For the pursuit of (whose?) wealth…Part II

Officially, of course, the motif is never greed. When the British Parliament approved a series of “Enclosure Acts” that culminated in the 18th century, they argued that this was for the common good. However, as more and more peasants were denied access to “common land” and had to leave their homes to seek underpaid labour in the big cities, average life expectancy at birth fell from forty-three years in the 1500s to the low thirties in the 1700s. (Source: Jason Hickel, in Less is More, citing Edward Wrigley and Roger Schofield, The Population History of England 1541-1871.)

They hang the man and flog the woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
Yet let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

Did anybody admit that this theft – for theft it was – was committed out of greed? Of course not! Jason Hickel gives us some characteristic quotes from the period:

“Our forests and great commons make the poor that are upon them too much like the Indians,” wrote the Quaker John Bellers in 1695; ‘[they are] a hindrance to industry, and are nurseries of idleness and insolence’.

Lord John Bishton, author of a 1794 report on agriculture in Shropshire, agreed: “The use of common lands operates on the mind as a sort of independence.” After enclosure, he wrote, “the labourers will work every day in the year, their children will be put out to labour early,” and “that subordination of the lower ranks of society which in the present time is so much wanted would be thereby considerably secured.”

In 1771 the agriculturalist Arthur Young noted that “everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious”.

The Reverend Joseph Townsend emphasised in 1786 that “it is only hunger which can spur and goad them on to labour”. “Legal constraint,” Townsend went on, “is attended with too much trouble, violence, and noise … whereas hunger is not only a peaceable, silent, unremitted pressure, but as the most natural motive to industry, it calls forth the most powerful exertions … Hunger will tame the fiercest animals, it will teach decency and civility, obedience and subjugation to the most brutish, the most obstinate, and the most perverse.”

David Hume: Tis always observed, in years of scarcity, if it be not extreme, that the poor labour more, and really live better.

Patrick Colquhoun, a powerful Scottish merchant, saw poverty as an essential precondition for industrialisation: “Poverty is that state and condition in society where the individual has no surplus labour in store, or, in other words, no property or means of subsistence but what is derived from the constant exercise of industry in the various occupations of life. Poverty is therefore a most necessary and indispensable ingredient in society, without which nations and communities could not exist in a state of civilisation. It is the lot of man. It is the source of wealth, since without poverty, there could be no labour; there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth.”

The cynicism of these quotes is all the more striking in view of the idleness and indolence of the British aristocracy. However, the aristocracy had a lot to defend! (See Piketty: UK distribution of property 1780-2015). It also had the means to do so, as even in 1820, only 5 % of adult men were sufficiently wealthy to be eligible to vote, not to mention to be elected to Parliament. (See Piketty: Male suffrage in Europe 1820-1920).

In Chapter V of Capital and Ideology, Thomas Piketty explains just how the aristocracy was able to cling to power in the face of emergent humanitarian ideals in the 19th century. Basically the House of Lords controlled Parliament until 1911.

No wonder, you will say, no wonder the aristocracy clung to their beautiful palaces and gardens. But as we all know, all those empty rooms and all those acres require care, i.e. staff that must be paid, so stealing the commons from defenceless peasants and using the land to produce crops to put on the market, must have seemed like a splendid idea.

To this very day, the Conservatives tend to have the upper hand in the UK. That must mean that their rhetoric is well attuned to people’s dreams, ideas and beliefs. Alas, our fascination with and shamefaced admiration of the rich and beautiful is our Achilles heel. It undermines our better judgment. By the way, was the dress worn by Florida’s first lady made of lamé?

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.


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