Mother Countryby Marilynne Robinson
At the time when Robinson wrote this book, the largest known source of radioactive contamination of the world's environment was a government-owned nuclear plant called Sellafield, not far from Wordsworth's cottage in the Lakes District; one child in sixty was dying from leukemia in the village closest to the plant. The central question of this eloquently
At the time when Robinson wrote this book, the largest known source of radioactive contamination of the world's environment was a government-owned nuclear plant called Sellafield, not far from Wordsworth's cottage in the Lakes District; one child in sixty was dying from leukemia in the village closest to the plant. The central question of this eloquently impassioned book is: How can a country that we persist in calling a welfare state consciously risk the lives of its people for profit.
Mother Country is a 1989 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction.
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The first questions that arise in attempting to understand Sellafield, and more generally the nuclear and environmental policies of the British government, are: How have they gotten away with so much? and Why on earth would they want to get away with it? To put it in other terms, why should the relationship of those who govern Britain to its land and population be that of a shrewd adversary contriving to do harm for profit? For decades the British government has presided over the release of deadly toxins into its own environment, for money, using secrecy, scientism, and public trust or passivity to preclude resistance or criticism and to quiet fears. Such extraordinary behavior cannot have a motive in any usual sense, since it is in no one’s interest. It has, however, an etiology and a history, in which the institutions which expedite it and the relations it expresses evolve together. This is of more than casual interest to Americans, because there is no stronger cultural force than atavism. Our past is a good commentary on the future we seem to be preparing for ourselves.
It is often said that Britain has no written constitution. If a constitution is a body of law that defines the fundamental relations among the elements of a society, then Britain has an ancient one indeed, solidly encoded, enshrined in literature, in history, and in an array of institutions. The core of British culture is Poor Law, which emerged in the fourteenth century and was reformed once, in 1834, when it became the Victorians’ notorious New Poor Law. It remained in force until 1948. Then it was superseded by the Welfare State, in which its features were plainly discernible.
In essence, Poor Law restricted people who lived by their labor to the parish where they were born, and mandated assistance from the parish for those who were needy and deemed deserving of help, while wages were depressed to a level that made recourse to such help frequent. This often meant entering a poorhouse, institutions whose wretchedness made them, over centuries, objects of the minutest study to generations of philanthropists. Working people who were forced to accept parish assistance, and whose destitution was absolute, and who were found otherwise worthy of aid, surrendered whatever rights they may have had. Or the fact that they had no rights was thoroughly and ingeniously exploited once they accepted this status. Under the Old Poor Law, before the 1834 reforms that made the operation of the system more punitive and severe, child paupers, that is, the children of destitute parents, were given to employers, each with a little bonus to reward the employer for relieving the public of this burden. The children would be worked brutally, because with each new pauper child the employer received another little bonus. To starve such children was entirely in the interest of those who set them to work. Aside from all the work the child performed under duress, its death brought the reward that came with a new child. The authorities asserted an absolute right to disrupt families, and to expose young children to imprisonment and forced labor. The invasiveness of the Poor Laws was never impeded by the development of any system of assured legal rights, with which the entire institution would have been wholly incompatible and out of sympathy. Leslie Scarman, a member of the House of Lords and a legal authority, has written: “It is the helplessness of law in [the] face of the legislative sovereignty of Parliament which makes it difficult for the legal system to accommodate the concept of fundamental and inviolable human rights.”5 More to the point, the social history of Britain has never reflected any sense of the unconditional value of human lives or any respect for the modest baggage of person and property, the little circumference of inviolability on which personal rights depend.
The indigent who were considered worthy of parish assistance were called paupers. The unworthy, those who were considered able-bodied but shiftless, were not to be relieved, though in fact they were often assisted on the same terms as the “deserving poor,” that is, meagerly and punitively, since the system was in any case preoccupied with the need to withhold charity, considered the great source of moral corruption of the poor and therefore the great source of poverty. So late and well reputed a social thinker as the young William Beveridge urged that starvation be left as a final incentive to industry among the shiftless poor. Beveridge was to become the father of the Welfare State.
The mandate of Poor Law charity was only to provide subsistence, because if the recipient of charity were to do as well as the independent worker, the worker, too, would become demoralized and slide into pauperism. At the same time, a very important article of economic faith was that the wages of workers could not exceed subsistence—if they did, the depletion of capital would cause a decline in investment and employment that would return the worker unceremoniously to something less than the level of subsistence. So it was difficult to make the situation of paupers less desirable than the situation of the employed, especially considering the horrendous conditions under which most work was done. Paupers were subjected to the miseries of the separation of their families, and they were auctioned off or forced into emigration, depending on the improvisations of local authorities determined to keep relief recipients to an absolute minimum. To assure that parish assistance would be limited to those who were qualified by birth or legal settlement to receive it, the movement of workers was narrowly restricted.
The abusive treatment of paupers was justified on the grounds that it discouraged the class above them, the employed, from sinking into Poor Law dependency, and it was justified by the suspicion that the class below them, the poor unworthy of assistance, were to be found among them despite all precautions, and it was justified on the grounds that dependency easily became habit, that charity demoralized its recipients. Every worker was a potential pauper, and every pauper was a burden, presumptively demoralized, and an agent of demoralization of others. These assumptions created and sustained the legal situation of the great majority of British people.
Even now British subjects have no rights established in law. Supposedly they enjoy customary rights, but where in their harrowing history any custom friendly to their interests could have been established I am at a loss to know. Until the 1980s people were imprisoned without trial on the word of the arresting officer for appearing to intend a crime, under the Vagrancy Act of 1824. Such arrests have supposedly ended, but in Britain few things ever really end. Clearly, those against whom such laws are carried out have none of the protections we imagine to be “Western.” The laws are highly consistent, however, with the conditions of the Poor Law, which voided every notion of individual rights—except, of course, the slippery right to subsist, always boasted of and worried about despite high rates of death among paupers, and at best enjoyed only by those the parish could or would relieve.
Parliament, which would be the political expression of fundamental rights in the British population if it were a straightforward representative institution, is characterized by an extraordinary mix of prerogatives and disabilities, which combine to weaken all other institutions without creating real power in the Parliament itself. No British court can override the laws it passes. Recently it abolished seven major elected city governments, including the Greater London Council, an action of special significance because these were major power bases for the Labour Party. To this day Parliament can expunge an official crime by legalizing an action of government retroactively. It has almost perfect legislative freedom, in theory, but in fact it has no right to any information the Prime Minister does not give it. A bill, while it is in preparation, is an Official Secret, forbidden to Members of Parliament as to anyone else. Experts on modern Britain describe the system as an elective dictatorship, but I have my doubts about that formula. Whitehall, the bureaucracy that is actually charged with developing legislation, collecting information, and implementing policy, is not elected, and does not change with parties or ministries. Question time, when the Prime Minister replies to questions from Members of Parliament, can deal only with specified subjects. It is forbidden, for example, to inquire into purchases made by the National Health Service. As Ralf Dahrendorf, head of the London School of Economics, says in his book On Britain, “What happens is not decided in Westminster [that is, in Parliament]. It is not even discussed at Westminster in any detail. As a result, the visible political game becomes strangely superficial.” Mr. Dahrendorf admires the system, on balance. However, that the “deceptively lively adversary surface”6 of parliamentary activity is a surface, rather than an authentic and consequential process of deliberation, means that even the right to vote is a very small concession of power on the part of those who do decide “what happens.” In other words, there is a pervasive absence of positive, substantive personal and political rights in Britain.
The structures of institutions express conceptions of society. Sellafield amounts, in its dinosaur futurism, to a brutal laying of hands on the lives of people: a blunt, unreflecting assertion of power. It is the same unchallenged assertion of economic prerogative that legally immobilized the majority of the British population for five hundred years, so that the cost of relieving their wretchedness, when wretchedness became extreme, could be contained.
The movement of workers from the country to the cities and from the North to London demonstrates that these laws, which mandated the forced return of strayed workers to the place of their legal settlement, were not consistently enforced, though in the beginning of this century Beatrice Webb, guiding spirit of Fabian socialism, may be heard grumbling about the numbers who were returned and the costs entailed. If cities represented opportunity, relatively speaking, migrants had the impetus of destitution and humiliation at their backs, to enhance the pull of urban life. Everywhere, whatever they did, workers were seen as burdens, actual or potential, and this perception governed every aspect of their existence.
America had its paupers and poorhouses, through the nineteenth century at least, though these institutions seem never to have seized on the national imagination, or to have remained in the popular memory. Hawthorne’s failed utopia, Blithedale, becomes a poor farm. Thoreau is visited at Walden by paupers, including one who declares himself “deficient in intellect.” In the early twentieth century, Booker T. Washington notes that blacks are almost never paupers, by which he means that they are provident and self-sufficient people. Given our profound cultural debt to Great Britain, it is no wonder if our policies with regard to the poor are sometimes crude and high-handed. But imagine what it would be like if we had truly replicated British social organization, if every American who lived by a wage had been immobilized to simplify the administration of welfare in the event he should need it, and if this arrangement had been persisted in for hundreds of years. This would surely trench very far on the dignity and liberty of citizens, and their pursuit of happiness.
Margaret Thatcher is easing the burdens of Britain by cutting back on education, health care, and other threadbare amenities, pinching one of the poorest populations in Europe, supposedly to punish and cure their poverty. This is a typically visceral reaction against the supposed cost to the state of allowing meager comfort to people perceived as demoralized and reduced to dependency by intemperate generosity.
Such patterns of reaction are as old as Poor Law itself. William Beveridge, who wrote the celebrated Plan for the Welfare State in 1943, promised “subsistence” to employed people in conditions of high national employment. This is the great socialist dream against which the present government recoils. Americans, perhaps because they romanticize their origins, never think of the lives of British people as circumscribed and poor, historically or at present, though many of them are descended from the outcasts and refugees of this same penurious system. That any society could promise so little, and then renege, seems preposterous, except against the background of British social history.
How does one back away from a promise of subsistence? As an economist, Beveridge knew that the historical meaning of the word has only been that one should not die of starvation in its starkest form. Disease, poisoning, exposure, malnutrition, and exhaustion have never been treated as incompatible with subsistence, though they have slain multitudes. In other words, though in Britain historically it has been used to establish the wage of a worker, in theory and in practice, and as the measure of mercy to the afflicted, and as the animating vision of the armies of reformers, subsistence has always been, conceptually speaking, a rotten nut. Beveridge’s promising it under certain—historically atypical—conditions implies that, under other conditions, people must expect less. If subsistence seemed to the British public of the late forties a bright prospect, less-than-subsistence must have seemed to them to describe their situation before the war. (During World War II, food rationing improved the British diet and health. Since Beveridge presided over the distribution of food, perhaps a definition of subsistence was inferred from his successes in relieving poor nutrition. However, postwar austerities returned nutrition to prewar standards.)
It should shock us that the virtual constitution of a modern state could imply that the subsistence of its people was not to be assumed in the event of unfavorable, and highly typical, economic conditions. William Beveridge wrote an escape clause into his Plan for the Welfare State, and Margaret Thatcher has availed herself of it. Beveridge, claiming the influence of Maynard Keynes, opined that government could stimulate employment so as to maintain it at the level necessary to make his plan viable. In other words, in the absence of ongoing government action, the plan would collapse. For years the British government has systematically created unemployment, so the plan, whatever it amounted to, has lost its economic rationale. It was designed to be possible only if it was not especially necessary.
The ancient pattern of dubious charity provoking horrified reaction against the object of charity is being repeated now in the radical attack on the meager fabric of public amenity—they are selling the Thames—and, in general, on the standard of living of the poor, whose consumption of medical care has been curtailed by the collapse of the National Health Service, and whose real income has been reduced by the curtailment of every kind of provision the state so gallantly undertook in 1948, appropriating to itself thereby, as William Beveridge knew and said, the socialization—the control, that is—of demand.
The mechanism built into the British Welfare State which allows demand to be depressed was perfected in the Poor Law system. It is the combination of poverty-level wages, heavily taxed for good measure, with a system of national decency and, shall I say, comity which brings real income back up to the level considered economically convenient by the government of the day. Britain has never had a minimum wage. Wages have always been notional. Against the large reductions of public provision now being made, a few percentage points of increase in wages claimed by the present government mean absolutely nothing.
What is happening now is a counterattack against the demons which the British ruling class and middle class have always felt to be released by charity, whether public, private, secular, or religious, and also by prosperity among those classes of people for whom prosperity is not customary. To these supposed erosions of order and value, and infringements on the wealth of the well-to-do, the characteristic response is a swingeing punishment.
Poor Law and the society it generated amount to a prehistory of America, not only because its mechanisms of expulsion peopled these shores, but also because it created the legal context which made life, liberty, and happiness revolutionary aspirations. The early history of Poor Law is barbarous, and its violence will seem specific to an early period. But the occasion for this book is the knowing and calculated contamination, by the British government for profit, of a populous landscape, with the most toxic substance known to exist on earth. And it is my impression that leukemia, like older misfortunes, alters one’s appearance for the worse. If anyone wishes to object that my comparison is unfair or sensational, I reply that the motive behind all these martyrdoms is profit, and, more precisely, the threat and terror of redundancy, of lives existing in excess of economic demand. Without Sellafield there would be even more unemployment. Barbarous exactions are still being made on economic pretexts.
Poor Law appeared first in the form of the Ordinance of Labourers promulgated in 1349 under Edward III, which required work at legally limited wages of all able-bodied workmen and workwomen “free or servile,” anyone who refused being jailed “until he find security to serve in the form aforesaid.” The occasion for this ordinance was the Black Death, which had depleted the population so severely that workers were in great demand, and accordingly able to ask for higher wages than they had previously received. There was at the same time an inflation in prices which must have made higher wages necessary, because working people chose to be idle rather than to accept the pay they were offered, even though they were, as described in this same law, people with no resource but the sale of their labor. Clearly the interest of the state, and its authority, merge with those who employ. The principle established in 1349, and not departed from even now, when unemployment is created as a policy of government, is that “the commonwealth,” the employing minority, has a presumptive right to the labor of working people, with no obligation to acknowledge its value, whether as established by demand or as giving consideration to the share of labor in the creation of wealth.
In the theory of political economy, workers compete to sell their labor in a free market. In theory, which bears a most complex relation to practice, their labor creates all value. The Ordinance of Labourers is directed against the development of a labor market in conditions which would make demand favorable to the workers’ interests. The more typical condition of “redundancy,” of glut in the labor market, would be allowed to cheapen labor, however, though low wages, by driving women and children into employment, contributed greatly to the excess. Read aright, Poor Law is a system which severs work from any notion of its objective worth by criminalizing idleness. This unconditional claim made in the Ordinance of Labourers on free and servile alike—on those who had managed to wrest themselves from serfdom and those who had not—raises questions about the distinctions between free and enslaved workers which remain lively into the twentieth century.
The Ordinance of Labourers contains another feature characteristic of later Poor Laws. It forbids charity to “sturdy beggars” on the grounds that such people are guilty of withholding their labor. The adjective “sturdy” implies that the old or infirm may be relieved, enforcing the distinction on the charitable thus:
And because many sturdy beggars, so long as they can live by begging for alms, refuse to labour, living in idleness and sin and sometimes by thefts and other crimes, no man, under the aforesaid penalty of imprisonment, shall presume under colour of pity or alms to give anything to such as shall be able profitably to labour, or to cherish them in their sloth, that so they may be compelled to labour for the necessaries of life.
Idleness in the able-bodied is wicked and leads to wickedness, and therefore to extend charity to the undeserving is itself an act worthy of punishment. Anyone confronted by a beggar who might be called able-bodied would exercise caution. Thus, at the small cost of denying alms to some who deserved them, the great public benefit would be gained of extracting labor from those fit to work. Sound morals and sound economics at a single stroke.
It is characteristic of Poor Law as a phenomenon to attempt to suppress the charitable impulse and, where benefit is transferred, to maximize its effectiveness as social coercion. The conditions imposed on the giving of charity make it no charity at all. That for which it is exchanged—submission, in a word—makes it instead an unusually good bargain, especially since more niggardly assistance is more effectively controlling. This fortunate conjunction of advantages will be sought with increasing rigor and system, but by the same methods, over centuries. Beatrice Webb herself will brood over the well-being of the working poor with a sublime concern that they should not be corrupted by any largesse, public or private, that succors them when their need is not exquisite. In fact, a most rigorous discrimination between worthy and unworthy poor, morally earnest in the extreme but sadly inclined to pinch and humiliate the worthy in order that no reprobate should escape unpinched and unhumiliated, will become the primary care of British philanthropy, enlisting the efforts of the finest spirits and the loftiest minds.
Certain features of this fourteenth-century ordinance should be noted. It deals with working people exclusively, depresses their wages and exacts their labor, and worries over their tendency to be taken for or treated as needy people, unable to work, whose right to charity is implicitly conceded. For a long time, well into the twentieth century, the words “poor” and “labourers” and “workers” will be used interchangeably. Like the Ordinance of Labourers, the Poor Laws will be directed at working people, whose normal condition is assumed to be poverty. Paupers, the destitute, those who fall short of subsistence, are simply workers in sickness or old age or widowhood or madness or despair, or whose trade has become obsolete or whose industry has gone into crisis, or whose wages have fallen so low that they work and are still indigent and dependent. “Pauper” is simply Latin for “poor,” logically enough. The word implies a distinction whose reality is doubtful at best, since the whole class of workers or poor were governed by laws supposedly designed to relieve and discourage pauperism.
The distinction between workers and the poor is not made, because workers are poor, and, as a class, are vulnerable to utter destitution. This fundamental relationship of labor to the purchasers of labor will attract rationalizations the way a magnet does pins. Frequently these rationalizations are at odds with one another, but this does not matter, because as justifications of an existing order, their very variety indicates profound consensus.
The Ordinance of Labourers, with its refusal to distinguish between free and servile, was clearly designed to shore up erosions in the feudal system. An act of the twelfth year of Richard II, in 1388, reinforced this effect. This law anticipated the later Acts of Settlement, which would continue in effect in association with the Poor Laws down to 1948. It forbade any laborer to leave the town or borough where he lived without a “letter patent containing the cause of his going and the time of his return.” Towns were to maintain stocks where any laborer traveling without a letter could be kept “until he have found surety to return to his service or to serve or labour in the town from which he comes.” Those who cannot work, “beggars unable to serve,” are immobilized in the same way and by the same means. Thirty years after the plague, labor was still scarce, still exacted: “As well artificers and craftsmen as servants and apprentices” are “to be forced to serve in harvest at cutting, gathering, and bringing in the corn.” The law specifically limits the wages of categories of workers, “because servants and labourers will not and for [a] long time have not been willing to serve and labour without outrageous and excessive hire and much greater than has been given to such servants and labourers in any time past.”
This law is often described as important because it makes a distinction between the idle and the truly needy. However, it does nothing of the kind. It restricts the movements of the impotent poor in order to restrict more effectively the movements of the able-bodied, who begged and wandered just as they did. It is designed to make unnecessary the distinction required by the ban on charity for sturdy beggars in the Ordinance of Labourers. Again, while the Poor Laws are always treated as if they were intended to alleviate poverty, these early statutes from which they derive are clearly designed to immobilize labor and bring down its cost. The features of the laws affecting the impotent are designed to ensure these results.
The interpretation of the laws as primarily charitable provision for the needy, rather than as attempts to control the cost and supply of labor, has given great currency to the view that they originated in the breaking up of the monasteries by Henry VIII. The eighteenth-century writer Frederick Eden, in his classic work, The State of the Poor (1797), traces the Poor Laws to these origins, as do Adam Smith and Karl Marx, Carlyle, Disraeli, Hilaire Belloc, and others. Marx mentions the fourteenth-century laws in his discussion of the Poor Laws in Capital, but he makes nothing of them. Occurring as they do long before the Reformation, they are anomalous, if one assumes that the intent of the laws was to create a secular equivalent of the disrupted institutions of Christian charity. The miseries of the mass of rural people driven from the land described in More’s Utopia, published in 1515, make very clear that the problems of poverty and beggary were fully present when the monasteries still flourished. That More should not have mentioned them in association with the suffering he describes hardly encourages one to believe that they figured significantly in alleviating need.
The institution threatening to collapse in the fourteenth century was not monasticism but feudalism. The Black Death had ravaged the society, transforming the situation of the workers by making them few. The great restlessness of the people during this period issued finally in the Peasants’ War. Jean Froissart, a contemporary of these events, a Frenchman with a courtly bias, reports in his Chronicles that in 1381 there occurred “great disasters and uprisings of the common people, on account of which the country was almost ruined beyond recovery.” Says Froissart: “It was because of the abundance and prosperity in which the common people then lived that this rebellion broke out.” Other historians find a cause in the Ordinance of Labourers. The high wages which workers seem to have been able to command where the law was skirted, together with the oppressiveness of its enforcement where it was not, might very well have produced a revolt like Wat Tyler’s. “These bad people,” wrote Froissart, “began to rebel because, they said, they were held too much in subjection, and when the world began there had been no serfs.” Serfdom was at that time, according to him, especially widespread in England.
The peasant rising swept through the country and entered London. The great army of the poor was finally dispersed by the precocious statecraft of the young King Richard II, who granted their request, the end of serfdom. When they had returned to their villages, he sent men at arms after them, the letters freeing them were torn up and scattered in front of them, and their leaders were killed, more than fifteen hundred men. Seven years later, in 1388, Richard II legally forbade the movement of working people over the countryside. The advantages of the law as a system of social control are obvious. Further, it prevented workers from finding the best market for their labor, keeping wages low even at the cost of creating idleness and indigency. This immobilization continued as a feature of the Poor Laws for five centuries. Clearly the legislation is not based on any charitable design. The intention of this law is to assure that the poor remain poor.
Other acts leading up to 43 Elizabeth, as the classic version of the Poor Laws passed in 1601 is known, are unabashedly ferocious. They lay claim to the labor of working people with sovereign indifference to the questions of freedom such appropriation necessarily entails. In the first year of the reign of the child king Edward VI, it was enacted “that if any man, or woman, able to work should refuse to labour, and live idly for three days, that he, or she, would be branded with a red hot iron on the breast with a letter ‘V’, and should be adjudged the slave, for two years, of any person who should inform against such idler.” A glimpse of hell, surely. “And the master was directed to feed his slave with bread and water or small drink and such refuse meat as he should think proper; and to cause his slave to work, by beating, chaining, or otherwise in such work and labour (how vile soever it be) as he should put him into.” Furthermore, “if he runs away from his master for the space of fourteen days, he shall become his slave for life, after being branded on the forehead or cheek with the letter ‘S’; and if he runs away a second time and shall be convicted thereof by two sufficient witnesses, he shall be taken as a felon, and suffer pains of death, as other felons ought to do.”
The preamble of the statute makes explicit the philosophical grounds for the criminalization of idleness: If “the vagabonds who were unprofitable members, or rather enemies of the commonwealth, were punished by death, whipping, imprisonment, and with other corporal pains, it were not without their deserts.” A vagabond, for the purposes of this law, is a man or woman who has been idle for three days—not in itself proof of wantonness or evil disposition. That a transgression so inconsiderable should bring down such ruin upon a man or woman accused of no crime except the withholding of labor means that the claim of “the commonwealth” upon the work of working people was, in effect, without limit. If “the commonwealth” failed to assert its claims in the person of an informer—the framers of this law were aware there existed in this world “foolish pitie and mercie,”
yet never the less justices of the peace shall be bound to inquire after such idle persons; and if it shall appear that any such have been vagrant for the space of three days, he shall be branded on the breast with a ‘V’, made with a hot iron, and shall be conveyed to the place of his birth, there to be nourished, and kept in chains, or otherwise, either at the common works on ammending highways, or in the service of individuals after all such former condition, space of years, orders, punishments for running away, as are expressed of any common or private person to whom such loiterer is adjudged a slave. If vagabonds [that is, those reported to have been idle three days] are carried to places, of which they have falsely declared themselves to be natives, then for such lie they shall be marked in the face with an ‘S’, and be slave to the inhabitants or corporation of the town, city or village where he said he was born in, for ever.
This law was soon repealed, though there were subsequent attempts to revive it. Its provisions, while extreme, nevertheless anticipate features of later laws.
A series of Elizabeth I’s laws made wages variable to deal with the problem of the changing prices of “things belonging to servants and labourers,” because earlier restrictions “could not be carried into execution without the great grief and burden of the poor labourer and the hired man.” A statute of 1572 required “a general assessment, or tax, for the relief of the impotent poor,” any remaining money to be used to employ rogues and vagabonds under supervision. The term “vagabond” was this time carefully defined to include, among others, “bearwards and common players in interludes.” If Shakespeare had not been allowed to dress as a great man’s servant, he would have fallen under the provisions of these laws, at a great ultimate cost to the tourist industry.
Another law passed in the reign of Elizabeth established “houses of correction,” where “youth might be accustomed and brought up to labour, and then not like to grow to be idle rogues; and that such as be already grown up in idleness, and so rogues at this present, may not have any excuse in saying that they cannot get service or work.” By the same authorities, needy persons were to be supplied with wool, hemp, flax, and so on, so that they could, of course, work.
A statute of 1597 established four overseers in each parish for setting poor children to work. The law, addressed to the problem of vagrancy, directed parishes to establish housing for their own impotent poor.
These laws create an increasingly coherent system in which wages are fixed to the cost of subsistence, the movement of the poor is stabilized, the young poor and the idle poor are compelled to work—at textile manufacture, interestingly. And in being so employed, they are all objects of charity, or, to couch the matter in the modern and secular terms more appropriate to it, they are burdens on the taxpayer. Eden says, “The situation of the Poor even after the passing of the 43 Elizabeth, is represented by some authors as exceedingly deplorable; and the assessments for their relief are said to have been so low that many perished for want,” and that “The salaries of the masters and governors [of houses of correction] were directed to be paid by the treasurer of the Poor; and these alone must have added heavily to the county charges.” Never mind. The moral high ground won here will never be relinquished. Ever afterward the poor will be probationers while they work and reprobates when they cannot work, though there will be no obligation on anyone’s part to employ them.
Indeed, during the period from the Black Death onward, more and more land was being given over to the pasture of sheep—first of all because there were too few people to keep the land under cultivation, and then because wool became an important trade while England supplied the textile industry of Flanders, and then, in the sixteenth century, because England established its own textile industry.
It might seem that the ultimate pole of expropriation has been reached when one has only one’s labor to sell. A further extreme is reached when the principle is established that one’s labor has no objective value, not even of the kind established in a market. One last dispossession remains. The process was called “depopulation,” and it involved the pulling down of towns and villages—not the passive decline of the rural economy, but the active expulsions of people who had ceased to be of economic use.
The practical disadvantages that attended the consequent poverty and disruption, though never sufficiently great to outweigh their advantages, were noted. Attempts were made to slow or reverse this change, which was nevertheless precipitous. An act passed under Henry VIII in 1533—34 describes the amassing of pasture in a few hands, the destruction of towns, the driving up of the cost of food by the decline in farming, “by reason whereof a marvellous multitude and number of people of this realm be not able to provide meat, drink and clothes necessary for themselves, their wives and children, but be so discouraged with misery and poverty that they fall daily to theft, robbery and other inconvenience, or pitifully die for hunger and cold.” An act passed under Elizabeth in 1597—98 attempts to protect husbandry and tillage, on the grounds of their being “the occasion of the increase and multiplying of people both for service in the wars and in times of peace, being also a principle means that people are set on work, and thereby withdrawn from idleness, drunkenness, unlawful games and all other lewd practices and conditions of life,” and these being the means by which “the greater part of the subjects are preserved from extreme poverty in a competent estate of maintenance and means to live.” Yet during the period in which the poor were being driven off the land, laws were made which vehemently criminalized idleness, wandering, and begging. The contradiction did not go unremarked. A speaker in the House of Commons in 1601 is reported to have said, “If we debar tillage, we give scope to the depopulator; and then if the poor being thrust out of their houses go to dwell with others, straight we catch them with the Statute of Inmates; and if they wander abroad they are within danger of the Statute of the Poor to be whipped.” The displaced wretches Thomas More described as thronging the roads of sixteenth-century England were redundant, because the economy had undergone its first major revolution, and their skills as agricultural laborers existed in excess of economic need as the landscape became in effect industrialized, reorganized to supply wool for manufacture. Become unprofitable, they had the ground taken from under their feet, and they were compelled to wander, in violation of law, and to beg, in violation of law, and to live in idleness, in violation of law. How brutally people as frail as these surely were would have been affected by the beatings and brandings and like horrors to which their circumstances exposed them, a moment’s reflection will suggest. Imagine a father or mother of young children—these laws were gender-blind—starved and filthy and bewildered, beaten bloody for the crime of resourcelessness and then driven into the road again.
The Tudors are known to have executed many thousands of these “felons,” a word which, as we have seen, can merely signify the readiness of King and Parliament to punish vagrants as if they were criminals. But the outright executions cannot represent any significant fraction of the process of liquidation these depopulations must have entailed. Since life was precarious and child mortality rampant under the best circumstances, and since these people were transient and fugitive, their perishing may not have presented itself to their contemporaries as a phenomenon of demographic importance.
But only imagine—this was at the beginning of the period of enclosure of the commons, that great, bold movement of privatization which swept away the ancient right to keep a goat or a goose on common ground. It was superseded by the commercial interests of the landowning classes, the agricultural laborer being denied the only resource he had besides his redundant strength. The loss of the commons meant that the rural worker was conceded no independent, customary place in the world. His subsistence was nothing in the balance against the profits of the proto-industrialists, the suppliers of wool to the textile makers, Flemish or English.
The Poor Laws have always overlapped and contradicted one another. People who can neither stay where they are nor go elsewhere are in trouble. The question is simply whether, when, and how it would be advantageous to punish them. Fundamental institutions of British society were thus formed around legislation unconstrained by any conception of individual rights, not solicitous enough of those they affected to make their obedience possible, or even to allow for their survival. What the laws did do indisputably was to give a free hand to whoever wished to enforce them, whoever felt his interest to be infringed by this nuisance population.
I will make, at this point, a very rude suggestion. Why were the commons enclosed? To make room for sheep. But were the common lands sufficiently large, in a sparsely settled country, to be needed for that purpose? Even though penury and sharp dealing are pervasively characteristic of the British ruling class, still, would the addition of some hundreds more sheep be a sufficient motive in itself for an action so catastrophic, to these men of great fortune, whose portfolios were becoming even then increasingly diversified? A possible second motive would be “depopulation” itself. Their wages and the common lands together provided the whole subsistence of agricultural laborers. While neither was sufficient by itself, the loss of both would surely hasten the disappearance of the economically redundant. The word “redundant,” which Americans take to be a euphemism for “unemployed,” actually has a long and savage history, denoting an excess population, one whose sufferings prove it should not exist, a notion with many notable applications; for example, in Social Darwinism and in eugenics. To conceive of others’ lives in such terms is chilling, expressing a hostility to their hopes and interests deeper and more intractable than ordinary hatred.
The English and Scots countryside have long had emptiness as their primary ornament. They are seen as unspoiled by time, though in fact it was industrialization that created all that emptiness, as surely as it created Liverpool and Manchester. It seems Wordsworth used his influence as Poet Laureate to keep the railroad out of the Lake District, so that the region would remain inaccessible to working people from the cities. Whatever Cumbria has suffered, care has been taken to spare it one affliction.
A law promulgated under King Edward VI provided that if a poor woman gave birth to a child in a parish where she had no settlement, she was to be beaten and imprisoned for six months. The Poor Law specified that an indigent person should be provided for by the parish where he was born. A vagrant woman with child therefore exposed any parish through which she passed to possible liability for the support of an infant during the whole of its life. To avoid the potential addition of even one mouth to the burdens of a parish, this extraordinary transgression against decency was considered worthy of the seal of a prayer-book-writing little king. To see the mighty thus bend out of heaven, as it were, and touch these most precarious lives makes me think of Gloucester’s line from King Lear about flies and wanton boys. One may suppose that cosseted men, brooding over the injury done to them by indigency among the laboring classes, might have come up with a law like this one, not quite thinking through to the effect it would have on the survival of woman and child. But this supposition seems charitable.
I think it is at least as probable that the death of child or mother was not an unacceptable outcome. Henry Fielding quotes Edward VI with admiration to the effect that vagabonds are “spittle and filth” to be expelled from the body of the state because they have no use. There was nothing so cheap as the lives of redundant people. This was true from the beginning of the Tudor period to the end of the nineteenth century. How the statement should be amended now is a question that will arise in due course. For the moment I wish only to point out the re-enactment of this early revolution from above, when the economy was changed to produce mass unemployment, which was then condemned and penalized for the fact of its own existence, and made the pretext for undermining the relief system which supposedly protected against the consequences of unemployment. Exactly this has happened in postwar Britain, redundancy this time created not by the industrialization of agriculture but by the abandonment of industry.
The aversive reflex against the supposedly charitable aspects of the Poor Laws has been an extraordinarily important force in the development of British culture and society. Landed proprietors were obliged to pay poor rates for laborers who lived on their lands—which seems fair enough, since the workers were a burden on the taxpayer in the exact proportion that the proprietor chose to stint on wages. But where these lordly personages were concerned, fair enough was never good enough. By the simple device of pulling down the cottages on his land, or letting them rot from neglect, the proprietor made his workers find shelter elsewhere, and excused himself from the obligation to pay their rates. As one unhappy consequence, laborers were obliged to walk miles every day to the fields. As another, they became burdens on ratepayers other than the employer who then could profit more substantially by stinting their wages and by turning them away when they were not needed. He could save the expense of sustaining them in sickness or slack times and then have the benefit of a reasonably intact work force when it was wanted. Instructed by the example of landlords, neighboring villages limited the building of cottages on the theory that they were thereby limiting the numbers of potentially indigent who could settle in them. But since these populations were obliged to live as near as they could to their work, the result was simply a fantastic crowding of existing cottages, for which exaggerated demand made rents high and repair unnecessary.
Having neither time to cook food nor fuel to cook it with, farm laborers bought what they ate from shopkeepers, like industrial workers. Their cottages leaked, but they had no way to dry their clothes, which they wore till they rotted away. Human waste is often described as being in heaps beside their cottages, and this compounded the effects, in terms of ill health, of the crowding together of malnourished and exhausted people. Robert Hughes, in his book The Fatal Shore, about the penal settlements in Australia, observes that convicts seem not to have found life on the farms there worse than in rural England. The wretchedness of life in England established the norms of life in Australia, where English wretches went to be punished.
The importance of the ideas that idleness should be regarded as a crime and that charity corrupts by encouraging idleness cannot be overstated. Conceding everything one must about the hypocrisy and corruption of church-administered charity, the kind prevalent in Europe into this century, still the transaction is sanctified, words of consecration have been said over it, and there is nothing in writ or tradition to suggest that any soul, however disreputable, who comes to the table of charity eats and drinks to his own damnation. In England, however, just such reprobation is believed to follow any undeserved relief. The moral deterioration set on by charity predisposes the worker to the vices that produce indigency—in other words, suffering is the fault of the poor, liable to be exacerbated rather than relieved by any effort to help them. Misery itself becomes a proof that its sufferers are indulged and lacking in character—and there has always been enough misery in Britain to demonstrate, by this reasoning, prodigious generosity toward a public that is always less deserving. Beatrice Webb, my favorite British socialist, never wearies of warning against the “demoralization” and “pauperization” which may follow from any brush with public relief. There is, therefore (so great is the tendency of charity to corrupt), a presumed obligation to withhold relief even from the worthy. Much is always made, in British thought, of the need to distinguish between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor, but the institutional history of the Poor Law system will make it clear that the only way to deserve help is not to need it, or at any rate not to ask for it. Those who ask to be assisted are not merely therefore suspect but also exposed to the risk of decline into the condition of unworthiness they might to that point have escaped. At the same time, those who might choose to starve with their families rather than accept relief on such terms are viewed as deserving of imprisonment on those grounds. In the whole abundant British literature the Poor Laws have generated, hardly a kind thing has been said about them—except, of course, that they are the folly of a too melting nature and that they anticipate the Welfare State. The most persistent criticism made of them is that they create poverty, the same sad result that Frederick Eden laid to religious charity before the destruction of the monasteries.
They did create poverty, of course. In every form, their effect has been to depress wages—by imposing them legally, or by preventing workers from seeking to sell their labor at its market value; or by criminalizing idleness, not merely in men, but in women and children also, obliging them to labor simply to remain unmolested; or by subsidizing wages to bring them up to the level of subsistence, relieving employers of even the practical need to maintain their workers at the level of “physical efficiency,” while exacting labor as proof of meriting such largesse.
Evolution has given the accolade of stability to the sharp tooth, the thick skin, the small brain. Poor Law theory plods on through volatile centuries, only more itself, losing reflection to instinct. If one was inclined to believe that ideas over time acquire greater delicacy or complexity, the history of these laws would constitute a refutation. Herbert Spencer, the nineteenth-century theorist of Social Darwinism, is no advance on Frederick Eden, or William Beveridge on William Hazlitt: reflections on the Poor Laws, among that select group whose thoughts are recorded, are always critical—saddened, indignant, or resigned. Every criticism of the system that can be made has been made at one time or another. But its assumptions are never called into question—or they were once, by Adam Smith. Smith made the novel case that the wealth of nations should be calculated in terms that included the prosperity of their working people: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed, and lodged.” He went off to his grave with praise ringing in his ears, and was not seriously attended to, then or since.
The assumption that workers must be poor passes unmodified into the literature of political economy. The “labor theory of value,” the idea that labor produces all value, makes its appearance very early, in the work of the seventeenth-century writer William Petty, and quietly establishes itself as orthodoxy. It seems never, however, to imply—except to Smith—that the laborer, the producer of wealth, would have any share in it. On the contrary. The poor, being the producers of this valuable commodity, labor, rather as sheep are of wool, must be kept in an optimum state of productivity. That is, they must be obliged to work in order to live. If they get a little money ahead—this wisdom is often repeated—it goes to drunkenness and rioting. And in any event, the political economists discovered “wage-fund theory” and “subsistence theory,” which meant together that only a certain portion of the national wealth can be spent on wages, beyond which the whole would be reduced, and that wages tended naturally to sink or rise to the level called “subsistence.” Science (for so they took these theories to be) frequently obviated certain questions of justice, while throwing others into sharper relief. By the light of these theories, for example, it was plainly to be seen that the prosperity of one worker could come only at the cost of other workers, so equity required what fate decreed, that wages should remain low.
Again, invariably the interests of the state, and its authority, merge with those who employ. Much is made of the polarization of classes in Britain. Its origins are not mysterious. Until 1948 the working class was governed by a restrictive legal code which did not touch its socioeconomic betters, those prosperous enough to have their idleness called leisure. At the time of the earliest statutes there was as yet no compulsory provision for the poor which would make their indigency an expense to the taxpayer. The loss of labor would affect only employers. Still, the laws make the idle worker “an enemy of the commonwealth.” Again, the enforcement of the law depends upon informers, whose reward could be the vagrant person himself or herself in the role of slave. To keep a slave would have been at least as costly as to hire someone when wages meant only subsistence, so the law clearly assumes that any informer would be of the employing classes. The law is written to assure unobstructed access to the work of laborers by potential employers of labor. The law seems designed to settle the question of whether the laborer owns his labor as property and has the right to govern its use. He or she has no such right. The punishment for such an assertion of freedom is slavery.
Lacking the right to withhold their labor, or to sell it in the best market, the poor were utterly vulnerable to what Karl Marx calls “exploitation.” One would be hard put to find a better word. The early laws teased loose any connection between work and payment. Subsequent laws put charity in the place of pay, insofar, at least, as wages were subsidized by a system designed to compensate for their meagerness, intermittency, and downward drift. One worked to stay out of the clutches of this charity if at all possible, and to be found deserving of it if all else failed. It was this William Blake must have had in mind when he wrote: “Charity would be no more/If we didn’t make somebody poor.”
It seems strange, in retrospect, that the persistent problem of poverty should vex the best minds of England for so very long. In 1704, Daniel Defoe launched a distinguished tradition in a searing attack on the Poor Laws, addressed to the Parliament, called Giving Alms, no Charity. He argued against the employment of the poor in workhouses and houses of correction on the grounds that poverty derives from the “crimes of our People,” which he enumerates: (1) luxury, (2) sloth, (3) pride. The English are well paid but improvident. “There’s nothing more frequent, than for an Englishman to Work till he got his Pocket full of Money, and then go and be idle, or perhaps drunk, till ’tis all gone, and perhaps himself in debt.” This is why “children are left naked and starving, to the care of the Parishes.” Defoe argues that the labor of the dependent poor will cause economic dislocations and “take the Bread out of the Mouths of diligent and industrious Families to feed Vagrants, Thieves and Beggars.” Defoe has put his finger on a problem, of course. The competition of forced labor would lower the value of wage labor. His solution is based on the assumption that people are indigent through their own fault, that the rigors of the law should force vagrants and beggars to find the work which is, he insists, available.
We have all seen people grow warm denouncing the chiselers and the spongers, either strong or fat, who squander their food stamps on soft drinks and corn chips, while their unkempt, innumerable children wait on the curb. They have earned their corn chips many times over in savings to the public treasury, since their mere existence, whether real or rhetorical, has always counseled restraint.
Defoe’s tract, however, is interesting because it is an early example of the erecting of economic theory on a highly peculiar conception of labor. His language makes no distinction between the independent poor and the indigent or dependent poor, since a “general Taint of Slothfulness” predisposes the entire class to improvidence and beggary. Yet, he declares, “even all the greatest articles of Trade follow, and as it were pay Homage to this seemingly Minute and Inconsiderable Thing, the poor Man’s Labour.”
The great prosperity of England, its “vast Trade, Rich Manufactures, mighty Wealth,” rests, ironically, on this most uncertain foundation. If a man who gets a little money ahead uses it only to buy drink, to lie in the alehouse while his children starve, high wages are in no one’s interest. Workers in other countries earn less, he says, and live more comfortably. The situation, as Defoe sees it, is this: Poverty is caused not by too little money but, in the short term at least, by too much of it. The disposition of the poor toward sloth and luxury means that any excess of money might plunge them into ruin. Money has just the same destructive effect as idleness, into which it is readily converted. Defoe claims there are a thousand fathers of families “within my particular knowledge” who “will not work, who may have Work enough, but are too idle to seek after it, and hardly vouchsafe to earn anything more than bare Subsistence, and Spending Money for themselves.” A class of such extreme moral fragility, at the same time so crucial to the national well-being, needs not charity but regulation.
Defoe’s essay is an early application of Poor Law thinking to the new circumstances of industrialization. It is an attack on the “charitable” aspect of the laws, which were devised to exact labor but which critics from Defoe to the present would accuse of impeding access to labor by corrupting the working class. The discourse is a dialectic of frying pan and fire, centered around an unquestioned assumption that the poor are in need of aggressive management for their own well-being, which altogether coincides with Britain’s commercial success. Industrialism took the form that it did because rural populations were driven off the land into a world that harrowed them for their misery. The factory system throve on the existence of a class without resource or expectation, a stigmatized class whose existence at worst and at best was penal servitude. If this class had not existed, industrialization might have occurred differently, not only in Britain, but in every country where Britain served as an example. Defoe’s essay, written at the very start of the eighteenth century, already describes England as a trading and manufacturing country, and already expresses fears of foreign competition. (The Muscovites are acquiring British technology, and there people work for “little or nothing.”)
Appearing this early, in a setting where feudalism had changed rather than receded—to dispose of people so peremptorily is a great demonstration of power, not a renunciation of it—and where feudalism was put on guard repeatedly, and never overthrown, it is to be expected that certain features of the old order should be retained in the new industrial society. Defoe was aware that the wealth of the country was expanding rapidly, and that these changed fortunes were the result of the development of the textile industry begun by Queen Elizabeth. How is the new wealth to be distributed? Will there be a proportional rise in the prosperity of all ranks of society? Defoe’s tract is an argument for keeping the vast class of labor on a short tether, a subsistence wage. The workhouse was, after all, the least controversial element of the Poor Law system, savoring little of charity in the Scriptural sense, while it enforced the all-important role of worker upon its inmates and, if it was managed properly, turned a little profit. Nevertheless, the system does, as Defoe represents it, increase the proportion of the national wealth consumed by the poor by excusing them from the need to be provident. His wastrels spend themselves into poverty and then become dependents of the parish. Where their wages, if they were frugal, would have sufficed, they have consumed their earnings as well as whatever they and their children end up costing the taxpayer. Aside from its other inconveniences, he argued, the Poor Law system makes the poor secure.
Henry Fielding also wrote about the Poor Laws, and submitted a plan to Parliament for their reform. He was warmly in favor of workhouses, and wished only to make them more efficient. Fielding was astonished, as a great many writers would be, that “in a country where the poor are, beyond all comparison, more liberally provided for than in any other part of the habitable globe, there should be found more beggars, more distressed and miserable objects, than are to be seen throughout all the states of Europe.” Among these “miserable objects,” however, those unable to work were so few that they should be left to private charity, and the Poor Law system designed to give work to the able-bodied. Streamlined according to his recommendations, the poorhouses would be considerably more profitable—off-loading the lame and the blind would necessarily effect a savings.
Not surprisingly, Fielding has a theory of wages, which is linked to his grand design thus: Wages should be fixed, to discourage idleness. This reform would defeat those who, “if they cannot exact an exorbitant price for their labour, will remain idle.” It will provide magistrates with proof of the willingness to work, or its opposite, for purposes of distinguishing the idle from the incorrigibly idle. Again, work is pried loose from pay. Work proves one deserving—more effectively when the issue of willingness to work is not obscured by the possibility of holding out for a higher wage. In Fielding’s scheme the workhouse is already integrated into the wage system, since to qualify for non-punitive accommodations there, one must have been employed.
The economic and moral argument that wages must and will be kept low is embodied in the work of the earliest English socialist, the cotton manufacturer Robert Owen. Owen built a model factory community called New Lanark, which, through new housing, communal cooking and laundry, schooling of children, and programs of recreation, elevated the living standards of his employees. In an introduction to his New View of Society, he explicitly describes factory workers as human machines among inanimate machines “which it was my duty and interest so to combine, as that every hand, as well as every spring, lever and wheel, should effectually co-operate to produce the greatest pecuniary gain to the proprietors.” Visitors and dignitaries the world over came to admire his success.
In a book entitled Observations on the Sources and Effects of Unequal Wealth (1826) the American socialist L. Byllesby noted dryly that Owen paid only the standard factory wage and realized a healthy profit. He objected that it was still required of “the producers to surrender a part of the avails of their labor to those who hold a claim of proprietorship over the necessary means for putting their labours to use.” Aside from its interest in establishing a sense of the terms of political discourse in America and before Marx, this criticism is a fascinating early example of the American tendency to miss the point entirely where British social reform is concerned. Owen was making a demonstration of the fact that, properly supervised, rationalized, and instructed, working-class lives could be lived decently and wholesomely at market wages. His experiment tended to prove the old wisdom that the “labor fund”—the sum of money considered to be available in the economy to be paid out in wages without inhibiting the creation of capital, thereby diminishing total wealth—was sufficient to provide adequately for workers. Truly what Owen attempted was the minimum of change, in effect a vindication rather than a reform of the capitalist system—and by capitalist I mean exactly what Marx meant, a system in which a working class is exploited to produce wealth in which they have no share, a system which considers subsistence an appropriate compensation for the mass of people, and an appropriate condition of life.
A partner in New Lanark was Jeremy Bentham, who devoted much time and thought to designing a perfect pauper asylum. It was, of course, a workhouse—which still meant “factory.” Bentham’s scheme would find labor suitable to the varying powers of its inmates, so that the very old or young or ill could make themselves useful. He proposed that children born to inmates be detained into their early twenties—that is, through their peak earning years. Altogether, he felt confident that he could turn pauperism into profit. He dreamed of a chain of these asylums, built on a plan that would facilitate supervision of work and policing of morals, as well as the combining of duplicated work, such as the cooking of meals. He reasoned that such good order would create positive happiness, especially among those who, lacking experience of the outside world, could not make comparisons. This vision of philanthropy does not seem to me remote from the system Bentham realized in partnership with Owen. Both dream of creating a circumstance in which profit and happiness will be maximized together, a sort of transfiguration in which the factory system will be revealed in glory. Certainly the condition of Bentham’s paupers approached nearly enough to the conditions of his and Owen’s employees to demonstrate how very fine a distinction it was that separated the great class of the poor into two great categories, worker and pauper, whether as objects of philanthropy or of punishment. In fact, to distinguish between them is usually an error. A History of Socialism by Thomas Kirkup (1906) reports that five hundred of the two thousand workers at New Lanark when Owen came there in 1800 were children “brought, most of them, at the age of five or six from the poorhouses and charities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.” In other words, the exploitation of the work of child paupers of which Bentham dreamed was already carried out on a very significant scale. It is startling how often British philanthropists have dreams which if they were to wake they would find true.
The American Byllesby criticized New Lanark on the grounds that it was a profit-making scheme and that it was “directed primarily, to the better formation of human character, and secondarily to ameliorating the condition of the labouring or productive classes.” Byllesby feels this is putting the cart before the horse, that “if pecuniary concerns are first put in a train of amendment, or reform, the human character will, of itself, keep an equal pace in the expansion of its amiable traits, and suppression of its evil capabilities.” But, again, Byllesby has missed the point. His assumptions are the individualist kind, for which we have long been notorious. Owen has no place in his system for “the human character”; it is the worker he is concerned with, a being wholly defined by his class status and his economic function. Owen’s object is to fit him humanely to a role he must occupy in any case.
Owen’s experiment is said to have inspired no imitators in Britain. This remark is misleading, since it implies that the project was a true innovation and that subsequent practice bore no relation to it. Owen set about to stabilize workers in their condition as workers, that is, to proof them against the vices and accidents that created illness, misery, and degeneracy, by regulating the particulars of their existence. It was simply a repetition on a smaller scale and in a more sanguine spirit of the great British project of balancing the working class on the knife edge of subsistence. The minimum of national wealth allowable to the working class was the amount that maintained them in health and vigor. Failing this standard, they fell into illness, despair, and indigency, and became unproductive and, compounding every evil, a charge on the taxpayer. The preempting (exactly the right word in this context) of such small choices of food, drink, and use of leisure as were available to workers encroached far on the small freedom of unenfranchised people. But Owen did not object to actual slavery. Byllesby’s assumption that human nature would flower spontaneously if economic injustice were ended is not a variant of Owen’s idea but its opposite.
From 1838 to 1848 the Chartist Movement, a huge and truly popular call for specific political reforms—universal manhood suffrage, annual parliamentary elections, secret ballot, equal electoral districts, removal of property qualification for members of the House of Commons, and pay for its members—made its long transit across the skies and vanished. It was important because it expressed the views of the mass of people about where their salvation lay. Thomas Carlyle, often listed with Robert Owen among the great social critics of the era, heard Chartism as an inarticulate groan, its true meaning being, “Guide me, govern me! I am mad and miserable and cannot guide myself!” In his view it signified the need of the great mass of people to be truly governed by their natural superiors. He argued that the “free Working-man” should “be raised to a level, we may say, with the Working Slave … Food, shelter, due guidance, in return for his labour.” In typically febrile language, Carlyle expressed the view that carried the day—minus, of course, slavery, which shocks the modern reader, but which had plausible humanitarian arguments to be made for it over and against the situation of the British working class, who were utterly destitute when they were of no economic use to anyone, and who were without resource from the day they became too ill or frail to market themselves as labor. That a change in the legal status of powerless people should be expected to so revolutionize established norms of conduct toward them simply expresses Carlyle’s positive feelings about slavery, which he elsewhere likens to matrimony.
But just to the extent it might be assumed that slavery involved some obligation to sustain the worker in sickness as well as in health, in infancy and in old age, slavery would be a bad bargain. To the extent that the purchaser of labor has an economic interest in the well-being of the laborer, he is restricted and encumbered in the matter of working conditions, for example. And to the extent that he can purchase labor as a commodity, abstracted from whatever vulnerable creature yields it, of the best available quality and in the quantity that suits his needs from day to day, he has a vastly cheaper labor source than slavery. Therefore, Carlyle must make his case for slavery on humanitarian grounds.
Modern American commentators take Carlyle to be decrying the crimes of capitalism, which means our crimes, and the inhumanities of our interrelations. Sensing rebuke, they fall to tugging their forelocks and, thus occupied, are too busy and too happy to wonder about the sort of social criticism that would idealize slavery (though, in fairness, it should not be assumed that these commentators have in fact read Carlyle, rather than merely having acquired a phrase from him in the course of their education).
Carlyle, like the less objectionable Owen, is an example of the most characteristic feature of British thought; that is, the tendency to criticize in such a way as to reinforce the system which is supposedly being criticized. The essay Chartism is, first of all, a defense of the New Poor Law, whose draconian provisions Carlyle laments roundly—before putting his blessing on them. He is telling his wealthy audience that they should utterly disregard the political demands of the lower orders, that these demands have a significance just the opposite of their intended meaning, that they are a cry not for greater freedom but for less, and that they in fact justify a vastly greater intrusion into the lives of poor people than the New Poor Law itself accomplished. Quite hilariously, he denounces laissez-faire as a doctrine which permits the working class to do as it will, and freedom, he says, has been its ruination. In the face of the undeniable misery which has been the consequence of the stewardship of the governing classes, and in the face of popular demand for an expansion and reconstruction of representative government, Carlyle argues—to the sort of audience sure to be receptive—that England is unhappy because the naturally superior have not governed with sufficient thoroughness.
This is more than flattery—although it is most certainly flattery, too. It is a call to reform, of a kind taken very seriously, not least because it represented so small a departure from established practice. Regulating the poor had been the great preoccupation of British social thought from its precocious beginnings, always with the same object, securing ample labor at a favorable price. In defense of the severity of the New Poor Law, Carlyle argues that everyone should work or die—and that the poor should take it as an honor that their lives will be the first to feel the force of this great principle. Slavery is one logical extension of the sort of thoroughgoing, personal governance, uncomplicated by redundancy, of which, in Carlyle’s view, the mass of men stood desperately in need.
British social thought may as well be imagined as occurring this way. It takes place in a country house built and furnished to accord with conventions polished by use, a house filled with guests, great and minor luminaries, ornaments of literature, the sciences, the church, and of philosophy and politics. Most of them, not coincidentally, are cousins at some remove. They are charmed to find in one another just that streak of intuitive brilliance they had always admired in themselves, and to be confirmed in their sense that they are true members of a group in which there are no impostors, by a very great similarity of taste, of interest, of sympathy. It is a leisurely visit, some centuries in length, and in due course everyone has confessed his weakness for Hesiod, and admired the garden, and regretted the weather. The evenings would perhaps have begun to weigh, if someone had not suggested a game called Philanthropy. The rules of this game are very simple. One must justify things as they are by attacking things as they are. It is a philosophic game, perfectly suited to showing off a fine wit. It has even the thrill of risk, since it invites subversive ideas. But the point is always, of course, to achieve a resolution that will bring the argument right back where it began.
This distinguished party warms to the challenge. And how affecting it is to hear them, one after another, in the language of statesman and moralist, decry the sufferings of the poor, until it seems that the very table they sit around must be made into splints and crutches and the topiary garden planted in potatoes. Then, just when the pleasure of participation in this virtuous fantasy is at its height, that is to say, just when the temptations of virtue are most intense, then the player reveals the illusion: This “virtue” is not virtue at all, but an evil to be scrupulously avoided. A little thrill of relief passes over the company when their world is safely restored to them. But the risk is never as great as it may seem. Any strategy is sufficient in defending the moon from the wolves.
It is a distinguished company, and everyone seems willing to hold up his part in the game. Daniel Defoe, Bernard de Mandeville, Henry Fielding, Adam Smith (who did not understand the point of it, and was given a hearty cheer and sent off to bed). There is no need to observe chronology, since at this table Jeremy Bentham might find himself seated by Beatrice Webb, and Herbert Spencer by John Stuart Mill. This is only to say that their reflections on this subject accumulate rather than develop, in the manner characteristic of rationalizations. Their disputations produce a welter of harmonious contradiction, the sort of thing that happens when any argument is welcome that will prop a valued conclusion. So the centuries pass.
The influence of this genteel assembly can hardly be overstated. Only consider how important the notion of excess population—basically the artifact of an odd and unsavory history—has been to Britain, and therefore to the world. Malthus felt he observed the fact of population being restored to equilibrium with food supply in the misery of the poor, but at the time he wrote, the importation of wheat—bread was the food of the British poor—was restricted, and land had been converted to pasture which had formerly been used for growing food, and both industrial and agricultural workers had lost access to independent means of subsistence, the first by being crowded into urban slums where there was no corner of open land, the second by being crowded into rural slums where no bit of land was conceded to them. Social reformers early in this century wrote dreamily of the little garden plots of Belgian workers, who throve better on, of course, lower wages than their British counterparts. But the British laborer had no little plot of land. Irish immigrants shared quarters with their notorious pigs, which they slaughtered for food, but that was considered degraded. In fact, British workers, rural and urban, died of exclusive dependency on a meager wage, made up in part, especially among farm laborers, of parish relief, more parsimonious because it was paid by ratepayers rather than employers, and because, being “charity,” it always remained discretionary. The relation of population growth to the productivity of land, which Malthus tidily but meaninglessly described as increasing geometrically in the first case and arithmetically in the second, had nothing to do with the misery and vice he set out to account for. His was merely an early instance of the tendency to refer the consequences of a remarkably artificial situation to the hard laws of nature.
We have never ceased to talk about overpopulation, though true instances of it seem very rare. The English workingman Francis Place, having contrived to educate himself under astonishingly unfavorable circumstances, became the first writer in English to argue for birth control. He accepted Malthus’s view that workers were poor because there were too many of them, and he argued that their improvement lay in self-restraint. Of course, like poor people almost anywhere, they had children for their economic value. As late as the present century the prosperity of a family fluctuated with the number of employed people in it, and the early redundancy of the father, as well as such vicissitudes as sickness and injury, were more easily borne the more shoulders they fell on. Any glut of labor was the result of employing people from childhood, for sixteen hours a day or more, at wages that denied them any possibility of withholding their labor. A higher wage would have relieved the glut by allowing women to stay home with their new infants, or allowing families to keep older children at home to attend to younger children. Physical efficiency would have been enhanced at the same time.
But “working class” is the primary term in British social thought. The coercive implications of the phrase are glossed in every version and institution of the Poor Laws, right through Fabianism and the Welfare State, which is only the latest version of the ancient view that what the worker earns, his wage defined as subsistence, is not his by right, as property. The welfare system indeed assures that the wage will never amount to any specific sum of money but will be nuanced to provide subsistence itself, not in a money equivalent, however calculated. In other words, workers earn their existence by working. At the same time, their employment exists at the pleasure of those who employ, first of all, the government. The Welfare State, being designed for the employed, is designed for the less necessitous. Those who do not work are historically regarded with a sort of scandalized aversion, exactly like people without caste in a society based on caste.
Francis Place accepted blame for poverty on behalf of working people, and accepted the notion that there could be an excess of people relative to their economic usefulness, and that that excess should be eliminated by sexual abstinence so that it need not be carried off by disease and starvation. He accepted the notion that there was a natural balance, a marketplace of survival glutted with laborers.
Darwin was likewise indebted to Malthus, and freely acknowledged his influence. Overbreeding relative to available food sources harrowed out those less well adapted to survive, in Darwin’s view. Herbert Spencer, who was to Beatrice Webb as Aristotle to Alexander, seized upon the idea immediately as a model drawn from nature, which justified just such horrors as had been Malthus’s point of departure one hundred years previously. Competition supposedly described the hardscrabble existence of the laboring classes, who sold their labor by the day and were constantly thrown out of work by a change of season or fashion, or the invention of a new machine. It was a commonplace that they helped one another as best they could through these disasters. The idea nevertheless had great impact because it made death a legitimate part of the social and economic order, a function rather than a malfunction of political economy, a measure of the extent to which the new industrial society cleaved to the ways of nature rather than departing from them. It affirmed the idea that there existed a human surplus, whose survival could only be secured at the cost of creatures worthier to survive. In such a context subsistence would be a positive reward, easily withdrawn, as in Darwinian nature.
The penchant for developing theories to account for suffering and death proved useful. Press and parliamentary reports of the Victorian period describe a system of exploitation which ravaged the culture, extruded every ounce of labor from those able to work—including small children and women recently delivered—starved them, beat them, poisoned them, housed them in cellars into which sewage drained from the streets, taking from them everything that could be taken, turning every good thing into a mode of exaction.
Housing, for example, which was typically wretched, was often rented to workers as a condition of employment, so that the employer could withhold rent and therefore be at no risk of losing it, raise rent as a control on the amount received by the worker in wages, and expel the worker from the house when he was fired, adding to the terrors of idleness the loss of shelter, and dreaded vagrancy. The houses would be inhabited, however foul or wet or crowded, and no one would be in a position to request repairs. How could more economic advantage be found in the supplying of shelter? Well, this sort of housing permitted the claim to be made that the factory was a relatively wholesome environment for young children, and the sixteen-hour day a positive philanthropy. It was not merely dirtiness or neglect but low morals as well that were said to characterize the working-class home, whole families and even lodgers sharing a single bed, where there was a bed. This state of affairs seized upon the imagination of moralists, who lamented all the degradation such a life must entail. At the same time, the morally convenient view that degraded people were less sensitive to insult and imposition and therefore could be exposed to conditions their betters would find intolerable resulted in savings to both employer and taxpayer.
The Victorians, who presided over this squalor at its worst, evolved a fastidious system which seems, in context, designed to widen the chasm between the wealthy and the poor by devising a system of virtue dependent on privacy and on elevating amenity to the status of morality. A Victorian lady was confined from the time her pregnancy became discernible. A working-class woman worked until she delivered, gave birth in a crowded room, and returned to work a few days afterward. At the end of her ten to sixteen hours, her clothing would be sodden with milk. When morality was so thoroughly confounded with mere fastidiousness, these women must have seemed appalling indeed, and their children as well, who could scarcely pretend to any innocence at all, as their betters understood the word. Added to this compromising proximity of family members was a virtually absolute lack of sanitation, which involved the laboring classes in an awareness of the particulars of bodily processes as far beyond the pale even as begetting and birthing. Their quarters were swamped in excrement. Again this was not a peculiarity of urban life, since the depopulations of the countryside had squeezed farm laborers into rural slums entirely as dense and filthy as industrial slums. All this simply indicates how invasive and pervasive were the exploitations of the controlling classes, who determined every particular of the lives of those who lived by labor.
Reading Taine or the earlier St. Simon or Zola, one can see an equivalent in another context. There is no reason to imagine that any European country experienced less severe exploitation of the masses of its people than Britain did. But British society was remarkable for the progressive nature of its immiseration—extreme poverty in association with unprecedented advances in science and technology, and in national power and wealth. It was Britain’s inspiration to transform static feudal custom into dynamic capitalist system, to convert wealth into capital; that is, to release its astonishing powers of self-replication. Italian city-states and the Low Countries developed banking and trade to a very high point. But Britain added industrialism, with its special opportunities for the growth of capital through expansion and innovation. Britain’s importance as a center of trade and finance gave it world markets, highly suitable for absorbing its production of staples such as textiles, which were cheap because they came from modern factories whose operatives were as badly paid as any in the world. I am aware of the little charts which show a worker of whatever kind earning however many shillings and pence. Much relevant social history is devoted to turning out the pockets of these people, and graphing their contents for comparison. This is meaningless, however, when workers were required to rent their shelter and buy their food from employers, or from others who profited from the necessity of their living near the factory where they were employed sixteen or eighteen hours and more, or from the need to buy food daily and close at hand—which made workers the primary victims of adulteration as well as high prices. To this must be added the inflation of the costs of necessities which can always be enjoyed by monopoly suppliers. And then employers had the uncontrolled right to fine for defective work or damaged equipment. All this makes a wage itself meaningless, since by one means or another its real value is susceptible to reduction at any time. Health conditions and length of life are better indicators of how one is repaid for one’s labors. In industrial cities the average length of working-class lives was seventeen years. For reasons touching the profitability of enterprise no wage could buy the mass of people a breath of fresh air or a taste of clean water. They subsidized with their health and lives the profits of industrialists.
It is a seamless history. The contamination of modern Britain with radioactivity is done by industry, for profit. The health of those affected is an appropriation of property, since, as Adam Smith argued (and Marx seconded him, as he did often), one’s labor and therefore one’s ability to labor is a property and a patrimony. To deplete strength and life is to overstep limits no one should be required to cross. This is an ethical argument, of course, though couched in economic terms. People have always sold their lives along with their labor. To refuse has rarely been a practical option. That is why the American abolitionists, well before the Civil War or the Communist Manifesto, treated chattel slavery and wage slavery, in those terms, as one phenomenon. The fulcrum of the competitive system of capitalism in Britain was the worker and his wage, though this fact reflected peculiarities of the social order rather than any real economic necessity. Britain had, after all, so many varieties of competitive advantage that higher real wages, which would be repaid in a larger domestic market, could have been absorbed, while the loss of discipline enforced by desperation would be compensated for by greater vigor and longer lives among the industrial work force—a body whose skills, virtually unique in the world at that time, were among Britain’s great economic advantages and therefore deserving of consideration, if on economic grounds alone. The uneconomic side effects of the degradation of the work force are as obvious now as they were then, and yet it has persisted, under the pretext of economic necessity.
Marx was correct in seeing society as roiled to the bottom by “economic relations,” which amounted to the confiscation in whole or in part of the peace, health, beauty, dignity, strength, and span of life of the great majority of people. Just such a high-handed and unembarrassed claim to dispose of others’ lives as was made by industrialists, by agriculturalists, by slave traders and colonizers (both in routing indigenous populations and in dumping unwanted Britons and Irish in remote corners of the earth), is expressed in the conduct of government and industry in Britain today. Now, as ever, there is no sound calculus of interest that will justify, for example, the importation of nuclear wastes in vast quantities by a small country which has presumed to deal with them because its specialists have shrugged off the difficulties involved, choosing financial gain against the risk, if not in fact the certainty, of unthinkable loss. It is a strange abuse, from which financial benefits can be expected only if it is assumed that there will be no unconcealable catastrophe, that other countries will not be shamed out of paying for this disreputable service, that the country will never face boycott or ostracism on account of Sellafield, that its impact on the national health will never become insupportably grave.
I suggested earlier a moral polarization in British society, which was economically based in the sense that it gave moral value to the refinements of life made possible by privacy and amenity. This is not to imply that working-class people were uninjured by the lack of these things. It is only to point to the pattern of a morality grown increasingly “nice” while the lives of most people conditioned them to circumstances this morality would find degrading and presumptively immoral. The conditions which yielded all the imagined and actual vice and the scandalous absence of proper hygiene were created by the very class who could hardly bring themselves to speak of them. The accelerated progress of refined sensibility in the opposite direction from physicality and squalor suggests that goodness is being defined as the opposite, not of evil, but of poverty.
The Victorians are famous for their rigorous notions of female purity, their exquisite awareness of female delicacy, their lisping attentions to pretty children. Yet industrial labor from its beginning was overwhelmingly the work of women, and of children as well. Women were not recruited into a system designed for endurance greater than theirs. The worker around whom industry developed was a woman. Men, when Engels wrote in the nineteenth century and when Beveridge wrote in the twentieth, were considered unemployable except at odd jobs by the time they were forty, and regularly became the dependents of their wives and children, who, though preferred to men as workers, were paid considerably less (which heightened, one must assume, the degree to which they were preferred). The primary earner in a household having so brief an active life, the incomes of families were pieced together out of the trifles paid to supposed dependents. All in all, the economy of the nineteenth century was as if designed to demonstrate the toughness of women, while at the same time the myth of female delicacy elaborated itself endlessly.
Again, I am suggesting here a morality of denial, which reached an especially high degree of development and has been put to especially rigorous use, in Britain. I do not think that historically the British upper classes really have not known how the working class lives, though (then, as now, and at frequent intervals between) revelations of poverty were greeted with little shrieks and exclamations such as “Among us! In this land so widely admired for its decency and civilization!” The proof of awareness, highly specific however deeply suppressed, is precisely this mirror-image reality, in which everything is reversed. Sheltered children, sheltered wife, dominant father/husband, leisure, freedom from financial dependency, access to the countryside, the ability to observe a highly nuanced propriety requiring a variety of dress, an array of forks and glasses—all these things were absolutely not characteristic of working-class life. The Victorian home flourished over and against the working-class household in which everyone above the age of five or six might be employed, leaving the littlest ones untended through an endless Victorian workday. “Slum” is cant slang from the word “slumber.” These people must have done little more than sleep in the few hours they had to themselves. It was often remarked that they were deficient in domestic culture.
Defining one’s values in opposition to the conditions of life of poor people has numerous advantages, especially when merely to admit to a knowledge of such conditions is compromising. One can experience the difference between oneself and those less fortunate as the difference between virtue and vice, and that is comforting. It reinforces the old faith that poverty is the consequence of a degraded character. A more efficient justification of an existing order can hardly be found than the notion that those who enjoy its advantages are, in fact, better, not through any special attainment, though these are extravagantly admired where they occur—but simply as the repository of a particular experience.
The “clever” of Britain, whose distinguishing marks are verbal first of all, consider themselves their culture’s ornament and justification. Therefore they are very poor critics of the system that has created them or, more precisely, that has decreated the skeptics and competitors who might have dashed their self-confidence or the confidence of others in them. It is the convenient faith of Britain that it is a pure organic growth, whose gifts are for referring great questions to custom and intuition. This belief peripheralizes thinking. Among the whole class of the verbally clever there is a fluency which is social rather than intellectual—though the tendency of the culture is to suppress this distinction. Beatrice Webb declared herself “the cleverest member of one of the cleverest families in the cleverest class of the cleverest nation in the world,” and her faith made her prolific. It also led her to retail and recodify the pet theories of that cleverest class and nation. These theories, whether capitalist or Malthusian or Social Darwinist, have always had the public good as their first object. The problem, of course, is one of definitions. For example, historically and at present the British have seen little benefit in wasting education on the non-clever. Malthus, weary of being seen as an enemy of the poor, advocated education as a means of encouraging religion and sexual abstinence among them. William Hazlitt dismissed his suggestion, pointing out that workers in the North were often literate and religious and it only made them unruly. Cleverness has always been a rationed commodity.
Since cleverness is overwhelmingly class-associated, certain habits of thought, angles of vision, and styles of articulation have authority without reference to their implications or their consequences. Naturally any reform of the institutions of society will reflect the thinking of its best minds, its “cleverest class,” and this is certainly the case with the British Welfare State. This accounts for the tenaciousness of primitive social ideas, such as the positive value of class itself, and the tendency of the poor to be corrupted by the alleviation of their poverty, and the assumption that the state, in accepting any practical responsibility for the general welfare, has taken on a killing burden, and must decline, and should be honored and venerated in its consequent mediocrity—that is, in the shabbiness of public provision which, on a sort of lifeboat analogy, is taken to reflect the precipitous decline in value of aid extended too generally. There is such a profound bias against generosity in British culture that it is entirely possible for them to argue that where misery is achieved a too melting generosity must have lain behind it. It has been characteristic of British social theorists, from Defoe to Malthus to the writers of the New Poor Law to Herbert Spencer to the Webbs to Mrs. Thatcher, to cry out for an end to generosity on humanitarian grounds.
All this moaning and groaning creates the impression that some dreadful sacrifice is being made, the pelican is plucking flesh from its breast to feed its children, and these children, cosseted wretches, never see any point in leaving the nest. As a matter of objective fact, ordinary British people have always enjoyed a very small portion of the wealth of the British community. Subsistence has always been considered an appropriate description of well-being as it applied to the general British public. It is the noise these people make—the mandrake groans, the Carlylean tirades and tears—that has led the world to believe a powerful spirit of justice was at work on that island, like Jehovah at Sinai, producing out of darkness and thunder the very tablets of righteous law.
This great coherency of theory and practice should not be taken to imply that the British world picture could not accommodate another vision of society and economy. As I have said, Adam Smith argued that the wealth of nations should be measured by the productivity of their people, which was enhanced by liberal wages and by relaxation, even “dissipation and diversion,” and by education, to moderate the stultifying effects of the division of labor. Capital accumulated through monopolies and other policies that depressed consumption while raising profits therefore diminished wealth. Foreign trade and manufacturing had created new opportunities for the powerful to engross profits, rather than to share them, and Smith remarks, “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”
Why, or by what means, Adam Smith has been made to seem the apologist for capitalism par excellence I cannot tell. The economy of colonialism, mercantilism, and monopoly which he criticizes at such length clearly corresponds to Marx’s capitalism, in which the worst potentialities Smith described are fully realized. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith used the wealth of the American colonies, elsewhere called their “happiness,” to demonstrate his argument that high wages were consistent with low prices and with productivity. He compares the prodigious growth of population in the American colonies, for him the sign as well as the source of wealth and productivity, with Europe and Britain, where “it is not uncommon, I have been frequently told, in the Highlands of Scotland for a mother who has borne twenty children not to have two alive.”
Marx repeats, more explicitly, the distinction Smith had made almost a century before between an economy designed to promote the concentration of capital in the hands of merchants and industrialists and one characterized by the welfare of the general population, also using America as the example of the second type. While the distinction these writers make is not without complication, it is not particularly subtle either. And yet it has been wholly lost.
Chapter 33 of Capital is an attack on E. G. Wakefield’s book England and America, published in 1833. Marx is emphatically determined to establish a distinction between capitalism, an economic system in which the working class is wretched and dependent, and its “direct anti-thesis.” Wakefield describes America as retarded in its development by the high cost and status of labor. He calls the wealth of Americans “capital,” and Marx replies:
Political economy confuses on principle two very different kinds of private property, of which one rests on the producers’ own labour, the other on the employment of the labour of others. It forgets that the latter not only is the direct anti-thesis of the former, but absolutely grows on its tomb only.
He declares that the United States is not a capitalist country. He describes the economic conditions that prevailed here as in fact an “anti-capitalist cancer.” America has this character as a colonial economy, but except for a glancing allusion to Australia, it is his single example, the foil against which he defines capitalism by contrast. He opposes the American social order to capitalism on the grounds that “the means of production and subsistence, while they remain the property of the immediate producer, are not capital. They become capital, only under circumstances in which they serve at the same time as means of exploitation and subjection of the labourer.” The last words of Capital—the “Come quickly, Lord Jesus”—of this supposed fountainhead of socialist thought, are “Capitalist mode of production and accumulation, and therefore capitalist private property, have for their fundamental condition the annihilation of self-earned private property; in other words, the expropriation of the labourer.”
In Marx’s view, the laborer in America escapes expropriation because he can acquire land, basically. But the essential thing is not the availability of land but the value of his labor, the fact that he can sell it for a wage that significantly exceeds subsistence. “So long, therefore, as the labourer can accumulate for himself—and this he can do so long as he remains possessor of his means of production—capitalist accumulation and the capitalistic mode of production are impossible.” Risking hubris, I must say that Marx seems to have things backward here, since accumulation in the first instance is the result of a high wage, and wages of course go to those who are not possessors of means of production. (If he means to include money among the means of production, as it would be entirely reasonable to do, then of course I withdraw my objection.) As he says a little later, in America “the wage-worker of to-day is to-morrow an independent peasant or artisan, working for himself.” In other words, the value of his labor allows him to become a possessor of means of production—not, as Marx makes very clear, a capitalist, however, for the same reason that his own employer was not, in Marx’s terms, a capitalist. The demand for labor precludes “the social dependence of the labourer on the capitalist,” that indispensable requisite of capitalist production. Marx says, “In the Colonies property in money, means of subsistence, machines and other means of production, does not as yet stamp a man as a capitalist if there be wanting the correlative—the wage-worker, the other man who is compelled to sell himself of his own free-will. Capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons, established by the instrumentality of things.” The “man … compelled to sell himself of his own free-will” is an apt description of the British worker from the dawn of the Poor Laws through the rise of Fabian socialism.
Marx failed so miserably in his effort to put an end to the confusion he found in Wakefield that America, where the population retains still its relative immunity to “expropriation,” and where wealth is still broadly dispersed, is considered to be the ultimate capitalism on precisely those grounds, by Marxists first of all.
Of course the argument will be made that America has changed since Marx wrote. This is certainly true. It has changed so utterly as to make comparison futile, in all but the broadest terms. Broadly speaking, then, it remains true that the American economy is characterized in a high degree by the accumulation of “self-earned private property,” sufficient in most cases to allow people to change jobs, acquire skills, strike, move into a better labor market, become self-employed. This minimal independence, an effect of relatively high pay, allows those who work for wages to demand relatively high pay. Marx saw capitalism growing on the tomb of the “colonial” economy, and it may yet. When it does, the signs will be a marked decline in independence, mobility, and standard of living—the things we Americans associate with “capitalism.”
It will be objected that we have already suffered a decline in these things—by those who know nothing at all about America in the nineteenth century. It is hardly likely that a reader as voracious as Marx was would not have come across accounts of crises, bankruptcies, and so on in the United States. They were neither rare nor unremarked, nor was the poverty that attended them.
Clearly, however, there was a degree of difference which amounted to a qualitative difference in Marx’s view. Marx, repeating Wakefield’s comparison of what Marx wishes to show are antithetical systems, says that Wakefield “depicts the mass of the American people as well-to-do, independent, enterprising and comparatively cultured, whilst ‘the English agricultural labourer is a miserable wretch, a pauper … In what country, except North America and some new colonies, do the wages of free labour employed in agriculture, much exceed a bare subsistence for the labourer? … Undoubtedly, farm-horses in England, being a valuable property, are better fed than English peasants.’” Marx argues that the margin above subsistence which allows for culture and independence—and he is speaking here of farm laborers and “peasants” as such, hardly a prosperous group—makes an absolute difference in the character of the society. This conclusion is prepared by the eight hundred or so pages that precede it: a rehearsing, in large part, of the parliamentary reports, which document again and again expropriation and immiseration of an order so extreme that we might measure the relative happiness of our history by the difficulty we have believing it could be true. Capitalism, as Marx used the word, is very well described as growing on a tomb. I mention Sellafield here, how it thrives on poverty and unemployment, and never alleviates it, despite the great returns it boasts of bringing home to Britain. Marx, paraphrasing Wakefield, says, “But, never mind, national wealth is, once again, by its very nature, identical with misery of the people.”
Americans are surprised when they learn that they are mentioned in Capital at all. They think of themselves, at best, as rather like Virgil and Plato, excluded from the scheme of salvation by accident of birth among the pagans. At the same time, oddly, they have appropriated the myth entirely to themselves, to the extent that, rather than looking into Capital to find out what Marx had in mind, they use themselves as the definition of capitalism and judge Marx as they feel kindly or unkindly disposed toward themselves.
Americans are startled to learn that Karl Marx was employed as a foreign correspondent by the New York Daily Tribune, from 1853 to 1861, during the years in which he was preparing Capital. His Tribune articles, of which there are a great many, describe European and British affairs, the possible entry of the British government into the Civil War on the side of the South being an especially urgent interest of Marx. At the same time, though for a shorter period, Marx wrote about American affairs for Die Presse, a newspaper in Vienna. The articles were based on wide reading in American periodicals. Indeed, Marx said a great deal to Americans, and about them. He was in almost every instance more than generous, doing his American readers a courtesy to which they are now little accustomed, by addressing them always as humane and intelligent people.
Marx submitted articles to Horace Greeley, whose Tribune, published across the country in daily, semiweekly, and weekly editions, was the largest newspaper in America, important to the development of abolitionist feeling and to the founding of the Republican Party. Marx’s columns were often published in all three editions, sometimes unsigned as editorials. Abraham Lincoln is known to have perused the Tribune in the years before his presidential candidacy, while he was developing his political position. If he looked to the Tribune in 1861 for news of British intentions with regard to the war (preventing Britain from entering the war on the side of the South was his most pressing foreign policy problem), then Lincoln read Marx as President. Given the importance of the Tribune, and the long list of its distinguished contributors, and Horace Greeley’s ties with Northern literary society, it is reasonable to assume that Emerson and Whitman read him, too. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a short life of Lincoln that appears to echo at least one of Marx’s essays. Marx had written about Mrs. Stowe, so it seems all the more probable that she was aware of him. There was so much shared language among Marx and his American contemporaries that influence is not readily established. Greeley delivered attacks on wage slavery, and Marx described the condition of the British workers as slavery and called for their emancipation. An early essay of Friedrich Engels demonstrated the practicability of communist societies with accounts of American Shaker settlements, communal farms in the Midwest, and with mention of a community in Northampton, Massachusetts. Every example was drawn from the United States.
More generally, as Marx and the abolitionists both insist, the circumstances of workers of the time made slavery, actual as well as virtual, a live prospect for them. At least one Southern writer, George Fitzhugh, proposed ending the injustice of black slavery by enslaving whites as well. The revered Thomas Carlyle had called for the enslavement of workers in Britain, and lesser lights kept the idea alive, down to the time of the Fabians.
Abraham Lincoln’s origins were of a kind to have made the enfranchisement of his own family fairly recent. Considering the legal constraints that had always burdened the poor, and the fragility of such rights as they had gained, there is a special resonance in his saying, “He who would be no slave must consent to have no slave.” The boundaries human bondage threatened to overleap were racial as well as geographic. Conversely, its suppression had vastly more than national and humanitarian implications. And that is why, calling the Civil War a “working man’s revolution,” Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote:
The revolution through which the American nation has been passing was not a mere local convulsion. It was a war for a principle which concerns all mankind. It was the war for the rights of the working class of society as against the usurpation of privileged aristocracies. You can make nothing else of it … The poor labourers of Birmingham and Manchester, the poor silk weavers of Lyons, to whom our conflict has been present starvation and lingering death, have stood bravely for us. No sophistries could blind or deceive them; they knew that our cause was their cause, and they suffered their part heroically, as if fighting by our side, because they knew that our victory was to be their victory. On the other side, all aristocrats and holders of exclusive privileges have felt the instinct of opposition, and the sympathy with a struggling aristocracy, for they, too, felt that our victory would be their doom …
In the 1867 preface to Capital Karl Marx wrote:
As in the 18th century, the American war of independence sounded the tocsin for the European middle-class, so in the 19th century, the American civil war sounded it for the European working-class.
I am haunted by the sense that a changeling has been put in the cradle of American culture. Adam Smith, the supposed capitalist, whose influence among us is notorious, developed an economic system in which prison, the poorhouse, and starvation have no role, and in which the flourishing of the people (a term he prefers to “the poor”) is the desired end. Compare the Fabians, those most sedulous strainers of mercy. Why are Smith’s proposals for public projects to enhance the economy, taxes that weigh less heavily on the poor than the rich, and education to alleviate the effects of industrial work, called capitalist, while subsidies of the cost of labor, and visits of inspection to the homes of the poor to assure that their destitution was perfect before they were relieved—that women had sold their wedding rings, for example—are called socialist? Why do the Land Grant Act, the Homestead Act, and the G.I. Bill, three distributions of wealth to the public on a scale never contemplated in Britain, have no status among political events, when the dreary traffic in pittances institutionalized as the British Welfare State is hailed as the advance of socialism?
We must find a political and moral clarity that will enable us to address the starkest problems of survival, if the world is to have any hope. For a long time now, socialists have claimed an exceptional interest in the well-being of the generality of people, a special inclination to humanize collective life. But the history of socialism is disheartening. It is too strongly associated with repression, and these ties are too casually dismissed, for socialism to be conceded the special virtues it claims for itself. Plutonium manufacture and radioactive waste dumping are enterprises of the British government, and as good a proof as one could wish that government ownership in itself means nothing. The pattern identified by Adam Smith and Karl Marx, the accumulation of capital through the destruction of wealth, is fully present in Sellafield. British socialism has always been no more than the left hand washing the right, and yet for years it has compelled the admiration of American socialists, who can find nothing in their own tradition to compare to it for moral grandeur.
The mainstream political tradition in America is represented insistently now as unrelievedly “capitalist,” whatever Marx might have said about it, and as compromised, grubbing, and mean-spirited because of the supposed relative prevalence of “private property”—whatever Marx may have said about that. On both the right and the left, capitalism, not democracy, is represented as the basis of our institutions. If Sellafield is sometime sold to private owners, as the government has long intended that it should be, then overnight it will become a classic capitalist enterprise by Marx’s definition.
There is a third option, however, described by both Smith and Marx, and, as luck would have it, indigenous to America, of a society based upon individual autonomy, to be achieved through policies of government that by act or omission enhance the specific, tangible, material well-being of individual people, by creating or protecting conditions of life that enhance vigor and morale. These include education, fair wages, wholesome food and water, and reasonable hope for one’s children. These things correspond in a general way with what Americans consider to be “Western values,” yet they never have described, and do not now describe, the condition of life of ordinary British people. To the inevitable reaction, that people do not miss what they have never had, that the austerity of their lives has spared them the corruptions of materialism, that legal protections are needed only where society is a war of each against all, that there is the dole to assure them security from cradle to grave, however tedious the passage, or however swift, the reply must be that the history and present condition of ordinary British people make it clear enough how they have been used and in what spirit, by capitalists and by socialists, in tacit or declared collaboration. The best American political impulses occur outside this sham opposition. They need to be rediscovered as valuable impulses. Certainly we need to rediscover the complexity of our own political history, which deserves vastly better than to be seized upon by capitalists or dismissed by socialists.
When Abraham Lincoln said of a hypothetical black woman that “in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands … she is my equal, and the equal of all others,” he expressed an economic proposition which is by no means commonplace or inevitable. Lincoln based the woman’s rights on what she earned, not what she needed, a departure from “subsistence theory” and an implicit acknowledgment that labor creates value—that is, a margin between the cost of the worker’s subsistence and the amount of wealth she creates—and that she has a right to share in this overplus. One learns from Adam Smith, Thomas Carlyle, E. G. Wakefield, and others that subsistence was assured to slaves as it was not to free workers. In Britain before the Second World War, employers still felt day laborers’ arms before they hired them, so that men who were frail or malnourished could be turned away. Under ordinary circumstances slaves would have had as much as economic theory, up to the time of Beveridge, promised or allowed fully employed working people in Britain—enough to maintain them in a condition of physical efficiency. Lincoln made the case, successfully, that in justice more was due anyone. If he had used Marx’s language, he would have declared the right to “self-earned private property.” Against a history in which vulnerability triggered the crudest abuse—the history of the British poor, into which Africans were swept up fairly late—so modest a statement as Lincoln’s sounds like beatitude.
The most difficult struggle of our civilization has been to find the means to create autonomy for ordinary lives, so that they might not be plundered or disposed of according to the whims of more powerful people. Ideas like civil rights and personal liberty come directly from this struggle, which is not terribly well advanced at best, and which is untried, failed, or abandoned in most of the world.
So very much depends on a poor man’s wage. At present there is a Youth Training Scheme in Britain to absorb the energies of unemployed school-leavers. Industries are encouraged to take on trainees in place of regular hiring. These youths are paid by the government at wages that about equal the dole. In other words, the government donates to industry the free use of unskilled labor. Without reference to the wealth these young people produce, their subsistence is counted as welfare spending, and they are thought of as the beneficiaries of this arrangement, from which it is hoped they will learn the value of honest work.
People in their teens are historically the most coveted workers in the British economy. They are relatively healthy, and from the government’s point of view, they are cheap, because they have no dependents and normally live with their families. This scheme merely reproduces the ancient pattern, severing work from pay, making the wage a charity, while reducing work to an escape from the opprobrium of idleness.
Britain invests more money abroad per capita than any other country, and invested more in absolute terms, until Japan surpassed it in this decade. Those who control capital, whether banks or industries or the government itself, have always had the means to punish or starve policies they disapprove of, or to crown with success policies friendlier to their interests, simply by leaving money at home or by siphoning it off to the United States, or to South Africa or elsewhere.
Mrs. Thatcher was described in an essay by Bernard D. Nossiter in The New York Times (June 15, 1988)7 as arguing to a church assembly “that abundance, the rich, were blessed while poverty, the poor, were not, and Creation proves it.”
She has her reward. Britain is experiencing economic growth, of the hectic, selective, up-market kind which does not threaten to drive upward the cost of industrial labor or the demand for social services. British economics is a game of keep-away. Whence all the jiggling of statistics—it is easy to get a big percentage increase from a very small base, as in calculating wages and pensions, and it is easy to take away with one hand what is given with the other, to raise wages a little and cut benefits more, and it is easy to increase rates of saving and contribution to private pension plans by reducing benefits for the elderly or cutting back on the administration needed to deliver them or adding to the obstacles involved in obtaining them or threatening to phase them out altogether, as the Thatcher government has done.
Ralf Dahrendorf, in his book On Britain, quotes respectfully as follows from a book titled Equality, coauthored by Keith Joseph, an important political figure in the Thatcher government: “Ultimately the capacity of any society to look after its poor is dependent on the total amount of its wealth, however distributed.” One might object that the way in which wealth is distributed determines, in a society, how numerous “its poor” will be. To distribute wealth away from employed people, as the British do, creates poverty, which must be looked after, perpetuating the ancient relation of those who work to those who employ, which has analogues, or cousins, in slavery and forced labor.
In the 1880s a philanthropic businessman named Charles Booth launched on a survey of the poor of London, with the purpose of refuting socialist assertions that a million Londoners, one fourth of the population, lived in deep poverty. He continued his project for seventeen years, in the course of it concluding that the extent of poverty had in fact been understated. His work, titled Life and Labour of the People in London, had a considerable significance for modern British socialism, in part because Beatrice Webb, the indefatigable propagandist and guiding spirit of Fabianism, cut her teeth in assisting these researches, and in part because Booth’s work stands in the direct line of descent of British social and economic thought, specifically identifying the institutions and functions of Poor Law as socialism. Booth and the Webbs were associates of William Beveridge in his early career. Booth, like Beveridge, was a Liberal, in Britain the name of a party of bare-knuckled laissez-faire-ists, without any trace of what Americans call liberalism. This is considered an irony of British history, the importance of such people in the emergence of the Welfare State. It is no irony. Like all reformers before them, they undertook to design a good and harmonious state based on stabilizing the poor in a salubrious poverty.
Booth was a man of conscience, an advocate of reform, a visionary of the kind with which British history has long been replete. He dreamed of a day when “the streets of our Jerusalem may sing with joy.”
Americans are often said to have a dream. It has never been clear to me just what I and my nation—Armenian dentists in San Diego, Norwegian Avon ladies in St. Paul, black nuns in New Orleans—fall to dreaming about so universally and persistently. The common wisdom is that we dream of personal success and prosperity. But we all know that those freshly arrived in this dreamy nation succeed and prosper at a rate that makes slouches of the rest of us, and that the naturalization of their children into our culture has no more striking feature than this tendency to drift downward from the heights of aspiration. So when these newcomers fall to dreaming along with the rest of us, what do they dream about? Personal sanctity, perfect crime, beautiful lovers, the admiration of their family, a house in the country, physical persons that mark them as vigorous, alert, temperate, and self-sufficient. It seems to me that people’s dreams lie along the grain of their expectations, in general, so that chefs dream of owning restaurants, rabbis of being highly esteemed rabbis—in other words, that in America goal-oriented dreaming is as diverse as individual circumstance.
There is, however, a British dream—though I have never seen the phrase anywhere before. It is an anxiety dream, of the lean kine eating the fat. Joseph in the Old Testament is summoned to interpret a dream of Pharaoh’s, that seven fat cattle are eaten by seven lean ones, and that seven good ears of corn are eaten by seven poor ones. In the midst of plenty, Pharaoh has had a dream of famine. He assigns Joseph to store grain for seven years, in preparation for seven bad years, and disaster is averted. A glance at the world will assure one instantly that the dreams of cultures are much more typically urgent and recurrent anxiety dreams than the sort of delusional daydreaming Americans are said to be prone to.
In the British version of Pharaoh’s dream, the lean kine are the poorest members of the population, who have half devoured the class just above them. The British, a practical race, and one whose prophets have warned them of the exponential increase in the numbers of lean kine, so that they have not enjoyed the assurance given to Pharaoh that his troubles would sometime end, have taken practical steps—in the thick of the dream, of course, from which they have never wakened. It was in his prosperity that this warning came to Pharaoh, and it has been through the centuries of British prosperity that their dream has haunted them. And here is the strange part, the place where British experience departs unequivocally from its biblical analogue. The very thrift and saving required to keep disaster at bay actually increased the numbers of lean kine and their voracity and—if I do not overstep the strange metaphor unpardonably—their rage. The alternative, as Malthus and others were quick to point out, was to feed the creatures, thereby accelerating their increase in numbers, without finally diminishing their voracity. Wealth does not deserve the name which must constantly be guarded and worried over, and the British, however rich, have always felt poor. But with Charles Booth we have arrived at that cusp, that threshold moment, when capitalist Britain is about to emerge as socialist Britain, and the nightmare is finally about to end. If we pause here we can witness this epochal change. It requires careful watching, for there is as little change to the outward eye as there is in bread after consecration.
Though Booth himself was no socialist, he proposed that socialist institutions—prisons, poorhouses—might act as a catchment for those elements which cannot function in an individualist culture. In what particular this would depart from the state of things then prevailing I cannot tell.
Friedrich Engels’s study of the conditions of the working class in Manchester tends to describe streets and quarters—how they were built, how populated, what sanitary conditions prevailed in them—or to describe categories of workers and factory conditions. Booth turned much of his attention to families, which he describes in terms of their cleanliness, thrift, and sobriety, the presence or absence of which correlates with their class ranking on a scale of his own devising. Just as Engels’s method reflects his belief that the working class were victims of their circumstances, Booth’s reflects the more usual assumption that moral failure is the great cause of distress, with the inevitable corollary that poverty, if it is done right, is entirely consistent with happiness and well-being. Thus, for Booth, the cause of misery is found in the miserable. Charles Booth did not, however, foresee abandoning the feckless to their misery—they were, after all, a drain on the economy: “Ill-paid and half-starved as they are, they consume or waste or have expended on them more wealth than they create.”
His solution will sound familiar. Class A, his designation for “the lowest class of occasional labourers, loafers, and semi-criminals,” could be “gradually harried out of existence.” The more fortunate Class B, the “ill-paid and half-starved,” are still, in Booth’s elegant phrase, du trop, a phrase that should surely be translated as “redundant.” His scheme for eliminating this class is gentler than harrying them out of existence, though not by much. In his view, “if they were ruled out we should be much better off than we are now; and if this class were under State tutelage—say at once under State slavery—the balance-sheet would be more favorable to the community.” Like Carlyle, he considers slavery a humane reform, but unreachable. For him the difficulty lies “in the question of individual liberty, for it is as freemen, and not as slaves, that we must deal with them. The only form compulsion could assume would be that of making life otherwise impossible; an enforcement of the standard of life which would oblige every one of us to accept the relief of the State in the manner prescribed by the State, unless we were able and willing to conform to this standard. The life offered would not be attractive.”
Let us pause here to note certain features of this plan. First, the social amelioration it has as its object would “rule out” a class of people who supposedly represent a drag on the economy of a nation which was at that time the richest in the world, and in the history of the world. The shared characteristic that defines them as a class according to Booth’s system is their extreme poverty, which, as he freely grants, can be brought on by illness or accident. Nevertheless, they are “as freemen” to be compelled to “accept a regulated life,” in “industrial groups, planted wherever building materials were cheap.” Granting that these groups would not be economically competitive, “it would be merely that the State, having these people on its hands, obtained whatever value it could out of their work. They would become servants of the State.” Accounts should be kept of the value produced by each family, expressed as deficiency, of course, since the enterprise would not be profitable. “It would, moreover, be necessary to set a limit to the current deficiency submitted to by the State, and when the account of any family reached this point to move them on to the poorhouse where they would live as a family no longer. The Socialistic side of life as it is includes the poorhouse and the prison, and the whole system, as I conceive it, would provide within itself motives in favour of prudence, and a sufficient pressure to stimulate industry.”
The thing most striking about this proposal is that there is nothing new in it. It criminalizes poverty, making poverty entail penal servitude. Like the fourteenth-century Ordinance of Labourers, it assumes that those who do not work continuously are, even in their misery, an expense to the state, and that the state has a right to make the balance sheet more favorable by seizing upon their labor. One wonders what form coercion would take if it were not limited by the “freedom” of its objects. The use of separation of family members as leverage on their behavior—specincally, in extracting economic value—was a feature of the New Poor Law of 1834, notorious and widely practiced. Even infants and mothers were separated. Booth is simply pointing out that the poorhouse, a part of “the Socialistic side of life as it is,” would still have terrors for his Class B “sufficient to stimulate industry.” Booth’s scheme would merely extend the sanctions against pauperism to include those who had eluded that status by scrounging and suffering, through religious or private charity, or through the openhandedness of the more fortunate poor. Like the old vagabonds, they would be punished in anticipation of transgression, for “to bring Class B under State regulation would be to control the springs of pauperism.” Booth offers in support of his proposed reforms to eliminate the non-productive classes the observation that “the Socialists think it can be done by self-devotion on the part of the capable, and a final sternness which shall enforce obedience by the threat of starvation.”
One can only envy the clean conscience a society must enjoy that so infallibly locates the sources of social problems in those who suffer them. If poverty is a transgression, it is one of which British opinion makers have always been, to an extraordinary degree, innocent—they need hardly fear disadvantage if they should sometime be measured as they mete. Yet to accuse them of a lack of fellow feeling with the poor is clearly wrong. They assume in the poor emotions they find most estimable in themselves, notably love of country and love of family. We are assured of this by their confident use of the threats of forced emigration, and separation of families, in regulating the poor.
There was, as I have said, a Minerva fully armed, growing within the squamous limits of Booth’s undertaking, by which I mean, of course, Beatrice Webb, at that time still the parthenic Beatrice Potter, who, with her future husband, Sydney, would become the dominant spirit in the Fabian Society, the most characteristic and influential school of English socialism. She was the niece of Booth’s wife, the daughter of a wealthy manufacturing family, and her curious lot had been to have her education entirely at the hands of Herbert Spencer, exponent of Social Darwinism.
One is supposed to admire the Fabians, just as one is supposed to admire English socialism. The entire Fabian corpus reads as if printed in embalmer’s fluid. And, as with Marxism or Structuralism, the tediousness of the prose acts as a defense of the ideas expressed in it, since none but the devout can endure reading it.
Beatrice Webb wrote the chapter in Booth’s study devoted to the Jews of London. It is uncharacteristically lucid and evocative, and—by the standards of the whole work—eminently fair. Jews were clean, sober, literate, frugal, hardworking, debt-paying, and, relative to the larger community at least, independent. They were imbued with every grace Booth’s study was meant to measure, and Webb allows as much.
The late nineteenth century was a period of Jewish immigration to London from Russia and Poland. The Jewish community of London established a Board of Guardians to provide for their poor, who were of course very numerous. Not surprisingly, considering the mentality at work, this arrangement was attacked in the London press as creating Jewish pauperism—since to receive assistance has long had, in the British mind, a disastrous and nearly irreversible impact on the human character. This “demoralization” will obsess Beatrice Webb. That it is an authentic and important phenomenon she never seems to doubt, and no wonder, since it has been a part of the prevailing view of man and society in Britain over centuries. So the Jews, in the seemingly unexceptionable course of taking responsibility for their own poor, were seen to be creating a “pauperized,” that is, a demoralized or degraded, population.
Webb defends them, however. She says it is unfair to describe the providing of free funerals as proof of pauperization, because of the “peculiar solemnity of mourning and funeral rites among Jews, and the direct and indirect costliness” of them. Now, as it happens, nothing seems to have mattered more to the Gentile or Christian Londoner than his own or a relative’s funeral. Working-class people, even young children, joined “death clubs” to pay the cost of their own funerals which, even after the Second World War, in William Beveridge’s terms, behaved as a necessity. That is, people would keep up their payments through hell and high water. Booth reports that poor people felt it a point of honor to bury someone in the best style his savings would permit. In the previous century the bodies of deceased paupers had been dumped in open pits. This no doubt accounted for the passion of the poor for funerals, while establishing in the official mind a standard of economy never again to be attained.
One of the lesser Fabians will suggest that the cost of working-class funerals, to be assumed by the state, should then be lowered by introducing mass production of coffin handles. This is an early and characteristic example of the eagerness of British socialists to use state services to control and depress working-class consumption.
Again remarkably, Webb defends Jewish charitable practices on the grounds that they consist largely of “business capital of one kind or another, enabling the recipients to raise themselves permanently from the ranks of those who depend on charity for subsistence.” She does not conclude that the phenomenon of pauperism might be perpetuated among other Londoners by the meager and abusive charity they enjoy at the hands of their Christian nation.
Yet among the poor themselves there is a generosity so considerable as to defeat these philanthropists’ hopes of rooting out pauperism by controlling charity. Webb frets that, while the Jews can keep good records of those they relieve, “owing to the fact that our indigent parasites are to a great extent maintained by the silent aid of the class immediately above them, we can by no possible means arrive at an approximate estimate of the number of persons in our midst who depend on charitable assistance for their livelihood.” That these “parasites” avoid the legal status of pauper merely frustrates her. While they exist they offend.
After all she has said in their favor, the future Beatrice Webb cannot finally approve of the London Jews and their philanthropy. Despite its apparent success, it is socially destructive, because “if we help a man to exist without work, we demoralize the individual and encourage the growth of a parasitic or pauper class. If, on the other hand, we raise the recipient permanently from the condition of penury, and enable him to begin again his struggle for existence, we save him at the cost of all who compete with him …” The impact of the Jew is therefore finally destructive, “for the reader will have already perceived that the immigrant Jew, though possessed of many first-class virtues, is deficient in that highest and latest development of human sentiment—social morality.” Inured to deep poverty, he will underbid other workers without the restraints of “class loyalty and trade integrity,” thereby lowering wages—“without pride, without preference, without interests outside the struggle for the existence and welfare of the individual and the family.” These are the same people who, a few pages before, were faulted for their ready and substantial philanthropy.
Having documented exceptional independence and prosperity, she concludes sepulchrally, “In the Jewish East End trades we may watch the prophetic deduction of the Hebrew economist [she means Ricardo] fulfilled—in a perpetually recurring bare subsistence wage for the great majority of manual workers”—writing here for all the world as if Ricardo’s prophetic deduction were not fulfilled in every corner of Britain.
Consistency is not the point. The point is to discredit the phenomena of self-help and social mobility, to find positive harm in them despite any apparent good. That Karl Marx, an immigrant Jew in London, should have attached such value to these things in his final chapter of Capital seems natural enough in light of the community Beatrice Webb describes here. It is her view that has carried the day. “Marxists” cleave to her Ricardian definition of “class loyalty” as if it were an article of the true faith.
The rigors of the system Booth proposed, to end poverty in Britain by harrying the poorest out of existence and regimenting the class above them, are entirely compatible with socialist thinking as it developed in Britain and which he by no means unfairly associated with the poorhouse and the prison. In an essay included in Fabian Essays in Socialism, edited by George Bernard Shaw and published in 1889, Annie Besant describes thus the mechanisms that will encourage workers to fulfill their duties when socialism is achieved:
At first, discharge would mean being flung back into the whirlpool of competition, a fate not lightly to be challenged. Later, as the private enterprises succumbed to the competition of the Commune, it would mean almost hopelessness of attaining a livelihood. When social reorganization is complete, it would mean absolute starvation. And as the starvation would be deliberately incurred and voluntarily undergone, it would meet with no sympathy and no relief.
In other words, the new order would achieve that elusive object of all British reforms affecting the lives of workers, the isolation and elimination of the unworthy poor, worthiness, as always, determined by economic productivity as they chose to define it.
Competition for work cheapens the cost of labor and prevents it from rising in value when demand for workers increases. So the unemployed contributed, after their fashion, a fact grudgingly acknowledged in whatever tolerance they enjoyed. It is not irrelevant to my larger purposes to point out here how little awe there is for human life among these philanthropists or in the tradition they inherit. Human life is weighed routinely in the scales of simple commerce.
Shaw himself, decades later, fulsomely praised the head of Stalin’s secret police, whose picture he kept on his mantel, for having shot an inefficient railroad worker. Shaw expounded on the merits of extermination as a feature of social policy during the formative stages of Russian socialism and German National Socialism, visiting Hitler and Stalin with praise and advice and the prestige of his Nobel-decorated person. For some reason his and the Webbs’ enthusiasm for authoritarian movements has always been interpreted as a misreading by them of the nature of these movements. Yet it would not be difficult to defend Shaw’s statement that Stalin was a good Fabian, his Soviet labor camps being item one. In Shaw’s introduction to his late play, On the Rocks, his enthusiasm for extermination actually recommends the policies of Stalin and the National Socialists to him. For some reason, Shaw has emerged from these involvements reputation intact. He is an acerbic wit, we chortle at his outrageousness. In terms of his own tradition, his views on this issue are not exceptional. In 1839 Thomas Carlyle wrote, “The time has come when the Irish population must either be improved a little, or else exterminated.”
It is difficult to absorb the fact that definitions of goodness, justice, and right vary wildly, especially difficult since we think and speak as though the “West” had reached profound consensus about these things through a long evolution, and was now unanimous in its loyalty to certain values—which were, it is true, swept away in a sort of mud slide of unhealthy enthusiasms only fifty years ago, an event that remains totally inexplicable so long as we insist that “Western values” include a steady faith in the importance of individual freedom and human life.
Because Americans believe that there are such things as “Western values” and that these are identical with their own best impulses, they cannot recognize the real content of the ideas carried along in history, though these ideas have blossomed in events and institutions such as the poorhouse, slavery, the penal colonies in Australia and elsewhere, labor camps for social parasites, and the extermination of unvalued people. I place Sellafield among these manifestations, because it is comparable in nature and in scale.
With the establishment of the Welfare State words of consecration were spoken over truly ancient mechanisms for maximizing profit, stabilizing social relations, and at the same time clothing the state in the garments of benevolence yet again.
William Beveridge, whose Plan for the Welfare State led to his being called the “father” of the new postwar Britain, merely amended Poor Law by absorbing the insurance systems that had been set up by working-class groups and labor unions into a system called National Insurance, taking the rates of benefit from those already established by the very poor to hedge against disaster. This policy was suggested as early as 1786, in A Dissertation on the Poor Laws by Joseph Townsend. Of course, the levels of benefit contrived by the necessitous to see them through their darkest hours were not generous. Benefits financed out of contributions or deductions from the pay of people so situated that they had to brace against the eventuality of a three-pound funeral were necessarily minimal. Beveridge’s innovation, the conceit of calling the state the insurer, meant simply that taxes would take the place of insurance payments. Contribution would no longer be made at the earner’s discretion. These changes infuriated private insurance companies, some of which had grown very great from this modest base.
The problem of poverty, as it was understood by William Beveridge, interpreting a survey by Seebohm Rowntree of the poor in the city of York in 1901, was, needless to say, nothing so simple as lack of money. It was that income was unevenly distributed throughout a worker’s life. He (using a male instance, as Rowntree did) was poor as a child too young to work, better off when he and his siblings could work to help their parents, poor when he had young children, better off when they were old enough to work, and poor again when he passed the age of employability, usually at about forty. It was Beveridge’s idea—Rowntree protested against it—that the problem to be solved was the uneven distribution of money over these five stages of the worker’s life. The “excess” of earning in his more prosperous periods should somehow be made to provide for him in the periods when his income fell below subsistence level. (Beveridge adopted Rowntree’s definition of subsistence as being able to live without sustaining physical damage on an income devoted entirely to the purchase of necessities, very strictly defined.) Rowntree wrote a critique of the Beveridge Plan, arguing that many of those who fell below his standard of subsistence were fully employed families whose situation was the simple consequence of low pay. He urged a minimum wage—to no avail, of course.8
A tax system like Beveridge’s, which withholds a substantial portion of even small incomes, to pay it back again as Child Benefit, Housing Allowance, unemployment compensation, medical care, old age pension, and so on, is a solution to what British reformers have always seen as the improvidence of the working class, who used their spare money, in the best times, on pleasures and comforts—tobacco, tea, clothing, and drink—and, as Beveridge noted, on movies, where, as Orwell noted, they often went to stay warm. This is the sort of excess to be squeezed out by “redistribution of income,” which in British parlance means the reapportioning of income through a single worker’s life, not from the more to the less well off.
Taxation regularized the insurance system, at least to the extent that participation was made universal among employed people at a certain wage level. What it omitted to do was to guarantee a return on the investment at any specific rate. The British government turns a profit on the National Insurance System, which goes into the treasury. So those who pay into National Insurance are taxed at a rate that subsidizes other activities of government rather than enhancing services or lowering rates of contribution. This merely reflects the larger fact that, in guaranteeing subsistence, Beveridge designed a system which would yield neither less nor more. Only against a history of severe deprivation could such an arrangement be called a Welfare State. Only a history of unlimited expropriation would make the Beveridge Plan read as a promise rather than a threat. Yet, a true descendant of the Poor Law, this system is treated as generosity so wanton as to have virtually destroyed the national character.
But the fact that there is in the system no guaranteed rate of return on contributions introduces the flexibility which allows the government to control the rate of real wages. In the nineteenth century, industrial employers could pay wages in kind. A worker might receive as pay a quantity of cloth of a very poor quality, and unsalable. This practice was one means—there were many—by which the employer could depress the cost of labor. The British government, by maintaining a level of service below the money value paid for the services, depresses the real wage of workers by selectively depressing the value of what the worker receives in lieu of money withheld in insurance contributions. The Welfare State is descended from the Company Store.
This assuming, by the British state, of the role of industrial employer in depressing the level of real wages is natural enough, since the state has always been identical with agriculture, banking, and mercantile and industrial interests. The idea that the British establishment predates materialism somehow (so much for Croesus), and is rendered free of mercenary considerations by sheer antiquity, is the sort of hokum that ought to make anyone feel for his wallet.
Without going into the details of arrangements that vary from case to case, I want to suggest that the nationalization of industries has also functioned as a refined form of expropriation. The National Health Service, for example, buys drugs from the major British drug companies, all of them private, on terms highly favorable to them. Its budget includes the cost of training all doctors, even those who go on to practice in the numerous private hospitals, which are run by private health insurance companies. So the state in effect subsidizes major private industries with money supposedly spent on public health care—health care, first among all those killing instances of largesse which are the boast and lament of contemporary Britain, just as the Poor Laws were their boast and lament in the centuries preceding.
As it happens, almost no one in the West spends as little on health care as the British,9 despite the fact that they lead the world in death rates from heart disease and lung cancer, costly diseases, if they are cared for. All the noise is simply an especially dramatic manifestation of the princess-and-the-pea paradigm, where the British establishment takes a horrible bruising from an irritant no one else would feel. But there is a wisdom in these tribal rituals. All the lamenting over the burden of public expenditure gives the government a fine reputation for public service, at home and abroad, while it creates an atmosphere congenial to hospital closings—tolerant of, for example, twelve-month waiting lists for spinal injury patients.
One need not look too deeply into the economics of socialized medicine to account for the state of the National Health Service. The government has simply exercised control over consumption by pegging costs at 5 percent of gross domestic product and squeezing services to fit the budget. With an aging population, living at close quarters in deteriorating cities, and with a declining domestic economy—the base against which the budget is figured—there is a rise in need and a corresponding contraction in the resources for responding to it.
Mrs. Thatcher shuts down industries in the service of economic reform. I admit to finding her wisdom unsearchable. But the antecedents of her policies can be clearly seen in British history, when with bold strokes, implacable governors (call them lords or ministers or manufacturers) have swept away the livelihoods of great numbers of British people, in the service of some high object, like putting the Great back into Britain, which always involves enthusiastic obedience to economics’ brazen law, the subsistence theory of wages. Supposedly, dead regions of modern Britain will regenerate themselves. These disused populations will go forth and strive and innovate—a feat all the more glorious since it will be done without resources or training. I think it is more probable that they will become poorer and poorer, that the British economy will concentrate itself even more intensely on white-collar, middle-class service industries such as banking and insurance, in foreign investment, in toxic and radioactive waste disposal, in the chemical and drug industries, the weapons trade, and “invisibles.” The old industries which labor seized upon as its domain are taken away as the commons were from its ancestors. The dole, by preventing, in theory and in general, the worst consequences of these revolutions from the top, makes such high-handedness possible. Poverty as a norm of working-class life has made them acceptable.
Welfare may be seen to be a matter of definition, having to do with values and expectations. We in America have not yet learned to congratulate ourselves for maintaining millions of unemployed people at the level of subsistence, and paying millions more who are employed, at wages that must be topped up to reach the standard of subsistence. One third of the British population is in poverty as the British define it.
Beveridge’s plan, a national compulsory insurance system which assumed—more precisely, was contingent upon—full employment, incorporated union and “voluntary” schemes for covering births, deaths, injuries, illnesses, and temporary unemployment. It adopted also the long-debated system of family allowances, which added to family after-tax income with each child after the first.
The insurance element of the plan simply appropriated the shifts workers had made, to pool a part of their income to fend off the bleakest eventualities, appropriating at the same time the income of workers to cover the costs of the burden the state had assumed. Family allowance was distinctly less popular in its origins than national insurance. It was an attempt to nuance levels of income to conform to need. William Beveridge actually made a case for it first in 1919, when it was his responsibility to attempt to solve problems that beset the coal industry. The solution he hit upon was, I need hardly say, to lower wages.
He proposed to minimize hardship by lowering most the wages of those with fewest dependents. The union protested violently against the entire proposal. In those days there was talk of establishing a minimum wage in Britain. The family allowance system, by allotting pay on the basis of need, was contrary in principle to the idea that the laborer might unconditionally deserve a specified rate of pay. There is no minimum wage in Britain now; the family allowance system has prevailed. Workers, who are heavily taxed, have their money eked back to them—the payment is in fact made to wives—as a very modest subsidy calculated by the number of children, excluding the first child, for whom it is believed best that his parents be “responsible.” Another among these grinding benefits is a mechanism whereby one may apply for some unreachable necessity, a pot or a blanket. In these frugal days, costs are to be “clawed back” (truly one of the great phrases) through withholding from pay or benefit. This extraordinary system is designed to keep real wages at the lowest possible level. And what are the limits of the possible in this situation? When Eleanor Rathbone plumped for family allowances early in the century, she was encouraged by the discovery of recruiters for the Boer War that starveling men make unsatisfactory soldiers. Malnutrition was a threat to national security. Her view was that workers failed to maintain themselves at the level of “physical efficiency,” not because they were poor, but because they made a bad job of being poor. Family allowance was to guide the expenditure of income, not add to it.
It is the distinctive achievement of British socialism to have attracted the energies of the clever to sorting out the details of the lives of the poor. It makes perfect sense, given the assumptions of the culture, that the solving of difficult social and economic problems should be the work of those with heads for that sort of thing.
From the beginning, however, the object was not to eliminate poverty but to make of poverty a less injurious condition—more precisely, to allow the commonwealth the economic advantages of poverty without its economic disadvantages. Alleviation of the conditions of the poor would create a more productive work force, in theory, though in fact British industry had thriven for more than a century on the labor of hungry and exhausted people, largely women and children, and had found little use for vigorous adult men, except in mining and shipbuilding. Industrialists had made a spectacular demonstration of the economic viability of existing conditions. Indeed, the decline in Britain’s dominance of the world economy was usually laid to the rise in the living standards of the working class, even though the greatest emerging competitor, the United States, had the world’s highest wages. World opinion might seem to set a lower limit to the standard of life a wealthy power can establish for the mass of its people and still enjoy a good name, but British experience continues to prove otherwise. So the floating downward of real wages has no obstacle or limit. This is truer now that weapons have evolved which make armies redundant.
What living standards really are at one time or another in Britain is a difficult question. Discoveries of poverty always come as a great surprise—to the newspapers, at least. This indicates that the imagination of the conditions of life among those who opine on such subjects is consistently wrong. In the nineteenth century an outbreak of cholera would produce a burst of information about misery and crowding and unwholesome conditions. Parliament would inquire and report, pestiferous slums would be razed, and quiet would settle again over “public,” that is, polite, consciousness, before, alack, the poor who had lost their dwellings were provided with others. Slum “clearance,” like the pulling down of villages that depopulated the English countryside, merely emptied an area of irksome people. Once out of sight, they could be forgotten.
The Road to Wigan Pier, which George Orwell wrote in the thirties, is a sort of song of innocence and experience which shows with unusual clarity how two contradictory apprehensions of working-class life coexist in one “lower-upper-middle-class mind.” Orwell has penetrated this life, not quite as a “visitor,” one of the philanthropic inquirers who entered the houses of the poor to inspect for demoralization, but as something very near akin. He uses the word “inspect” with irritating frequency, and he discovers demoralization. The conditions Orwell describes—poor food, crowding, brutal and uncertain employment—are the staples of this sort of writing. Orwell shares dirty food and a fetid bedroom. The inspiration to stay in a boardinghouse in order to observe his subjects intimately might have come from, for example, Charles Booth, who likewise claimed to have formed an affection for the classes in which he immersed himself, and who likewise reported that a particularly intense happiness was the good fortune of the typical working-class family.
Through much of the book Orwell particularizes his aversion to these people by describing his intimate observation of them. He finds them bitter or imbecile and uniformly evil-smelling. He remarks on the physical revulsion one of his caste feels for the lower orders, confessing that while he could not abide being touched by an English valet, he had not objected in Burma when his Asian “boy” dressed him. In any case, at the end of his bleak account of Wigan he describes his fondest memory, which is, inevitably, of a scene he did not see. Certainly like nothing at Wigan. It is a memory, not specific as to place or occasion or the people involved in it, of a working-class family gathered contentedly around a hearth: mother, father, son, daughter, dog—Mum serene over her sewing, Da in those tranquil throes of pleasure stimulated in working-class men by racing news. I think it must be to this scene that all such observers refer when they describe working-class life, which is always assumed to be good and comfortable, when it is posing no egregious problem of which the press or Parliament must take note.
Orwell’s book demonstrates that even immediate experience cannot touch or disrupt this ideal, and equally that his idealization removes nothing of the stigma he attaches to the evil-smelling classes. Rather, he reinforces the aversions of his own class by allowing them the authority of an eyewitness. At the same time, his sentimental evocation of the special happiness of working-class life defines his hopes for them. He expressly dreads a future economic security that will rob the racing news of its fascination.
The present British government is pulling down the great edifice of British philanthropy. Margaret Thatcher is full of busy invention, for example, the poll tax, which will tax by the head, assessing everyone over eighteen equally, rather than taxing property. Taxation will be based on voting lists. The logic is very straightforward. People who live crowded in cheap flats are the primary consumers of social services, so they should be the ones to pay for them. The reform will induce responsibility, since people will be reluctant to vote for services if they must count the cost. The purity of cynicism attained in these reforms is oddly hilarious. The best of them so far has been the dream-of-home-ownership scam. The Thatcher years have seen, along with burgeoning poverty and raging unemployment, a vigorous increase in the numbers of homeowners. How has this miracle been accomplished? By raising rents, and at the same time offering mortgage payments lower than the new rents.10 So poverty actually spurs this fancied embourgeoisement. Do these policymakers laugh over their work? Having bought a council house to avoid the cost of continuing to rent it, let us imagine that Mr. and Mrs. Homeowner suffer a setback—say, the loss of a job, or a cut in some welfare allowance, or a rise in the cost of living, or a rise in the interest rate, which is reflected in all British mortgage payments. Any of these contingencies is highly probable. Then Mr. and Mrs. Homeowner lose their dwelling, and it passes into other private hands. Creating all these private owners of erstwhile public housing is simply a way of destroying public housing. Foreclosure rates are the highest in history. Already, council houses in rural towns are being bought up by city dwellers as second homes. Those displaced from desirable housing will be crowded into undesirable housing, which demand will make expensive. The housing of the British working class is, historically, the crowning scandal in an appalling record of abuse. Public housing was the great postwar pledge that all that misery had ended.
In my eagerness to share my appreciation of the devilish wit of Conservative housing reform, I have skipped over certain implications of the new per capita tax which are well worth considering, including, of course, its impact on the finances of low-income home buyers. Margaret Thatcher is Nassau Senior back from the dead, and reliving that great period, after 1834, when, by enhancing the severity with which paupers were treated, he caused them to disappear by tens of thousands. In this milder age, a poll tax could work as well.11 Since mere existence would imply a tax liability, people for whom a tax would be burdensome might tend to avoid drawing official attention to their existence, especially if they fell into arrears. They might not report crimes against them, or seek medical treatment, or sign up for the dole, or register to vote. A new buoyancy would come into the indicators of social well-being if the unfortunate classes kept themselves to themselves. School-leaving age will probably soon be lowered to fourteen—already only one child in five is in school after the age of sixteen—and schools are springing up which do not require attendance, an answer to the crowded classroom. “Redundant” British people have always been invited to disappear, and then they are found again by the pornographers of squalor, who stimulate cries for humane reform, the object of which is always to make the poorest disappear, by pulling down their slums, or encouraging them to emigrate, or punishing them to improve their character and encourage independence.
It is characteristic of the British official mind to take things to a certain point, and then, as it were, go blank. If only the worthy destitute should be helped, what should happen to the unworthy? How can a subsistence wage be calculated if workers have dependents? If you pull down a slum, where will the slum dwellers go? If you cut back health care for a poor and aging population, what will the consequences be? If you pump plutonium into the sea, will it return? Things, people, consequences disappear in Britain, into a deep reservoir of denial. They surface frequently, but not for long. The government is not observant or reflective, but invasive and peremptory, improvised, as if distracted from more important business. Yet, like an authentic modern government, it deals in the lives and safety of people, and enjoys the extraordinary powers conferred on governments by high technology. To be able to imagine actions unshadowed by their consequences is a source of enormous confidence, and great savings, but of neither wisdom nor moral seriousness.
The depth of British memory, as it can be seen in the recurrences of highly particular notions and obsessions, is at the same time remarkable. The poll tax exempts real estate from taxation. Similar logic was used at the beginning of the century to exclude landed property from taxation. The impulse to shelter wealth on the grounds that those who burden society should bear the cost of the burden they constitute—the rationale of the poorhouse—has persisted all these years intact. It is a systematic and principled rejection of the idea of community. The Fabians wrote approvingly about “creeping socialism,” meaning institutions such as the post office and public sanitation, to which the mass of people enjoy access. State-supported education, that is, public education, is considered socialist as well. In other words, such inevitable enhancements of general welfare as derive from the evolution of civilized life in the last century and the first half of this one are considered the expression of a moral-political drift now being reversed. The Dartford Tunnel, a major conduit of traffic into London, is being leased to a consortium of banks, to be managed for their profit.
The bedrock British political assumption is that absolutely nothing belongs to the general public inalienably, by the logic of collective interest or by right. To understand why Britain has felt itself a Gulliver tied to the earth by innumerable threads of socialism, one must understand that public ownership of a bridge, a tunnel, or a river is for them a departure from the natural order of things.
William Beveridge went through a little interval of disfavor with the government when he submitted his report to the coalition dominated by Winston Churchill, a tight-fisted fellow even by British standards. The authorities first printed up an abstract of the report as if to distribute it to British troops in the field, then snatched it back at the last moment. Needless to say, the soldiers found ways to pilfer copies despite all, and the report was read avidly, with great excitement. I suspect this may have been no more than very deft marketing. Louis XIV, to make French peasants interested in planting potatoes, is said to have stationed armed guards around fields in which they were planted. The fields were in due course thoroughly plundered.
The British government rumbled and grumbled over Beveridge’s proposals, while he toured an admiring America in triumph with a bride of mature years who wrote a book about the experience and its ironies. Meanwhile, in Britain, pressure in favor of his report grew.
There was apparently impassioned opposition, of exactly the kind the newest Poor Law should inspire. The Reverend W. R. Inge launched a Malthusian attack, calling it “a heavy bribe to the slum dwellers to have large families.” In this view, “artificial dysgenic selection has never been carried so far” as in the Beveridge Report, “the most gigantic effort of blackmail ever made by a frightened government.”12 British soldiers dreaded the misery which they had left and into which they expected to return. Inge alludes darkly to the fact that slum dwellers have been discovered to be “a deadly danger in time of war.” One comes across such remarks fairly often. Whether they refer to disorder at home or among the soldiers I have not discovered.
At any rate, in the midst of war, the dawn of a new order began to appear in the sky. In due course legislation based on Beveridge’s plan was passed, supplemented with provisions for the National Health Service, education reforms, and industrial nationalizations. Interestingly, Beveridge himself lost election to Parliament. A Labour government was selected to preside over the novus ordo seclorum, on the strength of an overwhelming majority of the votes of the returning servicemen.
And the standard of living fell. The government used its new powers to lower wages, and continued to impose wartime rationing, in severer forms. Poor Law institutions were rechristened, hospitals and pensioners’ homes purged of their bitter histories by a change of name. The National Health Service is still defended as a vast improvement over the horrors of the system which preceded it, also called the National Health Service, developed from the fact that poorhouses were increasingly the refuge of the destitute sick and old. Reports commissioned by the government, released in 1981 and 1987, indicate that class differences in illness and mortality have widened greatly and steadily from World War II to the present. Since, according to The (London) Times,13 the “economically inactive,” a group including “all illegitimate births and many of the permanently sick as well as many single parents,” are not included in national statistics, the poor cities in the North, where health care is worst and unemployment exceeds 20 percent, would not figure appropriately in this measure of the success of the Welfare State. For it is the Welfare State, the high-water mark of British socialism, whose successes are to be measured in this decline in the relative well-being of the poor. Mrs. Thatcher’s new dispensation can only exacerbate this trend, presumably, since poverty, unemployment, and radiation exposure, among other factors which correlate strongly with ill health, have all increased under her government.
I have no reason to believe that illegitimate births do not occur under the auspices of the Health Service, that the chronically ill do not die in hospitals, at least fairly often. How can the government not have information about these people? On what principle can it exclude such information? Does the midwife keep no record of delivering an unwed mother’s child? Is National Health Insurance really insurance, in the sense that it covers only those who have paid for it? Then what becomes of the others? If there is a charity health system for the indigent, how can the government fail to have access to its records? If it has access to them, how can it rationalize their exclusion from health statistics?
I would suggest that we have here the modern incarnation of the unworthy poor, Booth’s Class A. The Welfare State is made for the deserving, and desert is established by employment, as it has been for five hundred years. Are these “economically inactive” neonates the descendants of the wandering beggar women punished for burdening the parishes with their babies when Edward VI was King?
What would happen to infant mortality figures in America if official statistics excluded illegitimate births? What would official motives be in excluding such births? What would the government be expressing in terms of its social vision if it took no account of the condition of the most vulnerable? This British method of accounting is no recent innovation but established official practice.
Britain has only a shadow government. Its opposition is the shadow of a shadow, and fading. It is a government made not to shape reality but to conceal it. Yet the uncountenanced reality replicates itself like a compulsive gesture or an obsessive fantasy.
British records and social institutions are shielded by the laws that protect military secrets. There was a government attempt to suppress the 1987 report on inequalities in health that led to its being distributed from behind a guitar store, according to the press. Yet there is a profound respect for the conventions of secretiveness reflected in the willingness of distinguished men to compile and interpret information which conceals the conditions their work purports to describe.
Secrets are not merely kept, I think, but treasured. They give latitude to the old vice of punitive and abusive behavior, which lends piquancy to the great apparent seemliness of the people who preside over these same abuses. I have, over the years, gathered stories about the extraordinary exploitation of a boys’ orphanage in Northern Ireland, and about an elderly woman horribly murdered, apparently by the police, because of her involvement in nuclear issues. Accounts of abusiveness and, especially, filth, in hospitals, prisons, insane asylums, and military training camps are very common, and simply too disgraceful to repeat. Anyone who is curious can go to the library.
In the nineteenth century the uncountenanced poor were called the “residuum.” The same word was used to mean sewage. Scholars will note the powerful association of the socially rejected with filth. For example, British prisons have no toilets. Prisoners share densely crowded cells with a plastic bucket, which is emptied by them once each day. Some of these prisoners are debtors, of course, who have lived with such insult and nastiness since Britain first began its half millennium of misericordia.
That there should be a great secret, and a great denial; that the secret should involve filth and violence, in forms that are rarefied but at the same time quintessential; that there should be manufacture and world commerce and enormous profits involved, and a work force disciplined by poverty; all these things make Sellafield seem of a piece with its cultural setting. Finally, however, I am at a loss to describe the place it occupies in reality, wreathed as it is with distorted perceptions, with information pulled out of shape by the strategies of denial. I do not know the meaning of the violence the British government has done to its country and the world. I am sure no one could explain it to me. I think I am describing pathology.
In 1909 the quondam Fabian H. G. Wells published a novel titled Tono-Bungay, which anticipates the British nuclear enterprise in its most extraordinary aspect, the commercial importation of radioactive waste. Wells introduces the subject almost as an aside, yet with an eerie precision of detail. The stuff is called quap, “ … the most radioactive stuff in the world. That’s quap! It’s a festering mass of earths and heavy metals, polonium, radium, ythorium, thorium, curium and new things, too … There they are, mucked up together in a sort of rotting sand. What it is, how it got made, I don’t know … There it lies in two heaps, one small, one great, and the world for miles about it is blasted and scorched and dead. You can have it for the getting.”
The quap lies along the coast, “an arena fringed with bone-white dead trees, a sight of the hard-blue sea line beyond the dazzling surf and a wide desolation of dirty shingle and mud, bleached and scarred.” It is to be imported into England to make light-bulb filaments and gas mantles. These futurists should be listed too: British Nuclear Fuels now uses the radioactivity of gas mantles to make the point that radioactivity is a homely and familiar phenomenon. On two occasions British Telecom has disposed of tens of thousands of tritium-filled (therefore luminous) telephone dials as radioactive waste, and there are plans to bury a million more. False teeth and exit signs contain radioactive materials.14 Since no law controls the use of radioactive materials in British products, no doubt other ingenious applications have been found for them. In Wells’s fiction, the quap, which sickens the crew of the ship used to transport it, eats its way through the bottom and is lost in the sea.
Tono-Bungay is about British enterprise, a raw novelty in the early twentieth century, as it had been through the three or four centuries preceding. It eludes description in the terms of traditional moral understanding, being, therefore, a vast field for opportunism and improvisation, as it had been for three or four centuries and as it is now. The obsessive bringing to bear of disapprobation upon “unprofitable” elements of the population has always implied an enormous freedom for those who float in the ether of profit.
The key to interpreting British behavior is always economic. Clearly H. G. Wells knew eighty years ago what consequences would follow from the accumulation of nuclear detritus along a coast. He wrote: “There is something—the only word that comes near it is cancerous—and that is not very near, about the whole of quap, something that creeps and lives as a disease lives by destroying … To my mind radioactivity is a real disease of matter. Moreover, it is a contagious disease. It spreads.” Despite all that has happened since to confirm Wells’s view of radioactivity, nevertheless “quap” has indeed been imported into England as part of a commercial venture.
Wells’s anticipation simply demonstrates the fact that the British nuclear enterprise has never been innocent; that is, naïve. It is no more than a reprise of the sad old compulsions around which British social order has always turned. Such behavior would be modified, if not forbidden, if questions as to its wisdom or decency were ever raised in good faith. It is neither modified nor forbidden.
It is almost unimaginable that this industry could coexist with any lucid awareness of its implications, but this only means that our models for describing human behavior are fundamentally wrong. I suspect a better grasp of it awaits our recognition of major anomalies, that our conception of the fabric of motivation and causality must be warped into shapes that accommodate observable phenomena, with denial, dissociation, and atavism acknowledged as potent entities, like quarks and black holes. We should know by now the inadvisability of constructing a universe around local notions of reasonableness and plausibility.
Copyright © 1989 by Marilynne Robinson
Meet the Author
Marilynne Robinson is the author of Gilead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Home, winner of the Orange Prize, the L.A. Times Book Prize, and a finalist for the National Book Award. Her first novel, Housekeeping, won the PEN/Hemingway Award. Robinson is also the author of the nonfiction books Absence of Mind and The Death of Adam. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and lives in Iowa City.
- Iowa City, Iowa
- Date of Birth:
- November 26, 1943
- Place of Birth:
- Sandpoint, Idaho
- B.A., Brown University, 1966
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