Happy Birthday Mr. Cobbett

Written by: Molly Conisbee on 22 February, 2013
Filed under Economy

The power that money gives is that of brute force, it is the power of the bludgeon or the bayonet.”

On 9 March it is 250 years since William Cobbett, whom Karl Marx described as “the creator of old English Radicalism”, was born. In the New York Tribune of July 22, 1853, Marx noted that Cobbett “was the first who revealed the hereditary party warfare between the Tories and the Whigs, stripped the parasitic Whig Oligarchy of their sham Liberalism, opposed landlordism in its every form, ridiculed the hypocritical rapacity of the Established Church, and attacked the moneyocracy”. 

Cobbett’s brand of radicalism was proposed through his best-selling Cottage Economy (1822) and Rural Rides (1830 – perhaps an early pre-cursor to currently fashionable psycho-geography), as well as his journalism in the Political Register (popularly known as the two-penny trash) and his pamphleteering. His work attracted a wide range of admirers from a broad political spectrum over a broad span of modernity, to include Karl Marx, Matthew Arnold, Hillaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Michael Foot, E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams and Richard Ingrams.

This wide range of admirers underlines the political paradox at the heart of Cobbett’s work. His writing resonates because of his anger about what he perceived to be the corrupt and degraded circumstances of social, political and economic life, which sometimes took physical form in his intense dislike of London, or as he called it, ‘the Great Wen’. He was contemptuous of idle and conspicuous consumers, scornful of bankers and ‘middlemen’ who lived by exploiting the work of others, and felt that a bureaucratic and centralising state stripped away local autonomies. All these things remain relevant to our contemporary condition.

Cobbett celebrated the sturdy peasantry; in Cottage Economy he exhorted a self-reliant life of beer, bread and bacon, and independence from the middle-man, the merchant and the ‘tax eater’. He was writing at a time of profound social change and upheaval, The British economy was industrialising at great speed, forcing hundreds of thousands of people away from a rural to an urban working life. The Acts of Enclosure were rapidly removing access to land for rural communities, and the relationship between farmers, landowners and workers was becoming much more exploitative.

As an English Radical and reactionary romantic, Cobbett’s greatest appeal lies in what William Hazlitt described as his ‘outrageous inconsistency’. Cobbett was at best scattergun in his critique of contemporary politics and economics, and this could lead him to oversimplify the social problems he wrote about. Marx felt “he saw the machine, but not the hidden motive power”. There was no singular ‘system’ to despise – but rather ‘systems’ – the fits and starts of a rapidly industrialising economy; the growing political power of a merchant/professional class; the increasing complexity of a banking system (funds, stocks, paper money) which was displacing human relations into the abstract logic of the marketplace.

It is perhaps this final point – the destructive power of an impersonal market on individuals and communities – where we can glean most contemporary political relevance for Cobbett’s writings. In an echo of Adam Smith, Cobbett was deeply suspicious of the creation of large companies or monopolies, which would act in their own vested interests rather than that of any wider community.

“Talk of roads and canals and bridges! These are no signs of national prosperity. They are signs of accumulated, but not of diffused property, and this latter alone can insure national prosperity.”

As both a “modern Chartist…and inveterate John Bull”, Cobbett anticipates some of our present predicaments, expressed through his despair at the decomposition of communities, families and the old ways. At his best he is a moving chronicler of the effects of a burgeoning capitalist system on the individual’s life chances, whilst never quite nailing the causes. The marketisation of experience, and the reduction of human life to a series of transactions between consumers and providers has been one of the most damaging and destructive aspects of contemporary life, masquerading as opportunity. The narratives of capital and exchange have indoctrinated us, even when we sense that things don’t really add up. Hence Cobbett’s reference to “mock-liberality, mock-humanity…and false money”. Cobbett seems to suggest that the ingredients for a better life are only available as distortions of what ought to be. This is an insight we cannot afford to ignore.