Protest, poverty and policy in England, c. 1750–c. 1850

In the age of Malthus and the workhouse when the threat of famine and absolute biological want had supposedly been lifted from the peoples of England, hunger remained a potent political force – and problem. Yet hunger has been marginalised as an object of study by scholars of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England: studies are either framed through famine or left to historians of early modern England. The politics of hunger represents the first systematic attempt to think through the ways in which hunger persisted as something both feared and felt, as vital to public policy innovations, and as central to the emergence of new techniques of governing and disciplining populations. Beyond analysing the languages of hunger that informed food riots, other popular protests and popular politics, the study goes on to consider how hunger was made and measured in Speenhamland-style ‘hunger’ payments and workhouse dietaries, and used in the making and disciplining of the poor as racial subjects. Conceptually rich yet empirically grounded, the study draws together work on popular protest, popular politics, the old and new poor laws, Malthus and theories of population, race, biopolitics and the colonial making of famine, as well as reframing debates in social and economic history, historical geography and famine studies more generally. Complex and yet written in an accessible style, The politics of hunger will be relevant to anyone with an interest in the histories of protest, poverty and policy: specialists, students and general readers alike.

Rather than questioning the nutritional deficiencies of subsistence protestors or asking what hungry people do, this chapter asks how hunger as an idea, a discourse, was mobilised by poor and the rulers of Britain alike. Hunger, it suggests, was a constant spectral presence, something mortally feared by the poor who wondered how they might feed their families and by the rich as the possible trigger for disorder and sedition. This complex interplay – much like E.P. Thompson’s ‘moral economy’ – was understood by both sides. The poor mobilised the fear of hunger as likely to have mortal consequences not only for themselves but also for the rich in threatening letters and as threats made during food riots; the rulers of local communities acted preemptively in the emergence of relief funds and in developing new forms of surveillance.

in The politics of hunger

The bitter repression of the national wave of riots during the subsistence crises of 1795–6 and 1800–1 led to the end of the food rioting tradition. Only in the ‘Hungry Forties’ was hunger ‘rediscovered’, the ‘struggle over the representation of scarcity’, as Peter Gurney has put it, being particularly acute in the politicking of both Chartism and the Anti-Corn Law League. So the received understanding goes. This chapter questions this position and analyses the ways in which the discourses detailed in chapter one persisted beyond 1801 and into the 1840s. In so doing it analyses the claims made in threatening letters, legal defences and claims made to (and quarrels with) poor law officials, as well as in popular political forms including speeches, broadsides and ballads, and political journalism.

in The politics of hunger
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Hunger stalks Britain today. It – and the fear of it – lives amongst us. We live in an age of austerity and food banks, of attempts to define minimum needs and to reduce those without to the elemental basis of their needs. Hunger, then, never left. It persisted. The conclusion considers these persistences and parallels. It argues that policy stopped being a policy problem but instead became thought of as a policy tool, something to be used to control the population. The fixation on famine in past studies is therefore unhelpfully myopic. Hunger, it concludes, was more powerful, more pervasive, more engrained into the fabric of everyday life and more central to policy-making and political projects than we have admitted. Hunger defined popular protest and popular politics. But to adopt a ‘history from below’ approach would not have been enough, would not have done justice to the fear and force of hunger, for the experience was necessarily framed by local and central policy-making. Hunger was central to experiments in government; it was used to make new subjects and to assert bodily and racial difference between peoples. Hunger was critical in the making of humanitarianism and early forms of transnational solidarities. Hunger matters.

in The politics of hunger
Malthus, Hodge and the racialisation of the poor

The conclusion from Malthus’ claim that Speenhamland-style payments encouraged the poor to procreate without regard for who would shoulder the cost of supporting their offspring was clear: when denied a guaranteed access to food they would no longer populate without regard for their condition. Denied the basis of anything beyond subsistence, the poor would do no more than exist. The idea was coded in the New Poor Law workhouse dietaries, exemplars of a wider shift of what Foucault labelled biopolitics, ‘new’ techniques in government that as their primary political strategy sought to administer the biological features of the human species. This chapter explores the genealogy of these intellectual and ideological understandings of bodily need and hunger. In so doing, it argues that this emergence was informed by, and a counterpart to, the racialisation of ‘the poor’, the process whereby working people, especially agricultural workers, were conceived and referred to as a distinct and decidedly animalistic race. By conceiving of the poor as a separate race, New Poor Law administrators and others were given moral consent to control the bodies of claimants, to experiment with forms of bodily control and the negation of individual agency in the making of new subjects.

in The politics of hunger

Hunger was not just understood directly but something mobilised and mediated through the plight of distant others. In particular, the devastating famine of 1840s Ireland was critical in shaping political languages of hunger in the Empire as a whole as well as amongst the people of Britain. This chapter does not explore the central governmental response to these famines – though this provides a critical context – but instead examines popular responses to the hunger of distant others in the 1840s. In so doing, chapter six examines both the discourses of response (and how these helped to shape understandings of hunger) as well as schemes to relieve famine and the distant hungry. It is argued that against the ideologically driven official governmental response to these different famines, those who were only one act of misfortune away from being incarcerated in the workhouse and only one or two generations away from experiencing absolute hunger were quick to respond, setting up collections and relief schemes. It acknowledges that the popular politics of hunger were not bound by the body or borders but were rooted in the uneven contours of solidarity and reciprocity.

in The politics of hunger
On hunger politics

By the early decades of the eighteenth century the peoples of England, so the received understanding goes, were beyond the ravages of famine. Southern England experienced its last ‘major’ famine in the 1590s, northern England a little later in the 1620s. There is, of course, both a quantitative and a qualitative difference between the experience and effects of mass famine deaths and the fear of hunger. For between being bodily replete with no fear of want in the future and death from want there exists a wide spectrum of hungers. Famine forms one, horrific, end of the spectrum but it is not the spectrum of human experience. This chapter explores these complex understandings and in so doing argues that by fixating on famine – however understandable that is – we necessarily deny the effects that the fear of perishing from want had on the peoples of England beyond the age of famine.

in The politics of hunger
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Speenhamland, hunger and universal pauperism

In May 1795 the Berkshire magistrates met in the small parish of Speenhamland to set a scale of ‘minimum incomes’ by family composition and the price of bread. The effects of the decision are now notorious, not least due to Malthus’ critique. The sociologists Fred Block and Margaret Somers have suggested that the ‘shadow of Speenhamland’ looms large over our attempts to understand the workings of the English poor laws but also retains a haunting presence in welfare debates in the neo-liberal age. Yet the actual mechanisms and subsequent history of ‘bread scales’ remain little understood. This chapter remedies this imbalance, and in so doing argues that subsequent perversions of the initial intentions behind Speenhamland-type payments meant that all agrarian workers became pauperised. Farmers mindful that the parish would supplement working incomes duly cut wages, thereby making need, and thus the discourse of hunger, universal. This extension of relief counter-intuitively required new modes of surveillance to limit costs, with parish officers essentially engaging in ‘means testing’ and otherwise excluding claimants on moral grounds. Hunger was now measured and quantified, the poor rendered as an undifferentiated body.

in The politics of hunger
Or, the making of the poor as biological subjects

Notoriously, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 moved beyond monetary relief to establish precise dietaries for the poor ‘relieved’ in union workhouses. Out-relief was now something only to be given in absolute emergencies. By dictating what the poor ate, as opposed to what they might eat, workhouse dietaries established an absolute biological minimum for bodily survival decided by individual poor law unions within parameters set by the central state through the Poor Law Commission. While the implications of workhouse dietaries have been subject to careful study, this chapter takes a broader perspective. It examines the makings of the idea of the dietary, analysing debates and discussion concerning both the physiological and practical science of pauper diet, as well as examining antecedents, before going on to explore the implementation of workhouse dietaries in the new centrally controlled but still locally operated system What emerges is a highly uneven system, patterned by varying ideological, practical, economic and political imperatives. The chapter also analyses the critiques of the system, exploring the centrality of critiques both to the politicking of radical politicians and to the rise of a particular type of humanitarianism, a concern with the bodily welfare of the poor.

in The politics of hunger