What ‘Poldark’ can teach us about late-stage capitalism
Without social mobility the discontent of the masses with their lot cannot be contained
One of the huge achievements of Debbie Horsfield’s adaptation of the Poldark novels is its determination to dramatise, alongside the bodice ripping, the core social conflicts experienced by the first industrial generation. Photograph: Robert Viglasky
The BBC drama series Poldark is becoming eerily relevant to our times. The hero, George Warleggan – a dashing banker and mining entrepreneur – has succeeded in stripping away all obstacles to free-market economics and stands on the brink of a political career. In pursuit of social mobility, George has invested in a private education for his son, at Harrow. His wife, Elizabeth, is under the care of a private GP. To promote economic development in Cornwall, George has enclosed the common grazing lands, formed a banking monopoly and closed down a tin mine.
Soon George will stand for election, not for the Tories but for the centre-left Whig party, which wishes to spread social harmony. Although there is unrest, Britain will soon launch all-out war against a rogue state (Napoleon Bonaparte’s France). In any case, the masses do not seem to know what they want, other than to level down the wealth of entrepreneurs such as George, participate in extramarital sex and dance round maypoles drinking ale.
This, of course, is not the official plot. Warleggan is meant to be the villain. But it is the story as it might be told by any of the far-right think tanks supporting Donald Trump and Theresa May.
When Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson issued a plea for the right to start defending capitalism last week, echoed by numerous weekend chat show guests professing that capitalism is “still better than all the alternatives”, they were only reliving the basic problem experienced by the elite in Poldark.
Industrial capitalism would, after 1820, trigger a global shift in income per head from flat, where it had wallowed for centuries, to a 45-degree takeoff path. It would allow a sevenfold increase in the Earth’s population within 200 years. The Newcomen engine in Poldark’s mine is a direct predecessor of the tiny machine with three billion switches that runs your smartphone. They were living through the most important era of social progress in human history.
Yet the birth pangs of industrial capitalism were inhuman – and an economic system regulated primarily by the market goes on creating and reproducing inhuman results. Two hundred years’ worth of laws, regulations and materials science could not stop the Grenfell Tower fire engulfing its residents, nor Kensington council showing Warleggan-scale indifference in response.
One of the huge achievements of Debbie Horsfield’s adaptation of the Poldark novels is its determination to dramatise, alongside the bodice ripping, the core social conflicts experienced by the first industrial generation. These were not simply about class and economics, but also what it means to be human in a society driven by market forces and private ownership.
In Horsfield’s Poldark, the Methodist agitation of the Carne brothers arrives almost out of nowhere and starts ripping up all the established ideological order west of Truro. In reality, throughout the late 18th century, so-called dissenting congregations maintained a rich and riotous intellectual life among protoindustrial communities.
In Frome, Somerset, for example, John Wesley met “a mixture of all men of all opinions, Anabaptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Arians, Antinomians, Moravians and what not” – this in a wool-manufacturing community of just 8,000 people. So developed were the traditions of local autonomy, defiance of church authority and democratic decision-making inside these dissenting communities that Wesley’s life work became to impose order on them and save them from revolution.
When people in the Labour movement say it is more Methodist than Marxist, what they often forget is how Marxist Wesley’s political structures were. The Tory social reformer Robert Southey would complain in 1820 that Methodism “has familiarised the lower classes to the work of combining in associations, making rules for their own governance, raising funds and communicating from one part of the kingdom to another”.
For the real Cornish mining workforce of the 1790s, then, Wesleyanism would have been a civilising force working to delay and suppress what was about to happen. In 1795, the year in which the current season of Poldark is set, Cornish tin miners joined nationwide food protests, imposing a maximum price law in local marketplaces, designed to end the profiteering of the land-owning aristocracy. As in France, their actions were guided by the concept of a “just price” opposed to a market price. Classed as “riots”, these were by and large peaceful attempts to impose human values, literally into the marketplace, in defiance of commercial values.
It is possible to “reboot” capitalism as a defensible system. You do what the post-Poldark generation had to: impose regulations that prevent exploitation, suppress the market, place certain functions and prices under the control of the state. You treat speculators, monopolists and crooks of the Warleggan variety as social outcasts, not invite them to become the biggest donors to your party.
Since the Poldark era, the Tory party has had more than 200 years to learn this, but it never has. In its current incarnation – from the front bench to the putrid ideologues of the Institute for Economic Affairs and the alt-right trolling community – it only believes in market forces. In fact, its belief in the market is more dogmatic now than at any time in the past century. Otherwise, why would it, right now, be selling off and marketising the NHS, prisons and the social housing stock? Why would it be trying to force elderly care off the state’s obligations and on to the household sector? Why would it be clearing the housing estates of Britain as enthusiastically as Warleggan cleared the pasturelands?
Discontent with capitalism
The reason there is discontent with capitalism is that, in its current form, it has failed. Not in a cyclical way, but in the form of a permanent cul-de-sac: where failure produces only oligarchic rule, attacks on democracy, higher inequality and rocketing asset prices alongside stagnating productivity.
Instead of a beguiled and illiterate mass, the 21st-century Warleggans face the opposite: a young generation armed with information tools and human rights of which they cannot be deprived without depleting economic dynamism. The great illusion of Toryism for 200 years has been, essentially, that all revolts end up like the ones in Poldark. As long as you can deliver economic growth and social mobility, Jacobinism can be suppressed.
Nothing has prepared British conservatism for an era where that is no longer possible.