In the previous posting on this subject, we looked at the background against which the Oxford Movement took place, viz., the culture of elitism that found expression in English type liberalism. This led naturally to an overemphasis on capitalism to counter socialism. Since both capitalism and socialism are in many respects fundamentally the same in theory as well as in practice, socialism was as ineffective in overcoming capitalism as capitalism was in countering socialism.
|Walter Bagehot, the socialist capitalist|
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the theories of Walter Bagehot a generation after the Oxford Movement. To summarize, Bagehot published his theories in The English Constitution (1867) and applied them in Lombard Street (1873). They represent the logical development of English type liberalism and the path it necessarily takes as capital ownership becomes increasingly concentrated, and just prior to the intrusion of socialism and their merging into the Servile State.
According to Bagehot, a relatively small economic élite (not to be confused with the “Upper Ten Thousand” that ruled “society”) were the real power in the country. They had gradually usurped political power since the days of the Tudors, and (according to Bagehot) properly so.
Bagehot carefully distinguished leadership in “society” (meaning parties, balls, race meets, and so on) from leadership in government and the economy. The Queen (a “retired widow”) and the Prince of Wales (“an unemployed youth”) were the leaders of “society.” They played an important role in providing the lower classes with the easily understood fallacy that the monarch ruled the country. Bagehot called this the “dignified” aspect of the English Constitution. It was a social convention to pacify the unintelligent masses.
|House of Lords: dignified, not efficient|
The real power, according to Bagehot, resided in the House of Commons, the House of Lords being another “dignified” aspect of the Constitution of the country. The House of Commons was “efficient” as opposed to “dignified,” and, so far as the traditional structures of government allowed, ran the country essentially as a business corporation.
The propertied classes were (in a sense) the shareholders of the national corporation. Common unpropertied people, as well as aristocrats whose wealth and power were in decline as agriculture diminished in relative importance, were to some extent supernumeraries, that is, redundant employees and pensioners of the national corporate State. “Corporate State” can be taken here both as meaning a nation run as a private business enterprise for the benefit of the economic and financial élite, even if ostensibly for the benefit of all citizens — whom Bagehot held in open contempt — or as a proto fascist State preliminary to the Servile State, an almost inevitable outcome when the “slavery of past savings” is the basis of the economic order.
|The end result of Bagehot's concept of "democracy."|
The House of Commons, elected by a relatively small number of voters, was, essentially, the board of directors of the country, “a class . . . trained to thought, full of money, and yet trained to business.” (Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution. Portland, Oregon: Sussex Academic Press, 1997, 66.) In other words, the governing body of the British Empire was a carbon copy of the owners and upper management of the Great East India Company, a private enterprise that governed India for the Crown until 1858, eight years before Bagehot wrote The English Constitution . . . until the Great Mutiny (1857-1858) brought the system crashing down.
Contrary to his assertion that ultimate power resided in the House of Commons, Bagehot did not support popular sovereignty. The electorate at the time he wrote, 1867, was still extremely small, and — like the Church of England at the time of the Oxford Movement — composed exclusively of men of property, a financial élite which thereby secured a self-perpetuating political power — the “pocket borough” system. This was only right as far as Bagehot was concerned. He believed that the masses were too stupid to be able to vote or do anything other than take orders:
|Bagehot's view of ordinary (i.e., non-owning) people.|
We have in a great community like England crowds of people scarcely more civilized than the majority of two thousand years ago; we have others, even more numerous, such as the best people were a thousand years since. The lower orders, the middle orders, are still, when tried by what is the standard of the educated ‘ten thousand’, narrow-minded, unintelligent, incurious. (Ibid., 6.)
We have whole classes unable to comprehend the idea of a constitution. (Ibid., 23.)
A free nation rarely can be — and the English nation is not — quick of apprehension. (Ibid., 74.)
According to Bagehot, “The principle of popular government is that the supreme power, the determining efficacy in matters political, resides in the people — not necessarily or commonly in the whole people, in the numerical majority, but in a chosen people, a picked and selected people.” [Emphasis in original.] (Ibid., 17.) Not surprisingly, one of the “defects” Bagehot listed in the American system is the impossibility of a dictatorship in times of national emergency. (Ibid., 20.) Another problem is that Americans do not accept the opinions of their betters without question: “They have not a public opinion finished and chastened as that of the English has been finished and chastened.” (Ibid., 13.)
|Bagehot's view of a capitalist.|
Natural rights, the judiciary, — such things are ignored. They are unimportant because they are not “efficient,” that is, they do not increase the effectiveness of government, the purpose of which is to protect the interests of the propertied classes who run the country and thus the status quo, whatever it might be. Weaknesses appear in government to the extent that the State administration departs from the principles of business, e.g., lack of efficient structure, unnecessary redundancy, etc. The fact that many of these structures were at least initially intended to provide accountability to the citizens is irrelevant.
Any more than the Anglican clergyman of the 1830s, the capitalist of Bagehot’s day — or, more accurately, the non-owning manager — was not accountable to his workforce or his customers. It therefore made perfect sense to Bagehot that the government should not be accountable to the citizens it governed.
Bagehot did not appear to understand that the State is not a business corporation owned by a small capitalist élite, any more than a religion is run for the benefit of its clergy. While principles of sound business (as opposed to the structures that have grown up to support and protect capitalism and socialism) can be applied in government to great advantage, ultimately there comes a parting of the ways. A business corporation exists to make a profit and benefit the individual workers, shareholders, and customers. A government exists to keep order and care for the common good; it is not an enterprise to be run for individual benefit or profit. A religion exists to help people live moral lives and prepare for their proper end, whatever it might be.
By focusing solely on what was expedient (“efficient”), Bagehot dismissed the importance of personal sovereignty and the dignity of the human person, the protection and development of which is the ultimate justification for government or religion. When a government or a religion undermines or goes against the dignity of every person or does not respect that of various individuals or groups by securing to them their natural rights, that government dissolves the contract that binds its citizens to it, and the religion can lose its legitimacy in the eyes of believers. This in turn justifies a change in rulers, or even in the form of government, or a change in religion or even elimination of all religion.
This, then, not mere indifference in religion, was what faced the Oxford Movement, as it did all traditional Christian bodies at the beginning of the nineteenth century. How they met the challenge is, within limits, a textbook case of how to deal with flawed institutions: acts of social justice.