Opinion //

Am I an aristocrat?

Honi Soit Writing Competition 2020 non-fiction shortlist.

No; probably not. But as the late summer, then Autumn, and then a mild, sunny, Winter passes by in lockdown, I find myself drawn to the history books and old-timey tales of my high school years. I read of Napoleon, Tocqueville, Hume and Voltaire. I picture stern, fusty men in powdered wigs and coats that drip with starch. As I sit, a child of privilege in my inner-city home, I wonder if I am like them.

The cases rise. Another day passes by. I paint a toy soldier – quite an achievement. I wander the idleness of my mind, not a care in the world other than what to have for lunch. The next day I sit on the porch and read Smith. Or, at least, I have the book open in front of me while I scroll Reddit. The maple leaf tree paints pictures of the sunlight. Am I an Aristocrat, enjoying a lazy breeze passing through this red-bricked chateau?

No.

The thing with an artificially inflated self-image is that it’s liable to fall apart pretty quickly. As the rejections on job applications mount, the world surges in revolution. Ennui is replaced by anxiety.

I take more shifts at the shop – despite the health risk I need the money. I rewrite my CV six more times – it’s leaking contrived corporate jargon all over the rest of my work now. I volunteer for mutual aid and University initiatives. I go to protests; I write frustrated essays. My anger at such an unjust society is matched only by my burning desire to find my place in it.

“To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilisation.”

This experience of government sponsored idleness mirrors another great period of social change. In the wake of the French Revolution, with the Napoleonic Wars ramping-up, British aristocrats feared that poverty in rural England would fuel a nasty French-style revolution at home. The Westminster dandies descended on Speenhamland, Berkshire with a brilliant idea to test out: universal income. If the costs of daily living were subsidised by the government – via the employers – then the good plebs could furnish themselves with all they needed to be comfortable and feel no need to follow in the footsteps of the troublesome French.

At some point, however, those same dandies decided the whole project was a failure. They proclaimed that the idle poor of Speenhamland had merely filled their extra time with drinking and vice: that the proper place for the ignorant masses was to perform good works in the factory or the field. The idea became entrenched in the capitalist ethos, and Speenhamland appeared as a cautionary tale on the perils of the welfare state. It was cited by Ricardo – one of the fathers of modern economics – who argued that the only true remedy to poverty was the free market. Over a century later, Speenhamland was levied by policy advisors in the Nixon administration to shoot down a proposed universal income bill. Today, notions of the “lazy poor” and “dole bludgers” are common parlance, and politicians are obsessed with “jobs and growth” as if that’s the solution to everything. Indeed, it was these same sentiments that inspired Diefenbach to title his popular nineteenth century novel: Arbeit macht frei.


Yet Speenhamland was a lie. As Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists, points out: no-one had actually bothered to collect any data. Vast reports on Speenhamland were commissioned by the Government, and they were filled with lavish detail on the depravity, sloth, and vice into which the residents of Speenhamland had supposedly fallen. Yet almost no actual interviews of residents were conducted, no hard data was assessed, and the bulk of the claims in the reports was simple hearsay spouted by local aristocrats and associated land-owning fops.

              “In life… what one aims for is ennui”

So says the grotesquely patrician, paedophile father of Patrick Melrose in the miniseries of the same name. This is the mindset of the aristocrat: to idle one’s life away sustained by the fruits of another person’s labour. And herein lies the error of the dandies of Speenhamland and, indeed, the great multitude of welfare critics who have come since. These pampered men – lazy, dismissive and bloated – assumed that we were all aristocrats in-waiting. They projected their own spoilt worldview onto the rest of us.

Yet they had never felt the sting of multiple job rejections, or the dread of seeing their bank account relentlessly tick downwards week by week. They failed to acknowledge that psychologists tell us there is almost no condition more debilitating to an individual’s mental health than unemployment and feelings of uselessness. They choose to ignore the mounds of data that show that when individuals are given opportunities for self-betterment, they take advantage of them.

I am not an aristocrat. I’m not like them. I don’t want to idle my life away sitting on the porch scrolling Reddit or watching Netflix. The lockdown and ensuing government payments gave many of us the opportunity – ever so briefly – to waste away, free of material concern. Yet while the aristocrats may have expected sloth, instead, we see restlessness. We see vast mutual aid networks spring up and numerous volunteer initiatives swell in numbers. We see students banding together to run online social events and collaborative projects. We see protests sweep the world with more vigour than has been seen in a generation. We see great works of art, directors putting together stop-motion films in their homes, and people taking up new hobbies and finding sources of creative fulfillment.

We are not aristocrats – as they seem to think we are. We are social, inspired beings. We want to make a difference: to make a mark and to feel useful. The false logic of Speenhamland has created a society that worships work for the sake of work. We are told that if the masses are not kept in jobs, or if they are given financial assistance, they will become depraved and useless – gorging on drugs and cheap media. The pandemic has proven precisely the opposite.

Let us finally give rest to the myth of Speenhamland. We are not aristocrats.

Now I’m off to sip a brandy by the fire.