they want. Those that do reach that stage have lost any notion they once had of how to be free. They have acquired huge responsibilities which determine most of their actions. They only think they are free because they have control over a small part of their time. Some of them undoubtedly do achieve a considerable amount of freedom, but it was very hard won, and the great majority, despite everything, fail.

Try a little gedankenexperiment, as the old German physicists used to say. Imagine you are on a desert island. Well, not actually a desert island, but a small island. There are trees, plants, animals, rocks, the necessary things for life, but they need to be sown, hunted, collected, built, whatever. There are women in another part of the island, who are afraid of you and will only approach if you tell them to. You can take them as concubines, or slaves, or you can leave them alone. You are the king of your island. You can do whatever you want. But everything depends on you. You have to organize the hunting, the farming, the building, do all the heavy work yourself, look after your wives and servants and children. You’re free to starve, of course, but you won’t choose to, will you? If you get ill, you have to find a cure, or pray. If other men come to the island, you’ll have to fight them yourself. You want to make the time pass more quickly? Arrange a bit of cock-fighting, or a coconut shy. Or teach the women football. It’s up to you. You wanted to be free. You wanted to be left alone. Well now you are on your own. Did I mention you are also free to leave? Of course you are. How long do you think it would be before you built a boat?

Organise the women into a gangs to hunt and till and build, an army to defend the shores, capture the other men who arrive, give them tasks to do, think about it all, how to make it work, pair them off, invent a taboo to stop them being at it like rabbits, divide the food fairly, sort out the fights and the quarrels between them. Congratulations, you just become king. Are you enjoying it? Well, someone’s become king. What makes you think it’ll be you? Have you built that boat yet? Were you born to be a king? I don’t think so. I certainly wasn’t.

You may say you pay taxes, but you don’t pay enough to cover what you receive. You say that one day you will pay more than you get back. Perhaps you will. Then what? Can you choose to pay less? Can you decide what to spend it on? Your freedom, even then, is very limited. You will be expected to pay for your serfs, and told exactly how you must do it, while being a serf yourself. Politicians and the like will control every aspect of how your imagined freedom is used. They will tell you all the things they’ve decided you must do, or the things they’ve decided you can’t do. They won’t tell you why it has to be that way, they won’t give the real reasons. You don’t explain things to serfs. We who accept our condition don’t want to know. We don’t care.

The leaders aren’t free either. They have to spin dozens of plates around their heads night and day for the whole of their lives. If one plate falls, they could be sacked, voted out, knifed in the back, fed to the crocodiles. Could you live with that knowledge, never knowing when a plate might fall? Their freedom depends on an exhausting expenditure of energy and attention, and can be lost at any time without notice.

The truly free are the serfs, at least in the country you and I are lucky enough to live in. We don’t have to work hard. We could, if we chose, not work at all, though we would lose as well as gain by it- there are always trade-offs. We have no responsibilities. The companies we work for are someone else’s problem, so is our health, our safety, the education of our children, our entertainment, our transport. We can more or less demand that those we serve provide us with what we want. We have voluntarily foregone certain freedoms, it’s true, but we have gained a great deal by it. Unless you spent your time neurotically worrying about whether you possess some ideologically pure form of freedom- which I don’t-  serfdom is the best option in life.

Your mate,



Vincent said...

You have convinced me, Dave. I'm a serf, always have been, always will be.

But in the course of my serfing, or as I call it, surfing, I opened a letter to a Mister Johnson. It was signed J Sunderland Fortescue. I didn't like its tone. We serfs are the ones who rather unwillingly support "aristocrats" like this Fortescue. To be honest, I don't like his tone. He ought to know that we could start a revolution. Not that I want to. I've been reading something by a K. Marx, and I tell you, it's disturbing.

I'd prefer it if the aristos who throw their weight about too arrogantly were quietly liquidated with a humane bullet as and when. This would keep them within bounds, and let us go on peaceably in our beloved serfdom, with minimum fuss and spilt

So my slogan is "Workers of the world, keep your heads down! Things could be much worse."

CIngram said...

I see you've taken Dave's arguments to heart ;-) He's almost convinced me as well. It's just so much easier.

Serfdom with limited pest control? Good idea. Much better than revolution, which is almost always a ghastly business.

James Higham said...

Organise the women into a gangs to hunt and till and build, an army to defend the shores, capture the other men who arrive, give them tasks to do, think about it all, how to make it work, pair them off, invent a taboo to stop them being at it like rabbits, divide the food fairly, sort out the fights and the quarrels between them.

Wise words.

CIngram said...


Sounds like bloody hard work, doesn't it? It's why we let other people do it. And then look what happens.

Vincent said...

I've changed my earlier opinion. On the desert island, I reject the thought experiment. there's a chance that the veneer of civilisation might dissipate and the people return to instinctive good sense, without any need for any government.

CIngram said...

All social animals, including all the higher primates, and all uncivilized human populations, have rigidly controlled hierarchies. These are generally established and maintained by violence or the threat of violence. In the case of humans, there tribes where leaders maintain their position by violent repression others by acceptance, custom and tradition, some are bloody, some live in peace, but there are always leaders, and to challenge them is very destabilising.

On the desert island I'm quite sure there would be a king. The point was that even if Dave the serf managed to get himself in that position, he knows he wouldn't enjoy it.