Reeves on Mill: Chapter 9

In Chapter 9 Reeves is mainly concerned with the Principles of Political Economy (1848), Mill’s relationship with Harriet, and the delineation of Mill’s shifting position with regard to socialism. Principles of Political Economy gives a classical laissez-faire account of the economics of production, largely based on the work of David Ricardo (although Mill dedicated it privately to Harriet). Three arguments were at the centre of this…

  1. That prices result from the interaction of supply and demand in the market-place.
  2. That free trade between nations is an unqualified good: Mill believed that it would render war ‘obsolete’.
  3. That there was a limited amount of money available to pay wages, and therefore poverty would continue for as long as families had too many children. This goes some way to explaining Mill’s ‘moral Malthusianism’.

However Mill’s ambitions were not confined to an exposition of economic principles (and Principles gave him a ‘monarchical’ status in political economy according to Bagehot). The full title of the book was Principles of Political Economy: with Some of Their  Applications to Social Philosophy and Mill’s model here was Adam Smith. He wanted to deal not just with production but with distribution, and here the tendency of his though was very different. He argued that property laws were  a product of historical time and place….

The distribution of wealth, therefore, depends on the laws and customs of society. The rules by which it is determined, are what the feelings and opinions of the community make them, and very different in different ages and countries: and might be still more different if mankind chose.

Marx denounced Mill’s separation of production and distribution as a ‘shallow syncretism’, but there is no question that if Mill’s views on production were right-wing, those on distribution were radical. His central concern was to distinguish between earned and unearned income. He proposed to use the tax system as a ‘wrecking ball’ against the latter. This would include a financial cap on inheritance. He would have liked to abolish income tax, but recognising this was a distant prospect proposed a substantial tax-free allowance [something which if not at substantial enough a level has become a feature of the UK tax system].

By the time of the publication of the 3rd Edition of Principles in 1852 Mill had revised it in “a more radical and socialist direction”. Undoubtedly part of the reason for this was Harriet. John Taylor had died in July 1849. In April 1851 she and Mill were married by the registrar in Melcombe Regis, Dorset. This was a difficult decision for them as they both disapproved of 19thC marriage laws. Mill wrote….

The whole character of the marriage relation as constituted by law being such as she and I entirely and conscientiously disapprove, I having no means of legally divesting myself of these odious powers….feel it my duty to put on record a formal protest against the existing law of marriage, in so far as conferring such powers; and a solemn promise never in any case of under any circumstance to use them.

[a long way from Trollope!]. Mill’s marriage to Harriet caused a deep rupture with the rest of his family, including his mother, which was never reconciled. Reeves says Mill’s behaviour was ‘indefensible’ and it has been described as ‘the greatest blot on his character’. Reeves says the explanation lies in the fact that once Mill had Harriet he did not feel he needed anyone else. I am quite suspicious of all this, but I have a different moral framework to Reeves: for me it is quite right that Mill should have taken Harriet’s side, whatever the effect on his relatives ; but I have never believed that blood is thicker than water – quite the reverse!

Whatever the case Harriet had a considerable interest on Mill’s thinking especially as regards feminism. This has generally – surprise, surprise! – been regarded as a negative. Stefan Collini wrote of Harriet that she was a…

very clever, imaginative, passionate, intense, imperious, paranoid, unpleasant woman

Reeves comments ‘For what is worth, the evidence on Harriet’s unpleasantness is inconclusive’. Certainly absolutely none has been offered here so far. Collini’s statement is a particularly vicious example of the way in which prejudice against ‘very clever’ women continues to this day: she was very clever therefore she must have been domineering, unbalanced and ‘unpleasant’. It is revolting really.

But Harriet did have a beneficial impact on Mill’s thinking on feminism, even if, characteristically, he was too scared to publish at this time. And he never went as far as Harriet particularly on the question of maternity : she wrote…

it is neither necessary nor just to make imperative on women that they shall be either mothers or nothing, or if they have been mothers once, they shall be nothing else during the whole remainder of their lives

Even so Mill’s views on women and equality were wildly out of step with contemporary orthodoxy. So were his views on race. Mill denied that anyone was born ‘more capable of wisdom’ than anyone else, and ‘never deviated from his conviction that any observed differences in racial or national character were wholly the result of variations in historical and social context’. This stance might be ‘unexceptional’ now but it ‘was bordering in the eccentric in the mid-nineteenth century’. Mill linked his feminism and his anti-racism, and in the Subjection of Women wrote that it was quite wrong…

to ordain that to be born a girl instead of a boy, any more than to be born black or white, or a commoner or a nobleman, shall decide the person’s position through all life.

Harriet also influenced Mill’s thinking on Socialism. This is a complex area and subsequent writing has claimed Mill as both friend and foe to Socialism. There is no question that Mill would have utterly opposed the so-called ‘state socialism’ of Stalin and Mao because of its attack on individual liberty. On the other hand he came to champion the co-operative movement….

We may, through the co-operative principle, see our way to a change in society, which would combine the freedom and independence of the individual, with the moral, intellectual and economical advantages of aggregate production.

But he thought the working-class in England were unprepared, morally unfitted, for the rights and duties of Socialism. He lamented that the working class ‘idea of social reform appears to be simply higher wages, and less work, for the sake of mere sensual indulgence’. But Mill’s position on Work was significantly different to that of some of his contemporaries – ‘Work, I imagine, is not a good in itself’  [Trollope is among many who would have disagreed]. Work is worthwhile because of what it produces; its object. Mill understood that work under a wage system was alienated but he saw the way to change this as not through the Marxist path of economic exchange [The workers to own the mean of production, distribution etc.] but through moral reform.

The great end of social improvement should be to fit (‘the labouring classes’) by cultivation for a state of society combining the greatest personal freedom with that just distribution of fruits of labour which the present laws of property do not even profess to aim at….

I confess I am not charmed with that ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on, that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind, or anything but the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress.

Reeves comments on the latter that it was easy for Mill, with his comfortable income, to speak in this vein. Once again he seems to me to entirely miss the point. This is a passage which is wholly relevant today: even more relevant than when Mill wrote it. We have certainly not advanced out of that phase of industrial progress (and the use of the word progress now seems ironic). When one beholds the idolisation of naked capitalism, and the ‘trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels’ which is applauded in television programmes like the ghastly The Apprentice, one can clearly see that we have if anything moved backwards. Mill’s dreams of progress might seem sadly deluded but his words show us to ourselves. There is a profound radicalism here and I find Mill in this vein very powerful. It is Reeves lack of appreciation of the power and modernity of a passage like this which shows most clearly his inadequacies.

But ideologically Mill was a pragmatic Socialist….

the question of Socialism is not… a question of flying to the sole refuge against the evils which bear down upon humanity but a mere question of comparative advantage.

One must agee with Reeves here that this is a long way from the opening of The Communist Manifesto (‘The history of hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle’). However Mill would have endorsed Marx’s goal of a society in which ‘the free development of each is a condition of the free development of all’ and might even have supported the appropriation of all land by the State. Overall however, Reeves describes Mill as ‘agnostic on the benefits of capitalism versus socialism’. Reeves writes that Mill’s ‘doubts about socialism and communism sprang from his liberalism’ and quotes the following passage…

No society in which eccentricity is a matter of reproach, can be in a wholesome state……It is yet to be ascertained whether the Communistic scheme would be consistent with the multiform development of human nature, those manifold unlikenesses, that diversity of tastes and talents, and variety of intellectual points of view, which is not only a great part of the interest of human life, but by bringing intellects into stimulating collision, and by presenting to each innumerable  notions that he would not have conceived of himself, are the mainspring of mental and moral progression.

In fact however one might argue that Mill’s objections were just as much anarchist as liberal: would he not have assented to Bakunin’s great dictum that…

Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice, but socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality

[in fact Bakunin, who is unmentioned in Reeves’ index, lived at very nearly exactly the same time as Mill – Bakunin 1814-76, Mill 1806-73 – and would make a useful comparison point].

Reeves argues that while Mill’s socialism deepened at this time, his liberalism deepened even more. In the Principles he stated his fears about the ‘despotism of custom’ which he would later develop in On Liberty

In this country, however, the effective restraints on mental freedom proceed much less from the law or the government, than from the intolerant temper of the national mind; arising no longer from even as respectable a source as bigotry or fanaticism, but rather from the general habit, both in opinion and conduct, of making adherence to custom the rule of life, and enforcing it, by social penalties, against all persons who, without a party to back them, assert their individual independence.

Mill set a ‘test’ which established that around every individual human being there should be a circle over which no Government should ever step…

The point to be determined is, where the limit should be placed; how large a province of human life this reserved territory should include. I apprehend that it ought to include all that part which concerns only the life, whether inward or outward, of the individual, and does not affect the interests of others, or affects them only through the moral principle of example.

This is the ‘harm principle’ which Mill developed in On Liberty.

The issue of Harriet’s influence on Mill is another contested area. Mill himself heaped almost unlimited praise on Harriet and ascribed a great deal to her. Reeves believes that this has been too easily accepted by commentators, and has devalued the real contribution which she did make in providing him with an ‘intellectual partnership’ and in managing his affairs. Reeves writes…

Whatever Mill said, Harriet never directly dictated his views, but as two intelligent, passionate people they certainly debated them.

And if Harriet influenced Mill leftward a countervailing trend was that he was writing at a time of great economic prosperity when the case for socialism seemed difficult (things would be very different after the crash of 1873)….

The possibilities and challenges of deep financial ruptures, bitter class conflict and profound ideological struggle did not appear in his mature thought, in part at least because there was so little sign of them around him. In this sense, Mill was a peacetime philosopher.

Unlike Ruskin, Wordsworth and Carlyle, Mill was ‘not instinctively opposed to the outward signs of progress’. He was generally in favour of railways for instance. But he was wary of the environmental impact of too hasty industrialisation; Reeves says he “has a very good claim to the title of the first ‘green’ economist”. Mill’s ‘reverence for nature was always democratic’. He (again unlike Wordsworth who opposed building a railway to the Lake District as it would allow working-class access) was a lifelong advocate of free access to the countryside. Mill saw economic growth as a means for prosperity, but feared that as an end in itself it threatened to impoverish both the planet and the soul. This was yet another reason for his continued insistence on population control. He saw nothing to fear in economic stagnation…

A stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. there would be as much scope as ever for all sorts of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the Art of Living and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds cease to be engrossed by the art of getting on.

[another delightful and wholly modern passage. Alas, once again we are, if anything, even more obsessed with ‘getting on’]. Economics was always the servant and never the master of humanity in Mill. The weakness in his thought Reeves claims [and it would seem with justification in this case] is that while he was brilliant at describing the faults in present society, and also what a better society would like, his analysis of how to get there is sketchy and unsatisfying. Vague references to moral reformation and character building do not a programme make. Reeves argues that this weakness sprang from the fact that he was ‘more liberal than progressive’ so shied away from anything which would coerce or force people. No institution, including the state, could be an engine of progress because it would infringe too much on the individual. Again Mill’s dilemma and problem are typically those of the anarchist, and in many ways I think this is a far better description of much of his thought than liberal which is such a loaded and difficult term [and which has such diverse meanings on either side of the Atlantic – to call Mill’s thought liberal in the recent American sense is to come up with a description which is almost diametrically opposite to what one intends to say of it]. Reeves neatly concludes….

Presented with the choice between freely chosen selfishness and coerced cooperation, Mill unhesitatingly backed freedom.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Reeves on Mill: Chapter 9

  1. ellenandjim

    A truly great blog, Nick. You bring out what is so important, relevant and eloquent in Mill. A rare voice speaking out for Harriet was Phyllis Rose (who wrote a book on Victorian couples), but there the problem was in her quest to be popular she did not go into their intellectual partnership (as I recall).

    I found myself remembering how I admired so Mill’s Subjection of Women and thought it is ahead of its time today by and large. No Trollope would not have agreed with Mill on woman at all

    One must remember that when Mill talks so strongly for freedom for the individual against forced cooperation, he is at the same time half-assuming some of his ideal behaviors (like men to women) will be part of this.

    On the coercions of communism and socialism: yes. I particularly myself found this passage relevant:

    “No society in which eccentricity is a matter of reproach, can be in a wholesome state……It is yet to be ascertained whether the Communistic scheme would be consistent with the multiform development of human nature, those manifold unlikenesses, that diversity of tastes and talents, and variety of intellectual points of view, which is not only a great part of the interest of human life, but by bringing intellects into stimulating collision, and by presenting to each innumerable notions that he would not have conceived of himself, are the mainspring of mental and moral progression …”

    And

    “In this country, however, the effective restraints on mental freedom proceed much less from the law or the government, than from the intolerant temper of the national mind; arising no longer from even as respectable a source as bigotry or fanaticism, but rather from the general habit, both in opinion and conduct, of making adherence to custom the rule of life, and enforcing it, by social penalties, against all persons who, without a party to back them, assert their individual independence ..”

    The intolerant temper of the common mind is what makes life so often so unhappy for anyone more intelligent or different in any way, and the way communism was instituted made the work ethnic not just a fetish (I agree about work as a supposed good no matter what) but a means to get back, to torture and hurt others out of envy and hatred.

    For what it’s worth, my husband, Jim, finds Collini shallow and self-serving often, and distrusts all that urbanity.

    Ellen

  2. nick2209

    Many thanks Ellen. My problem with this book is that I find all the points of greatest interest, the passages I want to cite, are from Mill himself. With Reeves I often find myself, as can be seen, in disagreement. I am therefore somewhat unclear as to why I did not just start with Mill’s own texts! On the other hand I am finding a clear biographical picture useful and no doubt it will be more so when I do finally get around to reading Mill himself!

    And I was interested in the comment on Collini – actually I did not know the name at all.

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