The Dismal Science
A recent post by Sheldon Richman at Free Association sheds some light on the real meaning of that cliche.
Like Dickens' caricature of the money-grubbing science of political economy, in the person of Gradgrind and his ilk, Carlyle's glib dismissal of it as a "dismal science" is a favorite allusion in puerile, barely thought out attacks on the market. But few who quote it know anything about its context.
Carlyle actually coined the phrase in an 1849 article for Fraser's Magazine called "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question."
Truly, my philanthropic friends, [anti-slave] Exeter Hall Philanthropy is wonderful; and the Social Science—not a “gay science,” but a rueful [one]—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 also wonderful. Not a “gay science,” I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science. These two, Exeter Hall Philanthropy and the Dismal Science, led by any sacred cause of Black Emancipation, or the like, to fall in love and make a wedding of it,—will give birth to progenies and prodigies; dark extensive moon-calves, unnameable abortions, wide-coiled monstrosities, such as the world has not seen hitherto!
In fact, Carlyle denounced the idleness and comfortable sloth into which "Negroes" were apt to degenerate, in the aftermath of emancipation, in much the same terms that the gentry quoted in my earlier post used to justify enclosure as a way of domesticating the lazy and stiff-necked subsistence farmer.
The West Indies, it appears, are short of labor, as, indeed, is very conceivable in those circumstances. Where a black man, by working half an hour a day (such is the calculation), can supply himself, by aid of sun and soil, with as much pumpkin as will suffice, he is likely to be a little stiff to raise into hard work!
That same Carlyle, patron saint of romantic Toryism, also wrote the following (in a passage on "Laissez-Faire" in Chartism):
What are all popular commotions and maddest bellowings, from Peterloo to the Place-de-Grève itself? Bellowings, inarticulate cries as of a dumb creature in rage and pain; to the ear of wisdom they are inarticulate prayers: "Guide me, govern me! I am mad and miserable, and cannot guide myself!" Surely of all 'rights of man,' this right of the ignorant man to be guided by the wiser, to be, gently or forcibly, held in the true course by him, is the indisputablest. Nature herself ordains it from the first; Society struggles towards perfection by enforcing and accomplishing it more and more. If Freedom have any meaning, it means enjoyment of this right, wherein all other rights are enjoyed. It is a sacred right and duty, on both sides; and the summary of all social duties whatsoever between the two. Why does the one toil with his hands, if the other be not to toil, still more unweariedly, with heart and head? The brawny craftsman finds it no child's-play to mould his unpliant rugged masses; neither is guidance of men a dilettantism: what it becomes when treated as a dilettantism, we may see! The wild horse bounds homeless through the wilderness, is not led to stall and manger; but neither does he toil for you, but for himself only.
No wonder Russell Kirk liked him! Kirk's romantic nostalgia for happy laborers singing in the field, under the benevolent guidance of squire, vicar, and JP ("unbought grace of life" and all), is of a piece with Carlyle's view of the "landed man's burden" toward the ignorant masses--whether in Britain or the West Indies.
And first, with regard to the West Indies, it may be laid down as a principle, which no eloquence in Exeter Hall, or Westminster Hall, or elsewhere, can invalidate or hide, except for a short time only, that no black man, who will not work according to what ability the gods have given him for working, has the smallest right to eat pumpkin, or to any fraction of land that will grow pumpkin, however plentiful such land may be, but has an indisputable and perpetual right to be compelled, by the real proprietors of said land, to do competent work for his living. This is the everlasting duty of all men, black or white, who are born into this world. To do competent work, to labor honestly according to the ability given them.... Whatsoever prohibits or prevents a man from this, his sacred appointment, to labor while he lives on earth -- that, I say, is the man's deadliest enemy; and all men are called upon to do what is in their power, or opportunity, toward delivering him from it. If it be his own indolence that prevents and prohibits him, then his own indolence is the enemy he must be delivered from; and the first "right" he has -- poor indolent blockhead, black or white -- is, that every unprohibited man, whatsoever wiser, more industrious person may be passing that way, shall endeavor to "emancipate" him from his indolence, and, by some wise means, as I said, compel him to do the work he is fit for.... And his own happiness, and that of others around him, will alone be possible, by his and their getting into such a relation that this can be permitted him, and, in case of need, that this can be compelled him.... The idle black man in the West Indies, had, not long since, the right, and will again, under better form, if it please Heaven, have the right (actually the first "right of man" for an indolent person) to be compelled to work as he was fit... And I incessantly pray Heaven, all men, the whitest alike, and the blackest, the richest and the poorest, in other regions of the world, had attained precisely the same... divine right of being compelled (if "permitted" will not answer) to do what work they are appointed for, and not to go idle another minute, in a life so short! Alas, we had then a perfect world! and the millennium and true "organization of labor," and reign of complete blessedness, for all workers and men, had then arrived, which, in these, our own poor districts of the planet, as we all lament to know, it is very far from having yet done.
In reading this, I thought of the joke about the Sunday School kid who, when told that God put us on Earth to help other people, responded "What are the other people here for?" If idleness is so spiritually harmful, and the self-employed laborer puts his soul in such peril by working only enough to support himself, what of those "real proprietors of the land" who live off the labor of black peons under Carlyle's scheme? Is their own idleness not a great occasion of sin? Ah, well, I guess such selfless disregard for their own spiritual welfare is just another part of the white man's burden. Sigh. My instinctive response, on seeing all this upper class hand-wringing over the souls of the poor benighted wretches, is the same as Cool Hand Luke's: "I wish you wouldn't be so good to me, Cap'n."
Change "black man" to "cottager" in the quote above, and you have the very same attitude that lay behind the landed classes' negative view of the commons. Allow the laboring man to keep the fruit of his own labor, and he will work only so much as necessary to satisfy himself, and stop when he feels he has enough. But force him to sell his labor in a buyer's market, and skim enough off the top of his produce, and you can compel him to work six days in the week for bare survival. The "unbought grace of life" was bought, all right. And the debt has yet to be paid in full.
What Carlyle saw as so "dismal" about classical political economy was not, as you might think, its arguable association with the Dark Satanic Mills. No--what was dismal was that under laissez-faire, people pursued such paltry ends, compared to the grandiose ends they could have served if compelled to by the "beneficent whip." And admittedly, things like enough to eat, a solid roof over one's head, and the pleasant society of one's family and friends--all these are rather pedestrian. But so what? People are considerably more enthusiastic about pyramids and Great Walls and such, when they're building them with other people's forced labor, than when they're the ones under the whip. It reminds me of Krauthammer or some other neocon dirtbag, after the invasion of Iraq, who ridiculed the shorter work weeks and longer vacations of Europeans. "We" prefer, he said, to work longer hours and take shorter vacations, so that "we" can produce more carrier groups to send to the Gulf. Well, sorry. I don't take any vicarious pride in Oceania being able to put another floating fortress off the Malabar front. I want my fucking choco-rations.
John Stuart Mill, in reply to Carlyle, put the situation in somewhat better perspective.
After fifty years of toil and sacrifice, the object was accomplished, and the negroes, freed from the despotism of their fellow-beings, were left to themselves, and to the chances which the arrangements of existing society provide for these who have no resource but their labor. These chances proved favorable to them, and, for the last ten years, they afford the unusual spectacle of a laboring class whose labor bears so high a price that they can exist in comfort on the wages of a comparatively small quantity of work. This, to the ex-slave-owners, is an inconvenience; but I have not yet heard that any of them has been reduced to beg his bread, or even to dig for it, as the negro, however scandalously he enjoys himself, still must: a carriage or some other luxury the less, is in most cases, I believe, the limit of their privations — no very bad measure of retributive justice; those who have had tyrannical power taken away from them, may think themselves fortunate if they come so well off....
The "dismal science" of political economy that Carlyle hated so much, with its doctrine of laissez-faire, boils down to the end to the principle that the laborer should keep all the bread that he produces by the sweat of his brow. And nobody else should receive that bread except by voluntary exchange or gift. That's what "market values" really mean, in case anybody from In These Times ever reads this: peaceful and voluntary exchange between producers, rather than the use of coercion by one person to live off the labor of another. Market values are profoundly human values.
As David Levy pointed out, in an article in The Freeman on the Carlyle-Mill debate,
The alternative to markets was not socialism. There were socialist experiments, but there were no socialist economies. The alternative to market organization was slavery.
I would only add that what we get, when we pursue the market to its logical conclusion, is socialism. When the supply of land and capital is subject to the same market competition as labor currently is, the natural wage of labor will be its product. Consistent Manchesterism is, as Tucker said, the highest form of socialism.