Why Do We Hate the Poor? (Review)

Review of Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London by Matthew Beaumont (Verso, 2015), originally published in The Oxonian Review (Issue 28.4).


By the end of the 16th century, England was scarcely recognisable: the countryside was being divvied up by private landowners and the customary rights of those who had farmed there for centuries abolished. Real wages dropped while food prices and rent soared. Those who could fled to the city to find work, but London—a maze of cramped medieval streets—was hardly fit to accommodate them. In fifty years, its plague-ravaged population had doubled to 140,000. Unscrupulous property developers, seeing an opportunity, partitioned old houses and quickly constructed new ones. Many, though, were forced on to the streets and became nightwalkers, homeless and destitute, the victims of a new kind of poverty and a new attitude to the poor.

In 1572, the Punishment of Vagabonds Act made “vagrants” the responsibility of local authorities or “bridewells”—so named after London’s notorious Bridewell prison. These were “houses of correction” that, as Matthew Beaumont puts it, treated the poor as criminals “to be punished, reformed through labour, and even transported.” But who were the poor? George Rudé, in his book on Hanoverian London, gives a swift, depressing rundown of “the unemployed and unemployable, the indigent, the aged, the poorest of the immigrant Irish and Jews” who were together classed as vagabonds—or worse—and discarded.

Such disdain for the poor was frowned upon, if not condemned, in early medieval England, where poverty was still regarded as a “holy state” and charity seen as essential to the attainment of salvation; then, churches not “bridewells” cared for the poor. In the late medieval period, says Christopher Hill, this state of affairs was reversed: idleness became next to sinfulness and poverty “presumptive evidence of wickedness.” From the 16th century onwards a new lexicon of moral approbation and mistrust arose: the poor were palliards, rascals, courtesy-men, clewners, eavesdroppers, dummerers, clapperdudgeons. A number of these abusive terms refer to beggars pretending to a worse condition than they were in: palliards carried self-inflicted injuries, dummerers acted at being dumb, and courtesy-men took on the role of ex-soldiers. As now, the idea that the poor were just pretending—conniving at people’s sympathy—made their suffering easier to dismiss.

Beaumont, in his new book on the history of the London night—which is more about the people who were forced to take refuge there—does not exactly have to overreach himself to bring out the contemporary resonances. He links the Vagabonds Act and nightwalker statutes—which gave watchmen “warrantless arrest authority”—to the Vagrancy Act of 1824 (known as the “Sus” law) that allowed police to stop, search and arrest anyone they suspected of criminal intent. During Margaret Thatcher’s first term, the indiscriminate use of this law—though highly discriminate in other respects—caused an outbreak of anti-police rioting across the country. It was repealed in 1981, though Theresa May has since pushed to have it reinstated.

Beaumont makes clear the extent to which capitalism, agrarian or otherwise, has always relied on “accumulation by dispossession” and the criminalization of the dispossessed. As E.P. Thompson remarks, “The greatest offence against property was to have none.” So property-less migrants, along with the poor, elderly and infirm, became offensive to public decency and to the state, their social vilification going hand in hand with their official criminalization. Beaumont cites as evidence the 49,000 offences that were tried at the Old Bailey in the 18th century, 95% of which were property-related. This was a “war against the poor”, he says, and the respectable classes were not just complicit but willing combatants. John Gore, foaming at the mouth, called the poor “the very Sodomites of the land, children of Belial,” while Samuel Johnson—despite himself being an occasional houseless nightwalker—defined the proletarian as “men; wretched, vile, vulgar.”

In the 1770s, though some way from the dream of 24/7 capitalism, London began a series of more radical transformations: morphed by “processes of capital accumulation,” old slums were demolished and shopping districts built in their place. A leaden curtain fell between the lamp-lit West End and the dank, unlit East End, where gangs of proto-Bullingdon boys ventured out after dark to terrorise the proletariat or get dosed up in Covent Garden’s red light district. The poor were ghettoised, made to feel ashamed, alone and, as John Clare said of himself, “homeless at home.”

It was this psychological and social stigmatization—expertly realised—that paved the way for the working class’s later assimilation into the 19th century “industrial army”. Beaumont borrows this phrase from Marx, who used it to describe the new world of commodified labour where workers were “organized like soldiers.” But these soldiers were lucky, in a sense. They were shadowed by the still more desperate ranks of the “industrial reserve army,” made up of those same floating workers displaced at the end of the 16th century. In the late-18th and 19th centuries, the interplay of these active and reserve armies performed a decisive role in the industrial-capitalist system: the reserve force competed with the active one for jobs during stagnant periods, quelled dissent in booms and, ultimately, came to justify the immiseration of both. Even now, despite the advances of the labour movement, a similar illogic justifies the West’s continued reliance on structural unemployment, zero-hours contracts and unpaid labour, concerns about which are brushed aside because, at root, the unemployed are seen as lazy scroungers until otherwise proven.

It is in the Victorian period—with capital in full ascendance—that Beaumont’s book draws to a close. The final image is of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Man of the Crowd”, a composite of the nightwalker’s various guises—”petty criminal, detective, bohemian outcast, stalker, homeless vagrant and, finally, Satan himself.” He observes passers-by, restless and flushed, talking and gesticulating to themselves, “feeling in solitude on account of the very denseness of the company around.” Alone among others, turned out onto the streets and driven further into the dark, Poe’s narrator becomes—even at the centre of a booming megalopolis—”terminally marginal.”

~

Beaumont is a protégée of Terry Eagleton—who returns the favour by dubbing Beaumont “one of the most brilliant of the younger generation of English critics”—and both balance a reverence for the canon of English literature alongside a deep engagement in Marxist theory. Nightwalking could have easily taken shape as a non-partisan study of the London night and the literature surrounding it, but, attentive as it is to both base and superstructure, it achieves something more timely and, in a sense, timeless.

It is not, though, as Will Self calls it, “a grand narrative of the counter-Enlightenment.” Nor is it, as its more modest subtitle suggests, just “A Nocturnal History of London.” The first is too “grand”, while the second sounds more like a coffee table book. Beaumont, influenced by Louis Althusser’s “pluralist” approach, sets out a range of multiple, often conflicting histories, which are reflected in the book’s layout: it divides into four parts of fourteen chapters, each splitting into further sub-sections (titles include “Witty Extravagants”, “Knight Errant of Hell”, “Paddington Frisk”) of varying length and tone. The past is unpicked, entangled, made into a series of conjunctures—points of crisis and conflict—so as to be woven together again to form what Eagleton calls a “tradition of the dispossessed.” The result is not so much “grand narrative” or capital h “History” as a more readable, pleasurable mix of Althusser and Foucault, with added close reading and humanism thrown in.

The Enlightenment, in Beaumont’s eyes, brought about less illumination than it did benightment. Keats was keenly aware that, underlying the surface improvements made to the commercial centre of London and the new valorisation of scientific progress, was a deeper, encroaching sense of moral darkness. To talk about Keats’s “dreamy, sensuous” prosopopoeia (as Beaumont does) without looking at the underlying shift in the mode and relations of production (as Beaumont also does) would be to limit the work, to shorten its aesthetic stakes. This, perhaps, could define twee: the love of a past without context. “The goblin is driven from the heath,” said Keats, “and the rainbow is robbed of its mystery!” This lament, if not seen in the context of the countryside’s rapid despoliation and disenchantment, is all twee.

Most of the poets Beaumont discusses—like Richard Savage, Oliver Goldsmith and Keats—channel a form of dispossessed, dissident poetics, but it is William Blake who occupies the pivotal role. Early on, Blake saw the darkness at the heart of the Enlightenment project and pitted himself against its “instrumental logic”—one that sought to justify, in rational terms, colonial exploitation abroad and violent repression at home. One image remains a constant, haunting presence in his work, though it disappeared behind the walls of Newgate Prison in his early-twenties: the gallows at Tyburn. For him, as Beaumont suggests, it was “an unescapable symbol of the oppressiveness of Britain’s ruling elite.” William Ryland, an artist to whom Blake was almost apprenticed aged 14, was hanged there along with at least 1,200 other Londoners over the course of the 18th century. Most of the executed were poor men and women—”apprentices, ill-paid servants, unemployed labourers and vagrants”—whose crimes were ones of desperation.

By the turn of the 19th century the Bishop of London, whose land it was, had begun building an expensive new development—with the gruesome name of Tyburnia—over the former execution site. In a song dedicated “To the Jews” from Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Blake asks:

What are those golden Builders doing
Near mournful ever-weeping Paddington
Standing above that mighty Ruin
Where Satan the first victory won.

Those poor “Builders” (mainly migrant Irish labourers), forced to squat in huts, living off potatoes tilled nearby, were trying to redeem the land, to purge it of its evil spirit. This, says Beaumont, is why they are “golden”. But, in return, Charles Knight and others derided them as “squatters of the lowest community.” They were given a hateful task and hated for it. Their plight draws out a paradox: capitalism is fuelled by the twin-desire to erase all trace of origin while ingraining the myth of constant progress (Pascal said “The truth about the usurpation must not be made apparent; it came about originally without reason and has become reasonable”).

Capitalism’s “ideal state,” in Eagleton’s words, is a state of “eternal motion without source or telos.” The sinister result is dirt-poor labourers building over the bones of the executed poor, “elegant remains… sunk in earth enriched by the remains of brutalized bodies.” Civilisation and barbarism go side by side as the “mournful ever-weeping” cycle of crime and punishment rolls on.

There are numerous ways to approach Nightwalking, but running beneath them all is an account of how London’s urban elite turned against the poor. The writers Beaumont focuses on—themselves often on the dark fringes of society—give a depressing portrait of the city, but it is one whose very bleakness suggests a utopian lining. In a real dystopia, after all, injustice would pass without comment, everything being taken at its dark face-value.

But Blake sees through it, his prophetic outrage animated by the kind of radical Christianity preached at the Sermon on the Mount. There, Jesus’s argument hinges on the impossibility of anyone serving two masters, God and mammon, “for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24) Cyril Connolly updates this maxim for a secular age: “you cannot serve both beauty and power.” Holding to a love of power will lead to despising beauty; holding to a love of beauty will lead to despising power. Against all better reason, faced with the civilised barbarity of the Hanoverian state, Blake would have us put our faith in beauty.

Just one of these options poses an existential threat to state power, though, so it is no wonder that, right now, the Conservative government is looking to make further cuts to arts funding (Culture Minister Ed Vaizey says we need to find “new and imaginative ways of supporting the arts”) at the same time as it seeks more “imaginative ways” to slash benefits—again—and essential services for the poor, disabled and elderly; its rhetoric on economic migrants has, unsurprisingly, grown ever more hostile. Without a politicised, active arts sector that might act as a counterweight—and offer a range of utopian possibilities—this course has been made to feel inevitable, the past re-aligned to block out all glimmer of hope.

Beaumont’s book stops short of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for a reason. Why go any further? Here is what he might have said: nightwalkers and nightsleepers still rove the backstreets of London; a new generation of nightworkers—drawn from the old “reserve army”—service the craven needs of 24/7 capital; property speculators continue to build empty offices and luxury apartments; the poor, meanwhile, are as despised and immiserated as ever; mammon is unchallenged and beauty has been priced out of the market.

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