“I had heard much of the misery and wretchedness of the Irish people, previous to leaving the United States, and was prepared to witness much on my arrival in Ireland. But I must confess, my experience has convinced me that the half has not been told. I supposed that much that I heard from the American press on this subject was mere exaggeration, resorted to for the base purpose of impeaching the characters of British philanthropists, and throwing a mantle over the dark and infernal character of American slavery and slaveholders. My opinion has undergone no change in regard to the latter part of my supposition, for I believe a large class of writers in America, as well as in this land, are influenced by no higher motive than that of covering up our national sins, to please popular taste, and satisfy popular prejudice; and thus many have harped upon the wrongs of Irishmen, while in truth they care no more about Irishmen, or the wrongs of Irishmen, than they care about the whipped, gagged, and thumb-screwed slave.”
Frederick Douglass, in a letter to The Liberator, 1846 [x]
If, like me, you’ve ever wondered when Americans on the internet started debating whether An Gorta Mór counted as oppression or not, here’s an example written while the Famine was happening.
I was reading about something similar through this Atlantic piece on the origin of the term ‘dismal science’ as a description for economics - by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle in an 1849 essay on the “Negro Question”. Which also discussed the Irish or Famine Question, as indeed he is known for writing about with particular venom in his ‘Reminiscences on My Irish Journey in 1849’, published later.
The ‘gotcha’ in the Atlantic piece is that ‘dismal science’ was not a putdown of Malthus’s pessimistic theories of population, as is often assumed, although Carlyle did criticise him in a similar vein (I side with the argument that Malthus has been unfairly maligned and was actually quite an interesting political economist), but that
"… Carlyle labeled the science "dismal" when writing about slavery in the West Indies. White plantation owners, he said, ought to force black plantation workers to be their servants. Economics, somewhat inconveniently for Carlyle, didn’t offer a hearty defense of slavery. Instead, the rules of supply and demand argued for "letting men alone" rather than thrashing them with whips for not being servile. Carlyle bashed political economy as "a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing [science]; what we might call … the dismal science.”
Since the phrase was used in defense of slavery, by attacking economics, then we shouldn’t use it “to align ourselves with Carlyle to acknowledge that an inescapable element of economics is human misery”; instead, “the right etymology turns that interpretation on its head. In fact, it aligns economics with morality, and against racism, rather than with misery, and against happiness.”
But to do so assumes that Carlyle’s support for slavery and opposition to economic thinking are inseparable: in fact, his criticisms of the latter echo a lot of the contemporary rhetoric against neoliberal economics - which is, after all, based on the freedom of individuals to be economic actors (even if we would see that freedom as illusory or proportional to wealth and privilege). The difference is that his alternative is upholding the paternalist, patriarchal status quo - in other words, it is the conservative reaction to (economic) liberalism which we see today, and which was precisely the debate Carlyle was entering into at the time (uber-liberal John Stuart Mill wrote a response to his essay).
Equally, it conflates ‘political economy’ (which was the subject discussed by thinkers then) with what is called ‘economics’ now - although the two are related, the change is essentially that the political dimension has been sublimated into the idea that economics is a science, which issues prescriptions that can be interpreted only in a limited political framework. Actually, I always thought that the ‘dismal science’ referredly specifically to the problems with economics, even more than the rest of the social sciences, as an empirical subject. ‘Political economy’ seems like a much more honest way to describe the reliance on normative, social and psychological assumptions in studying the effects of economics on society (but if the state is meant to be kept out of it, then it’s not really ‘political’, is it?).
Adding in the Irish situation reinforces the conflict between conservative morality and liberal economics (which was, of course, its own form of morality). From the link above:
"With the emancipation of slavery in the West Indies and the supportive BFASS [British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society] activities there, Carlyle believed the hitherto peaceful black ex-slave would be condemned to idle pauperism. The principal image that horrified Carlyle was that of the West Indies being reduced to a "Black Ireland". To the idle, impoverished "potato people" of Ireland, Carlyle saw the potential counterpart in an idle, impoverished "pumpkin people" in the Caribbean. Remember that at this time, Ireland was still in the thrall of the Great Famine. Carlyle visited Ireland in 1849 and filled his journal with tirades, referring to Ireland as a "human swinery", a "black howling Babel of superstitious savages".
Carlyle’s sentiments towards the paupers of Ireland (and the ex-slaves of the Caribbean) is not plain brutal racism, but a different, more paternalistic concern. He does not see their predicament, as many contemporaries did, as being due to the inherent immorality or natural laziness of the “Gael” or the “Negro”. No, Carlyle argued, set a man to work and all those “savage” qualities disappear. The character of the Irishman (or the West Indian, for that matter) is not inherently corrupt but it has been corrupted from lack of work.
This is not too far from contemporary opinion. Many British philanthropists, not least Charles Trevelyan, the pious Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of British relief during the Irish famine, the problem of Ireland was a cultural one and thus not irretrievable. They believed that “savage” Gaelic/Negro attitudes could be “fixed” if they were given the right upbringing and incentives. Irish paupers could be transformed into proper, industrious Englishmen with the discipline of the market-place, moral education, religious piety and the whip of hunger.
Where Carlyle differs from Trevelyan and other “philanthropists” is that he believes that the culture of pauperism cannot be fixed by the market, because that very culture was created by the market. The market, he argues, does not create an incentive to work, it gives an incentive to sell — and, for Carlyle, these are two very different things. As an axiom, Carlyle refuses to accept that wage payments induce work. Work comes first, payment afterwards. Work is done “for the favor of Heaven”, not with a view to recompense. As such, wages are an imperfect measure of the worth of labor.”
Where this ties back in with the Douglass quote is the argument that Carlyle was not defending slavery as much as attacking the hypocrisy of abolitionists, much as Douglass argued the outrage about the Famine was was equally a hypocrisy on the part of the anti-abolitionists:
"It was somewhat clear for many contemporaries that neither West Indian blacks nor Irishmen, nor prisoners, were his prime targets, but rather the evangelicals and economists themselves. Although a mathematician by training, Carlyle despised "systems" of thought and philosophy, particularly those which claimed to have captured the "Truth" and were willing to up-end the given organic, "natural order" of society in pursuit of it. Moral or scientific absolutism and "collective wisdom" irritated Carlyle, and his very method of argument — sweeping assertions, hard-hearted conclusions, twisted appeals to anecdotal evidence, shocking language — were geared in part against it."
While Carlyle is still wrong, it’s uncomfortable to see an echo of his basic argument in opposition to neoliberalism today, to the extent particularly that rhetoric is shared by the ‘anti-liberal’ left and the traditionalist right. Liberalism is the dismal ideology which suffuses economics and politics, making kneejerk bedfellows of socialists and conservatives, at the same time as each assumes the other to be have drunk the liberal Koolaid.
Last weekend there was a college (American) football game played in Dublin in Croke Park, between Penn State and the University of Central Florida, and just before kickoff (or whatever you call it?) there was a flypast by two USAF F-16s. Which came as an unwelcome surprise to some residents of Northside Dublin (I think I just about heard the roar of the jet engines over on the other side of the city) - who had just escaped five nights of Garth Brooks in the same venue.
Personally I can’t be too righteous in my objection to the mere presence of warplanes (albeit the same as used in the bombing of Gaza) in the foreign and ostensibly neutral airspace over Ireland, because I used to be really big into them as a kid - before I discovered geopolitics - and the technology and sheer aerodynamic force still appeals to me. What annoyed me more was the spectacle of ‘American-ness’ as the literal projection of that military power across borders (the planes themselves apparently came from their base in Germany, via the UK) in the service of the patriotic rituals of a sports game held in another nation’s capital. The brash arrogance of that single ritual (it coincided with the singing of the American anthem) is typically American, as the invitation for thousands of American tourists to watch their own sport be played in Ireland’s largest stadium is typical of Irish obsequiousness in attracting ‘Foreign Direct Investment’ from the mighty capitalists across the ocean.
Ironically, as the national stadium for the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), Croke Park previously had to conform to its ‘no foreign games’ policy, before that was abandoned as so much blinkered nationalism. Hence we have an 82,000 capacity stadium primarily used for sports - gaelic football and hurling - not really played outside of Ireland, or of expatriate Irish communities. Recently there has been an attempt to broaden its reach through a television deal with Sky to broadcast certain games in the UK and Ireland on its paid subscription service, which arguably conflicts with the GAA’s amateur ethos (players are not paid professionals) and community spirit (however nebulously defined). Hosting American football games serves a publicity and tourist purpose, as well as presumably a direct financial benefit, for Ireland and the GAA; American football has also itself become more popular among young, internet-connected Irish people; but does any of that justify the subservience of the Irish city to symbolic warpower?
"United Pressing is the largest vinyl pressing plant in the US, with a close relationship to Jack White’s production emporium Third Man Records nearby, as well as Nashville’s booming analogue music recording scene.
Next year the firm will add 16 presses that should boost daily output to 60,000 records. Millar, director of marketing, won’t say where they found the presses – manufacturing of vinyl records ceased in the early 1980s and competition for presses comes from surprising quarters. The last few machines capable of cutting a metal mother – the stamp that imprints the plastic vinyl – were purchased at auction by the Church of Scientology, whose followers believed that the best way to preserve speeches of the master, L Ron Hubbard, for posterity was a 33⅓ album.
But there’s residual anxiety that the analogue revival is temporary. “Everything comes back once before it goes away for ever,” says VH1’s Bill Flanagan. “If it’s just a nostalgic or hipster-elitest thing, where does that leave us in 10 years? It might be the last gasp of an expiring culture before we all get sucked into the [digital] cloud.”