Tuesday, February 25, 2020

William Godwin (1756–1836), 1: On obscene wealth and the evils of poverty

Godwin 6                                                            
While I am not in concord with all of William Godwin’s arguments in his classic book on what is christened “philosophical anarchism,” his ruminations are often quite provocative and worthy of sustained consideration. I happen to believe Marxists or socialists generally, such as yours truly, can benefit from an open-minded consideration of anarchist thought and praxis, that is, an examination not viewed solely through the political polemics and ideological lens of an earlier era. I hope to occasionally share, as below, snippets from his famous work, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (first published in 1793,* with two later editions). 

“A perpetual struggle with the evils of poverty [Godwin is likely speaking of ‘absolute’ poverty, but much of what follows might hold for ‘relative’ poverty as well], if frequently ineffectual, must necessarily render many of the sufferers desperate. A painful feeling of their oppressed situation will itself deprive them of the power of surmounting it. The superiority of the rich, being thus unmercifully exercised, must inevitably expose them to reprisals; and the poor man will be induced to regard the state of society as a state of war, an unjust combination, not for protecting every man in his rights and securing to him the means of existence, but for engrossing all its advantages to a few favoured individuals, and reserving for the portion of the rest want, dependence and misery.

A second source of those destructive passions by which the peace of society is interrupted is to be found in the luxury, the pageantry and magnificence with which enormous wealth is usually accompanied. Human beings are capable of encountering with cheerfulness considerable hardships when those hardships are impartially shared with the rest of the society, and they are not insulted with the spectacle of indolence and ease in others, no way deserving of greater advantages than themselves. But it is a bitter aggravation of their own calamity to have the privileges of others forced on their observation, and, while they are perpetually and vainly endeavoring to secure for themselves and their families the poorest conveniences, to find others reveling in the fruits of their labours. This aggravation is assiduously administered to them under most of the political establishments at present in existence. There is a numerous class of individuals, who, though rich, have neither brilliant talents nor sublime virtues; and, however highly they may prize their education, their affability, their superior polish and the elegance of their manner, have a secret consciousness that they possess nothing by which then can so securely assert their pre-eminence and keep their inferiors at a distance as the splendor of their equipage, the magnificence of the retinue and the sumptuousness of their entertainments. The poor man is struck with this exhibition; he feels his own miseries; he knows how unwearied are his effort to obtain a slender pittance of this prodigal waste; and he mistakes opulence for felicity. He cannot persuade himself that an embroidered garment may frequently cover an aching art. 

A third disadvantage that is apt to connect poverty with discontent consists in the insolence and usurpation of the rich. If the poor man would in other respect compose himself in philosophic indifference, and, conscious that he possesses every thing[sic] that is truly honourable to man as fully as his rich neighbour, would look upon the rest as beneath his envy [like the Hellenistic Stoic?], his neighbor will not permit him to do so. He seems as if he could never be satisfied with his possession unless can make the spectacle of them grating to others [for an updated examination of this at once economic and psychological phenomenon, see the last two chapters and conclusion of Nicholas Xenos’ Scarcity and Modernity (Routledge, 1989)]; and that honest self-esteem, by which the inferior might otherwise attain to tranquility, is rendered the instrument of galling him with oppression and injustice. In many countries justice is avowedly made a subject of solicitation, and the man of the highest rank and most splendid connections almost infallibly carries his cause against the unprotected and friendless. In countries where this shameless practice is not established, justice is frequently a matter of expensive purchase, and the man with the longest purse is proverbially victorious. A consciousness of these facts must be expected to render the rich little cautious of offence in his dealings with the poor, and to inspire him with a temper overbearing, dictatorial and tyrannical. Nor does this indirect oppression satisfy his despotism. The rich are in all such countries directly or indirectly the legislators of the state; and of consequence are perpetually reducing oppression into a system, and depriving the poor of that little commonage of nature which might otherwise still have remained to them.” 

* See Pelican Books, 1976 and Penguin Classics, 1985. The Introduction by Isaac Kramnick is quite helpful. See too Mark Philp’s Godwins Political Justice (Cornell University Press, 1986) and his entry on Godwin for the SEP. 

Please note: I have not forgotten about the second installment on socialism, it is forthcoming anon. Thanks for your patience.


Post a Comment

<< Home