Can society resist becoming an economic appendage?


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Can society resist becoming an economic appendage?

For a market system to exist money, land, and labor must become organized under the laws of pricing. “A market economy is an economic system controlled, regulated, and directed by market prices; order in the production and distribution of goods is entrusted to this self-regulating mechanism.”

Labor was the last market element to be organized under the new industrial system. The final key in unlocking this self-regulating market system apparently necessitated inhuman techniques for forcing the people off subsistence farming and into a system wherein they must become objects of commerce living in community and controlled by pricing. Labor must become commodified through market price law just as was land and money.

Regulation of a new form had to be constructed. This new regulations must provide a safety net for providing food and some form of shelter for the laboring class as they were forced from subsistence farming into laboring in the industrial mills and large farms.

Within the broad scope of this mass movement of the common people from rural to urban communities the Speenhamland Law occupied a vital position.

A group of justices met in Speenhamland in may 1795, a time of great distress brought about by the enclosures, in order to calculate some form of subsidies to the common people to alleviate their suffering. A minimum amount of aid to wages was agreed upon and granted in accordance with a prescribed scale that was dependent upon the price of bread. This was so that the common people were supplied with an assurance of a minimum wage required to survive irrespective of their earnings.

“This was meant as an emergency measure and was informally introduced. Although commonly called a law, the scale itself was never enacted. Yet it became the law of the land over most of the countryside, and even, in a much diluted form, in a number of factor towns; actually it introduced no less a social and economic innovation than the “right to live”, and until abolished in 1834, it effectively prevented the establishment of a competitive labor market.”

This “law” forced the common laborer to work for whatever wages he might find. They were compelled to work or starve; relief in aid of wages was “neither intended nor given…the employer could obtain labor at almost any wages; however little he paid, the subsidy from the rates brought the workers’ income up to scale. Within a few years the productivity of labor began to sink to that of pauper labor.”

Quotes from The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time by Karl Polanyi

The following is a condensed form of the Speenhamland Law copied from Wikipedia:

Essentially, families were paid extra to top up wages to a set level according to a table. This level varied according to the number of children and the price of bread.

Unfortunately, it tended to aggravate the underlying causes of poverty in any particular parish. The immediate impact of paying this poor rate fell on the landowners of the parish concerned. They then sought other means of dealing with the poor, such as the workhouse funded through parish unions.

The Speenhamland System appears to have reached its height during the Napoleonic Wars, when it was a means of allaying dangerous discontent amongst a growing rural proletariat faced by soaring food prices, and to have died out in the post-war period, except in a few parishes.

The Poor Law Commissioners' Report of 1834 called the Speenhamland System a "universal system of pauperism". The system allowed employers (often farmers) to pay below subsistence wages, because the parish would make up the difference and keep their workers alive. So the workers' low income was unchanged and the poor rate contributors subsidized the farmers.

This system of poor relief, and others like it, lasted until the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834.

Mark Blaug's classic 1960 essay The Myth of the Old Poor Law charged the commissioners of 1834 with largely using the Speenhamland system to vilify the old poor law and create will for the passage of a new one.
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