Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"Dystopians" and the Great Irish Famine

John Holbo at Crooked Timber tells us that it was John Stuart Mill who coined the term ‘dystopia.’ It was in a speech to the British Parliament in March, 1868. Mill was discussing the British policies towards Ireland, which he considered to be "too bad to be practical;" so bad in fact that he felt compelled to coin the new term. 
Mill was thinking of the Whig policies and their ideology that made The Great Potato famine of 1846-1852 ever so much worse than necessary.  It's a terrible stain for a progressive party that gave rise to the Liberal Party.  Here's a description of The Great Famine from the BBC:  
The Great Famine ... began as a natural catastrophe ... but its effects were severely worsened by the actions and inactions of the Whig government, headed by Lord John Russell in the crucial years from 1846 to 1852. ...[A]bout a million people in Ireland ... died of starvation and epidemic disease between 1846 and 1851, and some two million emigrated in a period of a little more than a decade (1845-55). ... [It] killed nearly one-eighth of the entire population, [and] was proportionally much more destructive of human life than the vast majority of famines in modern times....
There existed - after 1847, at least - an absolute sufficiency of food that could have prevented mass starvation, if it had been properly distributed so as to reach the smallholders and labourers of the west and the south of Ireland.... Though it had a rich history of agrarian violence, the country was at peace. In addition, its system of communications (roads and canals) had vastly improved in the previous half-century... and Ireland lay at the doorstep of what was then the world's wealthiest nation. Why, then, was it not better able to deal with the problems caused by the failure of its potato crop?...
It was the ideology...
[In] Britain in the late 1840s, prevailing ideologies among the political √©lite and the middle classes strongly militated against heavy and sustained relief.... 
What might have been done to avert catastrophy in Ireland?
First, the government might have prohibited the export of grain ... when there was little food in the country and before large supplies of foreign grain began to arrive. Once there was sufficient food in the country (imported Indian corn or maize), from perhaps the beginning of 1848, the government could have taken steps to ensure that this imported food was distributed to those in greatest need. 
Second, the government could have continued its so-called soup-kitchen scheme for a much longer time. It was in effect for only about six months, from March to September 1847. As many as three million people were fed daily at the peak of this scheme in July 1847. The scheme was remarkably inexpensive and effective. ...
Third, the wages that the government paid on its vast but short-lived public works in the winter of 1846-47 needed to be much higher if those toiling on the public works were going to be able to afford the greatly inflated price of food. 
Fourth, the poor-law system of providing relief, either within workhouses or outside them, a system that served as virtually the only form of public assistance from the autumn of 1847 onwards, needed to be much less restrictive. All sorts of obstacles were placed in the way, or allowed to stand in the way, of generous relief to those in need of food. This was done in a horribly misguided effort to keep expenses down and to promote greater self-reliance and self-exertion among the Irish poor.  
Fifth, the government might have done something to restrain the ruthless mass eviction of families from their homes, as landlords sought to rid their estates of pauperized farmers and labourers. Altogether, perhaps as many as 500,000 people were evicted in the years from 1846 to 1854. The government might also have provided free passages and other assistance in support of emigration to North America - for those whose personal means made this kind of escape impossible. 
Last, and above all, the British government should have been willing to treat the famine crisis in Ireland as an imperial responsibility and to bear the costs of relief after the summer of 1847. Instead, in an atmosphere of rising 'famine fatigue' in Britain, Ireland at that point and for the remainder of the famine was thrown back essentially on its own woefully inadequate resources....
Bad policies were driven by ideological doctrines of inaction:
There were three [doctrines] in particular-the economic doctrines of laissez-faire, the Protestant evangelical belief in divine Providence, and the deep-dyed ethnic prejudice against the Catholic Irish to which historians have recently given the name of 'moralism'.
Laissez-faire, the reigning economic orthodoxy of the day, held that there should be as little government interference with the economy as possible. Under this doctrine, stopping the export of Irish grain was an unacceptable policy alternative, and it was therefore firmly rejected in London, though there were some British relief officials in Ireland who gave contrary advice. ...
...and bad religion:
... There was a very widespread belief among members of the British upper and middle classes that the famine was a divine judgment-an act of Providence-against the kind of Irish agrarian regime that was believed to have given rise to the famine. The Irish system of agriculture was perceived in Britain to be riddled with inefficiency and abuse. According to British policy-makers at the time, the workings of divine Providence were disclosed in the unfettered operations of the market economy, and therefore it was positively evil to interfere with its proper functioning...
In his book The Irish Crisis, published in 1848, [sir Charles] Trevelyan described the famine as 'a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence', one which laid bare 'the deep and inveterate root of social evil'. The famine, he declared, was 'the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected... God grant that the generation to which this great opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part...'  
... and callous moralism:
Finally, we come to 'moralism'-the notion that the fundamental defects from which the Irish suffered were moral rather than financial. Educated Britons of this era saw serious defects in the Irish 'national character'-disorder or violence, filth, laziness, and worst of all, a lack of self-reliance. This amounted to a kind of racial or cultural stereotyping. The Irish had to be taught to stand on their own feet and to unlearn their dependence on government. 
'Moralism' was strikingly evident in the various tests of destitution that were associated with the administration of the poor law. ....
...and racist prejudice:
[E]thnic prejudices... had the general effect of prompting British ministers, civil servants, and politicians to view and to treat the Catholic Irish as something less than fully human. Such prejudices encouraged the spread of 'famine fatigue' in Britain at an early stage, and they dulled or even extinguished the active sympathies that might have sustained political will ... to alleviate the immense suffering ... [and] mass death in the midst of an absolute sufficiency of food.
John Stuart Mill looked at this and found language wanting, so he coined a new term: 
I may be permitted, as one who, in common with many of my betters, have been subjected to the charge of being Utopian, to congratulate the Government on having joined that goodly company. It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or cacotopians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.
John Holbo observes that whereas conservatives often criticize liberal, socialist, and general welfare policies as (unrealistically) utopian, Mill was onto something when he observed that policies successfully implemented by conservatives can be dystopian--policies too bad to be practicable:
Interesting that Mill coined the term, although I think it may have died and then been rediscovered independently later. Conservatives, of course, think ‘dystopia’ is a possibility that doesn’t cross progressive minds; but of course, for every dreamer who does not consider how her ideal blue-print might have unintended consequences, there is a conservative who doesn’t like to think actual, long-standing policies have unintended consequences. Going wrong isn’t just for plans. It’s for things.
Read more HERE.

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