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Not psychology: early 19th Century analysis of modern issues

I’ve been reading EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (Gollancz, 1980) in an attempt to make up for the weaknesses of my academic education in the 1950s and 60s. Not having had the benefit of having been taught in a modern comprehensive, my history knowledge derives mainly from Time Team and Blackadder (I note that Michael Gove hasn’t objected to Blackadder’s portrayal of Elizabeth 1 and the Prince Regent, so I guess he thinks those are pretty accurate).

I’ve been really struck by how precisely things people wrote 200 years ago mirror modern issues. Perhaps if I knew more history, it wouldn’t be so striking – but perhaps if many modern commentators knew more history, they would have more sensible things to say about these modern issues.
So (p225 in the 1980 edition): “Thus as early as 1817 the Leicester framework knitters put forward, in a series of resolutions, an under-consumption theory of capitalist crisis”, which could be seen as support for raising the minimum wage, and a criticism of the global race to the bottom in wage rates:

  • That in proportion as the Reduction of Wages makes the great Body of the People poor and wretched, in the same proportion must the consumption of our manufacturers be lessened.
  • That if liberal Wages were given to the Mechanics in general throughout the Country, the Home Consumption of our Manufactures would be immediately more than doubled, and consequently every hand would soon find full employment.
  • That to Reduce the Wage of the Mechanic in this Country so low that he cannot live by his labour, in order to undersell Foreign Manufacturers in a Foreign Market, is to gain one customer abroad, and lose two at home ..

And the benefits system works in the favour of employers to subsidise wages, and to maintain a pool of workers for zero-hours contracts (p244):

…a country magistrate in 1800 […] went on to argue that the poor-rates, by maintaining a surplus population and encouraging marriages – thereby ensuring a supply of labour in excess of demand – brought down the total wages bill. Indeed, he showed himself a pioneer in the science of ‘averages’:
‘Let us suppose the annual poor-rates, and the amount of wages throughout England added together in one total; I think this total would be less than the sole amount of the wages, if the poor-rates had not existed.’
The motives which led to the introduction of the various systems of poor-relief which related relief to the price of bread and to the number of children were no doubt various. The Speenhamland decision of 1795 was impelled by both humanity and necessity. But the perpetuation of Speenhamland and ’roundsman’ systems, in all their variety, was ensured by the demand of the larger farmers – in an industry which has exceptional requirements for occasional or casual labour – for a permanent cheap labour reserve.

And, in the eyes of employers and the comfortably off, the countryside in 1800 was pretty much like Benefits Street. The same prejudiced ranting that you’ll find in the modern right-wing press was visible than, too. Depressing.
243: from the Commercial and Agricultural Magazine, October 1800:

[The village poor are] ‘designing rogues, who, under various pretences, attempt to cheat the parish’ and ‘their whole abilities are exerted in the execution of deceit, which may procure from the parish officers an allowance of money for idle and profligate purposes’.

..and by 1816, the human rights menace from Brussels (or at least Paris) had been added (p246):

‘In regard to the poor-rates,’ one Bedfordshire ‘feelosofer’ (Dr Macqueen) wrote to the Board of Agriculture in 1816, ‘I always view these as coupled with the idleness and depravity of the working class:
The morals as well as the manners of the lower orders of the community have been degenerating since the earliest ages of the French Revolution. The doctrine of equality and the rights of man is not yet forgotten, but fondly cherished and reluctantly abandoned. They consider their respective parishes as their right and inheritance, in which they are entitled to resort …’

I guess the poor are always with us, and so always need to be slagged off by those who benefit from maintaining their poverty, in order to justify to themselves and others what is done to maintain that poverty (we psychologists call it Dissonance Reduction).
Later in the 19th century, I believe (haven’t got that far in the book yet), these lower orders and mechanics organised themselves and affected some improvement in their conditions. Might that happen this century?


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