Policy Papers

Make poverty history: debate

Frank Trentmann |

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Executive Summary

  • The Labour Party's unprecedented victory in a third successive general election has done nothing to clarify the underlying principles and direction of what has come to be called 'New Labour'.
  • Here two historians debate the deeper roots of social-democratic thought to raise questions about its future development.
  • How can past ideas inform current thinking and policy-making?
  • What are the appropriate roles for the state and the market?
  • Is a commercial society compatible with equality and community?
  • And internationally, is free trade fair trade?


The election is over, now let the battle for the soul and leadership of the Labour government begin. Poverty is at the heart of this battle. For a party founded to fight social injustice and overcome oppression, the persistence of social inequality after two terms in government is a deeply sensitive issue. It goes right to the heart of the party's identity and historic mission. Policy changes since 1997 have led to a decline in child poverty, but social inequality in Britain generally and global poverty overall remains for all to see. For many, Gordon Brown's trip to Africa earlier this year and his commitment to debt relief symbolise that there still is an alternative to a Blairite ethos of privatisation and consumerist choice. Poverty has become the battleground between rival egos and rival views of social democracy.

In his ambitious and thought-provoking book An End to Poverty? Gareth Stedman Jones argues that it is fundamentally flawed to think that the future of social democracy lies with either New or Old Labour. He offers a fresh account of the birth of social democracy and an earlier vision of how to make poverty history. Instead of to trade unions or the welfare state, Stedman Jones looks to Thomas Paine and the Marquis de Condorcet in the 1780s and 1790s as the founding fathers of social democracy. In response to the American and French Revolutions, and drawing on new knowledge about probability, Paine and Condorcet argued that poverty could be eliminated through social insurance and universal education, paving the way for a more inclusive and egalitarian republican community. Stedman Jones urges that, instead of seeking to navigate between liberalism and socialism, social-democratic politics today should return to this initial republican project and combine commercial society, social equality and inclusive citizenship.

Revolutionary openings and closure

An End to Poverty? is an inspired and thought-provoking book. Few authors writing today combine historical vision with political engagement like Gareth Stedman Jones. He offers a razor-sharp account that cuts through many of the more technical debates in the history of ideas and economics to bring to life the changing meanings of political economy for the general reader. Broadly speaking, the account of the rise and fall of the republican social-democratic idea is told through the changing readings of Adam Smith. Against the background of an initially optimistic response to the American and French Revolutions, Paine and Condorcet offered a new radical reading of Smith that allowed them to combine his embrace of commercial society with a new, and more egalitarian project of a democratic community.

However, fear of revolutionary anarchy, monarchism, nationalism, and evangelicalism, in turn, later mobilised alternative and ultimately more influential positions of political economy. The social and the political then split, as political economy came to concern itself with economic freedom and markets - not with democratic culture. Poverty became an issue of personal behaviour and morality, or an economic problem. The elimination of poverty ceased to be part of a democratic project of creating citizens. Socialism, on the other extreme, divided society into workers versus capitalists, losing sight of the significance of commercial society for civic life recognised by Paine and Condorcet.

One way to describe this book's place in the literature on social democracy is 'anti-Whiggery': instead of a heroic rise of the working class and Labour in response to an unfolding industrial capitalism, the narrative is one of fall and disintegration. Stedman Jones' critical discussion of socialism and laissez-faire political economy as two extremes carving up the liberal-republican vision of the founding fathers is an argument that Labour and socialist movements have fragmented and corrupted true social democracy. Here attention to the ideological fusion of liberal and republican elements in the 1780s-90s connects with Stedman Jones' earlier, seminal work in Languages of Class - and takes him one step further. In that work, emphasis had been on the political language of anti-aristocratic corruption, rather than on socio-economic forces, in the creation of the first large labour movement, Chartism. Now, this political process appears as a merely partial appropriation of a richer, pre-existing social-democratic position. Chartists took from Paine an understanding of aristocratic excess and its fiscal burdens, but they no longer carried forth the egalitarian understanding that came with his proposals on social insurance. Moving the founding moment of social democracy from social movements to social thinkers thus leaves Chartists (and class politics more generally) in a more subordinate, problematic position. More generally, it reinforces an older historiographical view of the centrality of the revolutionary era - both in generating modern ideas and, through the anti-revolutionary reaction, in casting a long shadow over the nineteenth century.

Free trade, civil society and the consumer

But how much weight can Paine and Condorcet really carry in this new story of social democracy? Politicians and historians may have different answers to this question - as indeed will the poor and their champions (the ultimate audience of this republican social democratic ideal). Historians may debate whether the celebration of Paine's and Condorcet's ideas as a foundational moment of social democracy risks minimising the contribution of subsequent traditions.

The anti-Whiggery of the book rests on a stark contrast between an organic radical view of the 1780s-90s and a subsequent polarisation of discourse and politics into two rival camps of laissez-faire individualism and socialism. This narrative may do useful political work in liberating Adam Smith from the clutches of recent neo-liberals. As history, however, it arguably projects twentieth-century programmes of individualism versus collectivism back into the nineteenth century, where popular politics were far less clear-cut. Broadening the discussion from key texts to popular politics might suggest a reverse narrative. Far from having been dislodged, many of Paine's building blocks of free trade and civil society were common pillars of the popular radicalism that peaked in the decades before the First World War.

Stedman Jones' fascination with Paine and Condorcet lies with their organic or republican conception of socio-economic and political identities. In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he argues, this new social-democratic language of citizenship was 'pushed aside' by socialism with its antithesis between worker and capitalist, on the one hand, and 'laisser faire individualism and a language of producer and consumer', on the other (p. 235). This statement illustrates the problem of causation in a nutshell. True, liberalism and neo-liberalism in public-choice theory and public policy have increasingly adopted a producer-versus-consumer view anchored in individualist theories, but this is mainly a recent trend. Few thinkers and social movements in the first half of the nineteenth century gave the consumer a distinct or prominent position. In fact, one of the few political economists who did accord consumption special attention, Jean-Baptiste Say - who figures in this book as one of the thinkers unravelling the radical vision - did so by including the consumption in factories as well as that by private end-users. It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that a language of the consumer took shape - and then it did so by fusing civic and socio-economic ideas and identities, as in battles over consumer rights and consumer representation. In short, it is difficult to see how an individualist free-market conception of producer vs. consumer could have played a role in the earlier decline of radical social democracy. Quite the contrary, it could be argued that the Victorian and Edwardian discovery of the consumer injected civic ideas into political economy.

The practical limitations of political ideas

The book is more persuasive in highlighting just how much the reaction to the French Revolution amounted to a profound disjuncture for the history of ideas and politics. Paine's effigies were burnt. His radical bestseller was pushed aside by a wave of loyalist texts. Stedman Jones shows clearly how this reaction and fear of radicalism prompted a new moral, Christian and politico-economic defence of property and individual responsibility. As far as later radical generations are concerned, Stedman Jones emphasizes that Paine's writings were only selectively used. But why did later radical and social-democratic thinkers and movements not pick up again Paine's proposals for social insurance? Why this particular pattern of reception or selective amnesia?

Stedman Jones' plea for a fresh appreciation of the radical ideas of the 1780s-90s both as an inspiration for contemporary politics and as a historical phenomenon comes close to endowing a particular historical moment with a kind of timeless meaning and significance. The changing appeal of the idea here becomes a battle between rival authors and their texts, fighting over the body of Adam Smith. This approach partly reflects just how much historians of society have turned away from socio-economic developments and towards language and ideas to explain change. It also, however, assumes that the appeal and function of ideas is relatively autonomous from socio-economic developments. Texts alone cannot explain the changing social and political purchase and reverberations of an idea. Perhaps it was not only textual reinterpretations of political economy, but also the changing material world that made later generations of radicals and social democrats produce and look to other ideas and interpretations of the world. Put crudely, perhaps Paine's republican fusion of commerce, civil society and citizenship worked better for a commercial society than for an industrial or post-industrial society.

This last point brings us to the politicians and political readers targeted by this book. Stedman Jones is rightly critical of the increasingly a-historical tone and tenor of political debate; fellow historians of the left are criticised for their 'distant and condescending' attitude to the Enlightenment (p.9). The 1780s-90s did produce a progressive democratic vision. But is it a good or adequate vision for our times? Why return to all the way to the radical Enlightenment rather than simply start with later ideas of social justice and social policy, such as the New Liberalism, welfare economics, or more recent theories of justice?

Deep down for Stedman Jones, I suspect, poverty and policies to eliminate poverty are of interest less for their size, effect or practicality than for the civic vision lying behind them. Paine and Condorcet would probably be stunned by the dramatic expansion of social services since the late 19th century. Schooling is universal. In Britain at the turn of the twenty-first century, more than 12 billion was spent on personal social services; local authorities spent nearly three-quarters of their share on the most vulnerable groups: children and older people. In France in the 1980s (though not in Britain) there was a pronounced trend closing the gap in income between the elderly and the rest of society, surely assisting greater social equality and inclusion. Clearly, Stedman Jones has an important point that the egalitarian approach of radicals like Paine matters, for it includes the poor as equals in a civic community, whereas early welfarist legislation could be hierarchical and exclusionary.

A fervent New Labour minister, by contrast, might argue that, rather than having moved away from this older vision, they are moving closer to it, after the well-intended paternalistic welfarism of Old Labour. New Labour discourse and policy-initiatives are full of attempts to fuse economy and politics, market and citizenship, and to create 'citizen-consumers'. Such a minister might produce a long list of targets and initiatives intended to replace hierarchical or statist patterns with more local and inclusive forms of civic engagement that involve and give voice to the poor and socially excluded. More than at any time since the Edwardian period, free trade, civil society, and community engagement are staples of Labour party discourse. The obvious riposte to this only semi-fictional minister is, of course, that discourse is one thing, putting politics into practice quite another.

But it is precisely here that the conceptual gulf between ideas and politics opens up in the history driving this important book. It is not at all clear how Paine's visionary idea would have played out in practice. Nor is it at all clear what particular policy proposals a current minister open to persuasion should take away from the account offered here. What policy blue-print has Paine got to offer a government that is already committed to increased spending on nurseries, health care and social services whilst accepting the virtuous discipline of markets? The historical record of the last century suggests the tremendous difficulty of overcoming poverty, whatever governments' intentions.

The state, community and fair trade

What, finally, about political readers with a home in radical and social movements? In contrast to his sustained attention to social insurance, Stedman Jones is largely silent about the long-term legacies of the other two elements of the early social-democratic trinity: civil society and free trade. This is not because of ignorance; he has elsewhere produced an original perspective on Hegel and civil society. Here, however, the silence about free trade and civil society in the later-nineteenth and twentieth centuries distracts from some of the evolving limitations, some would say defects, of a theory that fuses social equality and citizenship with free trade.

Partly, this has to do with the specific nature and trajectory of Paine's version of civil society. Paine equated the state with aristocratic corruption, war and immiseration. Hence, a strong civil society meant a small state. How such a version of social democracy could be squared with the current demands of social services and taxation is difficult to imagine, as the current dilemmas of pension reform amply shows. Paine's strategy for inclusion rested on grants to the poor to assist their education. This is very different from the contemporary world where social inclusion requires not only education but access to television sets and fashionable clothes to allow the poor to participate in the lifestyle of a society of consuming citizens.

The republican vision also invokes a certain organic form of a community of like-minded active citizens. There is a principal tension between the idea of such a community and the idea of a commercial society. How could the integrity of such a community be reconciled with the more free-floating, diverse and pluralistic dynamics of an open, commercial society? Paine's and Condorcet's notions of social justice presumed a fairly homogenous community with shared moral beliefs. Societies today are far more pluralistic and include many incompatible beliefs. Civil and commercial societies, unlike small and more closed communities, may be marked by tolerance but they also involve thin identities that do not easily rise to the more active demands of republican citizenship. Arguably, the original social-democratic vision was trying to do the impossible and reconcile rival systems of commercial civil society and more communitarian republicanism.

The relationship between free trade and a social democratic project to erase poverty is also problematic. Paine's and Condorcet's vision was global. In the course of the book, however, the focus increasingly narrows to domestic social policies, ignoring global trade and poverty. Some writers have argued that British free trade produced 'late Victorian holocausts' by promoting famine and starvation and resulting in sharply widening gulf between First World and Third World. While a good case can be made that the abolition of agricultural subsidies in the European Union would raise the standard of living of producers in developing countries, an equally good case exists to warn that in a real world of considerably different levels of development, income and power, trade liberalisation has reinforced poverty in the poorest parts of the world. Paine's and Condorcet's vision of the benign and pacific force of free trade was a radical utopian idea at the time but it had little to offer social-democratic movements in the early 20th century dealing with international crises, trusts and cartels or seeking to provide social justice and fair prices for both consumers and producers. There are good historical reasons why successive generations of social democrats moved away from a free-trade ideal to explore alternative forms of coordination, regulation, or 'fair trade'. It is not at all clear how social citizenship and social equality can be achieved under free-trade conditions.

Further Reading

Jagdish Bhagwati, In Defense of Globalization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

John Hall and Frank Trentmann (eds.), Civil Society: A Reader in History, Theory, and Global Politics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

John Hills, Inequality and the State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Anthony Howe, 'Restoring Free Trade: The British Experience, 1776-1873', in Winch and O'Brien (eds.), The Political Economy of British Historical Experience, 1688-1914, pp. 193-214.

Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2002).

Gareth Stedman Jones, Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832-1982 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Gareth Stedman Jones, An End to Poverty? A Historical Debate (London: Profile Books, 2004).

Frank Trentmann, 'National Identity and Consumer Politics: Free Trade and Tariff Reform', in Winch and O'Brien (eds.), The Political Economy of British Historical Experience, 1688-1914, pp. 215-40, followed by a short guide to further reading of essential literature at pp. 240-42.

Donald Winch and Patrick O'Brien (eds.), The Political Economy of British Historical Experience, 1688-1914 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002).

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