The Poor under Capitalism

The New Poor Law abolished the general category of the poor, the “honest poor,” or “laboring poor” — terms against which Burke had inveighed.  The former poor were now divided into physically helpless paupers whose place was in the workhouse, and independent workers who earned their living by laboring for wages.  This created an entirely new category of the poor, the unemployed, who made their appearance on the social scene.  While the pauper, for the sake of humanity, should be relieved, the unemployed, for the sake of industry, should not be relieved.  That the unemployed worker was innocent of his fate did not matter.  The point was not whether he might or might not have found work had he only really tried, but that unless he was in danger of famishing with only the abhorred workhouse for an alternative, the wage system would break down, thus throwing society into misery and chaos.  That this meant penalizing the innocent was recognized.  The perversion of cruelty consisted precisely in emancipating the laborer for the avowed purpose of making the threat of destruction through hunger effective.  This procedure makes intelligible that dismal feeling of desolation which speaks for us from the works of the classical economists. (232-233)

Karl Polanyi | The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Times


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