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Gareth Jenkins

‘A right to exist, but only exist’

(May 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 186, May 1995, p. 21.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Blaming the poor for their problems is the message behind the ideas of ‘communitarianism’. Gareth Jenkins shows that these arguments are nothing new.

The Tories ideological offensive which blames the poor for their own misfortune has striking parallels with the early 19th century, when attempts were made to disband the old, paternalistic Poor Law system. The leaders of society were determined to replace it with a system that reflected the priorities of the market.

They drew on the theories of the Reverend Robert Malthus who argued there was a tendency for the population to outstrip food resources. The only solution Malthus offered the poor was that through thrift and prudence, by saving money and avoiding having children, they might be able to make their lives tolerable.

He wanted the poor to be taught ‘to depend more upon themselves’. Self reliance would be better than receiving any handouts, no matter if you starved in the process. The logic of this was abolition of all public relief.

The job of carrying through the new Poor Law, which parliament passed in 1834, fell to Edwin Chadwick. Under the old Poor Law, the main expense had been outdoor relief, mainly supplementing low wages – what we might call benefits. In Chadwick’s view this failed to persuade the poor to look for work.

As his report to parliament put it:

‘The labourer feels that the existing system [the old Poor Law], though it generally gives him low wages, always gives him easy work. He need not bestir himself to seek work; he need not study to please his master; he need not ask relief as a favour.’

Now the poor were forced to enter the workhouse. The family was broken up. Men lived separately from women – to stop them breeding. Children were also lodged separately – to stop them being influenced by their parents. Everyone was forced to do some kind of work and the food was limited and bad.

Dickens may have exaggerated workhouse conditions in Oliver Twist, but only just. They were run as prisons. Poverty was like crime and it carried the stigma that the poor had themselves to blame.

The ‘deserving poor’, were always viewed suspiciously to see whether they truly deserved any handouts. They were distinguished from the ‘undeserving poor’, those who were improvident, lazy, vicious and sexually careless. Today’s equivalent of the ‘undeserving poor’, as far as the Tories are concerned, are those who live on the dole when they should be jobseeking; who make noisy disturbances on council estates; who are single mothers or travellers.

Frederick Engels scathingly paraphrased the attitude of the Poor Law Commissioners:

‘We grant you poor a right to exist, but only to exist; the right to multiply you have not, nor the right to exist as befits human beings. You are a pest, and if we cannot get rid of you as we do other pests, you shall feel, at least, that you are a pest, and you shall at least be held in check, kept from bringing into the world other “surplus”, either directly or through inducing in others laziness and want of employment. Live you shall, but live as an awful warning to all those who might have inducements to become “superfluous”.’

The ‘pests’, however, did not take this lying down. There were protests, demonstrations and riots. Indeed the great Chartists’ demonstrations which swept Britain were fuelled by hatred of the Poor Law.

It was not until the advent of the welfare state under the 1945 Labour government that people were no longer punished for not being able to make ends meet.

Now the Tories want a return to something like the system of minimal relief and ‘cringing or whining’ on the part of those who dare apply for benefit. Once again, poverty is being scapegoated and the victims are being blamed for their own misfortunes. Shamefully, too, the Blair Labour leadership has not the guts to fight these attacks.

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Last updated: 3 November 2019