Mother country /
Marilynne Robinson.
New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, c1989.
261 p.
0374213615 :
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New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, c1989.
0374213615 :
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references.
A Look Inside
This item was nominated for the following awards:
National Book Awards, USA, 1989 : Nominated
First Chapter
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 Then it was superseded by the Welfare State, in which its features were plainly discernible.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.
Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 1989-05-01:
Robinson, whose first novel was the critically acclaimed Housekeeping ( LJ 12/1/80), here writes a nonfictional account of Sellafield, a governnment-owned plant in Northern England that, for 40 years, has been dumping radioactive residue into the Irish Sea, causing a major source of ground and water contamination and high cancer rates in the surrounding area. Robinson discovered this problem while on sabbatical in England a few years ago. She devotes half of her book to a discussion of Britain's industrial history--from the Poor Laws of the 14th century to the Official Secrets Act of the 20th--that shows a continual protection of this sort of conduct from close scrutiny. Robinson's loathing for British attitudes toward the powerless is consummate, and no American reading her book will ever feel the same about the mother country.-- Daniel La Rossa, Connetquot P.L., Bohemia, N.Y. Reviewers wanted for reference and pop ular books in medicine, science, and tech nology. Hot topics: childcare, aging, envi ronmentalism, radiation, popular use of microcomputers, and more. Those interest ed in writing critical, comparative reviews are invited to send a sample review to Judy Quinn, The Book Review. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1990-10-19:
Great Britain, the world's largest commercial producer of plutonium, also leads the world in environmental pollution, Robinson claims. In what PW termed a ``convincing, explosive expose,'' British economic and social history is examined to prove that the profit motive engenders this flagrant neglect of environment and individuals. Author tour. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
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Main Description
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 Countryis a 1989 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction.
Main Description
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.

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