An End to Poverty?, By Gareth Stedman Jones

A wealth of ideas about an age-old problem

Stephen Howe
Saturday 20 July 2013 03:46

The poor have, proverbially, always been with us, even if ideas about who they are, what poverty is, and why it exists, keep changing. It's less clear how far back the notion of abolishing poverty goes. Probably, as Gareth Stedman Jones suggests, utopian dreams of a world without want are age-old. It was only in the late 18th century, though, that serious debates first emerged.

An End to Poverty? reconstructs those debates, offering an excitingly redrawn map of intellectual history. It also makes a powerful case about our political present and future. Rethinking the origins of modern thought about poverty, so Stedman Jones urges, gives us the chance to re-imagine alternatives. In the wake of the American and French revolutions, a handful of visionary theorists offered a programme for change which sorely needs renewal today.

The heroes of his story are a French aristocrat and an Englishman of plebeian origins. Antoine-Nicolas, Marquis de Condorcet and the earthier Tom Paine both, in the 1790s, put forward far-reaching schemes for what a later age would call a welfare state. Unlike most later proponents of welfarism, they combined these plans with a republican advocacy of individual freedom and active citizenship.

The later eclipse of such ideas had multiple causes. Above all, there was the international conservative backlash from the later 1790s. This included a straightforward political reaction, but also a reassertion of conservative Christianity, and the argument that people become poor due to their moral failings. The key figure here, Stedman Jones argues, was the Anglican clergyman and first theorist of the "population explosion", Thomas Malthus. Partly, the trouble was that the French Revolution went so horribly wrong: Condorcet died in a Jacobin prison and Paine narrowly escaped the guillotine.

The winners rewrote intellectual history, notably by recasting Adam Smith as a free-market fundamentalist. On the left, too, the cultural aspects of economic analysis came to be neglected. Stedman Jones's figures were damned first as bourgeois ideologists, then as exemplars of "the Enlightenment project" - supposedly ruined by its inherent sexism, racism and totalitarian belief in the inevitability of progress. Stedman Jones is impatient with such dismissal. But every argument for abolishing poverty he mentions appealed to conceptions of social solidarity. Feminist and multiculturalist criticisms of the Enlightenment are perhaps more cogent than he implies.

Still, he is surely right that social democrats need to revisit these neglected sources of their ideas. They are unlikely to take heed. Anything which says to New Labour "go back" is dismissed. "Those who doubt the relevance of history," as Stedman Jones says, "do not escape its hold. They simply become the guileless consumers of its most simple-minded reconstructions." Yes, Tony: he means you.

The reviewer's 'Empire: a very short introduction' is published by Oxford

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