Posts Tagged ‘Algiers’

Thomas Spence on the Aristocracy and the National Debt

February 27, 2014

Spence Book Cover

Thomas Spence (1750-1807) was an 18th century radical. Born in Newcastle, he was influenced not just by the Enlightenment, but also by the radical Presbyterian minister James Murray. He believed that the parishes should become self-governing communes. The power of the landlords would be overthrown, and instead of being governed by the local squire, they would be ruled instead through a council directly elected by all members of the parish, including women and children. These communes would each take all the surrounding land into their collective ownership, to rent out to particular businesses. The rents raised would then by spent on a programme of public works, including road and canal building, schools, and medical care and hospitals for the sick and infirm, as well as supporting the unemployed. The money left over from this expenditure would be paid each quarter day to every parishioner, including women and children. The Communes would also elect a central parliament to deal with national affairs, although the Communes would still hold a great deal of autonomy, including the possession of militias for their own defence.

After his death his followers formed the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, which increasingly turned to violent revolution to transform society. They were involved in the Spa Fields riot of the 2nd December 1816 and the Cato Street Conspiracy to blow up parliament. Both Houses of Parliament had denounced them as revolutionary conspirators in 1817, and government action after the Cato Street conspiracy effectively destroyed the Society. Nevertheless, supporters of Spence’s Land Plan continued to influence working class politics. They were active in the National Union of the Working Classes and the Chartist East London Democratic Association in the 1830s.Bronterre O’Brien, one of the leading Chartist writers, was particularly influenced by Spence.

One of his writings is a question and answer session on the national debt, which he uses to attack bitterly the aristocratic government of the day and its oppression of the poor. Here it is:

For poor Johnny Bull,
Who is now so dull;
A few plain questions,
To suit his thick skull.

Questions: What is the National Debt?

Answer: Money borrowed by the rich men of the nation from the rich men of the nation and placed to the nation’s account.

Q. What is done with the money thus borrowed in the nation’s name?

A. The rich men of the nation give it to each other under pretence of places and services, civil, ecclesiastical and military.

Q. Are not those places and services absolutely and indispensably necessary to the good of the nation?

A. So far the reverse, that many of those places are fictitious and therefore called si9necure; but almost the whole are created under the specious but false pretence of war, religion and jurisprudence as a colour for distributing the public money among themselves.

Q. Is public money never given but under pretence of some place or service, real or nominal?

A. It is frequently given under pretence of former services; and frequently also under pretence of secret services; and the sums thus disposed of are called pensions.

Q. Do the rich men make the nation pay interest for the money they thus squander away among themselves?

A. Yes, certainly; for it they alone had it to pay, they would not be so ready at borrowing.

Q. Was it always the custom of those at the head of the nation to govern by running it in debt?

A. No: until our Glorious Revolution, our government, however, covetous or extravagant, never expected more than could be raised upon the spur of the occasion. They had no notion of taxing future generations before they were born.

Q. It is probably that this system of taxing futurity can continue long?

A. No. For the interest of the debt will soon be more than the revenue of the country will pay.

Q. How must the interest then be paid?

A. The rich men of the nation must borrow of each other to pay the interest as they did before to fund the principle.

Q. But when the revenue and the money borrowed are condemned before hand to pay the interst of the national debt, what must support the government?

A. Those who have got both principle and interest must then govern gratis.

Q. Will those who have all along paid themselves so liberally take the trouble at last of governing us for nothing? Surely no. We must inevitably be ungoverned! Can no way be thought of supporting our government in such unparalleled distress?

A. Let them go a-pirating with the Algirines (North African pirates from Algiers).

Q. Nay; them they have long been in league with, and far excelled in depredation, as the African coast and both the Indies can woefully witness; insolence and robbery, rapine and murder, have been fully tried in every quarter of the globe.

A. Then damn them, I’ve done with them!

Spence sees the National Debt as something that the rich have created in order to make themselves even richer, and compares them with the Barbary Pirates of Algiers, who raided and enslaved European ships and southern Europe. Indeed, he was well aware of and bitterly opposed to the way Britain had attacked and enslaved the peoples of the African coast, India and the Caribbean for the commercial gain of the ruling classes.

Although over 200 years have passed since his death, and economics has moved on considerably since his time, these views are still valid. The rich men, the commercial bankers of Britain and America, ran up massive debts for their own vast profits, and the vast, national mercantile companies of the 18th century, like the East India Company and the Royal African Company, have gone and been succeeded by the vast multinationals. Who are still exploiting people for the profit of the rich in Africa, the Caribbean, India and in the rest of the world. And these rich men now make up the government here to enrich themselves still further.

cameron-toff

David Cameron: The type of aristocratic government minister Spencer denounced in the 18th century. Another example of the durability of British tradition.

Bloody revolution aside, it’s time some of our MPs followed Spence and showed a bit more compassion for the poor and supported the welfare state that he predicted against the government’s depredations.

Spence Oppression Cover