From Noble to Savage (Part III: Social Justice)

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For 200 years the mentality of Capialism dominated the Western world. Money and knowledge became bargaining chips, values once held to be sacred began to lose meaning, and the public at large was split into a brutal class system. Yet at the end of the Victorian era, a single force would arise that would shake Western thought and Western political systems to their core, a force that was not even Western: India.

Queen VictoriaThe Victorian era was the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment. An entire empire, the British Empire, had sprung up to colonize more of the world than any state had ever done before. This drive was spurred on by a desire, a fierce tenacity, towards spreading the good will of the British people to all corners of the globe. In their eyes, they were the brilliant jewel that would bring light to even the most barbaric places and peoples. The enlightened would teach the disillusioned and in doing so would usher in a new era of knowledge, philosophy, and general well-being throughout the empire. While born at the end of the era and writing nostalgic pieces about it, Rudyard Kipling would embody this sentiment in most of what he wrote. The empire, its good works, and its bright light would echo in such poems of his as If–. Many of the contemporary writers of the time would echo the virtues of the enlightened Victorians over the savages of dullards, the lazy, and the natives of the colonies.

At least that was the intention. The reality was much starker. As a result of the rounding success of capitalism and its close compatriot, laissez-faire, the economy of the British Isles was booming like none before had done. The materialist craze swept the country as businessmen found huge buyers in all parts of the world and set up large factories to keep the demanded products going out and the money rolling in. As a result, a new aristocracy formed within the ranks of the British classes. The bourgeoisie, as they became known, were the well-to-do company owners, bankers, and investors who were making money hand over fist as the government had no policies, nor any intention of making policies,to put limits or restrictions on businesses’ practices. Thus, the Industrial Revolution, powered by the British invention of the steam engine, grew unabated throughout the country and the Western world. Progress and money being at the forefront of every owner’s thoughts, factories and machines were put up almost as fast as the smoke that rose from their chimneys.

19th Century LondonOn the other side of the story however, was the under-class. While there may have been some semblance of a middle-class at the time, the reality was that the majority of the population were either rich or poor. The poor in Britain were some of the most destitute the Western world had ever seen first-hand–men and women working 18 hours a day in the squaller of a factory near huge, open-geared machinery and returning home to literally a hole in the wall with barely enough money to keep the family from starving. Children were being sent to the factories as early as possible to keep the trickle of money flowing into the home, or sometimes were outright abandoned by their mothers to orphanages and churches in the hope they might survive to the age of 10. Charles Dickens, among others, brought this horrible truth to light in his novels. It would take his social commentaries such as Oliver Twist and Hard Times to bring the situation to the attention of the upper-class. Even though the rat nests the poor lived in were in the same city as Buckingham Palace, the upper crust of society had turned a blind eye to the working backs on which they had ridden to success.

This social injustice, argued Dickens, had to be addressed. It was unclear at the time how this could be accomplished. Churches and orphanages were at the breaking point financially and were turning away some of the poor. The most they could do was produce literature and commentary on the conditions to help soften the hearts of some of the deeper pockets in London. However, this alone would not be enough. Something had to be done in England, and so those seeking social justice turned their attention eastward.

East India CompanyThe Indian subcontinent had been in the possession of the British, both officially and unofficially, since the mid 1700s. It was no surprise that the country was first contacted and then subdued by a capitalistic organization: the East India Company. The company’s aim originally had been to trade with the Indians for their hand-woven textiles and other Eastern wares that were in extremely high demand among the British upper-class. However, the company soon began making deals with the local Rajs, and within a few decades the entire country was either owned or controlled via political puppet by the company. It was at this point in the 1830s that the Enlightenment came to the sun-drenched land.

At first, the English who had come to India were were only there to oversee the company’s affairs and to help administrate with the local Rajs. However, with the company’s merger with the English government and the transfer of the political responsibility from the board of trustees to the Crown, the British aim in India changed completely. The idea was a noble one from the outset: turn the seemingly backward country and its people into the prime example of what the enlightenment meant, converting the native from savage to citizen. Utilitarianism would give way, through education and self-betterment, to an autonomous country of citizens who would show the world the true might of the Victorian idea. And so with this goal in mind, writers such as Trevelyan began to gear the public sentiment towards moving the Indians to a better future. Politicians moved to build schools and set up administration reforms in India to start the process of Westernizing the locals. And businessmen, enthused with their own sense of charity, sent machinery and managers to the country to help the Indians jump-start a new branch of economy.

Yet despite this effort, the policy in India was still one of staunch laissez-faire. The British were only there to help guide the locals to self-betterment. They were not, however, there to act as a dole for the impoverished who would not try to stand on their own feet. Thus, even though there were great strides made in setting up a new class within the existing caste system of learned natives and loyalists to the British crown, the poor within the castes were famine-ridden and dying. The economy began to collapse under the new production systems. The poor could not afford to buy the goods produced and most of the products were exported elsewhere, often back to Britain where the shareholders were. As a result the money only cycled through India and never stopped there long enough to help those who needed it.

Indian Rebellion of 1857In 1857 the local resistance to the British rule ran out of patience. With the grain stores the British controlled not being opened to the poor and the economy on the brink of total disaster, the lower castes rose up. Rebellions in Delhi, Sitapur, Benares, Calcutta, Lucknow and other locales all occurred within a period of two years. The standing army in India, even with its 250,000 troops, could not quell the rebellions in time for the political firestorm to reach London. News of massacres of men, women and children flooded the British press and shook the Victorian dream of an enlightened child country. The government downplayed the significance of the rebellion as merely the work of the savage nature of the locals and the antithesis of what they, as English, stood for. They used the event as a political soapbox to advance the agenda in India as one now of necessity rather than of simple good-natured charity. The politicians saw an opportunity in the situation. They took the stance that the situation in India mirrored the one in the back streets of their very own city. Using the faraway country of India as a proxy, the contemporaries spoke out against the enlightened classes with no compassion for the poor the same as if they were finger-waving at their own class system.

William GladstoneThe chief political figures in this debate were Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. Throughout the 1860s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, these two larger-than-life prime ministers would use the British handling of the situation in India to shape political policies at home: Gladstone for the Victorian side and Disraeli for the side of the new idea of social justice through government. Gladstone argued fervently for the laissez-faire approach to hold fast its course in India. The people, he said, should be able to spend their money as they see fit. The businessmen should be able to control their own factories, and the consumer should be able to choose the products he wishes. Without government regulations, he argued, the economy in India would slowly but surely get back on its feet. Gladstone also supported the ideals of personal betterment. It was only through the bettering of the savage that the true citizen could be born. Simply mandating from the throne or from parliament that a people suddenly become something other than what they were would never work. The people would have to want to become a better breed and then strive towards becoming a new, enlightened people (an idea self-contradictory since the natives were already the so-called “noble savage”). The rebellions that had been perpetrated only served to undermine the gift that Britain was bestowing upon its colony. With peace, he said, trade will come. Thus, the army should put down any inkling of rebellion before it got out of hand, for the natives’ own good.

Benjamin DisraeliDisraeli, on the other hand, came to the table with a new philosophy, one born of almost Marxist sympathies. Disraeli believed in what was known as a Tory Democracy: a social order that kept the classes separate, rich from poor, but kept them at peace. Thus, there should be a ruling and administrative class to oversee, and a lower class to run the machinery of a country. However, the ruling class must work to keep the working class well, fit, and comfortable while, the working class should strive to work their way into the upper class. To achieve this, Disraeli suggested the use of social giving. The churches and other institutions of traditional charity were too strained to keep up with the needs of the poor and so the need was to find a way of caring for the poor that did not rely simply on the generosity of a few individuals. Toward that end, he felt the government should lend out its ample surpluses to the poor and needy so that everyone, not just the well-off, could bask in the warmth of the empire’s glow. This also meant fixing social ills such as schools for the poor, social programs, and other governmental reforms that would strengthen the almost silent voice of the underclass.

The two political philosophies traded places several times over the course of the thirty-year span of their swapping ministries. In the end, however, the public saw that the Disraeli plan was, in effect, their ticket to ending the misery of their impoverished existence. And so the plan was implemented both in India and in Britain itself to help bring unity and peace between the classes and to share the bounties of empire with all subjects.

However, the effect of this new social justice was disastrous to the empire. With the new plan in place, India began to rely more and more on the English. Politicians such as John Morley saw the increasing dependance of the Indian people on the British dole as a bane to the people. He argued that India was now becoming nothing more than a child who always needed its mother. Thus, in 1909 the British gave up its holdings on the subcontinent’s government. The move was shocking to the Victorians who had believed that their way would show the Indians the true way to live. The disillusioned British sank back in disbelief that their generosity and help had been so thoroughly rejected by its recipients.

In the same way, the British people began to reevaluate the ideals behind the new philosophy and turn it into something it was never meant to be. With the social programs and the advent of redistribution of wealth came the realization that the poor, given the right representation in parliament, could now vote themselves money. Taxes began to rise, and the dole began to hemorrhage. The politicians took no notice of this at the time, however. They saw the poor merely as a huge voting block. All that was needed was to promise more funds and more relief and the votes would pour in. They seemed oblivious to the costs that were mounting, since they came to feel that the rich did not deserve the money they had to begin with. In their minds the bounty of empire should be shared with everyone. And so, with this dependance on government as well as the ability to manipulate government, the lowest common denominator in society now suddenly became one of the most powerful.

The path from absolution was now complete. With true democracy rising from the ashes of the empire of good intentions, the morals and values no longer depended on the authority of a God or a king, nor did they come from someone who had become a self-improved man through his own efforts, nor from an authority or learned person who was qualified to answer through his credentials. Now, with the beginning of modernism, the common man became a god in his own right. The uneducated could now rule over the scholar, the pauper over the prince, the heathen over the priest. Philosophies of men like Nietzsche and Freud echoed this sentiment by turning their attention to man as a beast, lorded over by his base animalistic tendencies, lost to all sense of nobility. To deny these facts was now to deny what man truly was: a savage.

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