“If this familial situation seems primitive, it should be borne in mind that these were prosperous peasants.”
“The redefinition of poverty was a bit of a con-trick by the Left. It has led us to
care far too much about inequality and not enough about rising prosperity.”
- James Bartholemew, Telegraph
With so much talk about “poverty,” it’s easy to forget what poverty really means – and how it was overcome.
Of course some people are in genuine need,acknowledges the Daily Telegraph's James Bartholomew,
but it is nothing compared to previous generations — who would kill to be poor in today's society.
The word “poverty” is bandied about as never before. Labour politicians, columnists for The Guardian and The Independent, representatives of charities such as Oxfam, [bloggers at the Daily Blog and Double Standard] use the term repeatedly, suggesting that poverty … is a major and even a growing problem. Very rarely does anyone on radio or television dare challenge this idea. But what do we mean by the word “poverty” today? And how does our idea of poverty compare with that of the past?
How does it compare?
… As for food, “fresh meat was a luxury only seen in a few of the cottages on a Sunday”. People mostly depended on bread and lard. “Fresh butter was too costly for general use” and “milk was a rare luxury”.
Shoes and boots were barely affordable, to the extent that “how to get a pair of new boots for 'our young Ern or Alf ’ was a problem which kept many a mother awake at night”. Obtaining clothes was “an even more difficult matter” so that “it was difficult to keep decently covered”. Labourers sipped their beer slowly in the evening because they could only afford half a pint. The girls were sent out to be servants in richer households when they were between 11 and 13.
Going back further in time to the beginning of the 19th century, many ordinary people could not afford shoes at all and wore clogs instead. People died of starvation in 1846/47 in Scotland as well as in Ireland during the potato famine. Indeed, Britain was affected by more than 95 famines in the Middle Ages, such as the one in 1235 when about 20,000 Londoners died of starvation and many resorted to eating tree bark in an attempt to survive.
Not to disparage those who are doing it tough today, about whom the poverty-mongers care only in the abstract, but it’s easy to forget that for most of human history life was really, really really shit. (“Garage! Would have dreamed of living in garage!”) Forget what you see in films and TV shows about life before the Industrial Revolution. This was literally “a world lit only by fire,” and powered only by diseased and wasted human muscle. Just imagine medieval dentistry, diet and disease before we were rescued from them by modern innovations.
Prior to the advent of industrial capitalism (in roughly the 1760s) the lot of the English working class was generally miserable. Utter destitution was rampant, literal starvation not uncommon and the country was overrun with paupers. “There was, in point of fact, widespread poverty of the most abject kind in England and other countries of 18th century Europe.” It is difficult for men in the industrial West today to conceive of the kind of poverty that was widespread in pre-capitalist Europe. By a test employed in Lyons, France, in the 17th century, poverty was reached when daily income was less than the daily cost of minimum bread requirement – in other words, when a person could not make enough money to buy a crust of bread.
And consider how little it took to be considered “prosperous.”
[T]he home of a prosperous peasant [might be found] lying at the end of a narrow, muddy lane, his rambling edifice of thatch, wattles, mud, and dirty brown wood was almost obscured by a towering dung heap in what, without it, would have been the front yard. The building was large, for it was more than a dwelling. Beneath its sagging roof were a pigpen, a henhouse, cattle sheds, corncribs, straw and hay, and, last and least, the family’s apartment, actually a single room whose walls and timbers were coated with soot. According to Erasmus, who examined such huts, “almost all the floors are of clay and rushes from the marshes, so carelessly renewed that the foundation sometimes remains for twenty years, harbouring, there below, spittle and vomit and wine of dogs and men, beer ... remnants of fishes, and other filth unnameable. Hence, with the change of weather, a vapour exhales which in my judgment is far from wholesome.”
The centrepiece of the room was a gigantic bedstead, piled high with straw pallets, all seething with vermin. Everyone slept there, regardless of age or gender—grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, and hens and pigs—and if a couple chose to enjoy intimacy, the others were aware of every movement. In summer they could even watch. If a stranger was staying the night, hospitality required that he be invited to make “one more” on the familial mattress. This was true even if the head of the household was away, on, say, a pilgrimage. If this led to goings-on, and the husband returned to discover his wife with child, her readiest reply was that during the night, while she was sleeping, she had been penetrated by an incubus…
If this familial situation seems primitive, it should be borne in mind that these were prosperous peasants. Not all their neighbours were so lucky. Some lived in tiny cabins of crossed laths stuffed with grass or straw, inadequately shielded from rain, snow, and wind. They lacked even a chimney; smoke from the cabin’s fire left through a small hole in the thatched roof—where, unsurprisingly, fires frequently broke out. These homes were without glass windows or shutters; in a storm, or in frigid weather, openings in the walls could only be stuffed with straw, rags—whatever was handy. Such families envied those enjoying greater comfort, and most of all they coveted their beds. They themselves slept on thin straw pallets covered by ragged blankets. Some were without blankets. Some didn’t even have pallets.
Typically, three years of harvests could be expected for one year of famine. The years of hunger were terrible. The peasants might be forced to sell all they owned, including their pitifully inadequate clothing, and be reduced to nudity in all seasons. In the hardest times they devoured bark, roots, grass; even white clay. Cannibalism was not unknown. Strangers and travellers were waylaid and killed to be eaten, and there are tales of gallows being torn down—as many as twenty bodies would hang from a single scaffold—by men frantic to eat the warm flesh raw…
Not to press the point, but it makes going without breakfast seem a fairly poor measure of real poverty. Life back then was literally lousy:
The manner of living throughout the Middle Ages made general lousiness inevitable. In England, in the 12th and 13th centuries, the houses of the poor were mere hovels, often with only a hole in the roof to let out the smoke of the central fire; and in cold weather the families were huddled together at night without changing the simple garments – usually a single shift – which they wore in the daytime. Washing was practically out of the question, and the better classes – not very much more comfortable in their badly heated domiciles – wore a great many clothes, which they rarely changed. MacArthur’s story of Thomas a Becket’s funeral illustrates this:
The Archbishop was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on the evening of the 29th of December. The body lay in the Cathedral all night, as was prepared for burial on the following day. The Archbishop was dressed in an extraordinary collection of clothes. He had on a large brown mantle; under it, a white surplice; below that, a lamb’s wool coat,; then another woolen coat; and a third woolen coat below this; under this, there was the black, cowled robe of the Benedictine Order; under this, a shirt; and next to the body a curious hair-cloth, covered with linen. As the body grew cold, the vermin that were living in this multiple covering started to crawl out, and, as MacArthur quotes the chronicler: 'The vermin boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron, and the onlookers burst into alternate weeping and laughter.'
No wonder health and life expectancy then were, well, poor.
[Consider], people then were small. The average man stood a few inches over five feet and weighed about 135 pounds. His wife was shorter and lighter. Anyone standing several inches over six feet was considered a giant and inspired legends —Jack the Giant Killer, for example, and Jack and the Beanstalk. Folklore was rich in such violent tales, for death was their constant companion. Life expectancy was brief; half the people in Europe died, usually from disease, before reaching their thirtieth birthday. It was still true, as Richard Rolle had written earlier, that “few men now reach the age of forty, and fewer still the age of fifty.” If a man passed that milestone, his chances of reaching his late forties or his early fifties were good, though he looked much older; at forty-five his hair was as white, back as bent, and face as knurled as an octogenarian’s today. The same was true of his wife—“Old Gretel,” a woman in her thirties might be called. In longevity she was less fortunate than her husband.
The toll at childbirth was appalling. A young girl’s life expectancy was twenty-four. On her wedding day, traditionally, her mother gave her a piece of fine cloth which could be made into a frock. Six or seven years later it would become her shroud.
When you hear about real grinding poverty, this is what real grinding poverty really means.
What rescued humanity from “this wasteland of crosses and graves” (in Leonard Peikoff’s memorable phrase) was not hand-wringing, but industrial capitalism.
Capitalism didn’t produce poverty, it inherited it. It inherited it, and then transformed it – the population exploding in numbers now it was being fed and housed; the “poverty line” quickly vaulting far above that daily stale crust of bread. Transformed it so radically that today we can talk about people with mobile phones and TV sets being in poverty, not people with rags.
With all our first-world problems we forget all this. We forget that we not only enjoy longer lives, but better. In the devices in our hands we now carry (if we wish to) an extensive personal library of the world’s best books and music. We have the leisure to engage in all kinds of sporting contests, and adventure holidays. Disease, dentistry and diet has improved out of sight – both in quality and in quantity. So much so that the same voices today crying “poverty” are the same ones saying the biggest dietary problem today is obesity, when for most of human history it was malnutrition.
From all this it is clear that the relatively poor of today are vastly richer than the poor of 120 years ago, let alone beforehand. Indeed, at least one leading figure in the [British] Labour Party acknowledged the fact in 1959. Barbara Castle remarked, “the poverty and unemployment which we came into existence to fight have been largely conquered”. Since she spoke, of course, average incomes have risen much higher. As recently as the 1980s people looked at the figures for how many households had inside lavatories and how many had fridges. Now virtually every household has these things, so nobody bothers with the information any more.
Given all this, how is it that so many pundits and charities talk about widespread poverty in Britain [and NZ]?
So, given all this then, how is it possible for so many to talk so much about “widespread poverty” today?
- because they’ve redefined “poverty” to mean simply having less than your neighbour; and
- because solving poverty is not their goal.
[The redefinition of poverty] dates back to 1962 and the annual conference of the British Sociological Association. Two Left-wing academics, Peter Townsend and Brian Abel-Smith, developed a new way of defining “poverty” based on the income level at which people were entitled to a payment called “supplementary benefit”. One person at the conference reported “a mood of conspiratorial excitement” about the idea of redefining poverty. These are her words, not mine, and they do seem revealing. It is as if some people on the Left were longing to find a way in which poverty had not been “conquered” as Barbara Castle had said. They had found a way in which it would always be possible to use the huge emotional power of the word.
The flurry of excitement about redefining poverty concluded with it being defined as 60 per cent of median incomes with adjustment for family size. This definition was eventually accepted by the British government and the European Union [and academics and government here in NZ]. That is the definition which those who talk about poverty in the media are using.
… How many households cannot afford a television? Fewer than 1 per cent. How many people aged 16-24 do not have access to a mobile phone? 1 per cent. Who has access to computers and the internet? Among those aged 25-44, 85 per cent use a computer daily. Added to those who use computers less frequently, that means well over nine in 10 young adults have access to a computer.
Overall, the typical person in modern poverty has access to a mobile phone and lives in a household with a television, an inside lavatory, electricity and probably access to the internet. By all means, observers can call this poverty. But it would have been unrecognisable to [our poor peasant from the Middle Ages]. It is riches beyond their dreams for those I have met in a Masai Mara village in Kenya who live in mud huts with not a single one of the above.
Yes, of course there are still people in awful circumstances who need help. There are those who lose their jobs, who get divorced and have mental health problems. It can be awful if several of these things happen at the same time. People struggle and can end up on the streets. But the living conditions of the majority of relatively low earners are unrecognisably better than in the past.
Capitalism inherited abject poverty, and transformed it. Yet are those talking about poverty talking about more capitalism? Not on your life. Because for the most part they don’t primarily want to transform the life of today’s poor; they want instead to transform capitalism in their own image.
Capitalism has created the highest standard of living ever known on earth. The evidence is incontrovertible. The contrast between West and East Berlin is the latest demonstration, like a laboratory experiment for all to see. Yet those who are loudest in proclaiming their desire to eliminate poverty are loudest in denouncing capitalism. Man’s well-being is not their goal.
Read that again and consider: “Capitalism has created the highest standard of living ever known on earth… Yet those who are loudest in proclaiming their desire to eliminate poverty are loudest in denouncing capitalism.”
Given that grotesque “disconnnect,” you might ask yourself then what their real goal truly is.