Friday, March 21, 2014

More from Mother Country by Marilynne Robinson

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 the 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  Then it was superseded by the Welfare State, in which its features were plainly discernible.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 hose 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 the 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 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 the 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."  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 of 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 it 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 

One of the great benefits of reading Mother Country is that a lot of what you have read in British literature and history makes far more sense knowing what it contains.  And reading the essay was a revelation in understanding what I had read of Darwin and Huxley and other British scientists even up to W. D. Hamilton.  Knowing how truly horrible the New Poor Law was made my understanding of Darwin's complaint that it kept too many of the "weaker members" of society alive far more complete than if I hadn't read it.

One of the problems in posting these passages is what to choose and how far to go with it.  Every page is of value in understanding the real horrors of the British system but, as Ms. Robinson notes in the first paragraph above, it is also relevant to understanding the United States.   That relevance grew in the 1990s and 2000s to the point where much of the current discussion of "entitlements," the minimum wage, the environment and related issues is stronger than it was when it was written.

I don't know the role that the growth in the promotion of Anglophilia to the popular imagination will have on voters choices.  I suspect that any effect will be a bad one.  It is clear that the journalistic and media elite have fallen into a quite similar mode of discourse.  That Rupert Murdoch has flourished in the United States during that time might be a coincidence, or it might not.  I tend to believe he came here from Britain and was allowed to become a citizen with a  clear purpose.  His record of promoting the far right in Britain was known.  The exact kind of callous indifference to human suffering recorded in Mother Country, of the reduction of people from possessors of inviolable rights to units of commerce has arisen in ways I never would have believed forty years ago.   I find quite a bit of what has come from the Obama administration to be alarmingly resonant with much of such British thinking as is found in that record.  Listening to Jimmy Carter on the radio this afternoon, I can't recall ever hearing those same resounding notes from him.

1 comment:

  1. A little busy this week myself (and may you get well soon!), but enough time to say: thanks for this.

    I need to find a copy of this in a used bookstore.