David Cannadine thinks about the thoughtful rich

David Cannadine

  • The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age by Gertrude Himmelfarb
    Faber, 595 pp, £20.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 571 13177 8

Divine authority and empirical observation are, by definition, rarely in accord, but they do at least agree on this: that the poor are always with us. Chastity may have gone the way of all flesh, and obedience may have been banished from the marriage service, but poverty – grinding, inexorable, ineradicable – remains: not a state voluntarily embraced on the road to salvation, but a condition unavoidably endured with little prospect of relief. It may well be, as George Bernard Shaw once put it, that ‘the greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty,’ but it is easier to express outrage at its existence than to raise hopes as to its eradication. The history of the world is the history of many things, but in most places, at most times, and for most people, it was and is as Thomas Gray described it in 1750: ‘the short and simple annals of the poor’.

So far so good. But if poverty is promoted from a platitude to a problem, things become much more difficult. For the problems of poverty are simple yet complex: what is poverty? And what is the problem? Is poverty, like beauty, in the guilty eye of the beholder, or in the empty belly of the sufferer? How are poverty levels compared, across centuries and cultures, continents and countries? Is there an absolute standard of poverty, and if so, what is it? Or is it all relative, since the poor man only feels deprived when at the gate of the rich man’s castle? What is the difference between the deserving and the undeserving poor, between those who labour but earn insufficient reward, and those who are impoverished because they cannot work? And how is poverty to be treated: by realistically diminishing desires, or by seeking to satisfy demands? And if the latter, then again, how: by indiscriminate giving, by systematic aid or by the promotion of economic development? As the questions multiply, the answers dissolve. Defining poverty has always been difficult, and eradicating it has thus far proved impossible.

For the policy-makers and the pundits, these are the central issues. But for historians, the crucial question is rather different: not ‘what is the problem of poverty?’ but ‘when did poverty become a problem?’ Since the poor are, indeed, always with us, why is their presence accepted in some societies and at some times, yet deemed to be intolerable in other places and at other times? For most of recorded history (and in many places still, alas, today) poverty was not a problem at all: it was a fact of life, an inescapable condition which was, accordingly, either ignored or ennobled, fatalistically accepted or randomly relieved. Only in the Western world, during the last two hundred years, has it been upgraded from an insuperable and ‘natural’ condition into an intolerable but solvable problem, as the Industrial Revolution has held out, for the first time, the prospect of a more abundant life, not only for the élite, but for humanity as a whole. Only when its eradication became possible did poverty become a problem. We may not have gone far towards solving it in practice (vide Ethiopia), but in theory, at least, the West has the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, just as it has the power to abolish all forms of human life.

The years from the 1780s to the 1850s saw, not only the first great phase of self-sustained economic growth, but also the first great phase of self-sustained discussion about poverty. Throughout this period, the poor, the tired and the huddled masses forced themselves on public attention in greater numbers and with greater urgency than ever before. And historians have been equally anxious to give them their due, even if they have disagreed as to how to do it. Of course, there was a great deal of poverty. But, as the standard of living controversy has shown, it may have been getting less (or it may not). Undeniably, the condition of the people was bad. But, as the debate on government growth has suggested, the state may have been becoming more interventionist (or it may not). Much less studied, however, has been the contemporary and conventional wisdom about the poor people of the proletariat. Who, exactly, thought about the poor, and what, precisely, did they think? When was poverty first perceived as a problem? And what influence did those who thought about the subject exert on those who tried to do something about it? It is to the answering of these fundamental questions that Gertrude Himmelfarb has devoted her most ambitious book.

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