200 YEARS - From Poverty to Decency (Part 2)
A REVIEW of SOCIAL CONDITIONS from LAISSEZ-FAIRE to FABIAN SOCIALISM and BACK - PLUS a LOOK at what the FUTURE MIGHT HOLD
INDEX to PART 2 - REVITALIZE THE DEMOCRATIC WELFARE STATE !
In these 200 years there have been many thousands of reformers throughout the world working to improve the lot of "the poor" (possibly 30% of the population) and to bring a sense of decency to the remaining 70%.
Reformers known as humanitarians had been fighting slavery, which was eventually outlawed for all British citizens in 1833, though parliament voted 20 million pounds to compensate planters for the loss of their slaves, a huge sum in those days.
The parliamentary system itself went through many reforms. In England the 1832 Act which enfranchised many middle class people and did away with "Rotten Boroughs".(17)
The Chartists agitated for a vote for every adult male as well as better working conditions in 1830 to 1840, they failed in England but they emigrated or were transported to Australia where their democratic ideals brought reform quicker in South Australia than in England.
Robert Owen(18) has
been described as a British utopian socialist, father of the co-operative
movement. By about 1810 he proved that if factory workers were paid more,
treated better, and had shorter hours, the factory would out compete all-others.
It was to take two to three generations before the Factory Acts caught up
with his standards.
Economic Development It must not be forgotten that Britain was in the forefront of the industrial revolution. Many were making fortunes and many of the improved conditions in this 200 years were due to technical advances. In 1851 the Great Exhibition was held in London, became the inspiration for many international world fairs. The Crystal Palace(20) was built in Hyde Park, with cast iron frames and glass panels which had considerable beauty. It comes as a surprise to realise this was a prefabricated building. After the exhibition it was taken down and re-erected at Sydenham in South London (not far from where I lived). We were saddened when it burnt down in 1936.
In the 1860s British manufacturers found their home market penetrated by German exports. The Board of Trade sent an expert mission to investigate. The report showed the economic costs of under-educated management and too many workers who could not read or write. The result was the 1871 Act for universal primary education. It's an ill wind......
Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto(21) in 1847, was banished from Belgium and later from Germany and wrote his greatest work "Das Kapital" In London. While his economic theories have often been acclaimed, his ideas on class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat have resulted in Communist countries being ruled by a very bloody set of dictators. While this may have led to the collapse of Communist Russia we can take no pleasure in this event, there is more unemployment and real poverty in Russia today under the so called free-enterprise regime.(22)
In western countries Laissez-faire politicians have been able to use the fear of Communism to delay the election of democratic socialists and stop the adoption of reasonable reforms.
The Fabian Society(23) was founded on Jan 1st 1884 in London. It was not a political party, ie it did not put up candidates for election, but it was, and still is a socialist think tank, which rejected the Marxist theory of class struggle. It wished to promote equality for all through collective ownership and democratic control of the nation's resources.
The Society soon attracted many talented people including Sidney and Beatrice Webb; George Bernard Shaw;(24) future Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald; Annie Besant and HG Wells.
They were familiar with the sprawling slums of London, and in the words of
GBS said "the greatest of our evils, and the worst of our crimes is poverty
... our first duty, to which every other consideration should be sacrificed,
is not to be poor." - The Capitalist system went hand-in-hand with
the slums, the solution was a rational, planned, socialist society. So
began the work of research and education led by Sidney and Beatrice Webb
who produced many pamphlets such as the 1887 "Facts for Socialists" which
pointed out that the infant death rate at impoverished Bethnal Green was
twice that of rich Belgravia.
The Webbs continued their research into social conditions, publishing "History of Trade Unions" and "Industrial Democracy" and many other books. In 1894 they founded the London School of Economics and in 1913 they launched the "New Statesman"(25) the weekly which became famous under the editorship of Kingsley Martin.
The Fabian Society helped to form The Labour Party in 1900, which slowly gained representatives in parliament. Between the wars two minority labour governments were formed but they were powerless to effect reforms.
This was a bad time for socialists; 2 world wars and the 1930 financial slump led many socialists, including the Webbs, to praise Russia. However Bertrand Russell(26) when visiting impoverished mathematicians in Leningrad, realised that they could not speak out for fear of the consequences. He was not deceived.
There are over 100 local Fabian societies affiliated with the parent body and groups have been formed from time to time overseas, some of them in Australia. Had it not been for this network of societies, which all believed in the importance of Democracy, and their influence on trade unions and the Labour party, Britain might well have taken the communist path, taking with it the colonies and dominions, leaving the United States out in the cold.
The Attlee(27) Government was formed in
1945 after defeating Churchill, much to everyone's surprise. Clement Attlee's
book, "The Labour Party in Perspective" dated 1937 shows that both his democratic
principles and practical policies were well advanced.
During the early 70s inflation became serious and gave the forces opposed to the Welfare State the opportunity to dismantle its achievements. Keynesian economists disappeared from the scene and Freidmanites took their place. Small government was advocated, expenditure cuts became the rule. This meant "downsizing" in both government and private industry. Deregulation of Banks and reduced controls on overseas transactions allowed the bank's new gambling activities which are now nine tenths or more of all their international transactions. Reduced taxation became all important. To balance the Budget, governments had to privatise and sell up assets. Labour governments found they had to adopt right wing policies in order to retain power. At least they tried to maintain the safety net, but liberal governments had no such compunction.
Large global(29) Companies have always been powerful, but now even small companies realised they could transfer their money and operations to another country where labor was cheaper. They could go "off-shore" or they could stay if they had tax inducements. The real power in the world today is the Company and because we all have to take note of what the Company says or does, the Company is a threat to democracy, governments have lost a large part of their power. This is why we have so much contempt for our politicians.
The company has little control over what it does, behaving like an automaton, it works hard to make the best product at the cheapest price and tries to ignore all other considerations. They ignore the environment, their shareholders, their workers, they will dump their chief executive officer if their market price falls. This mindless automaton rules the world.
My trade union friend supports right wing policies, he makes it very clear his concern is that the company should stay right here, providing him and his children with a job. A very powerful argument with shades of George Bernard Shaw, "the greatest of our evils, and the worst of our crimes is poverty ... our first duty, to which every other consideration should be sacrificed, is not to be poor." It is for this reason that there are factions within the labor party, the old left, which created the welfare state, and the new right which is constrained by the power of the company. When we vote for labor we do not know which faction we are voting for. Thus the company is destroying democracy.(30)
But this does not help those who are now unemployed and make no mistake about it, the current policy of Laissez-faire has not achieved the claims made for it, on the contrary, unemployment has gone up, there is continual stress and fear that your job might disappear tomorrow, your country is loaded with more debt per head than ever before, other countries economies have recently collapsed and may drag us down further. No banana republic has ever recovered from it's crash, continuing to pay many thousands of millions in interest on loans while their people starve.(31)
Economics is a chaotic system so any prediction is foolish, however a few
pointers may be interesting.
In the immediate future I think it is possible that people everywhere will realise that there is no future in Laissez-faire and they will start to vote for governments prepared to support the welfare state. The recent election in Britain (1997) is a pointer but there are indications that Blair is constrained by the power of the companies. However it must be noted that in many third world countries, where there has been continuous poverty and very little welfare, they see no hope and are moving to hard-line, religious autocratic governments.
What Policies Should be Adopted ? In order to reduce unemployment
it will be necessary to expand government service. Private industry always
loses as many jobs as it creates. There is much that can be restored and
much that needs to be done to update the infrastructure; water and sewerage,
schools and hospitals. To pay for it, taxes will have to be increased and
reformed and I don't mean the GST. Anybody who argues against tax increases
should be blatantly told that employment is more important.
Such reforms will provide economic levers, currently lacking, which should have some influence on employment levels. If they do not provide acceptable results then more drastic measures will be required. In the new world that we are entering, to do nothing or to take more of the same bad medicine is a very inadequate response.
When thinking about the future all governments and all peoples, need to be
aware of the most serious threat facing the world -
overpopulation. United Nations figures(35) suggest
that in about 3 decades population may reach a peak, if the U.N. program
of family planning and education for women is successful. (If not, the population
will reach higher levels.)
RAT PLAGUES To help understand the nature of the overpopulation threat consider the rat plague. Mr and Mrs Rat find themselves in a pleasant area with plenty of food. They have children, and the children have children and the rat population increases by geometric progress to thousands who eat up all the food supply and then start eating each other. They are living in very crowded conditions so disease spreads rapidly and the whole of the rat group dies a horrible death except perhaps for two or three who escape to start the process all over again. In South Australia we have mouse plagues but the story is just the same.
MAN IS A TWO LEGGED RAT (The sexist language is deliberate) but he has a brain which sometimes he uses and sometimes he does not. In Rwanda and what was Yugoslavia stupid brute force was used. India and China have been trying to apply reasonable controls in their very serious situations. In Western countries women have had a good education and have adopted family planning principles. Even women in the Roman Catholic faith have taken little notice of the Vatican's opposition to family planning. In third world countries large families are still the rule but western countries are using an excessive amount of the world's resources and spewing out most of the pollution.
OVERPOPULATION EQUIVALENT TO WORLD WAR The
World Population Clock,(36) U.S. Bureau of the
Census gives the world population as 5.88 thousand million people in March
1998, the 6000 million mark to be exceeded this year. Using recent figures,
which take into account the slowing of the rate of increase which has become
evident in some third world countries, the 7000 million
mark will be reached in 2012 and 8000 million in
Please add your suggestions (See Notes at bottom of this page)
Such a program will require the agreement and the cooperation of the great majority of electors in all countries, including those religions which need to re-examine their objections to family planning. It will also require a strong confident government with the power and determination to act in our best interests. While parts of this program can be farmed out to private firms, the idea of Laissez-faire should be put out with the rubbish.
Much of this program requires co-operation with other countries and the United Nations. Some of my friends have been disillusioned with the U.N. but their poor performance is due to the fact that they too have been constrained by economic rationalist theory.(39) Recent statements from the World Bank suggest they realise the need for change. Such changes can only come if we lobby our government and the Non Government Organisations represented on the U.N. If 50% of the Tobin Tax referred to earlier was sent to the U.N., by all countries, real inroads into Third World poverty could be made.
If we continue down our present path we can only look forward to continuing unemployment, deteriorating infrastructure including hospitals, schools, water, sewer and electricity supplies and if the MAI(40) is adopted we will find that our democracy will have no power to make corrections. We owe it to the memory of many thousands of reformers who have helped to enact and improve our democratic and social system, we owe it to our grandchildren, to reform and revitalize the democratic welfare state.
The 15th Sambell Memorial
Oration by Hugh Stretton,
People interested in economic reform should join Economic Reform Australia
The author was born and educated in London, served in the Royal Navy, was
a member of the Forest Hill and Sydenham Fabian Society 1948 to 1952. Emigrated
to Australia with parents and siblings in 1952. He has been active in the
Australian Labor Party and in recent years with the Humanist Society of South
To The Global Sustainable Development Resolution. A fitting sequel to "200 Years from Poverty to Decency".
"A SHORT HISTORY OF NEOLIBERALISM" by SUSAN GEORGE The Author of "The Debt Boomerang" answers the question "How did Neo-liberalism ever emerge from its ultra-minoritarian ghetto to become the dominant doctrine in the world today?"
BACK TO MAIN INDEX OF THIS WEB - (Humanist Society of South Australia)
THE WORLD ON THE PRECIPICE - From Terrorism to Cut-throat Competition Up to the minute comment following the September 11th tragedy by Dick Clifford.
Background graphic from Cherish
NOTES - This page was posted on 17-4-98, bookmarks were added on the 22-12-98. The whole of this site will be subject to change as economic and political conditions change. For example the recently announced policies of the British Labor Government about tax credits needs study. You are very welcome to send in your comment, suggestions, alternate policies, to the above E-mail address.