Full-Employment Utopias

Christopher Hill

  • Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing, 1516-1700 by J.C. Davis
    Cambridge, 427 pp, £25.00, March 1981, ISBN 0 521 23396 8
  • Science and Society in Restoration England by Michael Hunter
    Cambridge, 232 pp, £18.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 521 22866 2

Dr Davis’s book is a long, careful and detailed study of utopian writing in England from Sir Thomas More to the end of the 17th century. He has interesting things to say about well-known figures like More, Bacon, Winstanley and Harrington, but I found his chapters on lesser writers even more instructive. Robert Burton and Samuel Gott are revealed as more significant ‘utopians’ than has been recognised. Dr Davis is also interesting on William Sprigge’s A Modest Plea for an Equal Commonwealth of 1659, the anonymous Chaos (1659) and The Free State of Noland (1696), which he classifies as ‘Harringtonian’. He has even found a couple of Royalist utopias, which he discusses in Chapter Ten. More important, he distinguishes a category of ‘full-employment utopias’, which includes Rowland Vaughan (1610), Gabriel Plattes’s Macaria (1641), Peter Chamberlen’s The Poore Mans Advocate (1649), Peter Cornelius Plockhoy (1659), John Bellers’s Proposals for Raising a College of Industry (1695), and two essays by an anonymous Hermeticist, Philadept, published in 1698 and 1700. Many in this last group were discussed in 1952 by J.K. Fuz in a pioneering work, Welfare Economics in English Utopias, to which Dr Davis refers only in a dismissive footnote. Davis also shows that Burton was an early advocate of something like a welfare state.

This book reinforces our awareness of the problem of scarcity in 16th and early 17th-century England, and the consequent emphasis, in that relatively over-populated society, on labour discipline, on setting the poor on work, on curbing mobility. MPs, JPs, and the lesser men who as constables and churchwardens ran the parishes, became increasingly concerned with such matters in the reign of Elizabeth and the first two Stuarts; utopian writers from More to Gott shared the same concern. In More’s Utopia intensive and disciplined use of the labour resources of the whole country results in the prevention of scarcity. A century later ‘Burton was almost obsessed with idleness, which he regarded as a national curse and “the badge of gentry”.’ ‘I will suffer no beggars, rogues, vagabonds, or idle persons at all, that cannot give an account of their lives how they maintain themselves.’ Utopians emphasised at this period the wickedness of ‘natural man’, the necessity of organised and enforced labour discipline to combat idleness. Puritan preachers from William Perkins in the 1590s onwards agreed. For utopians like Johann Valentin Andreae no less than for Puritans, Geneva seemed a model community.

Dr Davis makes the point that the problem of enforcing laws against idleness led utopians from More and Burton onwards to insist on a large and uncorrupt bureaucracy. This process culminated in Bellers’s colleges of industry: ‘the institutions, rules and procedures which they adopted were designed to impose time, work and organisational disciplines upon pre-industrial man, to make him a functioning part of a human machine.’ Dr Davis draws an analogy with the elaborate regulations, implemented by a bureaucracy, which Ambrose Crowley at the end of the century found necessary to run his factory.

Utopians from More onwards placed their emphasis on restricting consumption rather than on maximising production. But after the revolution of the 1640s and 50s had liberated hitherto constricted economic forces, the stress came to be rather on achieving the Baconian vision of abolishing poverty by encouraging industry – following, as Burton, Chamberlen and Sprigge recommended, the example of the Dutch republic. Plattes and Winstanley were among the first to argue that abundance for all was possible if the economy was rationally developed: the ‘welfare economics utopians’ followed suit. By the end of the century Philadept was thinking in terms of a minimum wage, and of a public works programme to absorb society’s surplus.

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