Epidemics, Social Welfare, and “Condition of England” Literature

Benjamin Schacht //

When an epidemic sweeps a community—or a pandemic sweeps the globe—the health, but equally the living conditions and resources of others suddenly take on an existential significance. The Covid-19 pandemic has recently made this significance plain in a particularly dramatic way, but long before early 2020, the observation that illness signifies our social intertwinement had already found eloquent expression in one of the most iconic works of early Victorian literature: Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present.

For Carlyle, a prominent early Victorian social critic whose prophetic prose style exerted enormous influence on the intellectual culture of his era, disease illustrates the abiding mutuality of social life, a fact seemingly denied by laissez faire social policies that treat welfare as primarily a question of individual responsibility. By the same token, contagious disease provides a powerful justification for extending social support to the poor, unemployed, and destitute, since conditions of social distress promote the spread of infection. At a time when influential theories of political economy viewed government regulation of markets with suspicion, Carlyle saw in public health a justification for welfare institutions that was difficult to deny even on purely economic grounds. As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, Carlyle’s reasoning continues to make a compelling case that the provision of social welfare is good for everyone, not just those who receive it directly.

Published in 1843, Past and Present is a jeremiad against industrial England that contrasts the poverty and social unrest of the 1840s with an idealized depiction of life in a 12th-century English monastery. Far from an isolated work of social criticism, Carlyle’s book epitomizes “Condition of England” literature, a genre of writing that sought to describe and diagnose the social ills associated with Industrial Revolution-era Britain, particularly its class inequalities. Aside from Carlyle, the authors and works most often identified with Condition of England writing are Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, or, The Two Nations, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and North and South, Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke, and Charles Dickens’s Hard Times.

The changing conditions that so struck these writers weren’t simply the product of increasing technological development, evident, for example, in the rise of steam power. They were also social and political changes. The Reform Act of 1832 extended the franchise to the middle classes and enhanced popular representation in parliament. Major reform of the social welfare system followed soon thereafter. The New Poor Law of 1834 did away with “outdoor” relief for the able-bodied poor, conditioning their receipt of aid on entering a workhouse, and introduced the principle of “less eligibility,” which stipulated that the generosity of public welfare not exceed the lowest paid work available in the regular labor market lest it undermine the incentive to obtain private employment. Not everyone greeted these changes enthusiastically, however. The New Poor Law’s implementation encountered fierce resistance in the north of England, where popular radical leaders like John Fielden organized against it while also agitating for further reforms, such as minimum wages and legal limits on factory hours (Weaver, 7-13).

It was against the backdrop of such conflicts that Carlyle coined the term “Condition of England,” which first appeared in his 1839 pamphlet, Chartism. A year earlier, the publication of the People’s Charter announced the official beginning of the Chartist movement for working-class political rights. While Carlyle was alarmed by the movement’s militancy—his 1837 history of the French Revolution had vividly described the destructive social conflagrations engendered by revolutionary upheaval—and skeptical of the democratic reforms it proposed, he nevertheless criticized the coercive means used by the government to suppress the Chartists. To Carlyle, Chartism was symptomatic of deeper processes, and he stressed the importance of understanding its underlying social causes, employing disease as a metaphor for Chartism’s relation to more fundamental social pathologies. “[Y]ou abolish the symptom to no purpose,” he writes, “if the disease is left untouched. Boils on the surface are curable or incurable,—small matter which, while the virulent humour festers deep within” (152).

What was the disease? One of Carlyle’s main grievances against the prevailing order was its embrace of the doctrine of laissez faire, the idea that government should regulate economic activity as little as possible. In Carlyle’s eyes, laissez faire is “[a]s good as an abdication on the part of governors; an admission that they are henceforth incompetent to govern, that they are not there to govern at all, but to do—one knows not what!” (188). In its withdrawal of outdoor relief for the able-bodied, the New Poor Law embodied this “false, heretical, and damnable” philosophy, which proclaims, “Scramble along, thou insane scramble of a world…and whoever in the press is trodden down, has only to lie there and be trampled broad” as its “chief social principle” (163-4).

Scathing as he was, Carlyle did not fully oppose the New Poor Law. Like many of his contemporaries, he thought that some type of reform was necessary, and insofar as the new law encouraged work, the dignity of which Carlyle was wont to extol in religious terms, he countenanced it as “harsh but salutary” (162). Nevertheless, as Gertrude Himmelfarb emphasizes, “he was strenuously, unequivocally opposed…to that set of ideas, attitudes, and values which had given rise to the New Poor Law” (204).   

By the time he composed Past and Present, Carlyle had become even more radical in his critique of an economic order based on the principles of laissez faire and supply and demand (Himmelfarb, 197). His antipathy was motivated not only by his concern for the downtrodden, but also by his perception that the reduction of human relationships to commercial transactions was self-destructive. He took aim at the relentless pursuit of profit—“The Gospel of Mammonism” in his portentous turn of phrase—describing it as corrosive to solidarity and cohesion. “We call it a Society; and go about professing openly the totallest separation, isolation,” he laments. “Our life is not a mutual helpfulness; but rather, cloaked under due laws-of-war, named ‘fair competition’ and so forth, it is a mutual hostility. We have forgotten everywhere that Cash-payment is not the sole relation of human beings” (151-2). 

That other types of relation count just as much as those mediated by money was evident to Carlyle in the spread of communicable diseases. To underscore his point that social bonds and obligations cannot simply be wished away, Carlyle invokes the work of Scottish doctor and medical philosopher William Alison. Alison, who studied at the University of Edinburgh with famed Scottish Enlightenment thinker Dugald Stewart, was a pioneer of what historian Christopher Hamlin has termed “political medicine.” His interests pushed the boundaries of medicine to encompass questions of social welfare and political economy, which we see especially in his debates with the Scottish followers of Thomas Malthus over the design of Scottish social welfare institutions and the treatment of the poor (Hamlin, 172-3).

Drawing on Alison’s treatise, Observations on the Management of the Poor in Scotland and its Effects on the Health of the Great Towns, Carlyle recounts the story of a “poor Irish Widow” who attempts to solicit help from the “Charitable Establishments” of Edinburgh only to be rebuffed. Finally, bereft of support, she dies of typhus in the street, infecting and ultimately killing seventeen other people there. Carlyle comments,

The humane Physician asks thereupon, as with a heart too full for speaking, Would it not have been economy to help this poor Widow? She took typhus-fever, and killed seventeen of you!—Very curious. The forlorn Irish Widow applies to her fellow-creatures, as if saying, “Behold I am sinking, bare of help: ye must help me! I am your sister, bone of your bone; one God made us: ye must help me!” They answer, “No, impossible; thou art no sister of ours.” But she proves her sisterhood; her typhus-fever kills them: they actually were her brothers, though denying it! Had human creature ever to go lower for a proof? (154).

For Carlyle, not only does this story demonstrate the inescapable reality of social interdependence, but it also makes a case for the efficiency of social welfare. Because we are indissolubly bound to each other—our fates “tied in a single garment of destiny,” to borrow Martin Luther King Jr.’s distinctly Carlylean phrase—it is in everyone’s interest to support the relief of the poor. Beyond benevolence or justice, Carlyle appeals, via Alison, to the economist’s logic of self-interest and makes his case in economic terms. This is not to say, of course, that benevolence and justice have no role to play in making the case for social welfare; rather, it is simply to point out that even where self-interest is granted as a relevant consideration, it provides a reason to believe that public social welfare institutions are desirable things to have. The fact that we are connected to others through society makes them so.

The profundity of Carlyle’s insight into our social inextricability is evident in the frequency with which his basic point has been repeated throughout the course of the current pandemic. “Nobody is safe until everybody is safe” has become a piece of common sense that proclaims the logic to which Carlyle appeals in his parable of the Irish widow. While there are some in the U.S. who clearly would have preferred a more laissez faire approach to managing Covid-19, it quickly became apparent that government intervention of some kind would be necessary to contain the virus. Successive moratoriums on evictions, which found explicit justification in the need to prevent overcrowding in homes and shelters, were clear instances of circumventing the cash nexus for the sake of protecting everyone’s health. The vaccine’s availability free of charge—an exception to Americans’ typical relationship to healthcare—is an acknowledgement that limiting access to only those who can pay would undermine its ability to protect against disease.

In other respects, however, Carlyle’s words remain a prophetic warning. While vaccination rates climb in rich countries, poorer countries currently lack access to the plentiful supplies they need to protect their populations. There is a palpable tension here between the imperatives of laissez faire and those of public health. Desirous of profits, pharmaceutical companies are unsurprisingly reluctant to relinquish the monopolies they have on the knowledge and technology needed to ramp up vaccine production and jumpstart a mass global vaccination campaign, citing the incentives to innovation that such monopolies supposedly create (despite the fact that public investment in research played an integral part in developing the vaccines in the first place). Yet allowing the virus to continue to spread could prove costly, both morally and economically, especially if variants develop that can evade the immunity the vaccines currently provide.

The world has changed dramatically since the 1840s. The welfare state, underdeveloped though it is in the U.S., is here to stay. But the on-going struggle to manage the coronavirus pandemic reminds us that that the conflict between a policy of laissez faire and the public provision of goods and services persists. This means that arguments like Carlyle’s, which support the case for such provision by appealing to public health and our collective self-interest, continue to carry weight.

Author Bio: Benjamin Schacht is a communications assistant at the Modern Language Association. He received his PhD in comparative literary studies from Northwestern University in 2019.

Image: Ford Madox Brown, Work

Works Cited:

Carlyle, Thomas. Past and Present. Oxford University Press, 1960.

—Selected Writings. Penguin Books, 1986.

Hamlin, Christopher. “William Pulteney Alison, The Scottish Philosophy, and the Making of a Political Medicine.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 61, no. 2, 2006, pp. 144-186.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Idea of Poverty. Vintage Books, 1985.

Weaver, Stewart A. John Fielden and the Politics of Popular Radicalism. Oxford University Press, 1987.

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