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The lion and the ostrich

By Rafe Champion - posted Tuesday, 29 January 2008

This is an appendix to the essay on industrial relations to explain a little more about the way that economic rationalism and the liberation of the working classes was impeded by the ignorance and folly of the leftwing radicals, the trade union movement and the conservatives as well.

The appendix takes its name from an essay by Arthur Koestler which he contributed to a series titled Suicide of a Nation? His contribution described how the class structure of England and the mentality of the workers and the toffs made Britain the sick nation of Europe after World War II. This is a remarkable achievement because Britain in the Victorian era was described as the workshop of the world, ruler of the ocean waves and arguably the premier world power.

The purpose of this appendix is to explain that the ideological battles of the last two centuries have involved at least three quite different clusters of ideas. The conventional notions of left v right, or capitalism v socialism, or labour v capital are confusing rather than illuminating because they do not describe all the options that are available.


In economic policy the free traders or economic rationalists represent a third party, quite distinct from socialists and conservatives who support very similar kinds of interference with markets, for much the same reasons, based on misreading of the lessons of the industrial revolution. Free traders have had to fight on two fronts and this accounts for much of the bad press and the seriously distorted picture of the free trade agenda that emanates from both the left and from many conservatives.

Koestler reported that in the period 1950-55 British exports increased by 6 per cent while those of the Common Market grew by 76 per cent. The comparative figures for the following five years were 13 per cent and 63 per cent. Through the 1950s no industrial nation had a lower growth of per capita output than Britain and the growth of the national income of the Common Market countries doubled that of Britain.

The British decline was the result of a long process and it has been suggested that England was the wrong place to lead the industrial revolution because the upper classes were hopelessly biased against manual work (indeed against paid work of any kind - recall the segregation of the professional cricketers), against wealth (unless acquired by inheritance) and against trade, industry and enterprise generally. Many of the new magnates bought country estates and blended into the old aristocracy, hoping that their past would be forgotten, quite unlike the US where self-made men were proud of their achievements and were happy to celebrate them in public.

Michael Shanks wrote in The Stagnant Society (Pelican, 1961):

One suspects that at bottom it is our inherited class system that is at fault. The old tradition that “a gentleman doesn’t indulge in trade” lingers insidiously on. Too many of our top industrialists, one feels, are almost too concerned to be “gentlemen” to be really good at “trade”. Too many others, because they feel themselves to be “traders”, and therefore not “gentlemen”, have a totally unjustified inferiority complex which makes them shun contact with the remote and rather frightening world of the universities.

Subconsciously, we still seem to resent the industrial revolution. The ambition of too many industrial tycoons is to buy a plot of land and set up as a tax-loss farmer, and bring up their sons to be intellectuals, civil servants, or “something in the city”. Not since Marie Antoinette milked cows in the Trianon has there been a ruling class in Europe with such an urge to play the peasant.

The genteel middle classes and especially the literarati came to share the views of the aristocracy and the radical critics of trade and industry. Charles Dickens is just one of a galaxy of writers, poets, cultural commentators and even historians who failed to understand the nature of the processes that were at work and misrepresented either explicitly or by implication the reasons for the comparatively tough living conditions of the factory workers and other urban dwellers.


The qualification “comparative” is important because the baseline for comparison was usually the situation of the well to do, or else a sentimental and unrealistic image of the lifestyle of rural villagers and farm workers.

The case of Charles Dickens is instructive because he has lent his name to the Dickensian horrors of the time and because he actually experienced some manual work, unlike most of the educated commentators. Like the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, it is instructive in a different sense than that intended by critics of the system. Dickens spent six months at the age of 12 in a small blacking (boot polish) factory, owned by a relative, where he earned six shillings a week, working with a team of boys pasting labels on tins.

This was a tragic decline for Dickens who had been living in ease and comfort because his father (John) enjoyed an income of 350 pounds per annum in the Navy Pay Office. Dickens senior had ideas above his station, possibly because he grew up in contact with the grand house of Lord Crewe where his father was the head butler. John Dickens and his wife habitually lived beyond their means and they spent almost six months in Marshalsea debtors prison until a relative left a legacy that paid off the creditors. For some reason Charles was not immediately released from the job and he believed that his mother actually wanted him to stay on, presumably because he was supporting himself with his earnings.

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First published in Catallaxy on February 19, 2007.

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About the Author

Rafe Champion brings the grafting qualities of the opening batsman and the cunning of the offspin bowler to the task of routing dogmatists, protectionists and other riff-raff who stand in the way of peace, freedom and plenty. He has a website and he blogs at Catallaxy and also at The History of Australian and New Zealand Thought. For more about Rafe visit here. All of his posts on Catallaxy for 2007 can be found at this link. Not all the links work and some need to be cut and pasted into the browser.

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