Mr. Ferrara adds color to his narrative by alluding to (and sourcing in a reference note) William Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills.” (Blake used capitals in the original.)
The English Civil War (1641-51) and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 had made England into a capitalist nation of Whig oligarchs long before the “dark satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution began to operate.” (15)
The famous phrase from an untitled poem by William Blake (now known as “Jerusalem”) and generally interpreted as a comment upon the Industrial Revolution in light of a legend that Jesus once visited England and will return to rebuild a new Jerusalem there. (329 n. 8)
His invocation of the visionary poet is itself poetic, for there is as much evidence for the thesis that Jesus once visited England as there is for the opinion that “dark Satanic Mills” truthfully symbolizes the import of “capitalism”1 for the masses.
Satan is the enemy of life and liberty, yet with the help of those mills and kindred inventions, these blessings increased unprecedentedly in this period, and rained on the just and the unjust alike, whether that is what “Whig oligarchs” intended or not. Like E. J. Hobsbawn’s Captain Swing, E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and other superceded Marxist accounts,2 Mr. Ferrara’s tale (which relies more on the virtually obsolete work of the Hammonds’ 1911 The Village Labourer) suffers from ideologically inspired oversights.
Mr. Ferrara’s first thesis is expressed in a characteristic run-on sentence:
The pauperization [allegedly “resulting” from the “theft and later enclosure of former Church properties in England”] of English commoners gave rise to the regime of the Poor Laws of four centuries’ duration, making post-Henrican England the first “welfare state” in Western history—a development unknown during all the centuries of Christendom, with its vast network of charitable institutions. (14-15)
Let’s see . . . swift, violent, and uncompensated royal theft is lumped together in one breath with protracted, partially compensated2 parliamentary enclosure . . . and this compound crime “results” in a pauperization in England that “gives rise to” four hundred years (which four hundred?) of a Poor Law-codified welfare state (excuse me, “welfare state”) . . . and the latter compares unfavorably with Christendom’s charitable institutions. Such talking-in-one’s-sleep hardly rises to the dignity of an historical “sketch.”3
That the poor were starting to live long enough to fall under Poor Law consideration is another salient point Mr. Ferrara fails to notice. More on that aspect presently. He once again draws upon the writings of mutualist libertarian Kevin Carson :
. . . [T]he State’s theft of Church lands [Mr. Ferrara writes] in favor of early English capitalists began at the very time abuses of the “feudal” system were “in the process of being remedied.” Western Europe [according to Mr. Carson] “was evolving toward a system in which the peasant was a de facto owner, required, required to pay only a nominal quit-rent set by custom; after that nominal rent was paid, he could treat the land in practice as his own. Had that system been allowed to develop without violence, Europe today might be a continent of small proprietors.” [15. Mr. Ferrara italicizes the last nine words without telling the reader there that he has done so.—A. F.]
Yes, imagine how Europe might have developed without State violence. Thank you, Mr. Carson.
To belabor what should be obvious: Anarcho-Catholics categorically deplore all State theft, including Henry’s theft of monastic lands. Is that news to anyone? How statist thieves reward their friends and punish their enemies is both an ancient and contemporary theme. So is the vexed question of restitution (or reparations) based on the discovery of just title and unjust holdings.
They bear not at all, however, on the empirical question of whether free markets—that is, markets in their catallactic, non-politically perverted dimension—have improved the lives of all whom they touch. And by “improve” we emphatically include, “increase the quantity as well as quality of.” Markets manage to do this regardless of the interference of political interest. The desideratum is always to eliminate the interference.
Mr. Ferrara’s reference to Blake immediately followed a telling quote from Distributism’s godfather, Hilaire Belloc:
. . . [T]he end result of Henry’s theft from the Church [Mr. Ferrara writes] was that the beneficiaries of his theft became “a powerful oligarchy of large owners, overshadowing dwindled monarchy.” [15. The quote is from Belloc’s The Servile State.—A. F.]
Insofar as the Gospel slowly but surely influenced the ethos of Europe, from the eighth through the tenth centuries, it was no doubt a factor in the progressive correction of Mr. Carson’s “abuses of the feudal system,” the evolution of the de facto slave into a less “servile” serf. Mr. Ferrara’s Bellockian thesis, however, is that “capitalism” derailed this progress to the serf’s harm by devolving him into a “servile” factory worker, who is a virtual slave with no means of production of his own that would enable him to assert his independence.
In the light of that devolution, we find it ironic to sense Belloc’s implicit shedding of a tear for a “dwindled” monarchy, suggesting that an “undwindled monarchy” would have been the champion of the interests of the progressively evolving serf. In fact, raw, unbridled power in the hands of a tyrant initiated the theft that set the catastrophe in motion, as Belloc defined catastrophe. Or have we forgotten so soon about those hapless English monks?
Even though the parliamentarians who “overshadowed” the dwindled monarch were mostly anti-Catholic heirs of stolen Catholic lands, Anarcho-Catholics remind the reader that Henry no more intended to benefit those Whig heirs than Whigs intended to benefit the masses who worked for them. And given that the theft cannot be undone, what transpired afterwards?
Mr. Ferrara continues:
By the turn of the 18th century, “more than half of the English were dispossessed of capital and land. Not one man in two . . . inhabited a house of which he was the secure possessor, or tilled land from which he could not be turned off.” (Quoting from Belloc, The Servile State.)
And turned off he was. By means of thousands of privately initiated parliamentary acts of enclosure in the 18th century, the heirs of the new “owners” of the stolen lands of the Church converted them into “private property” in the modern sense, thereby creating a vast dispossessed class of propertyless paupers whose only means of survival was wage labor in factories for the able-bodied, including women and children. The few tenants remaining on the land, and thus in possession of means of production, suffered the imposition of “rack rents” more burdensome than any feudal levies. (15)
The parliamentary acts of enclosure were initiated at the behest of private interests, but facilitated by the State, without which it would have happened, if it did, very differently. (How “secure” were the Catholic monks who were unceremoniously “turned off” their lands by an “undwindled” monarch?)
The “dispossessed” class was vast because the death rate dropped and so many more ordinary people than ever lived to have children of their own. How does Mr. Ferrara account for that demographic effect, assuming he is aware of it? We charitably assume it matters to a pro-life lawyer which conditions are conducive to human fecundity and which are not.
As the historian T. S. Aston put the question:
Whether it is good or ill that more human beings should experience the happiness and misery, the hopes and anxieties, the ambitions and frustrations of life, may be left for the philosopher or the theologian to determine. But the increase in number was the result not of a rise of the birth rate but of a fall of the death rate, and it might be thought that this was indicative of an improved quality of life. “The Standard of Life of the Workers in England, 1790-1830,” in F. A. Hayek, ed., Capitalism and the Historians, The University of Chicago Press, 1954, p. 127. (Available through Amazon or the Mises Bookstore.)
“Be fruitful and multiply,” anyone? (Genesis 1:28) It was only until the much-maligned period of the Industrial Revolution and freer markets that God's image-bearers could, in effect, fulfill this Edenic imperative. That pagan environmentalists curse capitalism is understandable. Catholics have good reason not to join them.
To Be Continued
1 “In many ways it is misleading to speak of ‘capitalism’ as though this had been a new and altogether different system which suddenly came into being toward the end of the eighteenth century; we use this term here because it is the most familiar name, but only with great reluctance, since with its modern connotations it is itself largely a creation of that socialist interpretation of economic history with which we are concerned. The term is especially misleading when, as it often the case, it is connected with the idea of the rise of the propertyless proletariat, which by some devious process have been deprived of their rightful ownership of the tools for their work.” “History and Politics,” F. A. Hayek, ed., Capitalism and the Historians, The University of Chicago Press, 1954, pp. 14-15. (Available through Amazon or the Mises Bookstore.)
We concur with Hayek: we’re stuck with the term “capitalism” (NB: not “capitalist,” the owner of capital), coined in the mid-nineteenth century by various socialists, e.g., Douai, Proudhon, Blanc, and decisively given currency by, of course, Marx and Engels.
2 “Many years have elapsed since the standard histories of the agricultural labourer first saw the light of day, and they are decidedly outdated. It is true, several valuable contributions seeking to examine aspects of the labourer's position have appeared in academic journals and elsewhere, written by scholars with a specialist knowledge of agrarian or demographic change. Yet until they are satisfactorily integrated, popular impressions will continue to be shaped by writers who follow the tradition, set by the Hammonds, of giving excessive emphasis to institutional influences and concentrating upon colourful episodes such as the Swing riots which seem capable of being explained to a large extent by short-period influences. Innocently or not, such historians serve to cloud rather than illuminate the underlying factors affecting the situation of the labourer, by neglecting or misinterpreting the more fundamental economic, technological and especially the demographic determinants of his standard of life and position in society.” W. A. Armstrong, “The Influence of Demographic Factors on the Position of the Agricultural Labourer in England and Wales, c1750-1914,” The Agricultural Historical Review, Vol. 29, 1981, pp. 71-82. Emphasis added. Available online.
Of course, what was written thirty years ago can hardly be considered the last word, but it is the burden of those who wish to promote “popular impressions” to inquire whether the studies Armstrong refers to have been “satisfactorily integrated” and whether the results restore confidence in those impressions and reverse his judgment. A cursory glance indicates otherwise. As of 2000, at least, Armstrong’s research is cited in E. J. T. Collins’ The Agrarian History of England and Wales, the long “missing” seventh volume of the eight-volume definitive study (General Editor: Joan Thirsk), which the Cambridge University Press began publishing in 1967.
3 Again, lest we be misunderstood: whether legally compensated or not, whether royally decreed or legislated by parliament, confiscation is a case of the initiation of force and is therefore unjust. Period. No subsequent monetary payment retroactively justifies theft. The victims of outright theft and of enclosure had qualitatively different experiences, however, and no narrative should conflate them. His hyperbole will come under scrutiny again when we turn to Mr. Ferrara’s quasi-Marxist condemnation of “wage slavery.”
4 One dimension missing from Mr. Ferrara’s picture is the role of popes in legitimizing "Henrican England." There were, for example, the intertwined geopolitical machinations of one lord of Christendom, Pope Julius II (of “Holy League” fame), with those of Henry VIII, the totalitarian Tudor to whom His Holiness had granted a dispensation to marry his brother’s widow (at the urging of her mother, Christendom’s Isabella I of Castile!). Another Vicar of Christ, Julius’ Medici-born successor, Leo X, had dubbed that same tyrant Defensor Fidei for repudiating Martin Luther, whom Henry would soon rival in expression of anti-Catholic ferocity.