Sociocide – Liberalism’s True History


By Gwydion M. Williams

How North-West European norms became global norms by all sorts of dubious and oppressive methods.

Liberalism and Sociocide

This issue of Problems was almost ready in September 2001, when the issues it raised suddenly became much more pressing. The discontent of the Islamic world comes from Western ‘sociocide’, continuous undermining of what were once contented cultures.

But while non-European nations are not allowed to be different, they are not allowed to be the same either. I detailed in Bonfire Of The Vanities the complex racial and cultural hierarchies which ensure that Jewish interests always take priority over Arab concerns, despite the vast importance of Middle Eastern oil.

Victorian British Liberals assumed that privileges like those of the French aristocrats were unnatural and must perish. But their own rather similar advantage over British working people, over Irish and over the non-white world was natural and eternal.

Within this ‘eternal’ vision, there were complex and diverse ideas of who could or could not be accepted. People not of British origin could be assimilated if white. Non-whites might be tolerated as the occasional guest or oddity, but not as part of the family. But since most modern racism is typically anti-Semitic as well as anti-Black, it is important to note that mainstream British culture in the 19th century was very different

There were informal cultural tests but no racial barriers to those accepted as white, including Jewish minority was acquired and accepted in the 17th and 18th century. Parliament under Cromwell had debated whether they would accept Jews who remained practising Jews, and decided that they would do so. And Charles 2nd, then in exile, approved the measure along with much else when he returned. Britain was the only nation other than modern Israel to positively decide it did want a Jews to settle here.

Jews would be regarded as either British Jews or else Jews who happened to be legally resident in Britain. If they were the latter, their presence might be accepted, but only as tolerated outsiders. Criteria were complex and flexible, but no level of society was definitely closed to them. The Rothschilds were only the best known of a number of Jewish families who did get acceptance by the gentry and aristocracy.

Very few WASP-Americans even understood the qualifications, let alone passed them. ‘Old Money’ was mostly no more than two or three generations old, and qualifications of decent upper-class behaviour barely understood. There was instead a crude racism–one of the things that did not qualify as decent upper-class behaviour, though it did occur.

In British society, Jewish origins were seen as a point against, but not a definite barrier to any of the important social circles. (Those social circles that would not under any circumstances admit Jews were also well below the level of the ‘top people’.)

To a limited extent, this also happened with some of the non-white peoples of the Empire. Aristocratic circles did accept some Indian aristocrats. You would have the odd situation whereby an Indian prince might rank below a member of the all-white upper levels of the Indian Civil Service in his own country, yet rank above them in Britain.

For the broad mass of middle class opinion, Jews were sometimes acceptable, if treated with a certain amount of bias. Non-white peoples were not acceptable at all, regardless. In Europe there had been a general policy of converting all non-Christians, including Jews. Jews were the only survivals of the numerous religions and creeds of Europe’s pre-Christian era. The other minorities were wiped out very thoroughly, leaving only Roman/Greek Paganism and apart from Judaism. For it could never quite be forgotten that Christianity was a merger of these two traditions.

Regarding Jews, there were mostly not any barriers to converts, except in Spain where ‘New Christians’ were numerous and unassimilated. Shakespeare’s Merchant Of Venice is often classified as anti-Semitic despite the evident personal sympathy for Shylock. To clarify the matter, one should recognise that there are all sorts of different ways that the dominant group can handle different groups over it has power:

  • Genocide: killing or driving out the unwanted people
  • Sociocide: accepting them as individuals while also stripping them of their culture and language
  • Apartheid / Caste Systems: a rigid exclusion of the different groups, who are quite free to keep their own culture and language
  • Subordination, a distinct group can live its own life provided it accepts an inferior place in the social order
  • Subordination with assimilation. Within Britain, the English applied this successfully to the Welsh and unsuccessfully to the Irish and the Scotch.
  • Subordination with apartheid. This applied to Afro-Americans up until the 1960s, and also in a milder fashion to Afro-Caribbeans.
  • This is the norm in most cultures, but established with great difficulty in Europe.

Shakespeare’s approach in Merchant Of Venice is sociocidal, Jews should cease to be Jews and intermarry with the majority Christian population, the exact opposite of anti-Semitism as normally understood.

To Shakespeare it was not possible to be part of English society without accepting its religion. But to Cromwell and other Puritans, society was part of the problem and Jews could be treated on a level with some of the odder Puritan sects.

Europe had a maladjustment in its core ideology, the basic idea that the culture gave people of who they were and why they were. The Roman emperor Constantine merged the pagan Roman state with a religion that had grown up within a state structure it was hostile. This is sharply different from Islam, which had created its own state. Also from Hinduism, which had an old and complex view of how religion and states should coexist, one that was broadly taken up by Buddhism. And Confucianism preserved the ancient concept of a God-King equivalent to the Egyptian Pharaoh, yet combined it with an efficient state that was usually home to a quarter of the world’s total population.

The Late Roman Empire tradition turned Christianity into a function religion for a civilisation. This tradition still lives on in Orthodox Christianity, and in some of the other Eastern creeds. It was the Latin Christian tradition that deviated. Invented Modernism, although the creed got beyond their control quite quickly.

The whole of the standard Western-Liberal tradition is off beam, since it sees Roman Catholicism as representing tradition whereas it is in practice a Modernist creed working within a Traditionalist framework.

The Servanted State

19th century Britain celebrated Adam Smith as their Prophet of Mammon, but had deviated from Smith’s model in many ways, in particular in the growth of a mass of servants. Smith had said:

There is one sort of labour which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed: There is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour. Thus the labour of a manufacturer [worker] adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labour of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing…

A man grows rich by employing a mass of manufacturers [workers]: he grows poor by maintaining a multitude of menial servants… (The Wealth Of Nations, Book II, Chapter III., III. iv. 20.)

I detailed in my book Adam Smith: Wealth Without Nations how Smith slips in the notion that work is only productive when contained within capitalist forms. But on the specific point of servants versus factory hands, he is quite right that Britain’s gentry did often waste their money on complex unproductive lifestyles with a mass of servants. And yet along with what is conventionally called ‘capitalism’ this unproductive mass grew and became the prerogative of the middle-classes.

The main 19th century development was not so much the ‘big houses’ as ordinary middle-class households, where a vast artificial separation was created. It was the price that the ruling class paid for middle class support, and it was the way the middle class spent most of the wealth that it had squeezed out of the ordinary workers when they ceased to be artisans and had not learned to be trade unionists. During this gap–which was also the start of Britain’s decline as a world power–a considerable middle class was able to accumulate privileges, mostly of an unproductive sort.

The 1830s saw middle-class power established, and by the 1940s they had so weakened their heritage that the British Empire and its traditional values were wound up with surprisingly little fuss or trouble.

We have outlived most of these characters, who all through the 20th century suffered a loss of the privileges they had once enjoyed over ordinary Britons and Britain’s imperial subject. They were not inclined to suffer in silence, and very few of them saw it as reasonable that they should live as other Britons did. People whose parents would have had at least one servant were indignant that they could not afford them or find people willing to do such work. This view was connected with diatribes about decline of civilisation and the retired colonial types. Some people from such background got beyond such narrow selfishness, but these were just an honourable minority. And most of these also were socialists or communists, politics forming the main means by which the barriers were broken down.

The standing of Britain’s Victorian middle class was in fact a rather rare and odd one. Within an economy based on wage labour, they had the privileges that only slave-owners had had before:

In the Ancient World, indeed, the word ‘servant’ was often synonymous with that of ‘slave’, since few free men or women were willing to perform the menial labour which domestic service entailed.” (The Rise And Fall Of The Victorian Servant, by Pamela Horn, page 1)

It was not at all in keeping with British traditions, where servants were the prerogative of just the top ranks of society and status as one of their servants was rather a privilege:

Outside the ranks of the nobility and gentry few households in the country district would require the help of servants. In most villages only the priest would have needed a full-time housekeeper, although a few of the more prosperous farmers may have engage maids to help in the household as well as in the dairy and the fields, where their main energies would be concentrated. In the towns, where domestic comfort was rather greater, the families of more substantial merchants and clothiers would likewise employ domestic assistance, but in the majority of households in the town and country the wife and daughters would carry out the daily chores for themselves. (Ibid., p 3-4)

By the sixteenth century this position was slowly changing. The rising standard of life among the middle orders in society was creating a growing demand for domestics, and despite the large establishments of the greater nobles, an increasing proportion of servants were now employed in families of moderate means–a trend which was to persist and intensify up to the early 20th century. Women, who were always cheaper to employ and easier to discipline than men, were always more numerous in the smaller households…

In 1777 Lord North introduced a tax of one guinea per head on male domestics in order to meet the cost of the American War of Independence. He estimated that there would be 100,000 men covered by the tax…

Eight years later the younger Pitt introduced a more severe impost, not only increasing the duty on men in accordance with a sliding scale, but also introducing a new tax on female servants … the female servant tax was never popular, and in 1792 it was repealed.” (Ibid, page 9).

The 19th century saw the gradual evolution of the female servant attire, which had previously been hard to distinguish. The same century also saw:

The increase in the number of servants employed in a century which saw the true burgeoning of the middle classes. Alongside this there developed the view that the employment of domestic staff was in itself a sign of respectability and an indicator of social status. And as small shopkeepers, tradesmen and clerks moved in growing numbers into the servant-keeping classes, so the distinctions between employer and maid were more firmly drawn. Whereas in the mid-seventeenth century Samuel Pepys and his wife often treated their maids as friends and companions … their nineteenth century counterparts adopted a more rigid approach. Nowhere was this clearer than among employers whose own station in life was uncomfortably close to that of the maid they kept, and for whom the preservation of petty distinctions of rank were all important. (Ibid., page 12–13)

By 1901 it was not only the major employer of women in the country, but, with a total labour force of nearly one and a half million persons, it formed the largest occupational grouping of any kind–bigger than mining, engineering or agriculture. (Ibid., page 130)

The disruption of war reduced numbers as changed economic circumstances favoured the workers as against the middle classes:

Servant keeping was never again easily available to the middle classes as a whole, and in the post-war world it increasingly became a privilege of upper income levels. In the commuter area of London the number of servants per 100 families fell from 24.1 in 1911 to 12.4 in 1921. By 1931 about half a million households, or just under five per cent of all private families, employed regular domestics (rather more than three-quarters of them being one-servant households)…. (ibid., page167)

By 1951 about 350,000 women were employed in private domestic service in England and Wales, as compared to the 1.1 million so recorded in 1931. Over the same period there had been a dramatic increase in the number of clerks and typists, who had by 1951 reached 1,271,000 and now constituted the largest single occupation for women.   Almost twenty years later, by 1969, the total number of those engaged in private service in the whole of Great Britain had shrunk to 118,000. (179).

As late as 1931 nearly five per cent of private households had a resident servant; by 1951 it was a mere one per cent” (182).

This was in fact a vast shift in the internal balance of power, to the advantage of the majority of English who had once been held down. The middle class that had been able to demand servility and obedience from the bulk of the society lost it in the first half of the 20th.

Part of a wider loss of things they had mismanaged.

Laissez-Fair Suicide

In the early 19th century, the Catholic Irish were quite content to be a minority within the British Isles. Their position had never in fact been separatist, not since the Stuarts became Kings of England. The House of Stuart had ancient Irish roots, and were therefore legitimate monarchy by traditional Irish-Gaelic ways of thinking.

Though the Irish in the 17th century were often at odds with the government ruling in London, this was always in support of some alternative government for the whole of the British Isles. But by the 19th century, the Stewart line was extinct and Jacobite rebelliousness was dead.

The notion of separation from the ‘Three Kingdoms’ had been briefly considered by the mostly-Protestant United Irishmen. It was then forgotten again, and both Protestant and Catholic Irish seemed ready to be loyal subjects of the monarchs of the United Kingdom.

The Catholic Irish in the early 19th century peacefully demanded the removal of religious penalties, and this was eventually achieved. They seemed to have settled down peacefully on the second rung of the Imperial hierarchy, people without the dominant power of the English or the special rights and autonomy of the Scotch, and yet valued as part of the white minority in an empire over non-white lands. It was a viable position, and anyone wishing the Empire to actually last a thousand years would have seen the Irish as a great source of strength.

But when it came to the Potato Famine of the late 1840s, English Liberalism suddenly decided that starving Irish were not their problem. The dominant middle class in the richest nation the world had ever known did not think it could or should spend money on feeding people who had been hit by an inexplicable natural disaster.

Having been graphically shown that the English did not accept them as part of the nation, the Irish went off in their own direction. This separation contributed greatly to the decline and fall of the British Empire and the English middle-class way of life. Neglect of the basic needs of the Irish was not only wicked, but profoundly stupid. The best chance of actually establishing a long-lasting and secure ’empire on which the sun never sets’ was lost back then

This is not an abstract historic matter, exactly the same patterns of thinking are going on right now. The Economist magazine played much the same role it plays now: it combined useful commercial information with a smug self-righteous. The Economist was founded in 1843 by a man from Quaker background, a man who anticipated Richard Nixon in transferring his allegiance from God to money. Its editorial line was always and without exception to insists that everything that seems to be just for the good of the rich actually benefits everyone. Likewise anything that seems to be for the good of the poor and needy will actually be bad for them, and also ruinous for national wealth. The rules of accountancy and ‘return on capital’ are assumed to be the Law of Nature.

Actual working business people developed accountancy to keep track of how far their existing wealth was either growing or diminishing within a complex society. That in itself was fair enough. And policies that promote the growth of national wealth are also likely to be of benefit to most individual businesses. But this does not mean that individual profits create national wealth, any more than a weathercock creates the wind or a surfer creates those giant waves.

By capitalist rules, casinos and pawnshops and porn-shops generate wealth. Schools and museums and libraries waste wealth, except in as far as they can charge fees. From the viewpoint of an individual trying to get rich, this is true enough. But to identify this with the enrichment or impoverishment of the nation as a whole is lunacy. A lunacy that The Economist has been promoting for its century and a half of vigorous existence.

James Watt developed his notion for an improved steam-engine while working for Glasgow University. Its development as an industrial device proved difficult, and his first partner had in fact to give up the struggle. With his second partner Boulton, Watt asked for and received special state protection in the form of an extended patient conferred by Act of Parliament. Similar special protection had applied to the earlier Savery / Newcomen steam engines, which had been working as useful devices pumping water out of mines for a couple of decades before Watt was even born.

The actual history of industrialism is a mix of private enterprise, capitalist-based investment, state sponsorship and help from non-profit-making institutions. Many of the pioneers were motivated by a desire to make fine famous products, with money a mere means to that end. This was true of Henry Ford, it is true of the Japanese electronic giants, it is true of Bill Gates. The complex processes of a successful industrial society depend on many other things besides accountancy.

Britain’s breakthrough as an industrial society occurred during the Georgian Era, 1714 to 1830. Wars under George II established Britain as the dominant power in the wider world beyond Europe. This rather uninspiring monarch presided over the process that gave Britain control of both India and North America. George III as a young and popular monarch encouraged the drastic ‘agricultural revolution’ that broke away from subsistence agriculture and made a large manufacturing population possible. And his later errors did nothing to prevent the gradual growth of a radically new industrial order.

Pitt the Younger weathered the storms of the French Revolution by a mix of basic welfare and relative political moderation. The noted radical William Godwin was left free to publish Political Justice as a theoretical basis for a new social order. Young men who had sympathised with the early stages of the French Revolution were left alone to sort themselves out freely–with unexpectedly good results in the case of individuals like Wordsworth and Coleridge, potential revolutionaries before they took to poetry. And the basic needs of the population was taken care of through ‘outdoor relief’, basic feeding for anyone who could find no work in a fast-changing uncertain and cyclical economy. Likewise the Corn Laws ensured that new prosperity was shared by the rural population.

By the tail-end of the Georges, things were beginning to change. During the Victorian era, a rising middle-class applied laissez-faire with a literalness and a dogmatism that earlier aristocratic rulers had shrunk from. The Victorians made Britain much more solidly capitalist and individualist–but did not thereby improve it. Improvements happened, of course, as the processes begun in Georgian times continued to generate wealth. But the Victorian middle class was at war both with those above them and those beneath them.

Economical With The Irish

Class hatred in Britain is at its strongest in middle-class malice towards those less fortunate than themselves. A smug malice backed by a phony version of Chistianity, whose true colours were shown in the infamous Workhouses, and also in the neglect of the Irish in the late 1840s.

Victorian Britain totally failed to cope with the looming problem of a world in which many other nations were industrialising and British predominance was likely to be lost. They ignored the writing on the wall, the obvious truth that Britain must help set up some solid world political structure or else face perpetual war. They contented themselves with asserting dogmatically that for them to look after themselves was all that was needed. And nowhere was their failure greater than on the matter of the Irish Famine of the 1840s.

Laissez-faire–a belief that the public good is best served by leaving individuals to look after themselves, since government interference in economic affairs tends to upset the natural checks and balances of wealth-creation. Wilson’s magazine The Economist was to be perhaps the most influential disseminator of this doctrine, through the prism of which it examined and pronounced on the topical issues of the day; its greatest test was to be the Irish famine.

(The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1843–1993. Ruth Dudley Edwards, Hamish Hamilton 1993. Page 6).

Natural wealth creation requires that Irish paupers be left alone to naturally die in agony. The Economist‘s official historian celebrates the fact. It was not an accident or a misunderstanding. It was absolutely central to a world-view that has carried on right to this day.

Wilson [James Wilson, founder and first editor of The Economist] might have become a member of the Church of England, but when it came to religion, he was very much a product of his Quaker background… (Ibid., p 47)

In the same sense that farting is a product of beans. The relationship is valid but not admirable.

Quakers were and are the closest Christian grouping to the original doctrine. They did capitulate to commerce, but in most ways they remained serious Christians. They stuck to the actual principles of the Gospels in a way that most Protestant sects did not. They trusted God enough to remain pacifists, rather than invoking random bits of disconnected biblical text to justify their own violence and malice. And whereas other Protestants disgraced their cause by promoting ‘souperism’ among the starving Irish, proper Quakers obeyed the actual words of Jesus and gave help to the needy without regard for sect or doctrine. Un-lapsed Quaker were the opposite of Wilson’s ‘starvationism’.

‘It was unusual for Wilson to invoke the deity: certainly, when it came to the greatest issue of his editorship–the Irish famine–it was Adam Smith, not Jesus Christ, whose counsel he reluctantly followed.’ (Ibid., p 47).

Nice of Ruth Dudley Edwards to admit that the two doctrines are as different as chalk and cheese. Smith was part of a circle of Scottish Deists who were pro-Establishment but anti-Christian. Almost all of Smith’s modern biographers evade this point.

Did the existence of widespread starvation not prove impractical the abstract principle that a government should not meddle with the subsistence of the people? On the contrary, it demonstrated ‘the propriety of rigidly adhering to non-interference’, for it was interference in the shape of the Corn Laws that had caused the problem in the first place. Similarly, it was no part of a government’s duty to feed any or all of the people. Since its only funds came from taxation, it could feed one section of the population only by depriving another. (Ibid., p 58)

But how could corn laws be blamed for a potato blight? Nor could regulations on food imports have much to do with Irish overpopulation, which was the deeper cause of the disaster. Ireland was at all times a food exporter, even during the famine. Though altogether four times as much food was imported as was exported, that there should be any exports from a famine zone was both wicked and stupid.

The wickedness is obvious enough. People rich enough to pay taxes are not likely to be dying of want, and their comfort ought to be secondary to the simple survival of other sections of society. I also say stupid, because Britain was to suffer enormous loss for its failure to behave with simple decency in the 1840s. A fair and generous effort to help the starving Irish might perhaps have not saved very many extra lives. But it would have left the Irish still feeling part of a wider British-Isles identity, an idea that was gravely weakened after the famine.

Bulstrode’s Progress

The 18th century gentry had an agreed religion that very few of them took seriously. The quiet contempt of the educated for official beliefs is nicely encapsulated in Horace Walpole’s tale about a gentleman on his way to be executed for murder, who declined to discuss his religious views on the grounds that he had no wish to follow the bad example of Lord Bolinbroke.

Bolingbroke was best known for having tried to bring back the Catholic Stewarts in place of George I and the Hanoverians, but he himself was no Catholic, nor anything within the range of popular faith. He is commonly described as a Deist, but Deism normally means a belief in God but not Jesus. Bolingbroke took a different view, accepting the authority of Jesus but wishing to redefine it in a way that would have shocked most believers.

Sir Robert Walpole was much less serious about religion than his rival Bolingbroke, who cared enough to risk unpopularity for his own notion of truth. Walpole could rest on the comfortable separation that earlier generations had made between religious creeds and the actual business of commerce, law and government. Samuel Butler later encapsulated it in Erewhon, where his imaginary land has two distinct systems of banking and money. The ‘Musical Banks’ are treated with great politeness, like religion in Britain, yet it is universally known and accepted that real power and value lie elsewhere.

Like Mr Bulstrode in Middlemarch, a representation of Wilson’s own middle-class stratum, those characters were not generous enough to live virtuously, but also not cynical enough to avoid being exposed as hollow shams. The most recent dramatisation of Middlemarch leaves out essential elements of the plot: only by reading the book will you be able to make sense of Mr Bulstrode’s odd inability to lie after he had been able to commit an indirect murder.

Despite feminism, Middlemarch and the other novels Marianne Evans still appear under her pen-name ‘George Eliot’. Illustrating, I suppose, just how much supposed ‘high culture’ is merely the repetition of well-known ideas in some minor variant, and how rare real though actually is.

Marianne Evans was a thinker, in a way that Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters were not. She was part of the 19th century examination of Christianity that broke conventional Christianity as a serious intellectual movement

The Brays and the Hennells quickly drew her from extreme provincialism, introducing her to many ideas in violent disagreement with her Tory father’s religious and political views. When Charles Hennell married in 1843, she took over from his wife the translating of D.F. Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet, which was published anonymously as The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, 3 vol. (1846), and had a profound influence on English rationalism. (Britannica 2001)

She was also a pioneer of the wider freedoms that women in Britain only definitely established for themselves in the 1960s:

Convinced that his break with Agnes was irrevocable, Evans determined to live openly with Lewes as his wife. In July 1854, after the publication of her translation of Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity, they went to Germany together. In all but the legal form it was a marriage, and it continued happily until Lewes’ death in 1878. “Women who are content with light and easily broken ties,” she told Mrs. Bray, “do not act as I have done. They obtain what they desire and are still invited to dinner.” (Ibid.)

Britain kept up an irrational opposition to divorce right to the bitter end, loyal to its Latin-Christian roots and without taking notice of alternatives such as Orthodox Christianity, which permits divorce and remarriage without notable damage to its morals. Nothing could ease the misery of unfortunate and relatively conventional couples short of the complete collapse of the old moral order, which is what in fact occurred.

Puritanism had purified the Latin-Christian tradition of most of its original Christian heritage, removing images and other things that had been part of the religion for almost as long as it had existed. Yet Puritans also hung on oddities like the prohibition on divorce. And they put much of their energies into foolish innovations such as campaigning against alcohol–even though Jesus and the apostles are recorded in the Bible as regular and moderate drinkers.

The immoderate and self-destructive drinking found within those societies influenced by Puritanism should have been a clue that the doctrine had wandered far away from its roots and was a major obstacle to living an approximately Christian life. Instead the problem was blamed on the availability of alcohol, with no blame placed on the excessive stress and callousness of the society that Puritan-influenced Britain and America had built.

Puritanism in a coherent form is almost extinct in mainland Britain. And we are a vastly better off for being rid of it. Most active Christianity is either Anglican or Roman Catholic, Catholicism gaining strength as Anglicanism gives in to modern values, but both are functional religions. Puritan by contrast is a dysfunctional creed, as is shown by the intense polarisation between hysterical religion and swinish hedonism that you get in the USA, which has yet to produce anything like a functional religion. (It’s also pretty dysfunctional in Northern Ireland, where the Puritan wing of the Protestant community has generally been the chief opposition to compromises that might have preserved most of what they valued.)

In Middlemarch, Christian extremism is represented by Mr Bulstrode the banker. None of the dramatisations I’ve seen are able to make any sense of him: he appears to act without coherence or reason. Yet read the book—remember it was written by a woman who had decided that Christianity was basically untrue, but who also was a sensitive and intelligent observer of human nature—and the underlying reason is there.

Mr Bulstrode is being blackmailed by Raffles, who knows unpleasant secrets from his past. His wife is innocent of this and unaware of any taint on Mr Bulstrode’s wealth, the source of which he had almost managed to forget about:

The unreformed provincial mind distrusted London; and while true religion was everywhere saving. honest Mrs Bulstrode was convinced that to be saved in the Church was more respectable. She so much wished to ignore towards others that her husband had ever been a London Dissenter, that she liked to keep it out of sight even in talking to him. He was quite aware of this; indeed in some respects he was rather afraid of this ingenuous wife, whose imitative piety and native worldliness were equally sincere, who had nothing to be ashamed of, and whom he had married out of a thorough inclination still subsisting. But his fears were such as belong to a man who cares to maintain his recognized supremacy: the loss of high consideration from his wife as from everyone else who did not clearly hate him out of enmity to the truth, would be as the beginning of death to him…

In the interview at the Bank, Raffles had made it evident that his eagerness to torment was almost as strong in him as any other greed… Bulstrode felt himself helpless. Neither threats nor coaxing could avail: he could not count on any persistent fear nor on any promise. On the contrary. he felt a cold certainty at his heart that Raffles–unless providence sent death to hinder him–would come back to Middlemarch before long. And that certainty was a terror.

It was not that he was in danger of legal punishment or of beggary: he was in danger only of seeing disclosed to the judgment of his neighbours and the mournful perception of his wife certain facts of his past life which would render him an object of scorn and an opprobrium of the religion with which he had diligently associated himself. The terror of being judged sharpens the memory: it sends an inevitable glare over that long-unvisited past which has been habitually recalled only in general phrases.

Once more he saw himself the young banker’s clerk, with an agreeable person, as clever in figures as he was fluent in speech and fond of theological definition: an eminent though young member of a Calvinistic dissenting church at Highbury, having had striking experience in conviction of sin and sense of pardon. Again he heard himself called for as Brother Bulstrode in prayer meetings, speaking on religious platforms, preaching in private houses. Again he felt himself thinking of the ministry as possibly his vocation, and inclined towards missionary labour. That was the happiest time of his life: that was the spot he would have chosen now to awake in and find the rest a dream. The people among whom Brother Bulstrode was distinguished were very few, but they were very near to him, and stirred his satisfaction the more; his power stretched through a narrow space. but he felt its effect the more intensely. He believed without effort in the peculiar work of grace within him and in the signs that God intended him for special instrumentality.

Then came the moment of transition. Was it with the sense of promotion he had when he, an orphan educated at a commercial charity-school, was invited to a fine villa belonging to Mr Dunkirk. the richest man in the congregation. Soon he became an intimate there, honoured for his piety by the wife, marked out for his ability by the husband, whose wealth was due to a flourishing city and west-end trade. That was the setting-in of a new current for his ambition, directing his prospects of ‘instrumentality’ towards the uniting of distinguished religious gifts

By-and-by came a decided external leading: a confidential subordinate partner died, and nobody seemed to the principal so well fitted to fill the severely-felt vacancy as his young friend Bulstrode, if he would become confidential accountant. The offer was accepted. The business was a pawnbroker’s, of the most magnificent sort both in extent and profits; and on a short acquaintance with it Bulstrode became aware that one source of magnificent profit was the easy reception of any goods offered without strict inquiry as to where they came from. But there was a branch house at the west end, and. no pettiness or dinginess to give suggestions of shame. (Middlemarch, by George Eliot. Penguin Books 1994, pages 661-664)

That’s to say, the business Bulstrode was joining would accept stolen goods, in addition to the regular pawnshop business of lending small sums on the security of personal possessions that the owner would later redeem. The thief would get ready cash for them and of course never come back for them, so that they could be duly sold. It was the early-Industrial equivalent of the modern ‘money laundering’–and then as now, it was not always as separate as it should have been from respectable business. Some business people do take honest and occasionally heroic stands against dubious business and profitable ‘grey areas’. Others do not, Bulstrode is typical of many actual Puritans in business in the he allows himself to be drawn in while still somehow seeing himself as doing God’s Work:

He remembered his first moments of shrinking. They were private, and were filled with arguments; some of these taking the form of prayer. The business was established and had old roots; is it not one thing to set up a new gin-palace and another accept an investment in an old one?

The profits made out of lost souls–where can the line be drawn at which they begin in human transactions? Was it not even God’s way of saving His chosen? ‘Thou knowest,’–the young Bulstrode had said then, as the older Bulstrode was saying now–’Thou knowest how loose my soul sits from these things -how I view them all as implements for tilling Thy garden rescued here and there from the wilderness.’

Metaphors and precedents were not wanting; peculiar spiritual experiences were not wanting which at last made the retention of his position seem a service demanded of him: the vista of a fortune had already opened itself, and Bulstrode’s shrinking remained private. Mr Dunkirk had never expected that there would be any shrinking at all: he had never conceived that trade had anything to do with the scheme of salvation. And it was true that Bulstrode found himself carrying on two distinct lives; his religious activity could not be incompatible with his business as soon as he had argued himself into not feeling it incompatible. (Ibid.)

Bulstrode reckoning it ‘one thing to set up a new gin-palace and another accept an investment in an old one’ is a typical piece of evasion as used within the Latin-Christian tradition, by Puritans and Anglicans as well as Catholics. Sometimes called Jesuitry, but it’s much older and more widespread than the Jesuit Order and used freely by the Jesuit’s bitterest foes. And much the same trick was recently used by President Bush, to try to reconcile theological objections to the use of embryonic stem cells with the undoubted medical benefits that such human tissues could bring. Not that I’d suppose that Bush suffered any pangs of conscience: more likely it was just a clever balance between the wishes of two rival sets of voters.

Experience shows that morality follows the law of ‘use it or lose it’. If you start quibbling and evading around an inconvenient moral principle, then that particular moral rule is on its way out. On the particular issue of stem cells, I welcome the vagueness because I do not see how human tissue could possibly be regarded as a human being until it grows at least a rudimentary brain. But where a line needs to be held, evasion and equivocation is more dangerous than outright opposition.

To return to Middlemarch, ‘Brother Bulstrode’ is gradually corrupted into running a business in defiance of his religious principles, while still being fiercely religious whenever it’s just at someone else’s expense. A common pattern, and not confined to Christians–I’ve mentioned before how Adam Smith kept his economics in one book (Wealth of Nations) and his morals in another, Theory Of Moral Sentiments. That this led to a very wealthy nation with confused incoherent morals is hardly surprising, and something our modern ‘conservatives’ have never dared address. Far nicer and more popular to gloss it over with fine-sounding phrases.

Bulstrode actually would have got away with such behaviour, common enough in 19th century Britain. The hold Raffles has on him comes from another matter. His patron Mr Dunkirk dies and Bulstrode hopes to marry his widow–this is the first Mrs Bulstrode, and not the one we encounter in the book. The first Mrs Bulstrode has a lost daughter whom she wishes to be reconciled with, perhaps make her heir, if she can be found.

Years before, the only daughter had run away, defied her parents… If she were found, there would be a channel for property–perhaps a wide one, in the provision for several grandchildren… the mother believed that her daughter was not to be found, and consented to marry [Bulstrode] without reservation of property.

The daughter had been found; but only one man besides Bulstrode knew it, and he [Raffles] was paid for keeping silence and carrying himself away.

That was the bare fact which Bulstrode was now forced to see in the rigid outline with which acts present themselves to onlookers. But for himself at that distant time, and even now in burning memory, the fact was broken into little sequences, each justified as it came by reasonings which seemed to prove it righteous… It was easy for him to settle what was due from him to others by inquiring what were God’s intentions with regard to himself. Could it be for God’s service that this fortune should in any considerable proportion go to a young woman and her husband who were given up to the lightest pursuits, and might scatter it abroad in triviality–people who seemed to lie outside the path, of remarkable providences? Bulstrode had never said to himself, beforehand, ‘The daughter shall not be found’–nevertheless: when the moment came he kept her existence hidden; and when other moments followed, he soothed the mother with consolation in the probability that the unhappy young woman might be no more.

There were hours in which Bulstrode felt that his action was unrighteous; but how could he go back? He had mental exercises, called himself nought laid hold on redemption, and went on in his course of instrumentality. And after five years Death again came to widen his path, by taking away his wife. He did gradually withdraw his capital, but he did not make the sacrifices requisite to put an end to the business, which was carried on for thirteen years afterwards before it finally collapsed. Meanwhile Nicholas Bulstrode had used his hundred thousand discreetly, and was becoming provincially, solidly important–a banker, a Churchman, a public benefactor; also a sleeping partner in trading concerns, in which his ability was directed to economy in the raw material, as in the case of the dyes which rotted Mr Vincy’s silk.

There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs’ and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong, and whether we believe in the future perfection of our race or in the nearest date fixed for the end of the world; whether we regard the earth as a putrefying nidus for a saved remnant, including ourselves, or have a passionate belief in the solidarity of mankind.

The service he could do to the cause of religion had been through life the ground he alleged to himself for his choice of action: it had been the motive which he had poured out in his prayers. Who would use money and position better than he meant to use them? Who could surpass him in self-abhorrence and exaltation of God’s cause? And to Mr Bulstrode God’s cause was something distinct from his own rectitude of conduct: it enforced a discrimination of God’s enemies, who were to be used merely as instruments, and whom it would be well if possible to keep out of money and consequent influence. (Ibid., page 665-667.)

Note that Bulstrode’s original errors are guided by greed, not necessity or immediate pressure. He could have had a satisfactory if unspectacular career had he withdrawn from Mr Dunkirk’s business when he saw it was not honest. He could perfectly well have told the truth about the missing daughter, it would just have reduced his prospects of inherited wealth. And yet his apparent religious fervour does not in fact hold against the lure of wealth. He is ready to be unyielding when it comes to other people’s welfare and basic needs, as with the proposed hospital. But when it comes to his own interests it is quite different. And such ‘Bulstrodism’ played a large part in actual British industrialisation and the accumulation of wealth at the expense of the wider society.

Someone should write Bulstrode’s Progress as a novel, taking the details from Middlemarch but filling them out and telling the tale from his point of view. It’s not something I’m ever likely to write, but I’d be glad to advise anyone who wanted to try.

Bulstrodism draws on the peculiar Puritan doctrine of wealth as a sign of God’s Blessing. A doctrine utterly opposed to the recorded words of Jesus, and alien to all existing Christian practice. But when Catholicism was rejected, some Puritan sects also manage to lose the inconvenient insistence upon Holy Poverty, and thus gain a convenient acceptability to a rising commercial class. (Not really ‘capitalist’, at least capitalism in the strict sense was only one trade and was also well developed within Catholicism.)

Puritans modified the authentically Christian idea of scorning wealth. Instead they helped rich people to reject the normal pattern of conspicuous consumption, lordly style and generous distribution that had traditionally kept the newly wealthy within the existing boundaries of the society. Money was set free, free to destroy Protestantism in the long run, over the lifetime of civilisations, but enhance its worldly power over a couple of centuries.

Bulstrode has successfully made the transition and is part of an economic framework that is busily ripping itself apart by such things as railway development–fatal to local identity and part of a destabilisation that is still going on. Marianne Evans might not have seen it so, her summary is that ‘the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts’, with Dorothea as a prime example. Not indeed that it’s any crude ‘Improving Tale’. The book has Bulstrode suffer some retribution, but an innocent bystander suffers more.

What happens is that Raffles is taken ill, the heroic Doctor Lydgate gives him medication and warns strongly against allowing him any alcoholic drink. Bulstrode, knowing this, allows his servant to answer Raffles’ demand for alcohol, which kills him. But Raffles has already passed on the story. Bulstrode is challenged to ‘publicly deny and confute the scandalous statements made against him by a man now dead, and who died in his house … that he won his fortune by dishonest procedures’. He cannot bring himself to lie and instead engages in blather about the unchristian nature of his accusers.

Doctor Lydgate, who did nothing wrong, is tainted by association and by a loan from Bulstrode that is wrongly seen as a bribe. He has to leave Middlemarch and goes on to what would conventionally be seen as successful career: ‘his skill was relied on by many paying patients, but he always regarded himself as a failure: he had not done what he once meant to do’–which was to discover more about the causes of infectious diseases. Early 19th century knowledge was indeed inadequate, cholera was only discovered to come from contaminated water in the 1850s and it took a long battle to secure supplies of pure water just in Britain, much of the world still does not have it.

Had Bulstrode been one of the ‘coarse hypocrites’, a man who could mislead and ‘be economical with the truth’, he would have saved his reputation. Such a fellow would have been right at home with the present generation of Tories, who retained their faith in Jeffrey Archer almost up until his actual conviction. Or with New Labour, for that matter.

Subversive Railways

Too many people are presenting the 20th century as basically a mistake, rather than a highly painful deliverance from 19th century folly and wickedness. This article is intended to help those who think otherwise and retain the notion that the world was in a pretty rotten state even before it plunged into the slaughter of 1914-18.

All of the massacred and disasters of the 20th century are a reasonably foreseeable consequence of 19th century folly, and the biggest share of responsibility must fall on Britain and its ruling class, which repeatedly refused to allow sensible and timely changes. The existing social order was undermined by the new economy, and yet expected to remain exactly the same.

Middlemarch does include railways in the background to other more personal events:

One form of business which was beginning to breed just then was the construction of railways. A projected line was to run through Lowick parish where the cattle had hitherto grazed in a peace unbroken by astonishment…In the hundred [region within a county] to which Middlemarch belonged railways were was exciting a topic as the [1832] Reform Bill or the imminent horrors of Cholera, and those who held the most decided views on the subject were women and landowners. Women both old and young regarded travelling by steam as presumptuous and dangerous … while proprietors … were yet unanimous in the opinion that in selling land, whether to the Enemy of manking or to a company obliged to purchase, these pernicious agencies must be made to pay a very high price to landowners for permission to injure mankind. (Ibid., Chapter 56.)

Writing in the 1870s, Marianne Evans must have supposed the changes beginning in the 1830s had gone through fairly smoothly. The next fifty years would show otherwise, but it’s easy to be wise after the event.

It is also better to be wise after the event, than never to be wise at all.  Consider the following comment:

It happened in George Elliot’s Middlemarch. As the railway moved ever closer, panic mounted about what the new technology would mean for its inhabitants. Victorians thought that the railway would change their lives, and they were right. But they were wrong in thinking it would deprive all of them of their livelihoods. For every stagecoach driver the train put out of work, it created many other jobs—not only on the railway itself but in business and shops that were now connected to the outside world… And, as in Victorian times, it means connecting with the larger world and the enriching, job-creating opportunities that the free movement of popele and goods can offer. (Economist editorial, February 11th 1995.)

The greater connectivity and mobility given by railways changed social life for ever and were not in fact compatible with the social order as it then was. But a general feeling against such unpredictable new forces was subverted by a ruling class that kept on jettisoning its official principles in return for cold cash. Landowners who had the legal right to allow or forbid railways were bought off with absurdly high ‘compensation’, while the ordinary people were left with the consequences–an increasing loss of the meaning and coherence of local life.

Middlemarch is also set at the time of the First Reform Act, 1832, fully five years before Queen Victoria began her long reign. A lot of what we now think of as Victorianism was introduced rather later by her husband Prince Albert. And most people in the 1830s would have been horrified to learn what their own country would become in 100 or 150 years time. If you read the book, you find the whole debate is on issues that are now quite irrelevant. The whole social life dominated by the intensely local life of the secure professionals and gentry, where London was as distant and alien as Tokyo would be to modern Britons. The dominant social values those defined by the ‘gentlemen’—ladies were politely excluded and men like Bulstrode who broke the code excluded with open disdain.

The real-life equivalents of Bulstrode were mere petty criminals compared to their own ruling class. In an age of railways and steamships, disasters like the Irish Famine of the 1840s could have been prevented, had there been any serious will to prevent it. A British government composed of the traditional stratum of intelligent cynics would have known that it was necessary to at least appear to care about the starving Irish. Only characters like James Wilson could have been crazily self-righteous enough to go public on the desirability of leaving part of the United-Kingdom population to painfully and publicly starve to death.

At the root of all the evils of Ireland lay the relationship between landlord and tenant: Of that, the prevalence of a great corruption of religion, with an extended power possessed by a priesthood, so opposite to the general progress of mankind, is a consequence.’ (The Pursuit of Reason, p 59.)

Elsewhere in Europe, Catholic ruling classes could be correctly blamed for a great many evils. Not in Ireland, where priests were powerless and landlords were all Protestant. The Irish suffered because they chose to stick with a religion that the English puritan middle class had always been at odds with.

But it was not only the Catholics who suffered from the self-righteous greed of Liberal England in its heyday.   British soldiers were horribly neglected in the Crimean War in the 1850s. And while the wealth of the nation increased, the health of the working class was in many ways ground down. It would have fallen further had Wilson’s ideas been more rigorously applied. Even more of the Irish would have died had not the government engaged in some feeding and public works and assisted emigration.

Likewise new machinery was made a curse rather than a blessing, with stress and danger added rather than reduced:

Many accidents happen, for instance, while the operatives are cleaning machinery in motion. Why? Because the bourgeois would otherwise oblige the worker to clean the machinery during the free hours while it is not in motion, and the worker naturally is not disposed to sacrifice any part of his free time. Every free hour is so precious to the worker that he often risks his life twice a week rather than sacrifice one of them to the bourgeois. Let the employer take from working hours the time required for cleaning the machinery, and it will never again occur to an operative to clean machinery in motion. In short, from whatever point of view, the blame falls ultimately on the manufacturer, and of him should be required, at the very least, lifelong support of the incapacitated operative, and support of the victim’s family in case death follows the accident. In the earliest period of manufacture, the accidents were much more numerous in proportion than now, for the machinery was inferior, smaller, more crowded, and almost never fenced. But the number is still large enough, as the foregoing cases prove, to raise grave questions as to a state of things which permits so many deformities and mutilations for the benefit of a single class, and plunges so many industrious working people into want and starvation by reason of injuries undergone in the service and through the fault of the bourgeoisie. (Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844)

The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels. The hundreds of thousands of all classes and ranks crowding past each other, are they not all human beings with the same qualities and powers, and with the same interest in being happy? And have they not, in the end, to seek happiness in the same way, by the same means? And still they crowd by one another as though they had nothing in common, nothing to do with one another, and their only agreement is the tacit one, that each keep to his own side of the pavement, so as not to delay the opposing streams of the crowd, while it occurs to no man to honour another with so much as a glance. The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest, becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space. And, however much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking, is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of the great city. The dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each one has a separate principle, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme. (Ibid.)

We remain atomised, if not as atomised as the New Right would wish us to be. But Bulstrode and his kind are gone from Britain, rather than transformed into docile mickey-mouse Puritans of the US variety. We are also well rid of the wider class of servant-dependent ‘respectable’ bourgeois (which is not my own class or heritage, my own ancestors having come from rather lower down in the English and Welsh social hierarchies).

What was the self-justification of this class? How is it that people today can feel proud rather than ashamed to be associated with it?

The basic idea was that modern civilisation and progress depended totally on the prosperous middle-class being left free to do as they pleased. They saw life as inevitably awful. It was all ‘nature red in tooth and claw’–a phrase that Tennyson coined before the publication of The Origin of the Species, symptomatic of a wider view that distorted the scientific understanding of evolution. ‘Survival of the fittest’ is not the same as conventional dominance, the antelope and the hedgehog have better long-term prospects that the lion or tiger. ‘Survival of the cheapest’ would be a better way of putting it, and competition does almost always promote the cheap and addictive at the expense of anything serious. But even today science is distorted by malign aggression-worship.

The belief that the ruthlessness of the Victorian Middle Class was some sort of grim necessity is also untrue. The whole breakthrough into modern industrial civilisation occurred in the Georgian era. It happened under a lax and cynical but broadly well-meaning ruling class.

When the Victorians messed about with the Georgian legacy, they did themselves no good. With ‘reforms’ like the workhouse system, they actively harmed their fellow-citizens. Even the Empire was in substance an inheritance, won back in the ‘wonderful year’ of 1759, dressed up in absurd pomp and wasted during Victorian ‘greatness’. The Victorian era is nothing to be proud of.

Sir Robert Peel, the Tory Prime Minister who believed in Adam Smith’s theories and who actually repealed the Corn Laws, also made an honest effort to look after the Irish during the earlier and milder stages of the disaster. But he was succeeded by a Liberal administration that quietly tried to carry out a policy that can only be called ‘Liberal Genocide’. Though no one was specifically killed, there was a hope to solve the problems of Ireland by removing the poor and unproductive Catholic Irish. The British Puritan Middle Class had a strong wish that people who did not fit their pattern were ‘just not there’. There was a widespread feeling that people unable or unwilling to conform to middle-class standards and were better dead. As Darwin put it, the native New Zealander is likely to go the way of the native rat.

People will doubtless take exception to talk of ‘Liberal Genocide’, with its overtones of the Nazis. But please remember, the Nazis had originally hoped to clear out their unwanted Jewish population by the English methods of ill-treatment and neglect. It was their hope that most Jews would run away or die without the unpleasant necessity of killing them. But it became clear that most of Europe’s Jews would not spontaneously flee or vanish, that the doors in America and the British Empire were firmly shut to most such asylum-seekers. Only then was the policy of mass murder begun.

Ill-treatment of Jews in Germany began in 1933, and did not inhibit a large section of the Tory Party from approving of Hitler. Since there’s a book called Hitler’s Pope, there should be a whole shelf-full called Hitler’s Tories, since without mainstream British support Hitler could never have restored Germany’s position as a Great Power. The specific decision for mass-murder was not made until 1941, during a World War that was obviously a life-or-death struggle for their whole ideology and world-view. The distinction between ‘Liberal Genocide’ in Ireland of the 1840s and Nazi Genocide in Europe in the 1940s is rather small.

Gaels & Goldbeasts

By Adam Smith’s rules, the Irish population was utterly unproductive and undeserving. By his rules–though he himself was no dogmatist and might well have been shocked by such a thing–it was entirely right and proper to leave them to starve. He does in fact say “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” (The Wealth of Nations, I.ii.2)

On the basis of what Adam Smith had taught, the decision was made that the richest and fastest-growing society in the world could not undertake famine relief. The Liberal government in London felt it had no obligations towards poor and starving people who were officially classed as part of the same society. Taxing rich people to save the lives of poor people would be an intolerable interference with the rights of the prosperous. That briefly-dominant puritan Middle Class also regarded it as necessary and positive that Irish paupers should starve. It was genocide for cowards. It was genocide for cowards, full of a small-mindedness pomposity and self-righteous immorality that they showed in everything they did.

The context of the Irish Famine must include the Great Exhibition of 1851, in which the dominant groups showed off the wealth that they would not share with the poor and needy. Also the Crimean War of 1854, in which they were almost as callous to own soldiers. ‘Laissez-faire’ was a mere phrase: it did not apply when middle-class concerns were involved. The intention was that the middle class should protected and everyone else pushed to the limits of human endurance, to make them self reliant. This was a gibberish ideology, since it did not apply to those protected by personal wealth, much of it inherited. No wonder many poor people rejected mid-19th century Liberalism and preferred the old aristocracy, who had some concern for the rest of society.

By the late 19th century, the ‘great’ Victorian Middle Class had wasted the legacy they had inherited from the cynical Georgian aristocracy. While Britain continued to grow wealthier, it was visibly being overtaken by both America and Germany, both of which gave better protection to their own working people. The British ‘solution’ was to suppose that there was no solution except a continuous struggle between rival nations, which was expected to ‘toughen’ and ‘improve the stock’. A world was created in which moderate civilised behaviour would be punished, while violent aggressive actions would be applauded for as long as someone else was the victim.

‘Laissez-faire’ could loosely be translated as ‘let things drift’. Drift they did, thanks to such ‘wisdom’, drifted on to an inevitable and costly loss of Britain’s position, and also some growth world-wide in cruelty and barbarism. Middle-class perceptions of self-interest have always lacked a sound long-term vision.

By 1830s, Britain’s industrial supremacy was well established, and both primitive welfare and corn law had been part of the package. As had limits on Free Trade. The Economist magazine was an intellectual representative of the people who demolished a viable way of life, and then failed to preserve either world peace or their existing possessions.

Had the British government done everything they could in Irish Famine, it is possible that almost as many might have died, but the Irish and the world would have seen it very differently. As it was, almost all of those “pious Puritans” were Goldbeasts, worshiped Mammon under a respectable gloss. Only the Quakers acted as serious Christians–but too few and eccentric to do much good. . Most Victorians set a bad example that others would take rather further.

The Irish before the Famine had a remnant of a the traditional and functional Celtic Christianity that was probably closer to early Christianity than the Latin-Catholic variety ever was. Definitely it was a more normal religion, a better balanced view that those who still value Christianity are perhaps returning to. But the Irish were forced into a modern world-view with Britain as a clear enemy, a tyrannical ruler that had organised the export of food from a famine zone in the name of Free Enterprise. (Note that Free Enterprise means that you’re mostly free to do what you can pay for, and not at all that life in general is free.)

Britons love a rebellious and boldly-fighting underdog–so long as it’s under someone else. Their own underdogs biting back is seen as a very different matter. But the Irish who had been partly assimilated were un-assimilated by the famine, and the old problem was back again.

If Ireland had been a few hundred miles further south, or a few hundred miles further west, it might have been better for both parties. Equally, if there had been no Irish Sea, there would have been much more of an intermingling of cultures, as occurs on the British mainland and on continental Europe. Geologically, Northern Ireland and Scotland north of the Great Glen are one entity and the rest of the British isles another. It’s all ‘continental shelf’, it would be just the same as the existing dry land, whereas the rocks under the real oceans are distinct.

But the exact arrangement left by the present ocean level is more of an accident. The first humans to arrive in Britain definitely walked in, across what rising sea levels later turned into the channel.

The actual geographical arrangement might be especially made for trouble, and is one of many things that would make no sense with a managerial God deciding for reasons unknown to have just such an awkward arrangement as part of Divine Providence.

Even so, the conflicts might have resolved, as Denmark and Sweden and Norway settled down after various attempts at conquest, with Finland and Iceland eventually joining them as a block of harmonious Scandinavian nations. And within Britain, Scotland became junior partners in the global-imperial enterprise. They definitely could have gone their own way in the early 18th century, Union was pushed through with the threat of total separation if it were not accepted.

Wales is different again, Wales never did have much of a choice or an independent voice. Patterns resembling those of Scotland briefly took shape, but much less unified and much closer to the English centres of power. Most of the time the Welsh were more like a set of distinct though similar minorities, each with its own ties to England. South and central Wales in modern times attached to Birmingham-London axis, and North Wales to Liverpool-Manchester.

One has to note Papal responsibility, since they did make the English-Irish link, and never attempted to resolve it afterwards. Up until the Reformation, they were trying to use England to convert a Gaelic Ireland that was resolutely sticking to its Celtic customs. When England went Protestant, they then tried to use Ireland against England. Always there was lukewarm support for any solution that would have allowed Ireland to go its own way peacefully and without troubling England or Scotland. It could conceivably have happened in the 18th century, if England had taken an inward turn in the same way as Sweden did.

As things turned out, the Irish were the big victims and losers over two centuries of British Empire. Though now they reap the benefits of being an English-speaking nation without the imperial cultural baggage that England and Scotland are still burdened with. Ireland survived the famine, while Imperial Britannia did not, in the long run. The whole Victorian approach with its hypocrisy, Bulstrodism and small-mindedness guaranteed the ruin of what Britain’s Georgians had so successfully built.


First published in Problems of Socialism and Capitalism, No. 68, Spring 2002

One comment

  1. A fascinating essay, especially with regard to the contrast between the aristocratic Georgian perspective and the puritanical-monetarist Victorian mindset. Thank you for writing and posting it.


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