Marilynne Robinson Mother Country

ISBN 13: 9780345367402

Mother Country

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9780345367402: Mother Country
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In exploring Britain's economic history, this book comes to disturbing conclusions about the existence of a phenomenon like Sellafield, and about the part our political and cultural assumptions play in marketing and sheltering industrial scandals, such as high levels of radio-active contamination.

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About the Author:

Marilynne Robinson is the author of Gilead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Home, winner of the Orange Prize, the L.A. Times Book Prize, and a finalist for the National Book Award. Her first novel, Housekeeping, won the PEN/Hemingway Award. Robinson is also the author of the nonfiction books Absence of Mind and The Death of Adam. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and lives in Iowa City.

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PART ONEThe first questions that arise in attempting to understand Sellafield, and more generally the nuclear and environmental policies of the British government, are: How have they gotten away with so much? and Why on earth would they want to get away with it? To put it in other terms, why should the relationship of those who govern Britain to its land and population be that of a shrewd adversary contriving to do harm for profit? For decades the British government has presided over the release of deadly toxins into its own environment, for money, using secrecy, scientism, and public trust or passivity to preclude resistance or criticism and to quiet fears. Such extraordinary behavior cannot have a motive in any usual sense, since it is in no one’s interest. It has, however, an etiology and a history, in which the institutions which expedite it and the relations it expresses evolve together. This is of more than casual interest to Americans, because there is no stronger cultural force than atavism. Our past is a good commentary on the future we seem to be preparing for ourselves.It is often said that Britain has no written constitution. If a constitution is a body of law that defines the fundamental relations among the elements of a society, then Britain has an ancient one indeed, solidly encoded, enshrined in literature, in history, and in an array of institutions. The core of British culture is Poor Law, which emerged in the fourteenth century and was reformed once, in 1834, when it became the Victorians’ notorious New Poor Law. It remained in force until 1948. Then it was superseded by the Welfare State, in which its features were plainly discernible.In essence, Poor Law restricted people who lived by their labor to the parish where they were born, and mandated assistance from the parish for those who were needy and deemed deserving of help, while wages were depressed to a level that made recourse to such help frequent. This often meant entering a poorhouse, institutions whose wretchedness made them, over centuries, objects of the minutest study to generations of philanthropists. Working people who were forced to accept parish assistance, and whose destitution was absolute, and who were found otherwise worthy of aid, surrendered whatever rights they may have had. Or the fact that they had no rights was thoroughly and ingeniously exploited once they accepted this status. Under the Old Poor Law, before the 1834 reforms that made the operation of the system more punitive and severe, child paupers, that is, the children of destitute parents, were given to employers, each with a little bonus to reward the employer for relieving the public of this burden. The children would be worked brutally, because with each new pauper child the employer received another little bonus. To starve such children was entirely in the interest of those who set them to work. Aside from all the work the child performed under duress, its death brought the reward that came with a new child. The authorities asserted an absolute right to disrupt families, and to expose young children to imprisonment and forced labor. The invasiveness of the Poor Laws was never impeded by the development of any system of assured legal rights, with which the entire institution would have been wholly incompatible and out of sympathy. Leslie Scarman, a member of the House of Lords and a legal authority, has written: “It is the helplessness of law in [the] face of the legislative sovereignty of Parliament which makes it difficult for the legal system to accommodate the concept of fundamental and inviolable human rights.”5 More to the point, the social history of Britain has never reflected any sense of the unconditional value of human lives or any respect for the modest baggage of person and property, the little circumference of inviolability on which personal rights depend.The indigent who were considered worthy of parish assistance were called paupers. The unworthy, those who were considered able-bodied but shiftless, were not to be relieved, though in fact they were often assisted on the same terms as the “deserving poor,” that is, meagerly and punitively, since the system was in any case preoccupied with the need to withhold charity, considered the great source of moral corruption of the poor and therefore the great source of poverty. So late and well reputed a social thinker as the young William Beveridge urged that starvation be left as a final incentive to industry among the shiftless poor. Beveridge was to become the father of the Welfare State.The mandate of Poor Law charity was only to provide subsistence, because if the recipient of charity were to do as well as the independent worker, the worker, too, would become demoralized and slide into pauperism. At the same time, a very important article of economic faith was that the wages of workers could not exceed subsistence—if they did, the depletion of capital would cause a decline in investment and employment that would return the worker unceremoniously to something less than the level of subsistence. So it was difficult to make the situation of paupers less desirable than the situation of the employed, especially considering the horrendous conditions under which most work was done. Paupers were subjected to the miseries of the separation of their families, and they were auctioned off or forced into emigration, depending on the improvisations of local authorities determined to keep relief recipients to an absolute minimum. To assure that parish assistance would be limited to those who were qualified by birth or legal settlement to receive it, the movement of workers was narrowly restricted.The abusive treatment of paupers was justified on the grounds that it discouraged the class above them, the employed, from sinking into Poor Law dependency, and it was justified by the suspicion that the class below them, the poor unworthy of assistance, were to be found among them despite all precautions, and it was justified on the grounds that dependency easily became habit, that charity demoralized its recipients. Every worker was a potential pauper, and every pauper was a burden, presumptively demoralized, and an agent of demoralization of others. These assumptions created and sustained the legal situation of the great majority of British people.Even now British subjects have no rights established in law. Supposedly they enjoy customary rights, but where in their harrowing history any custom friendly to their interests could have been established I am at a loss to know. Until the 1980s people were imprisoned without trial on the word of the arresting officer for appearing to intend a crime, under the Vagrancy Act of 1824. Such arrests have supposedly ended, but in Britain few things ever really end. Clearly, those against whom such laws are carried out have none of the protections we imagine to be “Western.” The laws are highly consistent, however, with the conditions of the Poor Law, which voided every notion of individual rights—except, of course, the slippery right to subsist, always boasted of and worried about despite high rates of death among paupers, and at best enjoyed only by those the parish could or would relieve.Parliament, which would be the political expression of fundamental rights in the British population if it were a straightforward representative institution, is characterized by an extraordinary mix of prerogatives and disabilities, which combine to weaken all other institutions without creating real power in the Parliament itself. No British court can override the laws it passes. Recently it abolished seven major elected city governments, including the Greater London Council, an action of special significance because these were major power bases for the Labour Party. To this day Parliament can expunge an official crime by legalizing an action of government retroactively. It has almost perfect legislative freedom, in theory, but in fact it has no right to any information the Prime Minister does not give it. A bill, while it is in preparation, is an Official Secret, forbidden to Members of Parliament as to anyone else. Experts on modern Britain describe the system as an elective dictatorship, but I have my doubts about that formula. Whitehall, the bureaucracy that is actually charged with developing legislation, collecting information, and implementing policy, is not elected, and does not change with parties or ministries. Question time, when the Prime Minister replies to questions from Members of Parliament, can deal only with specified subjects. It is forbidden, for example, to inquire into purchases made by the National Health Service. As Ralf Dahrendorf, head of the London School of Economics, says in his book On Britain, “What happens is not decided in Westminster [that is, in Parliament]. It is not even discussed at Westminster in any detail. As a result, the visible political game becomes strangely superficial.” Mr. Dahrendorf admires the system, on balance. However, that the “deceptively lively adversary surface”6 of parliamentary activity is a surface, rather than an authentic and consequential process of deliberation, means that even the right to vote is a very small concession of power on the part of those who do decide “what happens.” In other words, there is a pervasive absence of positive, substantive personal and political rights in Britain.The structures of institutions express conceptions of society. Sellafield amounts, in its dinosaur futurism, to a brutal laying of hands on the lives of people: a blunt, unreflecting assertion of power. It is the same unchallenged assertion of economic prerogative that legally immobilized the majority of the British population for five hundred years, so that the cost of relieving their wretchedness, when wretchedness became extreme, could be contained.The movement of workers from the country to the cities and from the North to London demonstrates that these laws, which mandated the forced return of strayed workers to the place of their legal settlement, were not consistently enforced, though in the beginning of this century Beatrice Webb, guiding spirit of Fabian socialism, may be heard grumbling about the numbers who were returned and the costs entailed. If cities represented opportunity, relatively speaking, migrants had the impetus of destitution and humiliation at their backs, to enhance the pull of urban life. Everywhere, whatever they did, workers were seen as burdens, actual or potential, and this perception governed every aspect of their existence.America had its paupers and poorhouses, through the nineteenth century at least, though these institutions seem never to have seized on the national imagination, or to have remained in the popular memory. Hawthorne’s failed utopia, Blithedale, becomes a poor farm. Thoreau is visited at Walden by paupers, including one who declares himself “deficient in intellect.” In the early twentieth century, Booker T. Washington notes that blacks are almost never paupers, by which he means that they are provident and self-sufficient people. Given our profound cultural debt to Great Britain, it is no wonder if our policies with regard to the poor are sometimes crude and high-handed. But imagine what it would be like if we had truly replicated British social organization, if every American who lived by a wage had been immobilized to simplify the administration of welfare in the event he should need it, and if this arrangement had been persisted in for hundreds of years. This would surely trench very far on the dignity and liberty of citizens, and their pursuit of happiness.Margaret Thatcher is easing the burdens of Britain by cutting back on education, health care, and other threadbare amenities, pinching one of the poorest populations in Europe, supposedly to punish and cure their poverty. This is a typically visceral reaction against the supposed cost to the state of allowing meager comfort to people perceived as demoralized and reduced to dependency by intemperate generosity.Such patterns of reaction are as old as Poor Law itself. William Beveridge, who wrote the celebrated Plan for the Welfare State in 1943, promised “subsistence” to employed people in conditions of high national employment. This is the great socialist dream against which the present government recoils. Americans, perhaps because they romanticize their origins, never think of the lives of British people as circumscribed and poor, historically or at present, though many of them are descended from the outcasts and refugees of this same penurious system. That any society could promise so little, and then renege, seems preposterous, except against the background of British social history.How does one back away from a promise of subsistence? As an economist, Beveridge knew that the historical meaning of the word has only been that one should not die of starvation in its starkest form. Disease, poisoning, exposure, malnutrition, and exhaustion have never been treated as incompatible with subsistence, though they have slain multitudes. In other words, though in Britain historically it has been used to establish the wage of a worker, in theory and in practice, and as the measure of mercy to the afflicted, and as the animating vision of the armies of reformers, subsistence has always been, conceptually speaking, a rotten nut. Beveridge’s promising it under certain—historically atypical—conditions implies that, under other conditions, people must expect less. If subsistence seemed to the British public of the late forties a bright prospect, less-than-subsistence must have seemed to them to describe their situation before the war. (During World War II, food rationing improved the British diet and health. Since Beveridge presided over the distribution of food, perhaps a definition of subsistence was inferred from his successes in relieving poor nutrition. However, postwar austerities returned nutrition to prewar standards.)It should shock us that the virtual constitution of a modern state could imply that the subsistence of its people was not to be assumed in the event of unfavorable, and highly typical, economic conditions. William Beveridge wrote an escape clause into his Plan for the Welfare State, and Margaret Thatcher has availed herself of it. Beveridge, claiming the influence of Maynard Keynes, opined that government could stimulate employment so as to maintain it at the level necessary to make his plan viable. In other words, in the absence of ongoing government action, the plan would collapse. For years the British government has systematically created unemployment, so the plan, whatever it amounted to, has lost its economic rationale. It was designed to be possible only if it was not especially necessary.The ancient pattern of dubious charity provoking horrified reaction against the object of charity is being repeated now in the radical attack on the meager fabric of public amenity—they are selling the Thames—and, in general, on the standard of living of the poor, whose consumption of medical care has been curtailed by the collapse of the National Health Service, and whose real income has been reduced by the curtailment of every kind of provision the state so gallantly undertook in 1948, appropriating to itself thereby, as William Beveridge knew and said, the socialization—the control, that is—of demand.The mechanism built into the British Welfare State which allows demand to be depressed was perfected in the Poor Law system. It is the combination of poverty-level wages, heavily taxed for good measure, with a system of national decency and, shall I say, comity which brings real inc...

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