“What was needed to realize the promise of the liberal market was the “scientific and economical” treatment of the poor, as the Victorian social scientist Jeremy Bentham put it. This meant first and foremost satisfying the demands of the free market before those of community. And so the bonds of the community were systematically undermined. First, common lands were enclosed; the fields and forests villagers depended upon to supplement whatever they got from agricultural work were privatized. Then the old laws that promised all who lived in the parish could expect help were repealed. One by one, ancient forms of beneficence disappeared.”
““A blind faith in spontaneous progress had taken hold of people’s minds,” writes Polanyi, “and with the fanaticism of sectarians the most enlightened pressed forward for boundless and unregulated change in society.” And things did change. The privation that resulted from the removal of the old forms of charity made factory work appear more remunerative than did agricultural work. Millions of men and women left their ancestral homes for dirty, bustling industrial cities. There they found conditions little better than the ones they had left, but they had neither the means nor the will to go home again.
To economists, this impoverished, helpless mass was a valuable resource in that it was an inexhaustible font of cheap labor. The problem became only that of keeping those workers in a state of immiseration adequate to satisfying the demands of the free market.”
“The solution was starvation. In the physiological need for food economists saw an effective mechanism for controlling labor. “Hunger will tame the fiercest animals, it will touch decency and civility, obedience and subjection, to the most perverse,” wrote Joseph Townsend in his 1786 treatise Dissertation on the Poor Laws. Townsend promoted a naturalistic theory of economics and argued against state provision, either outdoor or otherwise. Labor, he stated, could be managed through starvation. “In general it is only hunger which can spurn and goad them [the poor] on to labor,” he wrote. It is “the most natural motive to industry and labor, it calls forth the most powerful exertions; and, when satisfied by the free bounty of another, lays lasting and sane foundations for goodwill and gratitude.””
“And it seems that after a brief hiatus in the mid 20th century, we’re back to starving our countrymen and women in the name of the market. Don’t want to drive for Uber? Don’t want to work in a factory for a fraction of the wage your grandparent got? Then starve. Economists tell us only this will make the country more globally competitive. And if global competitiveness means local barbarism, then that’s the price that must be paid. Margaret Thatcher was right when she said society no longer existed. What she didn’t say is that neoliberal politicians had killed it. If we cannot once again understand that people who hold common citizenship should render common aid, the final result will expose even the most fortunate among us to ruin.”
From The New Inquiry