THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

William Cobbett, "The Poor Man's (and Woman's) Friend," Part IV (Final)

Cobbett's emphasis on widespread ownership of the means of production readily explains his evident hostility to industrialization. The process of industrialization, while not inevitably linked to the capitalist economic model (ownership of the means of production concentrated in the hands of a private elite), was bound to it by the usual form of financing capital formation and the reliance on existing accumulations of wealth. Under these prevailing (and incorrect) assumptions, workers in industrial concerns were considered necessarily stripped of ownership and forced to rely exclusively on wages for their subsistence, and forced to work in inhuman conditions.

That being the case, Cobbett naturally tarred industrialization with the same brush he used to blacken the system developed under the Tudors that concentrated ownership of land in the hands of an elite few. Cobbett attributed the start of this process to Henry VIII Tudor and his confiscation of Church lands and the property of the multitudes who disagreed with his religious and political changes. (See Cobbett's A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, 1829.)

The concentration of ownership of the means of production, however, actually began earlier, under Henry VII Tudor. Henry VII asserted a right to rule based on something other than the consent of the people assembled in parliament, and abolished the near-autonomy of the duchies of York and Lancaster that had always provided a counter to the concentration of power in the crown, and always cherished a deep hostility toward Ireland, which had provided a base of support for the House of York as well as putting forth a seemingly endless stream of pretenders to the crown, such as Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck.

Thus, industry was not evil, per se, but the structures of ownership and the method of financing capital formation presumably required that the working classes be reduced to a condition that Cobbett characterized on more than a few occasions as slavery. This set up a paradox, for Cobbett was fully aware that the agricultural life he advocated was impossible without an adequate industrial base to support it.

Thus, it was the presumed necessity of concentrated ownership that accompanied industrialization, not industrialization itself, that Cobbett condemned. (This is a distinction that many authorities today, indoctrinated in the Keynesian dogma that wealth must be concentrated if society is to advance, seem unable to make. This may be the source of the blanket assertion that Cobbett was "always wrong" in his economic analysis.) The United States was thus, for Cobbett, the Land of Opportunity because there was widespread ownership of the means of production (chiefly land), and industrialization, with its presumed inevitable concentration of ownership and the stripping of the working classes of private property, had not yet gained a foothold. In sum,
What he [Cobbett] saw was the perishing of the whole English power of self-support, the growth of cities that drain and dry up the countryside, the growth of dense dependent populations incapable of finding their own food, the toppling triumph of machines over men, the sprawling omnipotence of financiers over patriots, the herding of humanity in nomadic masses whose very homes are homeless, the terrible necessity of peace and the terrible probability of war, all the loading up of our little island like a sinking ship; the wealth that may mean famine and the culture that may mean despair; the bread of Midas and the sword of Damocles. In a word, he saw what we see, but he saw it when it was not there. And some cannot see it — even when it is there. (G. K. Chesterton, William Cobbett)
While Cobbett did not state it explicitly, the importance of America was that it was a truly new thing, a genuinely novus ordo that broke with the past at the same time that it delivered on all the promises previously made but which could never be kept under the old social arrangements and structures. In America,
• The reliance on the rich to form capital out of their existing accumulations of savings and thus provide jobs for workers who thereby became their effective slaves was eliminated due to the free or extremely inexpensive land.

• There were no real social classes because everyone had equal opportunity to be economically self-sufficient; classes could be discarded without any danger of harm to the social order.

• With artificial distinctions of social and economic class removed, every person was politically equal, with equal rights and duties.

• Under equal opportunity to advance socially, economically, and politically, people were closer to what God made them, and thus individuals and society were more peaceful and less prone to unrest in civil, domestic, or religious society.
In other words, in America people could become more fully human than they were able within the institutional structure of Europe.

It is possible (very easy, in fact) to poke some very big holes in Cobbett's view of America . . . if we concentrate on finding specific instances where the principles of America were contradicted, the most obvious being the institution of chattel slavery. That does not change the fact that in America Cobbett saw an important advance in the form of a break from old, flawed institutions, and a move toward something more consistent with what it means to be fully human.

Like the individual human being charged with the duty to acquire and develop virtue — the habit of doing good — America now had the duty to acquire and develop institutional patterns of doing good. Both individuals and societies have this potential. It therefore becomes the obligation of the human person with respect to him- or herself, and the citizen organized with like-minded others with respect to the whole of society, to acquire and develop individual and social virtue, respectively.

The ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the U. S. Constitution, etc., — all were directed at creating and sustaining a new order within which the human person could become more fully him- or herself. The principles were there. It was now up to apply them in a manner consistent with the natural law that defines the human person as human.