Karl Polyani



from The Great Transformation, Rinehart & Company, Inc, 1944



THE SPEENHAMLAND SYSTEM was originally no more than a makeshift. Yet few institutions have shaped the fate of a whole civilization more decisively than this, which had to be discarded before the new era could begin. It was the typical product of an age of transformation and deserves the attention of any student of human affairs today.Under the mercantile system the labor organization of England rested on the Poor Law and the Statute of Artificers. Poor Law, as it applied to the laws of 1536 to 1601, is admittedly a misnomer; actually these laws, and subsequent amendments, formed half of the labor code of England; the other half consisted of the Statute of Artificers of 1563- The latter dealt with the employed; the Poor Law, with what we would call the unemployed and unemployable (apart from the aged and children). To these measures were added later, as we saw, the 'Act of Settlement of 1662 concerning the legal abode of the people restricted their mobility to the utmost. (The neat distinction between employed, unemployed, and unemployable is, of course, anachronistic since it implies the existence of a modern wage system which was absent for another 250 years or so; we use these terms for the sake of simplicity in this very broad presentations) (86)

. Labor organization, according to the Statute of Artificers, rested on three pillars: enforcement of labor, seven years' apprenticeship, and yearly wage assessments by public officials. The law - this should be emphasized - applied to agricultural laborers as much as to artisans, and was enforced in rural districts as well as in towns. For about eighty years the Statute was strictly executed; later the apprenticeship clauses fell partly into desuetude being restricted to the traditional crafts; to the new industries like cotton they simply did not apply; yearly wage assessments, based on the cost of living, also were in abeyance in a part of the country after the Restoration (166o). Formally, the large assessment clauses of the Statute were repealed only in 1813, the wage clauses in 1814. However, in many respects the apprenticeship rule survived the Statute; it is still the general practice in the skilled trades in England. The enforcement of labor in the countryside was discontinued little by little. Still it can be
said that for the two and a half centuries in question the Statute of Artificers laid down the outlines of a national organization of labor based on the principles of regulation and paternalism. (86, 87)

The Statute of Artificers was thus supplemented by the Poor Laws, a most confusing term in modern ears, to which "poor" and "pauper" sound much alike. Actually, the gentlemen of England judged all persons poor who did not command an income sufficient to keep them in leisure. "Poor" was thus practically synonymous with "common people," and the common people comprised all but the landed classes (hardly any successful merchant failed to acquire landed property). Hence the term "poor" meant all people who were in need and all the people, if and when they were in need. This, of course, included paupers, but not them alone. The aged, the infirm, the orphans had to be taken care of in a society which claimed that within its confines there was a place for every Christian. But over and above, there were the able-bodied poor, whom we would call the unemployed on the assumption that they could earn their living by manual work if only they could find employment. Beggary was severely
punished; vagrancy, in case of repetition, was a capital offense. The Poor Law of 1601 decreed that the able-bodied poor should be put to work so as to earn their keep, which the parish was to supply;
the burden of relief was put squarely on the parish, which was empowered to raise the necessary sums by local taxes or rates. These were to be levied upon all householders and tenants, rich and nonrich alike, according to the rental of the land or houses they occupied. (87)

The Statute of Artificers and the Poor Law together provided what might be called a Code of Labor. However, the Poor Law was administered locally; every parish - a tiny unit - had its own provisions for setting the able-bodied to work; for maintaining a poorhouse; for apprenticing orphans and destitute children; for caring for the aged and the infirm; for the burial of paupers; and every parish had its own scale of rates. All this sounds grander than it often was; many parishes had no poorhouses; a great many more had no reasonable provisions for the useful occupation of the able-bodied; there was an endless variety of ways in which the sluggardliness of the local ratepayers, the indifference of the overseers of the poor, the callousness of the interests centering on pauperism vitiated the working.of the law. Still, by and large, the nearly sixteen thousand Poor Law authorities of the country managed to keep the social fabric of village life unbroken and undamaged. (87, 88)

Yet under a national system of labor, the local organization of unemployment and poor relief was a patent anomaly. The greater the variety of local provisions for the poor, the greater the danger to the well-kept parish that it would be swamped by the professional pauper. After the Restoration the Act of Settlement and Removal was passed to protect the "better" parishes from the influx of paupers. More than a century later, Adam Smith inveighed against this Act because it immobilized the people, and thus prevented them from finding useful employment as it prevented the capitalist from finding employees. Only with the good will of the local magistrate and the parish authorities could a man stay in any other but his home parish; everywhere else he was liable to expulsion even though in good
standing and employed. The legal status of the people was therefore that of freedom and equality subject to incisive limitations. They were equal before the law, and free as to their persons. But they were not free to choose their occupations or those of their children; they were not free to settle where they pleased; and they were forced to labor. The two great Elizabethan Statutes and the Act of Settlement together were a charter of liberty to the common people as well as a seal of their disabilities.(88)

The Industrial Revolution was well on the way, when in 1795, under the pressure of the needs of industry, the Act of 1662 was paritially repealed, parish serfdom Was abolished, and the physical mobility of the laborer was restored. A labor market could now be established on a national scale. But in the very same year, as we know, a practice of Poor Law administration was introduced which meant the reversal of the Elizabethan principle of enforced labor. Speenhamland ensured the "right to live"; grants in aid-of-wages were made general; family allowances were superadded; and all this was to be given in outdoor relief, i.e., without committing the recipient to the workhouse. Although the scale of relief was exiguous, it was enough for bare subsistence. This was a return to regulationism and paternalism with a vengeance just when, it would seem, the steam engine was clamoring for freedom and the machines were crying out for human hands. Yet the Speenhamland Law coincided in time with the
withdrawal of the Act of Settlement. The contradiction was patent: the Act of Settlement was being repealed because the Industrial Revolution demanded a national supply of laborers who would offer to work for wages, while Speenhamland proclaimed the principle that no man need fear to starve and that the parish would keep him and his family how ever little he earned. There was stark contradiction between the two industrial policies; what else but a social enormity could be expected from their simultaneous continued application? (88, 89)

But the generation of Speenhamland was unconscious of what was on its way. On the eve of the greatest industrial revolution in history, no signs and portents were forthcoming. Capitalism arrived unannounced. No one had forecast the development of a machine industry; it came as a complete surprise. For some time England had been actually expecting a permanent recession of foreign trade when the dam burst, and the old world was swept away in one indomitable surge towards a planetary economy.(89)

However, not until the 1850's could anybody have said so with assurance. The key to the comprehension of the Speenhamland magistrates' recommendation lay in their ignorance of the wider irnplications of the development they were facing. In the retrospect it may seem as if they had not only attempted the impossible, but had done so by means the inner contradictions of which should have been apparent at the time. Actually they were successful in achieving their aim of protecting the village against dislocation, while the effects of their policy were all the more disastrous in other, unforeseen directions. Speenhamland policy was the outcome of a definite phase in the development of a market for labor power and should be understood in the light of the views taken of that situation by those in the position to shape policy. From this angle the allowance system will appear as contrived by squirearchy to meet a situation in which physical mobility could no longer be denied to labor, while the squire wished to avoid such unsettlement of local conditions, including higher wages, as was involved in the acceptance of a free national labor market. (89)

The dynamic of Speenhamland was thus rooted in the circumstances of its origin. The rise in rural pauperism was the first symptom of the impending upheaval. Yet nobody seemed to have thought so at the time. The connection between rural poverty and the impact of world trade was anything but obvious. Contemporaries had no reason to link the number of the village, poor with the development of cornmercc in the Seven Seas. The inexplicable increase in the number of the poor was almost generally put down to the method of Poor Law without some good cause. Actually, beneath the surface, the ominous growth of rural pauperism was directly linked with the trend of general economic history. But this connection was still hardly perceptible. Scores of writers probed into the channels by which the poor trickled into the village, and the number as well as the variety of reasons adduced for their appearance was amazing. And yet only a few contemporary writers pointed to those symptoms of the
dislocations which we are used to connect with the Industrial Revolution. Up to 1785 the English public was unaware of any major change in economic life, except for a fitful increase of trade and the growth of pauperism.(89, 90)

Where do the poor come from? was the question raised by a bevy of pamphlets which grew thicker with the advancing century. The causes of pauperism and the means of combating it could hardly be expected to be kept apart in a literature which was inspired by the conviction that if only the most apparent evils of pauperism could be sufficiently alleviated it would cease to exist altogether. On one point there appears to have been general agreement, namely, on the great variety of causes that accounted for the fact of the increase. Amongst them were scarcity of grain; too high agricultural wages, causing high food prices; too low agricultural wages; too high urban wages; irregularity of urban employment; disappearance of the yeomanry; ineptitude of the urban worker for rural occupations; reluctance of the farmers to pay higher wages; the landlords' fear that rents would have to be reduced if higher wages were paid; failure of the workhouse to compete with machinery; want of domestic economy;
incommodious habitations; bigoted diets; drug habits. Some writers blamed a new type of large sheep; others, horses which should be replaced by oxen; still others urged the keeping of fewer dogs. Some writers believed that the poor should eat less, or no bread, while others thought that even feeding on the "best bread should not be charged against them." Tea impaired the health of many poor, it was thought, while "home-brewed beer" would restore it; those who felt most strongly on this score insisted that tea was no better than the cheapest dram. Forty years later Harriet Martineau still believed in preaching the advantages of dropping the tea habit for the sake of relieving pauperism. True, many writers complained of the unsettling effects of enclosures; a number of others insisted on the damage done to rural employment by the ups and downs of manufacturers. Yet on the whole, the impression prevails that pauperism was regarded as a phenomenon sui generis, a social disease which was
caused by a variety of reasons, most of which became active only through the failure of the Poor Law to apply the right remedy. (90, 91)

The true answer almost certainly was that the aggravation of pauperism and the higher rates were due to an increase in what we would today call invisible unemployment. Such a fact would not be obvious at a time when even employment was, as a rule, invisible, as it necessarily was up to a point under cottage industry. Still there remain these questions: how to account for this increase in the number of the unemployed and underemployed? and why did the signs of imminent changes in industry escape the notice even of observant contemporaries? (91)

The explanation lies primarily in the excessive fluctuations of trade in early times which tended to cover up the absolute increase in trade. While the latter accounted for the rise in employment, the fluctuations accounted for the much bigger rise in unemployment. But while the increase in the general level of employment was slow, the increase in unemployment and underemployment would tend to be fast. Thus the building up of what Friedrich Engels called the industrial reserve army outweighed by much the creation of the industrial army proper. (91)

This had the important consequence that the connection between unemployment and the rise of total trade could be easily overlooked. While it was often remarked that the rise in unemployment was due to the great fluctuations in trade, it escaped notice that these fluctuations formed part of an underlying process of even greater amplitude, namely, a general growth of commerce increasingly based on manufactures. For the contemporaries, there seemed to be no connection between the mainly urban manufactories and the great increase of the poor in the countryside. The increase in the aggregate of trade naturally swelled the volume of employment while territorial division of labor combined with sharp fluctuations of trade was responsible for the severe dislocation of both village and town occupations, which resulted in the rapid growth of unemployment. The distant rumor of large wages made the poor dissatisfied with those which agriculture could afford, and it created a dislike for that labor as poorly
recompensed. The industrial regions of that age resembled a new country, like another America, attracting immigrants by the thousands. Migration is usually accompanied by a very considerable remigration. That such a reflux towards the village must have taken place seems to find support also in the fact that no absolute decrease of the rural population was noted. Thus a cumulative unsettling of the population was proceeding as different groups were drawn for varying periods into the sphere of commercial and manufactural employment, and then left to drift back to their original rural habitat. (92)

Much of the social damage done to England's countryside sprang at first from the dislocating effects of trade directly upon the countryside itself. The Revolution in Agriculture definitely antedated the Industrial Revolution. Both enclosures of the common and consolidations into compact holdings, which accompanied the new great advance in agricultural methods, had a powerfully unsettling effect. The war on cottages, the absorption of cottage gardens and grounds, the confiscation of rights in the common deprived cottage industry of its two mainstays: family earnings and agricultural background. As long as domestic industry was supplemented by the facilities and amenities of a garden plot, a scrap of land, or grazing rights, the dependence of the laborer on money earnings was not absolute; the potato plot or "stubbling geese," a cow or even an ass in the commons made all the difference; and family earnings acted as a kind of unemployment insurance. The rationalization of agriculture inevitably uprooted
the laborer and undermined his social security.(92)

On the urban scene the effects of the new scourge of fluctuating employment were, of course, manifest. Industry was generally regarded as a blind alley occupation. "Workmen who are today fully employed may be tomorrow in the streets begging for bread ...,” wrote David Davies and added: "Uncertainty of labor conditions is the most vicious result of these new innovations." "When a Town employed in a Manufactory is deprived of it, the inhabitants are as it were struck with a palsy, and become instantly a rent-charge upon the Parish; but the mischief does not die with that generation.” For in the meantime division of labor wreaks its vengeance: the unemployed artisan returns in vain to his village for "the weaver can turn his hand to nothing." The fatal irreversibility of urbanization hinged upon this simple fact which Adam Smith foresaw when he described the industrial worker as intellectually the inferior of the poorest tiller of the soil, for the latter can usually take himself to any job. Still, up to the time Adam Smith published his Wealth of Nations pauperism was not increasing alarmingly. (92)

In the next two decades the picture suddenly changed. In his Thoughts & Details on Scarcity, which Burke submitted to Pitt in1795, the author admitted that in spite of the general progress there had been a "last bad cycle of twenty years." Indeed, in the decade following upon the Seven Years' War (1763) unemployment increased noticeably,.as the rise in outdoor relief showed. It happened for the first time that a boom in trade was remarked to have been accompanied by signs of growing distress of the poor. This apparent contradiction was destined to become to the next generation of Western humanity the most perplexing of all the recurrent phenomena in social life. The specter of overpopulation was beginning to haunt people's minds. William Townsend warned in his Dissertation on the Poor Laws: "Speculation apart, it is a fact, that in England, we have more than we can feed, and many more than we can profitably employ under the present system of law." Adam Smith, in 1776, had been
reflecting the mood of quiet progress. Townsend, writing only ten years ater,was already conscious of a groundswell. (92, 93)

However, many things had to happen before (only five years later) a man as removed from politics, as successful, and as matter-of-fact as the Scotch bridgebuilder, Telford, could burst forth with the bitter complaint that little change is to be expected from the ordinary course of government, and that revolution was the only hope. A single copy of Paine's Rights of Man mailed by Telford to his home village caused a riot to break out there. Paris was catalyzing the European fermentation.(93)

In Canning's conviction the Poor Law saved England from a revolution. He was primarily thinking of the 1790's and the French Wars. The new outburst of enclosures further depressed the standards of the poor in the countryside. J. H. Clapham, an apologist of these enclosures, conceded that the "coincidence of the area in which wages were most systematically augmented from the rates with the area of maximum recent enclosures is striking." In other words, but for aid-in-wages the poor would have sunk below the starvation level in wide areas of rural England. Rick burning was rampant. The Popgun Plot found wide credence. Rioting was frequent; rumors of rioting very much more so. In Hampshire - and not there alone - the Courts threatened death for any attempt at "forcibly lowering the price of commodities, either at market or on the road" ; yet simultaneously, the magistrates of that same county urgently pressed for the general granting of subsidies to wages. Clearly, the time for preventive action had come. (93)

But why, of all courses of action, was that one chosen which appeared later as the most impracticable of all? Let us consider the situation and the interests involved. Squire and parson ruled the village. Townsend summed up the situation by saying that the landed gentleman keeps manufactures "at a convenient distance" because "he considers that manufactures fluctuate; that the benefit which he is to derive from them will not bear proportion with the burthen which it must entail upon his property....” The burden consisted mainly in two seemingly contradictory effects of manufactures, namely, the increase in pauperism and the rise in wages. But the two were contradictory only if the existence of a competitive labor market was assumed, which would, of course, have tended to diminish unemploymcnt by reducing the wages of the employed. In the absence of such a market - and the Act of Settlement was still in force - pauperism and wages might rise simultaneously. Under such conditions the “social cost" of urban unemployment was mainly borne by the home village to which the out-of-work would often repair. High wages in the towns were a still greater burden on rural economy. Agricultural wages were more than the farmer could carry, though less than the laborer could subsist on. It seems clear that agriculture could not compete with town wages. On the other hand, there was general agreement that the Act of Settlement should be repealed, or at least loosened, so as to help labor to find employment and the employers to find laborers. This, it was felt, would increase the productivity of labor all around and, incidentally, diminish the real burden of wages. But the immediate question of the wage differential between town and village would obviously become even more
pressing for the village by allowing wages to "find their own level." The flux and reflux of industrial employment alternating with spasms of unemployment would dislocate rural communities more than ever. A dam had to be erected to protect the village from the flood of rising wages. Methods had to be found which would protect the rural setting against social dislocation, reinforce traditional authority, prevent the draining off of rural labor, and raise agricultural wages without overburdening the farmer. Such a device was the Speenhamland Law. Shoved into the turbulent waters of the Industrial Revolution, it was bound to create an economic vortex. However its social implications met squarely the situation, as it was judged by the ruling village interest - the squire's. (93, 94)

From the point of view of Poor Law administration Speenhamland was a grievously retrogressive step. The experience of 250 years had shown that the parish was too small a unit for Poor Law administration, since no treatment of this matter was adequate which failed to distinguish between the able-bodied unemployed on the one hand, the aged, infirm, and children on the other. It was as if a township today attempted to deal singlehanded with unemployment insurance, ere mixed up with the care for the aged. Accordingly, only in those short periods, when the administration of the Poor Law was both national and differentiated could it be more or less satisfactory. Such a period was that from 1590 to 1640, under Burleigh and Laud, when the Crown handled the Poor Law through the justices of peace, and an ambitious scheme of erecting poorhouses, together with the enforcement of labor, was initiated. But the Commonwealth (1642-60) destroyed again what was now denounced as the personal rule of the Crown, and the Restoration, ironically enough, completed the work of the Commonwealth. The Act of Settlement Of 1662 restricted the Poor Law to the parish basis, and legislation paid but scant attention to pauperism up to the third decade of the eighteenth century. In 1722, at last, efforts at differentiation set in; workhouses were to be built by unions of parishes, as distinct from local poorhouses; and occasional outdoor relief was permitted, as the workhouse would now provide a test of need. In 1782, with Gilbert's Act, a long step was taken to expand the units of administration by encouraging the setting up of parish unions; at that time it was urged that parishes find employment for the able-bodied in the neighborhood. Such a policy was to be supplemented by the granting of
outdoor relief and even of aid-in-wages, in order to diminish the cost of relief to the able-bodied. Although the setting up of unions of parishes was permissive, not mandatory, it meant an advance toward the larger unit of administration and the differentiation of the various categories of the relieved poor. Thus in spite of the deficiencies of the system, Gilbert's Act represented an attempt in the right direction, and as long as outdoor relief and aid-in-wages were merely subsidiary to positive social legislation, they need not have been fatal to a rational solution. Speenhamland put a stop to reform. By making outdoor relief aid-in-wages general, it did not (as has been falsely asserted) follow up the line of Gilbert's Act, but completely reversed its tendency and actually demolished the whole system of the Elizabethan Poor Law. The laboriously established distinction between workhouse and poorhouse became. meaningless; the various categories of paupers and ablebodied unemployed now tended to fuse into one indiscriminate mass of dependent poverty. The opposite of a process of differentiation set in: the workhouse merged into the poorhouse, the poorhouse itself tended more and more to disappear;
and the parish was again made the sole and final unit in this veritable masterpiece of institutional degeneration.(95, 96)

The supremacy of squire and parson was even enhanced in consequence of Speenhamland, if such a thing was at all possible. The "undistinguishing benevolence of power," of which the overseers of the poor complained, was at its best in that role of "Tory socialism” in which the justices of peace swayed the benevolent power, while the brunt of the rates was borne by the rural middle class. The bulk of yeomanry had long vanished in the vicissitudes of the Agricultural Revolution, and the remaining lifeholders and occupying-proprietors tended to merge with the cottagers and scrap-holders into one social stratum in the eyes of the potentate of the countryside. He did not too well distinguish between needy people, and people who happened to be in need; from the lofty heights from which he was watching the struggling life of the village there seemed to be no hard and fast line separating the poor from the destitute, and he may have been not unduly surprised to learn in a bad year that a small fanner was going
"on the rates," after having been ruined by their disastrous level. Surely such cases were not frequent, but their very possibility emphasized the fact that many ratepayers were themselves poor. On the whole, the relationship of the ratepayer and the pauper was somewhat similar to that of the employed and the unemployed of our times under various schemes of insurance which make the employed bear the burden of keeping the temporarily unemployed. Still, the typical ratepayer was usually not eligible for poor relief, and the typical agricultural laborer paid no rates. Politically, the squire's pull with the village poor was strengthened by Speenhamland while that of the rural middle class was weakened.(95, 96)

The craziest aspect of the system was its economics proper. The question "Who paid for Speenhamland?" was practically unanswerable. Directly, the main burden fell, of course, on the ratepayers. But the farmers were partly compensated by the low wages they had to pay their laborers - a direct result of the Speenhamland system. Moreover, the farmer was frequently remitted a part of his rates, if he was willing to employ a villager who would otherwise fall on the rates. The consequent overcrowding of the farmer's kitchen and yard with unnecessary hands, some of them not too keen performers, had to be set down on the debit side. The labor of those who were actually on the rates was to be had even more cheaply. They had often to work as "roundsmen" at alternating places, being paid only their food, or being put up for auction in the village "pound”, for a few pence a day. How much this kind of indented labor was worth is another question. To top it all, aids-in-rent were sometimes allowed to the poor, while the unscrupulous proprietor of the cottages made money by rack-renting the unsanitary habitations; the village authorities were likely to close an eye as long as the rates for the hovels continued to be turned in. That such a tangle of interests would undermine any sense of financial responsibility and encourage every kind of petty corruption is evident. (96, 97)

Still, in a broader sense, Speenhamland paid. It was started aid-in-wages, ostensibly benefiting the employees, but actually using public means to subsidize the employers. For the main effect of the allowance system was to depress wages below the subsistence level. In the thoroughly pauperized areas, farmers did not care to employ agncultural laborers who still owned a scrap of land, "because none with property was eligible for parish relief and the standard wage was so low that, without relief of some sort, it was insufficient for a married man." Consequently, in some areas only those people who were on the rates had a chance of employment; those who tried to keep off the rates and earn a living by their own exertions were hardly able to secure a job. Yet in the country at large the great majority must have been of the latter sort and on each of them employers as a class made an extra profit since they benefited from the lowness of wages without having to make up for it from the rates. In the long run, a system as uneconomical as that was bound to affect the productivity of labor and to depress standard wages, and ultimately even the "scale" set by the magistrates for the benefit of the poor. By the 1820’s the scale of bread was actually being whittled down in various counties, and the wretched incomes of the poor were reduced even further. Between 1815 and 1830 the Speenhamland scale, which was fairly equal all over the country, was reduced by almost one-third (this fall also was practically universal). Clapham doubts whether the total burden of the rates was as severe as the rather sudden outburst of complaints would have made one believe. Rightly. For although the rise in the rates was spectacular and in some regions must have been felt as a calamity, it seems most probable that it was not so much the burden itself as rather the economic effect of aid-in-wages on. the productivity of labor that was at the root of the trouble. Southern England, which was most sorely hit, paid out in poor rates not quite 3.3 per cent of its income - a very tolerable charge. Clapham thought, in view of the fact that a considerable part of this sum "ought to have gone to the poor in wages." Actually, total rates were falling steadily in the 1830’s, and their relative burden must have even more quickly decreased in view of the growing national welfare. In 1818 the sums actually spent on the relief of the poor totaled near eight million pounds; they fell almost continuously until they were less than six million in 1826, while national income was rising rapidly. And yet the criticism of Speenhamland became more and more violent owing to the fact, so it appears, that the dehumanization of the masses began to paralyze national life, and notably to constrain the energies of industry itself. (97, 98)

Speenhamland precipitated a social catastrophe. We have become accustomed to discount the lurid presentations of early capitalism as “sob-stuff." For this there is no justification. The picture drawn by Harriet Martineau, the perfervid apostle of Poor Law Reform, coincides with that of the Chartist propagandists who were leading the outcry against the Poor Law Reform. The facts set out in the famous Report of the Commission on the Poor Law (1834), advocating the immediate repeal of the Speenhamland Law, could have served as the material for Dickens' campaign against the Commission's policy. Neither Charles Kingsley nor Friedrich Engels, neither Blake nor Carlyle, was mistaken in believing that the very image of man had been defiled by some terrible catastrophe. And more impressive even than the outbursts of pain and anger that came from poets and philanthropists was the icy silence with which Malthus and Ricardo passed over the scenes out of which their philosophy of secular perdition
was born.(98)

Undoubtedly, the social dislocation caused by the machine and the circumstances under which man was now condemned to serve it had many results that were unavoidable. England's rural civilization was lacking in those urban surroundings out of which the later industrial towns of the Continent grew. There was in the new towns no settled urban middle class, no such nucleus of artisans and craftsmen, of respectable petty bourgeois and townspeople as could have served as an assimilating medium for the crude laborer who attracted by high wages or chased from the land by tricky enclosers - was drudging in the early mills. The industrial town of the Midlands and the North West was a cultural wasteland; its slums merely reflected its lack of tradition and civic self-respect. Dumped into this bleak slough of misery, the immigrant peasant, or even the former yeoman or copyholder was soon transformed into a nondescript animal of the mire. It was not that he was paid too little, or even that he labored too long - though either happened often to excess - but that he was now existing under physical conditions which denied the human shape of life. Negroes of the African forest who found themselves caged, panting
for air in the hull of a slave trader might have felt as these people felt. And yet all this was not irremediable. As long as a man had a status to hold on to, a pattern set by his kin or fellows he could fight for it, and regain his soul. But in the case of the laborer this could happen only in one way: by his constituting himself the member of a new class. Unless he was able to make a living by his own labor, he was not a worker but a pauper. To reduce him artificially to such a condition was the supreme abomination of Speenhamland. This act, of an ambiguous humanitarianism prevented laborers from constituting themselves an economic class and thus deprived them of the only means of staving off the fate to which they were doomed in the economic mill. (98, 99)

Speenhamland was an unfailing instrument of popular demoralization. If a human society is a self-acting machine for maintaining the standards on which it is built, Speenhamland was an automaton for demolishing the standards on which any kind of society could be based. Not only did it put a premium on the shirking of work and the pretense of inadequacy, but it increased the attraction of pauperism precisely at the juncture when a man was straining to escape the fate of the destitute. Once a man was in the poorhouse (he would usually land there if he and his family had been for some time on the rates) he was trapped, and could rarely leave it. The decencies and self respect of centuries of settled life wore off quickly in the promiscuity of the poorhouse, where a man had to be cautious not to be thought better off than his neighbor, lest he be forced to start out on the hunt for work, instead of "boondoggling" in the familiar fold,. "The poorrate had become public spoil. . . . To obtain their share the brutal bullied the administrators, the profligate exhibited their bastards which must be fed, the idle folded their arms and waited till they got it; ignorant boys and girls married upon it; poachers, thieves and prostitutes extorted it by intimidation; country justices lavished it for popularity, and Guardians for convenience. This was the way the fund went...." Instead of the proper number of laborers to till his land - laborers paid by himself - the farmer was compelled to take double the number, whose wages were paid partly out of the rates; and these men, being employed by compulsion on him, were beyond his control - worked or not as they chose - let down the quality of his land, and disabled him from employing the better men who would have toiled hard for independence. These better men sank down amongst the worst; the rate paying cottager, after a vain struggle, went to the pay table to seek relief......... “ Thus Harriet Martineau. Bashful later-day liberals ungratefully neglected the memory of this outspoken apostle of their creed. Yet even her exaggerations, which they now feared, put the highlights in the right place. She herself belonged to that struggling middle class, whose genteel poverty made them only the more sensitive to the moral intricacies of the Poor Law. She understood and clearly expressed the need of society for a new class, a class of "independent laborers." They were the heroes of'her dreams, and she makes one of them - a chronically unemployed laborer who refuses to go on relief - say proudly to a colleague who decides to go on the rates: "Here I stand, and defy anybody to despise me. I could set my children into the middle of the church aisle and dare anyone to taunt at them about the place they hold in society. There may be some wiser; there may be many richer; but there are none more honorable." The big men of the ruling class were still far from comprehending the need for this new class. Miss Martineau pointed to "the vulgar error of the aristocracy, of supposing only one class of society to exist below that wealthy one with which they are compelled by their affairs to have business." Lord Eldon, she complained, like others who must know better, "included under one head ['the lower classes'] everybody below the wealthiest bankers - manufacturers, tradesmen, artisans, laborers and paupers. . . ." ' But it was the distinction between these last two, she passionately insisted, that the future of society depended upon. "Except the distinction between sovereign and subject, there is no social difference in England so wide as that between the independent laborer and the pauper; and it is equally ignorant, immoral, and impolitic to confound the two," she wrote. This, of course, was hardly a statement of fad; the difference between the two strata had become nonexistent under Speenhamland. Rather it was a statement of policy based upon a prophetic anticipation. The policy was that of the Poor Law Reform Commissioners; the prophecy looked to a free competitive labor market and the consequent emergence of an industrial proletariat. The abolishment of Speenhamland was the true birthday of the modern working class, whose immediate self-interest destined them to become the protectors of society against the intrinsic dangers of a machine civilization. But whatever the future had in store for them, working class and market economy appeared in history together. The hatred of public relief, the distrust of state action, the insistence on respectability and self reliance, remained for generations characteristics of the British worker. (99-101)

The repeal of Speenhamland was the work of a new class entering on the historical scene, the middle classes of England. Squirearchy could not do the job these classes were destined to perform: the transformation of society into a market economy. Dozens of laws were repealed and others enacted before that transformation was on the way. The Parliamentary Reform Bill of 1832 disfranchised the rotten boroughs and gave power in the Commons once and for all to commoners. Their first great act of reform was the abolishing of Speenhamland. Now that we realize the degree to which its paternalist methods were merged with the life of the country, we will understand why even the most radical supporters of reform hesitated to suggest a shorter period than ten or fifteen years for the transition. Actually, it took place with an abruptness which makes nonsense of the legend of English gradualism fostered at a later time when arguments against radical reform were sought. The brutal shock of that event haunted for generations the daydreams of the British working class. And yet the success of this lacerating operation was due to the deep-seated convictions of the broad strata of the population, including the laborers themselves, that the system which to all appearances supported them was in truth despoiling them, and that the "right to lives” was the sickness unto death.(101)

The new law provided that in the future no outdoor relief should be given. Its administration was national and differentiated. In this respect also it was a thoroughgoing reform. Aid-in-wages was, of course, discontinued. The workhouse test was reintroduced, but in a new sense. It was now left to the applicant to decide whether he was so utterly destitute of all means that he would voluntarily repair to a shelter which was deliberately made into a place of horror. The workhouse was invested with a stigma; and staying in it was made a psychological and moral torture, while complying with the requirements of hygiene and decency - indeed, ingeniously using them as a pretense for further deprivations. Not the justices of peace, nor local overseers, but wider authorities - the guardians - were to
administer the law under dictatorial central supervision. The very burial of a pauper was made an act by which his f fellow men renounced solidarity with him even in death. (101, 102)

In 1834 industrial capitalism was ready to be started, and Poor Law Reform was ushered in. The Speenhamland Law which had sheltered rural England, and thereby the laboring population in general, from the full force of the market mechanism was eating into the marrow of society. By the time of its repeal huge masses of the laboring population resembled more the specters that might haunt a nightmare than human beings. But if the workers were physically dehumanized, the owning classes were morally degraded. The traditional unity of a Christian society was giving place to a denial of responsibility on the part of the well-to-do for the conditions of their fellows. The Two Nations were taking shape. To the bewilderment of thinking minds, unheard-of wealth turned out to be inseparable
from unheard-of-poverty. Scholars proclaimed in unison that a science had been discovered which put the laws governing man's world beyond any doubt. It was at the behest of these laws that compassion was removed from the hearts, and a stoic determination to renounce human solidarity in the name of the greatest happiness of the greatest number gained the dignity of secular religion.(102)

The mechanism of the market was asserting itself and clamoring for its completion: human labor had to be made a commodity. Reactionary paternalism had in vain tried to resist this necessity. Out of the horrors of Speenhamland men rushed blindly for the shelter of a utopian market economy. (102)