Thomas Spence on the Working Class as the Creators of Prosperity

Spence Book Cover

Back in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher and the New Right declared that the entrepreneurs, businessmen and the financiers were the ‘Creators of Wealth’. This is another appropriation by the right of the claims and slogans of the left. Previously, the term ‘Creators of Wealth’ was used by the Left, chiefly Marxists, to refer to the working class. There was, for example, the Communist slogan, ‘All wealth to the creators of wealth!’ promising the people the true value of their products, if not exactly power. That was to be held exclusively by the Communist party as the ‘vanguard of the proletariat’.

The attitude that the working class are the creators of wealth ultimately goes back to the idea of classical economist, like David Ricardo, that the value of a product was determined by the amount of labour taken to produce it. The classical economists themselves followed Adam Smith in advocating free trade. The early radicals built on this demand more political rights and economic reforms for the working classes – the ‘labouring poor’.

The late 18th and very early 19th century radical, Thomas Spence, strongly argued that all of Britain’s prosperity ultimately rested, not with the landlords and aristocracy, but with the labourers and working people, who physically worked the soil and made industrial products. He urged that Britain should be transformed into a federation of autonomous communes, in which all the inhabitants, including women and children, should govern, and parish lands taken into the collective ownership of the parish. In his pamphlet, The Rights of Infants, he defended this system of the communal ownership of land against the view of the great contemporary revolutionary, Tom Paine, that the people, who worked the land really only had only a claim to a tenth of it. Spence rebutted this in the following passage

BUT stop, don’t let us reckon without our host; for Mr Paine will object to such an equal distribution of the rents. For says he, in his Agrarian Justice, the public can claim but a Tenth Part of the value of the landed property as it now exists, with its vast improvements of cultivation and building. But why are we put off now with a Tenth Share? Because, says Mr. Paine, it has so improved in the hands of private proprietors as to be of ten times the value it was of in its natural state. but may we not ask who improved the land? Did the proprietors alone work and toil at this improvement? And did we labourers and our forefathers stand, like Indians and Hottentots, idle spectators of so much public-spirited industry? I suppose not. Nay, on the contrary, it is evident to the most superficial enquirer that the labouring classes ought principally to be thanked for every improvement.

Indeed, if there had never been any slaves, any vassals, or any day-labourers employed in building and tillage, then the proprietors might have boasted of having themselves created all this gay scene of things. But the case alters amazingly, when we consider that the earth has been cultivated either by slaves, compelled, like beasts, to labour, or by the indigent objects whom they first exclude from a share in the soil, that want may compel them to see their labour for daily bread. In short, the great may as well boast of fighting their battles as of cultivating the earth.

The toil of the labouring classes first produces provisions, and then the demand of their families creates a market for them. Therefore it will be found that it is the markets made by the labouring and mechanical tribes that have improved the earth. And once take away these markets or let all the labouring people, like the Israelites, leave the country in a body and you would immediately see from what cause the country had been cultivated and so many goodly towns and villages built.

You may suppose that after the emigration of all these beggarly people, every thing would go on as well as before: that the farmer would continue to plough, and the town landlord to build as formerly. I tell you nay; for the farmer could neither proceed without labourers nor find purchasers for his corn and cattle. It would be just the same with the building landlord, for he could neither procure workmen to build nor tenants to pay him rent.

Behold then your grand, voluptuous nobility and gentry, the arch cultivators of the earth; obliged, for lack of servants, again to turn Gothic hunters like their savage forefathers. Behold their palaces, temples, and towns, smouldering into dust, and affording shelter only to wild beasts; and their boasted, cultivated fields and garden, degenerated into a howling wilderness.

Thus we see that the consumption created by the mouths and the backs of the poor despised multitude contributes to the cultivation of the earth, as well as their hands. And it is also the rents that they pay that builds the towns and not the racking building landlord. Therefore, let us not in weak comm9iseration be biased by the pretended philanthropy of the great, to the resignation of our dearest rights. And if our estates have improved in their hands, during their officious guardianship, the D-v-l than them; for it was done for their own sakes not four ours, and can be no just bar against us recovering our rights.

Rights of Infants

Now clearly you do need talented businessmen and entrepreneurs, who can set up and manage businesses. But Spence is right about the vital importance of the working classes and how they do the physical works that creates civilisation and prosperity. And this is still a vitally contested point. Obama in many ways isn’t noticeably different from many other American presidents. Despite his introduction of more state medical assistance, he still has the same very strong ties to Wall Street. This has not, however, stopped the American Conservatives viciously attacking him as a Communist. A year or so ago there was a lot of Republican American carping centred around the slogan ‘You didn’t build this!’. Reading between the lines, I got the impression that Obama had dared to state the obvious: that all the American people built their country, including those who physically laid the bricks and mortar, and not just big businessmen like Donald Trump. And that clearly touched a nerve.

The power of organised labour is still feared by the Tories over here. After all, the miners managed to beat Ted Heath, and so, when Thatcher got the chance, she destroyed the British mining industry, and organised the mass transfer of jobs from Britain to less truculent workers in the Developing World, thus devastating the British industrial base. However, even in this era of globalised markets, big business still needs the markets provided by the mass of the working and lower middle classes. There’s an interesting piece over at Another Angry Voice about this, where the Angry Yorkshireman proves that the Tories’ policy of paying low wages actually makes no sense. He points out that Henry Ford, the ferociously anti-Semitic and anti-socialist industrialist deliberately paid his workers very good wages, so that they could afford to buy more, and so stimulate business. It’s also why FDR in his New Deal introduced a limited form of state unemployment assistance. He felt that if the unemployed were able to continue buying goods, this would continue putting money into the economy and so help end recessions. This, however, isn’t good enough for the Conservatives, who would rather keep the poor in abject poverty, even if this does harm the economy, simply out of viciousness, spite and a desire to hang on to their privilege and status.

It’s about time this was challenged, and the poor started getting back their share of the nation’s wealth.


Ian Duncan Smith: Along with Cameron and Osborne, has a policy of spite and vindictiveness towards the poor, just preserve the government’s own social position no matter what the economic and social costs.

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One Response to “Thomas Spence on the Working Class as the Creators of Prosperity”

  1. Thomas Spence on the Working Class as the Creat... Says:

    […] Back in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher and the New Right declared that the entrepreneurs, businessmen and the financiers were the 'Creators of Wealth'. This is another appropriation by the right of th…  […]

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