The Secret History of the Dismal Science. Part V. Parasite Economics and Market Exchange
By David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart
“The characterization of markets and those who participate in market transactions as parasites has a long and unappreciated history.”
Those who are sympathetic with the proposition that capitalism creates “victims” and who, with Dario Fo and others, blame the September 11 massacre on the American participants in markets might do well to consider the intellectual history and the analytical presuppositions of “parasite” economics. This characterization of markets and those who participate in market transactions as parasites has a long and unappreciated history.
In this column, we will show that the mid 19th century attacks on markets disputed the economists’ claim that trade is mutually beneficial. Opponents of markets often assumed that the winners from non-mutually beneficial trades form a predictable class-“parasites.” The opponents of markets then demonize such classes of victimizers. Carlyle’s disciple, Ruskin, for example developed the argument that exchange is a zero sum affair—that, for every trade, there is a winner and a loser. He and Carlyle relied heavily on the parasitic rhetoric.
In Column 4, we looked at the institutional means by which 19th century paternalists sought to “look after” the child-like among us. Paternalists favored slavery—albeit reformed—because they believed that African-Americans couldn’t look after themselves. The Irish were a second important “child-like” group.
hierarchy, a world view where the competent made
decisions for the incompetent. He defended hierarchical
institutions on the paternalistic grounds that the class of
people likely to be exploited in unregulated economic
and political settings, required looking after. In the 19th century, such denials of the benefits of free exchange were used to attack markets and defend racial slavery (see Columns 1 and 2).
In addition, Carlyle’s vision of the ruling race helped deny the right to self-government for the Irish. How could a race of parasites—cannibalism is Carlyle’s term for the Irish condition in Ireland— rule themselves? In the images produced by Carlyle’s friends (see preceding columns) it is all too easy to see the Irish parasite as a noxious insect feeding on Ireland. It’s obvious what one does to such parasites.
Parasites in the 19th Century Critiques of Markets
In 19th century attacks on market exchange we find a colorful cast of “parasites,” those who are able to use the market for extraordinary gain at the expense of the downtrodden. First among them, is the Jew. Carlyle’s hero in the medieval fantasy, Abbot Samson, expels the “harpy Jews”:
In less than four years, says Jocelin, the Convent Debts were all liquidated: the harpy Jews not only settled with, but banished…Farewell to you, at any rate: let us, in no extremity, apply again to you! Armed men march them over the borders, dismiss them under stern penalties,—sentence of excommunication on all that shall again harbour them here: there were many dry eyes at their departure.3
To modify “Jew”, Carlyle found a Greek reference which the progress of the language had made into a parasite: the OED defines a harpy as “a rapacious, plundering, or grasping person; one that preys upon others.” A parasite.
The thesis that Jews threaten the moral economic order is vigorously pursued by Carlyle’s disciple, Charles Kingsley, in Alton Locke (1850). In the story, Kingsley draws a contrast between the old employer, motivated by honor, and his son, who is motivated by material gain. When the old employer dies, his son begins to emulate the Jews who pursue wealth at the expense of all moral obligation. Jewish economic practice embodies economic doctrine, but it is morally reprehensible:4
His father had made money very slowly of late; while dozens, who had begun business after him, had now retired to luxurious ease and suburban villas. Why should he remain in the minority? Why should he not get rich as fast as he could? Why should he stick to the old, slow-going, honorable trade? … Why should he pay his men two shillings where the government paid them one? Were there not cheap houses even at the West-end, which had saved several thousands a year merely by reducing their workmen’s wages? And if the workmen chose to take lower wages, he was not bound actually to make them a present of more than they asked for! They would go to the cheapest market for any thing they wanted, and so must he….
Such, I suppose, were some of the arguments which led to an official announcement, one Saturday night, that our young employer intended to enlarge his establishment, for the purpose of commencing business in the “show trade;” and that, emulous of Messrs. Aaron, Levi, and the rest of that class….5
In his review of Alton Locke for Blackwood’s, W. E. Aytoun distinguished between “honor” and “competition”:
This is intended, or at all events given, as an accurate picture of a respectable London tailoring establishment, where the men receive decent wages. Such a house is called an “honourable” one, in contradistinction to others, now infinitely the more numerous, which are springing up in every direction under the fostering care of competition.6 (Aytoun 1850, 598).
“Dishonourable” Jews ran competing establishments as “sweaters”—those who ran sweat shops—so the owners would not have to deal with workers on a face-to-face basis. The operation of the competitive labor market is likened to “cannibalism”:
These sweaters are commonly Jews, to which persuasion also the majority of the dishonourable proprietors belong. Few people who emerge from the Euston Square Station are left in ignorance as to the fact, it being the insolent custom of a gang of hook-nosed and blubber-lipped Israelites to shower their fetid tracts, indicating the localities of the principal dealers of their tribe, into every cab as it issues from the gate. These are, in plain terms, advertisement of a more odious cannibalism than exists in the Sandwich Islands. (598-89)
The moral course of action concerning these “human leeches” naturally suggests itself:
In these days of projected Jewish emancipation, the sentiment may be deemed an atrocious one, but we cannot retract it. Shylock was and is the true type of his class; only that the modern London Jew is six times more personally offensive, mean, sordid, and rapacious than the merchant of the Rialto. And why should we stifle our indignation? Dare any one deny the truth of what we have said? It is notorious to the whole world that these human leeches acquire their wealth, not by honest labour and industry, but by bill-broking, sweating, discounting, and other nefarious arts, … ( 599).
Jews are inextricably bound up with classical economic (free market) policy:
Talk of Jewish legislation indeed! We have had too much of it already in our time, from the days of Ricardo, the instigator of Sir Robert Peel’s earliest practices upon the currency, down to those of Nathan Rothschild, the first Baron of Jewry, for whose personal character and upright dealings the reader is referred to Mr Francis’ Chronicles of the Stock Exchange. (599).
In the old Greek stories harpies were agents of divine retribution unleashed on those who victimized others by violence. “Harpy Jews” have now become “vampires” who victimize by exchange:
Read the following account by a working tailor of their doings, and then settle the matter with your conscience, whether it is consistent with the character of a Christian gentleman to have dealings with such inhuman vampires: …(599).
Cannibals as Parasites
Jews who were involved in the marketplace were labeled as leeches and vampires, sucking the lifeblood from others. But other ethnic groups were also identified as parasites who took without giving. The Irish were also identified as parasites of the worst form, cannibals. Carlyle’s response to Mill [see Column 2], employs the image of cannibalism to characterize the Irish
—Work, was I saying? My indigent unguided friends, I should think some work might be discoverable for you. Enlist, stand drill; become, from a nomadic Banditti of Idleness, Soldiers of Industry! I will lead you to the Irish Bogs, to the vacant desolations of Connaught now falling into Cannibalism ….7
The cannibalism story resurfaced with a vengeance during the early days of the Governor Eyre controversy. In Column 3, we saw how Punch celebrated Eyre’s action in Jamaica. Punch’s first statement on Eyre contains the hideous report that the Jamaicans were eating the brains of whites as a prelude to an attack on egalitarians. To make certain that this point was not missed the report is titled “Last Case of Colour-Blindness”:
There has been fearful business in Jamaica. Blacks rioted, were fired upon, and the riot became madness. The blacks slew many whites, and the massacre was attended by incidents too revolting to be described in pages usually devoted to pleasantness. It must, however, be stated that a young clergyman was hewn in pieces, and the blacks enacted hideous orgies, devouring the brains of their victims. A terrible vengeance descended upon the savages, and shot, sheet, and cord came into stern use. A great slaughter was made.
…the nation will not permit even a small white population like that of Jamaica to be left at the mercy of the bloodthirsty black ruffians, of whom Mr. Radcliffe well says “we have been petting panthers,” and whose celebration of their massacre consisted in the withdrawal to a Baptist chapel and the drinking of the brains of their victims mixed with gunpowder and rum! (1865, p. 23).
To answer the question of whether such reports were taken seriously, we have the testimony of John Addington Symonds of a dinner party of 8 December, 1865, in which Tennyson and Gladstone discussed the Eyre controversy. We read “tiger” as “man-eater”:
The conversation continued. They were talking about the Jamaica business. Gladstone bearing hard on Eyre, Tennyson excusing any cruelty in the case of putting down a savage mob. Gladstone had been reading official papers on the business all the morning, and just after I had entered said with an expression of intense gravity, “And that evidence wrung from a poor black boy with a revolver at his head!”…
Tennyson did not argue. He kept asserting various prejudices and convictions. “We are too tender to savages; we are more tender to a black than to ourselves.” “Niggers are tigers, niggers are tigers,”….9
The cannibalism allegation advanced in Punch and in the Popular Magazine of Anthropology seems to have served the same purpose for which W. Arens describes for allegations of medieval cannibalism:
Less well known today is the function of the cannibalism theme, which played an important part of the medieval definition of malevolence. Surprisingly, this trait was believed to characterize the behavior of witches, satanists, heretics and at times the Jews…. The concordance between colonial Africa and the European Middle Ages is striking because the same symbols of homicide and cannibalism are used in the attempt to conceive of the ultimate in human depravity.10
All of these forms of demonization—cannibal, tiger, vampire, parasite—all of these served to describe these groups as people who lived at the expense of others.
After the Eyre massacre of 1865, images which suggest that violent measures be used to deal with parasites, are common. In Punch of 24 February 1866 we find a chilling piece of doggerel under the heading “Responsibility and Rinderpest”
To “stamp out” the Cattle Plague how could we dare?
Rebellion was “stamped out” by GOVERNOR EYRE! (81)
In the following issue the Irishman is now the Pest. Below the image of “The Fenian-Pest” is the imagined dialogue which makes things perfectly clear:
Hibernia: “O my dear sister, what are we to do with these troublesome people?”
Britannia: “Try isolation first, my dear, and then—”
And of course we have already seen the Irish potato bugs sentenced to death without prayer (see Column 2).
Cant… The image in Column 3 has the evangelical-economist tagged with “Cant.” A “cant language” is a “thieves’ language.” Cant might be read as “fraud”… a verbal form of theft.
Parasites—a class, like cannibals, which takes but does
not give. Harpy Jew, the vampire Jew, the Irish
cannibal, the Jamaican cannibal, the evangelical canter,
the economist canter—all of these take without giving. Their occupation is
to suck benefits and satisfaction from all others. The implication is
that they deserve (and are sentenced to) death without
Historically, those who have opposed markets argued that trade implies exploitation and parasitism. What such critics of markets offered instead, was some form of directed trade, a hierarchy in which self-rule was denied. Today, cultural critics of markets hold that the parasites are beneficiaries of market transactions, who supposedly gain at the expense of others. The demonization of the “parasites” continues: “…capitalism in the Islamic Republic of Iran is an ‘ill’ which has emerged outside the framework of regulations, and the wealthy should be considered parasites who have been imposed on Islamic society…. The fact that the wealthy in the Islamic Republic of Iran cannot envisage a secure future for themselves speaks of the healthiness of the system … (if not) capitalists would consider this country a safe haven for their plundering… we consider the owners of easily-gained wealth parasites imposed on Islamic society… this sickness has threatened the health of Islamic society.”11
Today, the defense of the Carlylean enterprise is that while he might have been a proslavery racist, he was at least (and unlike the economists) a paternalist. As such, unlike the “hard-hearted” economists, he was concerned for the “victims” of market transactions (see Column 4). While it may be the case that Carlyle’s concern for the downtrodden was genuine, it is also true that the alternative he favored was hierarchy of the worst imaginable form, slavery.
Even more important, perhaps, the critique of markets offered by Carlyle and his follower, John Ruskin, advocated hierarchy, a worldview where the most competent rule the least competent. Those who think of the world as naturally hierarchical are deeply disturbed by spontaneous order. In a spontaneous order, something is missing: there are no orders given or followed. If the world isn’t hierarchical, then in this point of view, there can be nothing but zero sum—the big taking from the small.
The underlying methodology of economics, by contrast, is deeply egalitarian. Because exchange is voluntary, it is mutually beneficial. There are no systematic losers and no systematic victims. Trade and markets produce a decentralized spontaneous order: there is no hierarchy because no one is in charge and individuals are directed by their own goals.
We can all visualize a hierarchy. Visualizing equality is somewhat more difficult to do. But late in the nineteenth century, the economist, Fleeming Jenkin, took great pains to confront the two major implications of the cultural critics’ doctrine visually: the zero sum notion of trade put forward by John Ruskin; and the notion of hierarchy that underscores the Ruskin/Carlyle critique of capitalism.
To do so, he drew a picture to show how exchange is actually ordered. Here, the order is circular, each actor in the drama of markets has his or her own goals, and these private goals are revealed in the market order, the spontaneous order.12
For Carlyle, and for those today who follow his hatred of the decentralized, spontaneous nature of the market, the end to hierarchy was a terrible fate. The events in Jamaica in late 1865 and in America on 11 September suggest what the hierarchicalists are willing to avow to avert such an end.
Salah al-Mukhtar, editor, “What does Exporting Democracy on Tank Turrets Mean?” Al-Jumhuriyah, October 9, 1995, pp. 1,6, translated by FBIS, Document ID: FTS19951009000003: “… capitalism is the real source of basic evils in society … Social parasites suddenly emerged with billions. Thus, it became clear to all that U.S. capitalism was a big trap and suicide. As a result, the majority of people in eastern Europe went back to fighting capitalism and advocating socialism.”.
“Tourists are not accompanied by the best of Cuban society! Parasites, prostitutes, people who harass tourists—and are negative—accompany tourists. … We are also harassed by those parasites. … we were harassed by cigar sellers, PPG [name of a medicine manufactured in Cuba] sellers, rum sellers, and vendors of other items. .. This is a plague that has invaded the Central Park area.” Jose Alejandro Rodriguez, “Straight Talk,” Havana Radio Rebelde Network, August 13, 1998, translated by FBIS, Document ID: FTS19980818001142.
Steven Erlanger, “In Europe, Some Say the Attacks Stemmed from American Failings,” New York Times, September 22, 2001, on-line edition.
Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present. Edited by Richard D. Altick. Boston: Houghton Mifflin., 1965, p. 96.
“… his wages, thanks to your competitive system, were beaten down deliberately and conscientiously (for was it not according to political economy, and the laws thereof?) to the minimum on which he could or would work, …” [Charles Kingsley] 1850, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet. An Autobiography. New York, p. 245.
[Kingsley] 1850, pp. 96-7.
[W. E. Aytoun] November 1850, “Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: An Autobiography.”Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 68: 592-610.
Thomas Carlyle, 1850. Latter-Day Pamphlets. London: Chapman and Hall, 54-55.
Punch’s weekly publication schedule gave it a rapid response relative to those who published only in quarterly periodicals. However, the publication of James Hunt’s The Popular Magazine of Anthropology seems to have been prompted by events in Jamaica. We find no evidence that it was planned when the 1865 Anthropological Review was printed. The advertising section of the Anthropological Review announced the provisional publication of journals without hinting at a Popular Magazine. Ronald Rainger (1978) “Race, Politics, and Science: The Anthropological Society of London in the 1860s.” Victorian Studies 22: 51-70 discusses the various Hunt enterprises.
John Addington Symonds, 1893 “Recollections of Lord Tennyson.” The Century 46: p. 32.
W. Arens, 1979 The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology & Anthropohagy. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 95.
Hoseyn Shari’atmadari, editorial, “Parasites,” Tehran Keyhan, August 10, 1997, p. 2, translated by Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Document ID: FTS19970820000653.
Fleeming Jenkin, Papers, literary, scientific, &c., London, New York, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1887, volume 2, p. 150.