Carlyle’s critique of modernity

What is wrong with life in the modern world? The complaint that modern society represents a toxic reduction of the importance of community in the lives of individuals is a familiar one. One version of this critique is the idea is that modern society has replaced all personal bonds and relationships with a single “cash nexus”. And the observation that modern market economies function to create cruel and increasing misery and inequality is entirely well founded. It may surprise some readers to learn that this complaint is nearly two centuries old. At the time that Karl Marx was denouncing capitalism for its immiseration of the industrial working class, Thomas Carlyle was bitterly castigating British government for its policies of laissez-faire and its refusal to address the problems of destitution seriously. And Carlyle introduced the idea of the cash nexus in his essay on Chartism in 1840:

O reader, to what shifts is poor Society reduced, struggling to give still some account of herself, in epochs when Cash Payment has become the sole nexus of man to men! On the whole, we will advise Society not to talk at all about what she exists for; but rather with her whole industry to exist, to try how she can keep existing! (Chartism, 61)

Consider the opening paragraphs of Past and Present, which draw attention to the two Englands that existed in the 1830s:

THE condition of England, on which many pamphlets are now in the course of publication, and many thoughts unpublished are going on in every reflective head, is justly regarded as one of the most ominous, and withal one of the strangest, ever seen in this world. England is full of wealth, of multifarious produce, supply for human want in every kind, yet England is dying of inanition. With unabated bounty the land of England blooms and grows; waving with yellow harvests; thick-studded with work- shops, industrial implements, with fifteen millions of workers, understood to be the strongest, the cunningest and the willingest our Earth ever had; these men are here; the work they have done, the fruit they have realised is here, abundant, exuberant on every hand of us: and behold, some baleful fiat as of Enchantment has gone forth, saying, “Touch it not, ye workers, ye master-workers, ye master-idlers, none of you can touch it, no man of you shall be the better for it; this is enchanted fruit!” On the poor workers such fiat falls first, in its rudest shape; but on the rich master-workers too it falls; neither can the rich master-idlers, nor any richest or highest man escape, but all are like to be brought low with it, and made ‘poor’ enough, in the money-sense or a far fataller one.

Of these successful skilful workers some two millions, it is now counted, sit in Workhouses, Poor-law Prisons; or have ‘out- door relief’ flung over the wall to them,—the workhouse Bastille being filled to bursting, and the strong Poor-law broken asunder by a stronger.* They sit there, these many months now; their hope of deliverance as yet small. (Past and Present, 1) 

Carlyle was aware of two highly visible “diseases” of English society in the first half of the nineteenth century: the poverty and degradation of working people, and the unfairness of the prevailing social and economic relations between privileged and poor. In passage after passage in Past and Present he denounces the extreme misery of working people:

Descend where you will into the lower class, in Town or Country, by what avenue you will, by Factory Inquiries, Agricultural Inquiries, by Revenue Returns, by Mining-Laborer Committees, by opening your own eyes and looking, the same sorrowful result discloses itself: you have to admit that the working body of this rich English Nation has sunk or is fast sinking into a state, to which, all sides of it considered, there was literally never any parallel. (Past and Present, 3)

And these inequalities of economic wellbeing are grossly unfair:

We have more riches than any Nation ever had before; we have less good of them than any Nation ever had before. Our successful industry is hitherto unsuccessful; a strange success, if we stop here! In the midst of plethoric plenty, the people perish; with gold walls, and full barns, no man feels himself safe or satisfied. Workers, Master Workers, Unworkers, all men come to a pause; stand fixed, and cannot farther. (Past and Present, 5)

It is ‘for justice’ that he struggles; for just wages, — not in money alone! An ever-toiling inferior, he would fain (though as yet he knows it not) find for himself a superior that should lovingly and wisely govern: is not that too the ‘just wages’ of his service done? (Chartism, 22)

This is Carlyle, an intelligent observer of modern economic society in the 1840s. Carlyle’s prescriptions for a better future for England were reactionary: rule by well-intentioned kings, a well-established social hierarchy in which each person knew his or her place, and revitalized religious institutions. His political vision of the future was romantic and backward looking. But his analysis of the current pathologies of England’s social and economic life was profound. And so thought Frederick Engels, who wrote an extensive review of Past and Present almost immediately upon its publication:

This is the condition of England, according to Carlyle. An idle landowning aristocracy which “have not yet learned even to sit still and do no mischief”, a working aristocracy submerged in Mammonism, who, when they ought to be collectively the leaders of labour, “captains of industry”, are just a gang of industrial buccaneers and pirates. A Parliament elected by bribery, a philosophy of simply looking on, of doing nothing, of laissez-faire, a worn-out, crumbling religion, a total disappearance of all general human interests, a universal despair of truth and humanity, and in consequence a universal isolation of men in their own “brute individuality”, a chaotic, savage confusion of all aspects of life, a war of all against all, a general death of the spirit, a dearth of “soul”, that is, of truly human consciousness: a disproportionately strong working class, in intolerable oppression and wretchedness, in furious discontent and rebellion against the old social order, and hence a threatening, irresistibly advancing democracy – everywhere chaos, disorder, anarchy, dissolution of the old ties of society, everywhere intellectual insipidity, frivolity, and debility. – That is the condition of England. Thus far, if we discount a few expressions that have derived from Carlyle’s particular standpoint, we must allow the truth of all he says. He, alone of the “respectable” class, has kept his eyes open at least towards the facts, he has at least correctly apprehended the immediate present, and that is indeed a very great deal for an “educated” Englishman. (Engels, Review of Past and Present)

Now consider the concerns and criticisms offered of our own era by an equally astute observer, Tony Judt. His 2010 book of reflections, Ill Fares the Land, offers a remarkably similar set of criticisms that are both systemic and moral. Consider first the title. This phrase calls us back to Oliver Goldsmith, who used the line in his 1770 poem “The Deserted Village”:

Sunk are thy bowers, in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall;
And, trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand,
Far, far away, thy children leave the land.
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay …” — Goldsmith, Carlyle, and Judt all denounce the same characteristic of a modern wealth-based economy. The single-minded quest for wealth and material advantage leads to social disaster.

Here is how Judt begins his critique, writing in 2010:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them. 

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth. (Introduction)

Judt highlights three aspects of our current economic realities: the ludicrous levels of concentration of wealth that we have reached in the second decade of the twenty-first century, and the conspicuous consumption that accompanies it; the widening inequalities that western economies have witnessed since the 1970s, leading to every-more severe disparities of outcomes between affluent and poor (health, education, employment, mobility); and the absolute immiseration of the poor in many advanced capitalist economies, including the US. These facts lead to appalling outcomes: misery, to be sure; but also, erosion and extinction of social trust, commitment to the public good, and a sense of community that is broader than “involvement in a market economy”. A society based entirely on the “cash nexus” is a bankrupt society — this was Carlyle’s view, and it is Judt’s view as well. And, paradoxically enough, the erosion of trust and community is ultimately toxic for the stability and health of the market-based capitalist society itself.

The collapse of the value of community is marked by the conservative movement towards small government, privatization, elimination of public support, and minimal (negligible) regulation of industry and economy. This collapse signals an important moral fact: the idea that the citizens of a minimal state have no obligations to their fellow citizens through public programs. The affluent are “self-made” and the poor are incompetent and unmotivated — undeserving of compassion and public support. But for Judt this is insane: it reflects a solipsism worthy of Ayn Rand, imagining self-sufficiency of the individual with no dependency on social arrangements. This view of modern society is truly deranged; without public roads, honest co-workers, and peaceful citizens, we are back in the world that Hobbes imagined. Or, as Judt quotes JS Mill: “No great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible, until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought ” (151).

What is genuinely noteworthy is how similar the outlines and concerns are of Judt’s critique in 2010 to Carlyle’s critique in 1841. Judt’s solution for the coming generation is simple: to bring new energy into the moral and social ideal of “social democracy” — a liberal society based on freedom and wellbeing for all its citizens, a system of mutual cooperation and respect. And the mechanics of a just society are reasonably well understood, both in practice and in theory. Most generally, they are the institutions of what John Rawls calls a “property-owning democracy“:

Both a property-owning democracy and a liberal socialist regime set up a constitutional framework for democratic politics, guarantee the basic liberties with the fair value of the political liberties and fair equality of opportunity, and regulate economic and social inequalities by a principle of mutuality, if not by the difference principle.  (Justice as Fairness 138)

Or in other words, a just polity based on the equal dignity and worth of all citizens will involve protections of fundamental liberties; secure and equal democratic institutions; and extensive provision of public benefits such as education, healthcare, adequate nutrition, and a dignified life (link). And these are precisely the premises of social democracy in Europe for over a century.

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