November 22, 2003

Robert Dixon on the "Dismal Science"

Robert Dixon from Melbourne writes about the phrase, "dismal science":

Thomas Carlyle attacking the 'political economists': ...The second of the two references to Malthus in Carlyle's works is in a pamphlet titled Chartism first published in late 1839. Carlyle writes: "The controversies on Malthus and the 'Population Principle', 'Preventative Check' and so forth, with which the public ear has been deafened for a long while, are indeed sufficiently mournful. Dreary, stolid, dismal, without hope for this world or the next, is all that of the preventative check and the denial of the preventative check" (Volume 10, p 419). Taken in its context, it is clear that Carlyle is not so much objecting to Malthus's views in particular, but to any debate which focuses only the material conditions of life. Carlyle, here and elsewhere, objects to that way - what he claims is political economy's way - of looking at 'man'. Notice also that, although the word "dismal" is used, Carlyle does not here (or anywhere else where he talks about Malthus) use the phrase "dismal science".

Well, if not in relation to Malthus, in what context did Carlyle (first) use the phrase "dismal science"? It made its appearance in an article by Carlyle titled 'Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question' published in Fraser's Magazine in December 1849 and reprinted in the form of a separate pamphlet in London in 1853 with the title 'Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question'. This piece deals with the labour situation in the West Indies where the white planters were complaining that following the emancipation of the slaves they were unable to obtain enough labour at the prevailing wages and conditions of work to carry on their business. Carlyle puts the view that 'work' is morally good and that if a "Black man" will not voluntarily work for the wages then prevailing he should be compelled to work. He writes of those who argued that the forces of supply and demand rather than physical coercion should regulate the labour market that: "the Social Science ... which finds the secret of this Universe in supply and demand and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone ... is a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one; what we might call ... the dismal science" (Volume 11, p 177). He also uses the term "dismal science" in a derogatory way a number of times later in the work, where it is lumped together with other unwelcome (to Carlyle) features of the political scene as "ballot boxes", "universal suffrage" and "Exeter-Hall Philanthropy". At one point he tells us that it is unwise to have a situation where "supply and demand [is] the all-sufficient substitute for command and obedience among two-legged animals of the unfeathered class" (p 186). He writes that the one who is "born lord" (p 205) of the other must compel the one "who is born to be a servant" (p 193) to work and if necessary compel them to work by the "beneficent whip" if "other methods avail not" (p 202). Carlyle says that "decidedly you [the Negroes] will have to be servants of those that are born wiser than you, that are born lords of you; servants to the Whites" (p 205). In short, Carlyle was of the view that compulsion, rather than market forces should regulate the supply of labour on plantations in the West Indies because the laws of supply and demand are not appropriately applied to the relationship between White and Black as they are contrary to "their mutual duties" (white = master and black = servant) as ordained by "the Maker of them both" (p 207). In Carlyle's opinion: "declaring that Negro and White are unrelated, loose from one another, on a footing of perfect equality, and subject to no law but that of supply and demand according to the Dismal Science", "is clearly no solution" to the problem (ibid). Instead, Carlyle offers life-long servitude "after the manner of the old European serfs" as the best solution because in such a regime, "it ought to be rendered possible, for White men to live alongside Black men, and in some just manner to command Black men, and produce West Indian fruitfulness by means of them" (ibid).

It was the economist John Stuart Mill who responded to Carlyle in the next issue of Fraser's Magazine. Mill argues that the "law" which propels Carlyle is "the law of the strongest", "a law against which the great teachers of mankind have in all ages protested" (Mill, 1850, p 87) and says that history teaches us that human improvement comes not from the tyranny of the strongest but instead from the struggle against such tyranny. Mill remarks that if people are to be compelled to work because 'work' is so good for them then surely "we would not hold from the whites, any more than from the blacks, the 'divine right' of being compelled to labour" (p 92). Mill especially objects to Carlyle's notion "that one kind of human beings are born servants to another kind" (p 92) and says that if, as Carlyle asserts, "the gods will this, it is the first duty of human beings to resist such gods" (p 87). Mill ends his piece by expressing regret that Carlyle had offered substantive support for the institution of American slavery "at a time when the decisive conflict between right and iniquity seems about to commence" (p 95). By providing such support, Mill concludes, Carlyle has done "much mischief" (ibid).

These then are the true circumstances in which Political Economy (or Economics) was first labelled "The Dismal Science". It is a circumstance we should draw to the attention of our students. They, like us, can be proud to be associated with those economists who were the target of Carlyle's scorn.


See also: David Levy and Sandra Peart.

Posted by DeLong at November 22, 2003 02:35 PM | TrackBack

Comments

One of the most amazing things I learned from David Levy's book "How the Dismal Science Got its Name", was that Gradgrind in Hard Times was intended as a caricature of J.S. Mill. Now, take a look at George Orwell's essay on Dickens:

"But what is curious, in a nineteenth-century radical, is that when he wants to draw a sympathetic picture of a servant, he creates what is recognizably a feudal type. Sam Weller, Mark Tapley, Clara Peggotty are all of them feudal figures. They belong to the genre of the ‘old family retainer’; they identify themselves with their master’s family and are at once doggishly faithful and completely familiar. [...] If there have got to be masters and servants, how much better that the master should be Mr. Pickwick and the servant should be Sam Weller. Better still, of course, if servants did not exist at all—but this Dickens is probably unable to imagine."

Knowing about Carlyle's medievalism and Dickens's affection for it, I now read Dickens's novels in a rather sinister light. I still like them -- but there is now a greater distance between me and his novels than there was formerly.

Posted by: Neel Krishnaswami on November 22, 2003 07:31 PM

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One of the most amazing things I learned from David Levy's book "How the Dismal Science Got its Name", was that Gradgrind in Hard Times was intended as a caricature of J.S. Mill. Now, take a look at George Orwell's essay on Dickens:

"But what is curious, in a nineteenth-century radical, is that when he wants to draw a sympathetic picture of a servant, he creates what is recognizably a feudal type. Sam Weller, Mark Tapley, Clara Peggotty are all of them feudal figures. They belong to the genre of the ‘old family retainer’; they identify themselves with their master’s family and are at once doggishly faithful and completely familiar. [...] If there have got to be masters and servants, how much better that the master should be Mr. Pickwick and the servant should be Sam Weller. Better still, of course, if servants did not exist at all—but this Dickens is probably unable to imagine."

Knowing about Carlyle's medievalism and Dickens's affection for it, I now read Dickens's novels in a rather sinister light. I still like them -- but there is now a greater distance between me and his novels than there was formerly.

Posted by: Neel Krishnaswami on November 22, 2003 07:36 PM

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So then, if Mill is the standard then shouldn't you be asking if your economists of today sound like Carlyle or like Mill?

I know the following example is not characteristic of moderate and left winger type economists, but in respect to free trade and globalization, I think even the moderate and left winger types that favor free trade and globalization tend to agree with M. Friedman on this interview question.

The following is an excerpt from an interview between John Hawkins and M. Friedman (maximoto right winger types), regarding Howard Dean's proposal that other countries adopt the same labor, environmental, health, and safety standards as the United States.

The response:

"John Hawkins: ....If that policy were ever implemented, what sort of damage do you think it would cause to the US economy?

Milton Friedman: I think it would cause immense damage, not to the US economy, but to other economies around the world. Much more to the others than to us.

John Hawkins: Really? So you don't really think it would hurt the US economy that much?

Milton Friedman: It would hurt the US economy, but it would be disastrous for the countries that are smaller than we are. World trade depends on differences among countries, not similarities. Different countries are in different stages of development. It appropriate for them to have different patterns, different policies for ecology, labor standards, and so forth. "

So, when confronted with the question of whether DDT is used in a third world country, or a third world agricultural worker dies from organophosphate toxicity, while an agricultural worker in the U.S. does not, I am supposed to be economically comforted that "it is appropriate for them to have different standards". So I understand that people in the first world are supposed to support the view that people's lives in poorer countries are worth less than ours, and how is that so much different than Carlyle's "law of the strongest"?

Posted by: northernLights on November 23, 2003 12:17 AM

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"whether DDT is used in a third world country"

Here I can speak with some knowledge. The banning of DDT because of agitation by Western environmentalists has been a disaster from the African perspective. Millions of lives have been prematurely, and completely unnecessarily, lost, just because of a bunch of cosseted tree-huggers in the West who don't have to live with the consequences of their actions. Do you know just how many times in my own life I've been brought close to the grave by the malaria Africans are now largely powerless to control, thanks to being forced to abide by the "environmental, health, and safety standards [of] the United States" with respect to DDT?

Much the same sort of thing holds for the rest of your arguments. No, the real villains here aren't the economists, but people who think like you. You would condemn us all in the Third World to short, brutal lives of poverty, by refusing us the means to work our way out of said poverty, and denying us, in the name of "environmentalism", the technological tools with which to ameliorate our parlous conditions. Those who advocate "fair trade" and "environmental standards" are the true Thomas Carlyles of our day, heartless reactionaries so in love with some mythologized notion of the natural order that they would gladly condemn their darker skinned brethren to lives of inhuman suffering to see that order maintained.

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on November 23, 2003 12:59 AM

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Brad, I would hardly encourage modern economics students to feel that their discipline gives them much in common with J.S. Mill. That's actually quite a ridiculous idea. Mill was noteworthy as a very left-wing, antiestablishmentarian reformist, and a utilitarian. He supported political economy as a set of progressive ideas that would help overturn an order of hierarchal privilege. Political economy was part and parcel of the up to the minute ideas of the day.

Economics today is an analytical discipline, which generally doesn't produce people with Mill's broad philosophical insights (certainly not left-wingers). Its orthodoxy tends toward the right, is quite establishmentarian, and is generally used to argue for a fairly status quo/consensus view of the market economy which preserves its own system of hierarchal privilege. Some economists are progressive leftists, but that's a small and unrepresentative minority. Mainstream economics is fairly disconnected from the up to the minute ideas of the day in behavioral science, which go off in an entirely different direction. And it's quite fundamentally anti-utilitarian - economic models are based mainly around an ordinal construct which economists call "utility", but which quite clearly has nothing to do with the sort of subjective well-being that utilitarians mean by the term.

To put it another way, if Mill was around today, he wouldn't be spending his time arguing for the positions favored by most mainstream economists, but rather against them.

Posted by: Ian Montgomerie on November 23, 2003 01:46 AM

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"Knowing about Carlyle's medievalism and Dickens's affection for it, I now read Dickens's novels in a rather sinister light...."

I think that's a pretty severe over-reaction, Neel. Nostalgia for the medieval, in the nineteenth century, could be found among conservatives, liberals and radicals, for differing reasons, and Dickens was very far from sharing Carlyle's enthusiasm for the hierarchical system. His "Child's History of England," IIRC, very consistently cheers every loosening of autocracy and every advance in human liberty.

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on November 23, 2003 06:44 AM

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"Dickens was very far from sharing Carlyle's enthusiasm for the hierarchical system"

And yet, as far as I know, Dickens' sympathies lay with the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Are you sure you aren't just projecting desirable qualities unto a writer whose work you happen to admire?

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on November 23, 2003 07:15 AM

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Might Gradgrind's model have been James rather than J. S. Mill? This makes more sense to me, but I haven't read the article.

Bertrand Russell's criticism of Malthus is that Malthus realized that the population-versus-resources dilemma he described could be avoided by population limitation, but as a parson he called this "vice" (presumably birth control, though all sterile forms of eroticism can be called "vice").

All through the nineteenth century people who saw the industrial slums recoiled in horror. We are profiting from the sacrifices of people who went before us, but the immediate effect of industrialization and free labor was not evident in the facts of the day.

Posted by: Zizka on November 23, 2003 07:58 AM

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- Knowing about Carlyle's medievalism and Dickens's affection for it, I now read Dickens's novels in a rather sinister light. I still like them -- but there is now a greater distance between me and his novels than there was formerly. -

WEB Du Bois wrote in 1900 that the nineteenth century was the first century of recognition of the individual, when the individual was poor or a person of color or slightest ethnicity. Du Bois came to this conclusion as one of Harvard's very first History doctoratal students. The precise quote is in "Souls of Black Folk" and other papers.

William James agreed, as has the splendid art historian TJ Clark. I agree.

Posted by: anne on November 23, 2003 08:26 AM

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I'm pretty certain you're mistaken, Abiola, about Dickens's support for the Confederacy. Here's what he wrote about slavery as an institution in "American Notes":

"THE upholders of slavery in America -- of the atrocities of which system I shall not write one word for which I have not ample proof and warrant -- may be divided into three great classes.

  "The first are those more moderate and rational owners of human cattle who have come into the possession of them as so many coins in their trading capital, but who admit the frightful nature of the Institution in the abstract, and perceive the dangers to society with which it is fraught: dangers which, however distant they may be, or howsoever tardy in their coming on, are as certain to fall upon its guilty head as is the Day of Judgment.

   "The second consists of all those owners, breeders, users, buyers, and sellers of slaves, who will, until the bloody chapter has a bloody end, own, breed, use, buy, and sell them at all hazards; who doggedly deny the horrors of the system, in the teeth of such a mass of evidence as never was brought to bear on any other subject, and to which the experience of every day contributes its immense amount; who would, at this or any other moment, gladly involve America in a war, civil or foreign, provided that it had for its sole end and object the assertion of their right to perpetuate slavery, and to whip and work and torture slaves, unquestioned by any human authority, and unassailed by any human power; who, when they speak of Freedom, mean the Freedom to oppress their kind, and to be savage, merciless, and cruel; and of whom every man on his own ground, in Republican America, is a more exacting, and a sterner, and a less responsible despot than the Caliph Haroun Alraschid in his angry robe of scarlet.

   "The third, and not the least numerous or influential, is composed of all that delicate gentility which cannot bear a superior, and cannot brook an equal; of that class whose Republicanism means, "I will not tolerate a man above me: and, of those below, none must approach too near;" whose pride, in a land where voluntary servitude is shunned as a disgrace, must be ministered to by slaves; and whose inalienable rights can only have their growth in negro wrongs."

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on November 23, 2003 09:43 AM

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Jeffrey,

This is one matter I'm more than happy to have been wrong about.

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on November 23, 2003 10:36 AM

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Here is the cogent WEB Du Bois passage. The passage bothers some, but is quite important and written with grace -

The nineteenth was the first century of human sympathy, -- the age when half wonderingly we began to descry in others that transfigured spark of divinity which we call Myself; when clodhoppers and peasants, and tramps and thieves, and millionaires and -- sometimes -- Negroes, became throbbing souls whose warm pulsing life touched us so nearly that we half gasped with surprise, crying, "Thou too! Hast Thou seen Sorrow and the dull waters of Hopelessness? Hast Thou known Life?" And then all helplessly we peered into those Other-worlds, and wailed, "O World of Worlds, how shall man make you one?"

Posted by: anne on November 23, 2003 10:47 AM

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WEB Du Bois was the student and friend of William James. Part of a student group about James that ranged from Teddy Roosevelt to Gertrude Stein.

Posted by: anne on November 23, 2003 10:54 AM

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Jeffrey, thanks! I'm very pleased to learn that Dickens was as much of a humanist as I had originally thought.

Posted by: Neel Krishnaswami on November 23, 2003 12:23 PM

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Actually, if you check out the Levy/Peart link in full, they recount Dickens' attitude as being in favor of a reformation of slavery to fit slaves for emancipation, after which, since whites will still possess such superiorities over blacks as to render their commingling in economic enterprise discomfitting, it's off to Liberia.

But what of the other half of this philological puzzle: since this factoid about Carlyle and the "dismal science" designation referring to the Ricardo/Malthus debate is shown to be false, and since it has been retailed in many fairly respectable economists' writings- hence its general currency-, how did this misprision enter into the literature in the first place?

Posted by: john c. halasz on November 23, 2003 05:29 PM

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Dickens' form of anti-slavery feeling was common in the American North too. One branch of the abolitionists blamed the slaveowners for bringing Africans to this country at all, not so much for mistreating them. (Probably they said "They'll be happier in Africa", of course.)

Dickens' general dislike of the US may have made it harder to figure out his attitude specifically toward slavery. He didn't like the north or the south either one, IIRC.

Posted by: Zizka on November 23, 2003 06:24 PM

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Despite appearances, I'm not actually angling for the post of Dickens's posthumous defense attorney. And I'm not claiming any real familiarity with his biography. Still....

1) Levy and Peart quote from a review of Uncle Tom's Cabin (a review co-authored by Dickens and Henry Morley) which looks forward to a time when "there will arise out of the present multitude of slaves, by slow degrees, a race of free labourers far more efficient than the present gangs, while the yearly increasing surplus of black population educated into love of freedom would pass over to Liberia." The passage doesn't say they would be expelled; Dickens and Morley may have felt (as Lincoln felt, at the time) that freed slaves would for the most part prefer to live "among their own race" rather than as a minority in America.

2) Levy and Peart conclude that Dickens and Morley were not unalterably opposed to slavery per se, only to abuses like whippings, and would be content with a more moderate and humane slavery. Their primary evidence is a quote, from the same review, in which the authors exclaim "The stripes! Though slavery be not abolished promptly, there can be no reason why stripes should not cease."

Is this really a positive statement that slavery SHOULD NOT be abolished promptly? I suggest that a far move obvious reading is "Even if -- for the sake of argument -- you don't agree to the prompt abolition of slavery, surely you can agree to end some of its worst abuses." That reading is also more consistent with the quite unequivocal condemnation of slavery we find in American Notes.

3) Dickens's hostility to the U.S. had a number of motivations, including his resentment of the fact that pirated editions of his work were still being sold freely there due to America's rejection of international copyright conventions. (Obviously we weren't always on the side of intellectual property rights.) Another interesting analysis was offered by George Orwell: he thought Dickens was repelled by the way America was idealized by liberals of his time as the land of freedom and equality, and compares his disillusionment to that experienced by socialists like Andre Gide, who came to the Soviet Union expecting a workers' paradise and found something completely different.

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on November 24, 2003 05:51 AM

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Jeffrey, I bow to your superior Dickens scholarship, but didn't Dickens side with Carlyle over the Eyre Crowe controversy? Crowe was the pretty tyrannical Governor of Jamaica who put down recently freed slaves with considerable brutality, and Carlyle's 'Occasional Thoughts on the Negro Question' was a strong defence of him- in which Carlyle was joined by Dickens. There are some apposite quotes in the John Carey book on Dickens, I think- lots of stuff about the need for savage repression, whipping included. Granted that Carey always takes the opportunity to put Dickens in the most unflattering light, Dickens does seem to have rather changed his views on 'Negroes' between his visit to America in 1840 or thereabouts and the Eyre Crowe controversy in 1859 (I think).

Posted by: Dan Hardie on November 25, 2003 09:07 AM

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Ooops- should never post in too much of a hurry to check facts. The Governor of Jamaica was called Edward John Eyre, not Eyre Crowe (the latter was the diplomat who pushed Anglo-French cooperation before WW1), and the revolt took place in 1865 not 1859.
But otherwise, Dickens did favour hideous repression of black ex-slaves in Jamaica, and went even further in talking about extermination of the Indians in the Great Mutiny. In Andrew Sanders's book on Dickens, pp64-5.

Posted by: Dan Hardie on November 26, 2003 03:59 AM

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