Friday, 25 November 2011

Rotten to the core


You might rightly assume that a library with a list of past users including Karl Marx, Daniel Defoe and John Wesley would not be short on works of penetrating social analysis, but for incisive commentary on the evils of the 1% you could do worse than consult the works of Edward Carpenter, whose pamphlet England's Ideal: A Tract (1885) has recently been acquired by the Library.

Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) was a gay activist, poet and radical socialist who pioneered an alternative lifestyle before the concept had even been thought of. In a world of aspidistra and antimacassars, Carpenter gathered around himself a band of sexually liberated free-thinkers and set up a commune near Sheffield where they wore sandals, ate vegetarian food and enjoyed plenty of fresh air. He was passionately in favour of women's rights and equality for all, and in this passage from England's Ideal he offers his thoughts on the class system with a characteristic frankness:

The feeling seems to be spreading that England stands to-day on the verge of a dangerous precipice. And so I believe she does; at any moment the door may open for her on a crisis more serious than any in her whole history. Rotten to the core, penetrated with falsehood from head to foot, her aristocracy emasculated of all manly life, her capitalist classes wrapped in selfishness, luxury and self-satisfied philanthropy, her Government offices – army, navy and the rest – utterly effete, plethoric, gorged (in snake-like coma) with red tape, her Church sleeping profoundly-snoring aloud, her trading classes steeped in deception and money greed, her labourers stupefied with overwork and beer, her poorest stupefied with despair, there is not a pain which will bear examination, not a wheel in the whole machine which will not give way under pressure.

But the disease from which the nation is suffering is dishonesty; the more you look into it the clearer you will perceive: that this is the source of all England’s present weakness corruption and misery; and honesty and honesty alone will save, her, or give her a chance of salvation. Let us confess it. What we have all been trying to do is to live at the expense people’s labour, without giving an equivalent of our labour in return. Some succeed, others only try; but it comes to much the same thing...

If for every man who consumes more than he creates there must of necessity be another man who has to consume less than he creates, what must be the state of affairs in that nation where a vast class – and ever vaster becoming – is living in the height of unproductive wastefulness? Obviously another vast class – and ever vaster becoming – must be sinking down into the abyss of toil, penury and degradation. Look at Brighton and Scarborough and Hastings and the huge West End of London, and the polite villa residences which like unwholesome toadstools dot and disfigure the whole of this great land ...

As far as the palaces of the rich stretch through Mayfair and Belgravia and South Kensington, so far (and farther) must the hovels of the poor inevitably stretch in the opposite direction. There is no escape. It is useless to talk about better housing of these unfortunates unless you strike at the root of their poverty; arid if you want to see the origin and explanation of an East London rookery, you must open the door and walk in upon some fashionable dinner party at the West End; where elegance, wealth, ease, good grammar, politeness, and literary and sentimental conversation only serve to cover up and conceal a heartless mockery – the lie that it is a fine thing to live upon the labour of others. You may abolish the rookery, but if you do not abolish the other thing, the poor will only find some other place to die in; and one room, in a sanitary and respectable neighbourhood will serve a family for that purpose, as well as a whole house in a dirtier locality.

For further reading, we can do no better than recommend Sheila Rowbotham's biography Edward Carpenter: A life of liberty and love.