The Vengeful Racist Story of how Economics got labelled “The Dismal Science”

Today, I tell you a simple story. Its a story, many a times told and retold. A story of colonies and slavery, of a rapidly industrializing England, of corn and sugar, of the Irish and the Blacks, and importantly, of a crazy racist thinker Thomas Carlyle, who would give economics its “dismal” identity, which has lasted a whole 156 years after the term was coined in 1859.

British Empire 1833. This is the year that the empire formally abolished all forms of slavery in all of its colonies. How? By literally paying compensation to the slave owners and giving them an additional window of 12 years in which the system was to be revamped completely. However, there were issues, as one can guess. The British West Indies slave owners, many of whom ran sugar plantations in the Carribean, notably in countries like Jamaica, Barbados and Trindad, were found to be using the 12 year window period in plotting schemes that would enable them to continue their grip on slaves in the future too. The Empire took a strong view and eventually, gave legal and financial aid to the slaves in the Carribean prompting a huge exodus from the sugar plantations to distant villages. Labor shortage made sure that the costs rose astronomically, crippling the plantation owners. In the meanwhile, the neighboring countries of Brazil and Cuba, where the British did not have hold, continued to produce sugar with cheap, low cost slave labor. This near-destroyed the economic model of the British West Indies colonies. Except for one relief. They were given tariff protection on sugar imports, which in part helped them to sustain the Brazilian competition.

Interestingly, it is here that a twist in the tale appears in the form of a completely unexpected figure: Napolean Bonaparte. It was in the year 1747 that German scientist Andreas Marggraf made the amazing discovery that sugar crystals obtained from cane juice and beet juice were the same. In 1811, French scientists presented loaves of sugar made from beet to Napolean. History tells that Napolean was so very impressed with this that he got 32,000 hectares of land in Europe under beet plantations and gave subsidies to set up beet sugar factories. Factories, which were by 1840, creating cheap sugar to give the Carribeans, a run for their money. Except that the British laws protected them through tariffs.

I depart here from the main stream story to mention the economic contributions of a great economist: David Ricardo. The contributions of Ricardo to classical economics are many, but here, what would be relevant to note is that David Ricardo championed the cause of free trade. He was of the opinion that the Corn Laws in Britain, which levied a tariff on import of corn, were shifting the distribution of income in favour of landlords and away from industries. He held and propagated the belief that such restrictions on trade were one of the major causes of stagnation in UK.

Ricardian theories gained currency (John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin were champions of the free market free trade theory) and the Corn Laws were actually repealed in 1846 (after Ricardo’s death). A year later, so were the laws protecting the colonies from import of sugar. Further, the repealed laws also allowed Britain to stop giving preferential treatment to their colonies; Britain would hence now either import sugar from France or from Brazil or Cuba.

We pause here for a minute to reflect what the free market, free trade, anti-slavery brigade established here. These free market economists had morally and intellectually backed freedom; do you see that? Its a freedom movement. Freedom from tariffs, from protection, from slavery, from bonded labor. Let the markets be. Laissez faire.

The major consequence of this free philosophy was that UK now started importing more sugar from Brazil and Cuba, inadvertently giving more business to the slavery model in these countries by dismantling the slavery models in their own colonies. It is here that Thomas Carlyle publishes the angry and spiteful, intellectual-expletive ridden text, backing the pro-slavery plantation owners and calling economics a “dismal” science.

Who was Carlylye?

Thomas Carlyle was a Scottish –born philosopher, mathematician and history writer, whose early years were deeply influenced by the Church. In his later years however, he seems to suffer a crisis of faith, generally rendering a manner of goading the church in his later writings.

Thomas Carlyle suffers the dubious distinction as being the philosopher who supported slavery in the British colonies. Is it that Carlyle is actually advocating slavery here? Well, while his writings (and are they fiery) do seem to support slavery, what he actually propagates is some kind of a compulsory activity for the bulk of the populace. His extremely biting references to Ireland too are unnerving. Remember that it is around this time that Ireland had suffered its potato famine. The potato blight destroyed potato farms in Ireland, causing the demographics in Ireland to permanently change as people re-located and immigrated to other parts in Europe. On seeing the masses in the Carribeans as well as in Ireland unemployed, he arrives at the conclusion that it is the freedom of movement, it is the freedom to choose one’s occupation that creates such public issues. Take away the freedom and people will learn to appreciate the “joy” of being gainfully employed. Reading Carlyle is upsetting, and that is an understatement. Sample this.

“Between our Black West Indies and our White Ireland, between these two extremes of lazy refusal to work, and of famishing inability to find any work, what a world have we made of it, with our fierce Mammon-worships, and our benevolent philanderings, and idle godless nonsenses of one kind and another! Supply-and-demand, Leave-it-alone, Voluntary Principle, Time will mend it:–till British industrial existence seems fast becoming one huge poison-swamp of reeking pestilence physical and moral; a hideous living Golgotha of souls and bodies buried alive..”

Around 1840, Carlyle also published his famous works “On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History” in which one can see how he reveres leadership models that have leaders offering visions to society despite their failings. One off-shoot of this work is also his no-holds-barred attack on “hereditary” leadership models as well as on democracy, which in his true attacking style he calls “anarchy plus a street constable.” There is also a clear impact of German idealism on his mind; his translation of Schiller and Goethe into English make him a candidate whose philosophies guided fascist forces in the later period.

One last story before I wind up. In 1866, the islands of Jamaica witnessed a black uprising and Governor Eyre (obviously white) of Jamaica had hundreds of blacks flogged and even executed. The event shocked the Britishers and one of the most famous legal cases pertaining to racial discrimination happened in Britain. Against Eyre were Mill and Darwin; Carlyle was the one to defend Eyre in this case. He was supported interestingly, by Alfred Tennyson.

Was Carlyle a racist? Yes, undoubtedly. His ideas on forcing the blacks into work are not pretty. But, it is obvious as you read him, that it is not the blacks per se that he really mounts his attack on; he is extremely viciously opposed to ideas of freedom and the free market philosophy. One may go so far as to venture to say that it is not the blacks, but rather economists and economic systems that embitter him. That definitely does not absolve him of his fascist, extreme thoughts, but well, this is how economics was seen as a dismal science by this spiteful, anger spewing thinker.

Carlyle unnerves the average reader with his goading and spiteful language; its like being with a spiteful version of the Captain Haddock of economics. This is certainly not a great way to end this post, but let me share with you the actual paragraph in which Carlyle proceeds to call Economics a dismal science.

“Truly, my philanthropic friends, Exeter Hall Philanthropy is wonderful; and the Social Science—not a “gay science,” but a rueful [one]—which finds the secret of this universe in “supply-and-demand,” and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone, is also wonderful.

Not a “gay science,” I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science. These two, Exeter Hall Philanthropy and the Dismal Science, led by any sacred cause of Black Emancipation, or the like, to fall in love and make a wedding of it,—will give birth to progenies and prodigies; dark extensive moon-calves, unnameable abortions, wide-coiled monstrosities, such as the world has not seen hitherto!”



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