Reading Journal #2 (ENG 436)

Harriet Martineau by Richard Evans, National Portrait Gallery [Public domain]

Reading Journal #2: Harriet Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy and Demerara

Overall, I enjoyed reading Illustrations of Political Economy despite the occasional slog through the dialogue which, because it was artificial and intended to teach political economy concepts, required some effort to get through without disengaging from the storyline. Capturing my impressions of this extensive work in roughly one page is difficult.

 Martineau’s effort to publish fiction in order to make academic concepts that had massive impact on the everyday lives of the middle and lower classes is commendable.  Her ability to translate the cryptic and stilted writing of Malthus and the concepts put forth by Ricardo into scenarios that would touch a chord and be accessible to the readers of her day, combined with her tenacity to do the work while battling an establishment that was not supportive of a female writer, is remarkable. 

In “Weal and Woe of Garveloch,” Martineau addresses a slew of political economic issues: capital scarcity vs. population growth, property rights and security in order to protect capital growth.  These topics are conflated with numerous social issues of the time including birth control, morality and vice, domestic violence, work ethic and the good of society over the preference of an individual desire.  Whether she meant to or not, Martineau touches upon many more issues in the story. She discusses market forces, market instability, international trade, wages, rent, capital investment, competition, immigration, labor, unemployment, economic growth, recession, and depression.  (There are more, but this is a short paper.) The concept of market forces is captured in the various supply and demand vs. pricing discussions about fish and bread in the story.  The discussion of labor issues, unemployment, wages, etc., are reflected in great part in Kenneth’s part of the story. Kenneth is a hard-working person that does quality work and while the market is booming is employed and doing well. As the fishing seasons falter, he loses his job as the employer has to lay him off. Kenneth struggles with unemployment and then joins the military both as a solution to being unemployed and to reduce the burden on the island’s society by leaving.  The arc that the village of Garveloch takes is a full economic cycle of economic growth and contraction.  It starts (in the previous story) as a tiny fishing village, but then grows as business in fishing demand and labor opportunities grow. Once the fishing seasons sour the village slides into recession (negative market growth/recession) and ultimately depression (people are broke, leave to find work, or starve) with near famine conditions. 

In “A Manchester Strike,” Martineau takes a more focused approach with the political economy issues she attempts to tackle—organized labor, wages, and child labor. Her effort to describe the theory that labor and capitalists (business owners) have joint ownership of what they produce is confusing because we understand the concept of labor and wages differently today.  However, given the theorists that were popular at the time and read by Martineau, we can appreciate her effort in bringing this knowledge to the working classes in order to improve their understanding of political economy. 
In this story, the laborers unionize and propose a strike to equalize wages. The attempt to equalize pay is flawed for many reasons and the labor union fails to achieve their goal.  Instead, they create a recession and cause unemployment to the point that once business opens again after the failed strike, the owners can only afford to re-employ two-thirds of the workforce they originally had—at reduced wages (they’re equalized, but lower). The moral of Martineau’s story seems to be labor should control the size of the labor force by having fewer children and not to question capital owners or be at risk of crippling their own ability to earn income.

The characters in this story were compelling. William Allen as the reluctant spokesperson for the union served well as the tragic hero. Mr. Wentworth was a great character through which Martineau introduced and explained issues like capital, capital growth, competition (when other manufacturing cities get the contracts), and fixed costs incurred by owners when plants remain idle. The contrast between Hannah Bray and Martha Allen was effective.  It was interesting that Martineau depicted a homeless street performer as the picture of health while a working child was sickly and infirm and suffering.  If Martineau meant to make a strong point in the irony of that comparison, I think she succeeded. 

In “Cousin Marshall,” Martineau again addresses the issue of population vs. capital growth, but this time she centers the discussion on the existence and impact of social welfare programs. The central question of this story is “What is charity?” (238). Martineau argues that the recipients of welfare are often assumed to remain in their condition of poverty willingly and that they have an expectation that the welfare programs provide for them.  In the conversation between Louisa Burke and Dr. Burke (241-242), the scale of the welfare tax burden and the size of the program is alleged to exceed the national income of Spain or Sweden and Denmark combined. Burke recommends eliminating “maintenance” programs for any but the infirm and instead creating education programs in order to allow the population to have education and therefore be more productive.  Throughout the story, the idea of unconstrained population growth (framed as immorality—example, girl that describes dropping children off at “foundling house”) is a central theme.  Morality is again presented as controlling population growth rather than having children that cannot be provided for.  Additionally, the undertone that poverty and the poor suffer from an innate immorality is also present. Her argument that “the law will snatch the bread from the industrious to give to the idle” sums up the sentiment throughout the story. (293) I get the impression in the reading that Martineau agrees with this and is writing in order to correct or coerce readers to adopt a new morality rather than to remain immoral. Her use of Ned and Jane and their different character arcs supports the morality argument—Martineau describes “unmarried mothers” in the same category as “the dregs of humanity—criminals, prostitutes, thieves, murderers, unmarried mothers, and those incapacitated by infectious (including venereal) diseases …” (219) Therefore, Jane is a failure while Ned, who learns to work hard and save money is a success story. I found the passage about unwed mothers particularly brutal and the more I read Martineau’s work the less I like the social norms of the time.

With Demerara, Martineau tackles the issue of slavery. She uses the characters Alfred and Mary and their return to their family plantation in West Guiana to reveal the effect of the status quo on prosperity. Alfred identifies flaws with property laws and ideas which lead to questions about the productivity and treatment of labor. Martineau argues that free labor is more productive than slave labor. Additionally, she argues that the creativity and the mental engagement of slave labor is inferior to free labor due to the oppressive nature of the slaves’ condition. This work is a significant effort to paint, clearly, the abhorrent condition of suffering experienced by slaves and the economic fallacies that slaveholders operated under: Slave labor is cheaper—it isn’t. In the long run productivity of slaves and ingenuity of slaves is less than that of a free workforce. Martineau also argues that ownership of slaves prevents the capitalist (the owners) from adjusting the size of his workforce in accordance with market fluctuations and, therefore, supporting a surplus labor force which unnecessarily wastes capital.

I think Martineau was a remarkable woman and writer. She made difficult choices in her fight against the establishment that was unsupportive of female writers, and she tried to improve the human condition through her work. That’s more than can be said for the majority of people in any time period. 

Works Cited
Martineau, Harriet. Illustrations of Political Economy: Selected Tales. Edited by Deborah Anna Logan. Broadview Editions, 2004.

---. Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2. 3rd ed. Charles Fox, 1932.

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