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The dismal science? Thomas Carlyle v John Stuart Mill
The circumstances in which Economics was first labelled ‘the dismal science’
(pages 40-43 of printed journal)
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 not a gay science … it is a … quite abject and distressing one; [it is] ... the dismal science. (Thomas Carlyle, Fraser’s Magazine, 1849)
When Carlyle named economics the ‘dismal science’ he was asserting the supremacy of ‘human governors’ (including his ‘captains of industry’) over the invisible hand as a means of organising labour. But what prompted this attack on markets as an organising principle and how did the economists respond? It was John Stuart Mill who most strenuously opposed Carlyle’s view. Indeed, one dispute over human governors involving the two was to result in Mill losing his seat in Parliament.
The term ‘dismal science’ is well known to us. But what was it that led Carlyle to describe economics in such a derogatory fashion?
Carlyle introduced the phrase ‘dismal science’ in an article published in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country in December 1849. The article dealt with the labour situation in Jamaica where the English plantation owners were complaining that they were unable to obtain enough labour at the prevailing wages and conditions of work to carry on their business. They were also complaining about competition from other sugar producers in the English market.
There are a number of reasons why the ‘plantocracy’ in Jamaica was in trouble. The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was followed by the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. The 1833 Act provided compensation for slave owners and a change in the status of slaves – not to complete freedom but to indentured labourers. Difficulties implementing the system – and especially circumvention by the planters – led the British Government to introduce a new system in 1838 where immediate emancipation was granted and, at the same time, a very high preferential tariff on sugar was introduced. Concerned by actions of the planters to circumvent all three pieces of legislation, the British anti-slavery societies began providing financial assistance for former slaves to allow them to move away from the coast, and thus away from the plantations, and become self-sufficient small holders in ‘free villages’. All this resulted in a severe labour shortage for the plantations – a shortage which they blamed on the anti-slavery lobby – and this difficulty was compounded by steady reductions in the level of the tariff as a result of activities of economists inclined, then as now, to free trade in England. The Sugar Duties Act was repealed in 1846 and then the Navigation Acts in 1849 – both encouraged the entry of other suppliers into the British sugar market.
Carlyle, writing in 1849 in support of the plantation owners, puts the view that ‘work’ is morally good and if the Jamaicans would not voluntarily work on plantations for the wages then prevailing, then they should be forced to do so. 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 not a gay science … it is a … quite abject and distressing one; [it is] ... the dismal science’. He mentions the term ‘dismal science’ in a derogatory way a number of times later in this (and other) works, where it is lumped together with other unwelcome (to Carlyle) features of the political scene such as ‘ballot boxes’ and ‘universal suffrage’. Carlyle had seen the future and he did not like what he saw.
In his 1849 article he asserts that the one who is ‘born lord’ must compel the one ‘who is born to be a servant’ to work and, if necessary, use the ‘beneficent whip’ if ‘other methods avail not’. 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. Why? According to Carlyle, the laws of supply and demand have to be subjugated to a ‘greater law’ as they are contrary to ‘the mutual duties’ of the planters and the Jamaicans – one to be master and the other to be servant – as ordained ‘by the Maker of them both’. Carlyle is adamantly opposed to the approach adopted by the economists because such an approach declares that the planters and the Jamaicans ‘are unrelated, loose from one another, on a footing of perfect equality, and subject to no law but that of supply and demand’.
John Stuart Mill (who was the one of the objects of Carlyle’s scorn – the other targets will pop up shortly) responded to Carlyle in the next issue of Fraser’s Magazine. In a rather scathing attack on Carlyle’s racism, Mill points out 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’; 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 especially objects to Carlyle’s notion ‘that one kind of human beings are born servants to another kind’ and says that if, as Carlyle asserts, ‘the gods will this, it is the first duty of human beings to resist such gods’.
Mill is also opposed to Carlyle’s ‘gospel of work’ because ‘work is not a good in itself. There is nothing laudable in work for work’s sake. To work voluntarily for a worthy object is laudable: but what constitutes a worthy object? [E]ven in the case of the most sublime service to humanity, it is not because it is work that it is worthy; the worth lies in the service itself and the will to render it’.
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’. By providing such support, Mill concludes, Carlyle has done ‘much mischief’.
These then are the circumstances in which Political Economy (or Economics) was first labelled ‘the dismal science’. I think we would score this bout as a victory for Mill and ‘the modern’ but the second and deciding match between the two was yet to be played.
Carlyle and Captains of Industry: an aside
As an aside – but I hope an interesting one – I would like to point out the connection between all this and ‘captains of industry’. This is another phrase that Carlyle invented and which has passed into popular speech – although the meaning we give to the phrase today is not that which Carlyle intended.
You will recall that Carlyle did not believe that the market was a suitable institution for organising labour. He proposed instead that this was the duty of ‘human governors’. In the colonies, these were the planters and vice-regal Governors while in Great Britain there was a need for ‘captains of industry’ to deal with unemployed, the paupers and the unions.
The phrase ‘Captains of Industry’ first appeared in Carlyle’s Past and Present, published in 1843. Having described the chaos – strikes, demonstrations by unemployed workers, etc – which beset the world, Carlyle says: ‘The mandate of God to His creature man is: Work! … We must have industrial barons, and workers loyally related to their taskmasters, related in God; not related in Mammon alone … Captains of Industry … will reduce [the workers and the unemployed] to order, to just subordination’. As a result, ‘Not as a bewildered mob; but as a firm regimented mass, with real captains over them, will these men march’. These captains of industry are the equivalent in civil life of the ‘red-coated captains of foot’. He urges the British Government to ‘enlist unemployed paupers into Industrial Regiments and under strict military drill find employment for them … The Organisation of Labour is an actual inevitability in every country, and must be taken up ... by military command [and military discipline], and death penalty if needful’.
Thankfully, we no longer use the phrase as Carlyle did.
Carlyle v. Mill: The second and final bout
We left Carlyle and Mill back in 1850 disputing in public the future of servitude in Jamaica. For a time they go their separate ways, Mill to enter parliament as the Liberal member for Westminster supporting Reform and Carlyle to publish his Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850). In these publications he attacks democracy as an absurd social ideal; in Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (1845) he presents a positive image of Cromwell; and his epic life of Frederick the Great (1858–1865) tries to show how people ‘bend’ to the will of a great man. Carlyle was prone to hero worship and, as we shall see, he was especially prone to admire human governors who put themselves above the law. It was because of this that 1850 was not the last time Carlyle and Mill were to have a public dispute over events in Jamaica. The second and last time was to be brought on by a most unlikely third party, Edward John Eyre.
Now, as every Australian schoolchild knows, Edward Eyre spent the years 1833-44 in Australia, exploring the areas north and west of Adelaide, trekking as far to the west as Albany. For three years, he was resident magistrate and ‘Protector of Aborigines’ for the Murray River territory. After returning to England, he was appointed a Lieutenant Governor in New Zealand before moving from there to a number of vice-regal positions in the West Indies, culminating in his becoming Governor of Jamaica in 1864.1
In the post-emancipation period, there was a temporary respite in the economic plight of white West Indians with a burst of railway construction, but for the most part, the period was a tense one. In early October 1865, news of a minor scuffle/riot/rebellion – depending upon who we read – in Morant Bay in the south-east of Jamaica, was exaggerated into reports of a fully-fledged ‘black uprising’. Governor Eyre declared martial law on the eastern end of the island and sent British troops into the area, who burned down settlements, flogged a large number of villagers and excuted some four hundred people.
Applauded by whites throughout the Caribbean, Eyre’s activities alarmed the British government. His illegal hanging of one of his prominent political opponents, George William Gordon (son of a Scottish planter and a slave woman, a prominent protestant lay preacher, a magistrate, a member of the House of Assembly and a person in regular contact with the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society), was particularly troubling to the antislavery societies and to all who believed in the rule of law. Gordon was arrested in Kingston but taken to the area where martial law was in force so that he could be tried by a small group of military officers and not in a civil court.
Eyre was relieved of his post and recalled to England in 1866 following a Royal Commission into his actions, which found that he used ‘cruel’, ‘barbarous’ and ‘excessive’ punishments, that the declaration of martial law may have been illegal – and anyhow was unnecessarily prolonged – and that he had unlawfully applied the death penalty in the case of Gordon.
Once the report of the Royal Commission was made public, Mill attempted to use parliament to force the government to initiate legal proceedings against Eyre, most particularly for the murder of Gordon. Failing to obtain a majority in parliament, Mill and others formed a group named the Jamaica Committee. The Committee was chaired by Mill and included the economists Henry Fawcett and John Elliot Cairnes together with the distinguished scientists Thomas Huxley, Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, amongst others. Their purpose was to launch civil actions against Eyre in the courts – specifically to have him prosecuted for murder and for ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’. Mill’s Jamaica Committee was opposed by a hastily formed Eyre Defence Committee – which included, amongst others, Carlyle (who chaired their first public meeting), John Ruskin, Alfred Tennyson and Charles Dickins. They opposed the aims of the Jamaica Committee and provided financial and other support for Eyre. As one historian puts it: ‘All of Carlyle’s views were at stake in the Eyre controversy: his hero worship [Eyre was a symbol of a strong man determined to maintain order], his contempt for democracy, his antipathy towards the negro, his disgust for the philanthropy of the anti-slavery societies and the individualism of the radicals’.2
Various court cases ensued in 1867 and 1868 and, although Eyre was never convicted – magistrates and juries, the newspapers and the British public were too sympathetic – he was pensioned off and never again held any office.
Mill’s behaviour and his perceived ‘persecution’ of Eyre made him so unpopular that he was voted out of office at the next election, held in 1868, despite there being a massive swing to the Liberals in all other electorates. Every constituency in London elected a Liberal member except one – Mill’s electorate of Westminster. Mill moved to France and died five years later in 1873.
Other reflections on Carlyle’s views
The reader will recall that Carlyle stated that economics ‘is not a gay science … it is a … quite abject and distressing one; [it is] ... the dismal science’. In Carlyle’s time the phrase ‘gay science’ was the name given to the art of poetry and so we may see Carlyle as contrasting what he disparagingly refers to as ‘the laws of the Shop-till’ with other and, for him, nobler motivations and sentiments. Encouraged by Carlyle, his friend John Ruskin published his criticisms of economics in his book Unto This Last. In this work, he presented ideas very similar to those of Carlyle, supporting the rule of a good and strong man over all who were weak and incapable, and supporting ‘the natural law of protection and cherishing’ over ‘laissez-faire’. In a letter to Ruskin dated 29 October 1860, Carlyle refers to ‘those unfortunate Dismal Science people’ who ‘will object that their Science expressly abstracts itself from moralities: but what you say, and show, is incontrovertibly true, that no “Science” worthy of men (and not worthier of dogs or of devils) has a right to call itself “Political Economy” ... on other terms that those you shadow out for it [i.e. if it abstracts from morality]’.
The attacks by Carlyle and Ruskin on the utilitarian doctrines of political economy were taken seriously by some important economists. Marshall, for example, wrote in his Principles that if the ‘older economists’ had made it clear that they were concerned with money or purchasing power or material wealth only because ‘in this world of ours it is the one convenient means of measuring human motive on a larger scale’ and ‘not because money or material wealth is regarded as the main aim of human effort’, the ‘splendid teachings of Carlyle and Ruskin as to the right aims of human endeavour and the right uses of wealth, would not then have been marred by bitter attacks on economics, based on the mistaken belief that that science had no concern with any motive except the selfish desire for wealth, or even that it inculcated a policy of sordid selfishness’.3