When do you think this passage was written and – a more difficult question – by whom?
“We are all becoming Socialists without knowing it … A little while ago and we were all for Liberty … This is over; laissez-faire declines in favour; our legislation grows authoritative, grows philanthropical, bristles with new duties and new penalties, and casts a spawn of inspectors, who now begin, note-book in hand, to darken the face of England. It may be right or wrong, we are not trying that; but one thing it is beyond doubt: it is Socialism in action, and the strange thing is that we scarcely know it…”
Now I have cut a few phrases which might have given the game away – a mention of a certain “Mr Hyndman and his horn-blowing supporters”, for instance. Nevertheless it’s probable that the elegance of the prose, and the use of the word “authoritative” rather than “authoritarian”, will have suggested to you that it wasn’t written yesterday. In fact, as you may have guessed, the essay from which I have abstracted these sentences was published towards the end of the 19th century. It is entitled “The Day After To-morrow”, and that day, that tomorrow, are long behind us. Yet there are things in the essay which are confoundedly up to date.
Socialism, the author points out, will be imposed, or brought about, by Acts of Parliament. “Well,” he writes, “we all know what Parliament is, and we are all ashamed of it … Decay appears to have seized on the organ of popular government in every land; and this just at the moment when we begin to bring to it, as to an oracle of justice, the whole skein of our private affairs to be unravelled, and ask it, like a new Messiah, to take upon itself the part that should be played by our own virtues. For that, in few words, is the case. We cannot trust ourselves to behave with decency; we cannot trust our consciences; and the remedy proposed is to elect a round number of our neighbours, pretty much at random, and say to these: ‘Be ye our conscience; make laws so wise , and continue from year to year to administer them so wisely, that they shall save us from ourselves, and make us righteous and happy, world without end. Amen.’ And who can look twice at the British Parliament and then seriously bring it to such a task?”
Who indeed? And yet, more than 120 years after these words were written, that same Parliament is passing ever more laws, and administering them ever more energetically, if not wisely, in order to make us, if not “righteous and happy”, then obedient and well-behaved. Despairing of human nature, we trust in the state.