Can the Social Residuum be Stamped Out?

Can the Social Residuum be Stamped Out?

“Can the social residuum be stamped out?” asks Mr. Oliphant, and recommends a pair of patent hob-nailed boots for that beneficent purpose. My answer is, “Not by treading on one’s own toes”—an awkward misadventure which may befall enthusiasts who march roughshod and stamp with more zeal than discretion.

There is, if I may so term it, a “genial ruffianism” about the foregoing article which gives it a charm that is all its own; for whereas other advocates of drastic remedies betray a certain scruple and reluctance, there is here an engaging naÏveté in the proposal of most outrageous remedies, and in the quiet assumption that the only possible objections are those which the author has foreseen. There happens, however, to be a pertinent question which Mr. Oliphant has overlooked, viz.: who are the “unfit”? and then there is the further question whether their “stamping out” is to be desired.

First, then, who are the unfit—the “lowest types”, the “useless”, the “worthless”, the “idle and thriftless”, the “refuse of the community”, as Mr. Oliphant has variously entitled them? Who are the fit, who the unfit? It is as necessary to know this as to know who are the sane and who the insane in an asylum. Those who call so hastily for violent measures should remember Poë’s story of the remarkable madhouse where the system of “Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” had superseded the “soothing system”, and where, as it turned out, the lunatics, having obtained the mastery, were disporting themselves at large, while the keepers lay tarred and feathered in the cells. Whatever the merits of the tar-and-feather system, there was here a slight error in its application; and so, I suggest, it might be a serious matter if we stamped on the wrong part, or an insufficient part, of the social organism. Now the unfit, according to Mr. Oliphant, are “those who find the struggle of life more than they can bear, and who cannot persuade others to undertake their support”. But what of the capitalist class, who, finding the struggle of life by no means to their liking, have very emphatically “persuaded” others to support them? Are not these also an “incubus” on society? Mr. Oliphant assumes that the only “unfit” are the poor, squalid, stunted vagabonds of our slums and alleys, whereas there is no less unfitness, of another sort, in the equally “worthless”, “useless”, “idle and thriftless” persons who live in luxury on the misery and exploitation of others, for to be the cause of another’s unfitness is to be unfit oneself. But these “elect of society”, it will be said, are by comparison physically vigorous. Perhaps so; yet it is nevertheless their retribution to be morally and spiritually diseased. To one who looks below the surface of things the hideous deformity of the East-end slum-dwellers is not more revolting, not more dangerous to the general well-being of the community, than the sleek, heartless, infra-human gentility of the West-end Respectables. The social “residuum” indeed! but what of the social scum? What of those who float upward, as well as those who sink downward, in the turbid sea of competition? If there is to be a clarifying process, it must be applied to both alike. For assuredly the only fit citizens are the physically and morally sound, the able-bodied and the able-souled; and if the worthless poor are to be prevented from propagating their kind, we are scientifically bound to apply the same process to the worthless rich. We must “stamp out” not only the material pestilence of dirt and destitution, but the corresponding moral pestilence of soulless luxury and self-indulgence.

But is this “stamping out” in any case desirable? Even if we assume for the moment that the pauper alone should be eliminated, what an unbelievable picture Mr. Oliphant draws for us of his new administration of the Poor Law! The present law, it seems, “makes practically no bargain whatever with the recipients of relief”. We rub our eyes at his beatific vision of untrammelled paupers, free as air, yet unaccountable submitting to certain odious tasks. But henceforth we must exact from our paupers nothing less than “submission to perpetual restraint”; penal servitude for life is Mr. Oliphant’s prescription for “those who find the struggle of life more than they can bear”; and if “the pauper does not like these terms, he can decline them”. But that is just the difficulty—he will decline them. If at present a certain number of people will starve rather than enter the poor-house, how many will enter it under the ban of Mr.  Oliphant’s life sentence? The number, he reassuringly tells us, will not be “inconveniently large”; but he does not seem to suspect that an inconveniently large number may still be left outside, “begging their way and propagating their kind without fear and without reproach”. And if so, how would Mr. Oliphant’s scheme result in stamping out the unfit? Far greater and more despotic powers would be needed, even for this one-sided treatment of the weakest section of the community.

Then again, Mr. Oliphant’s confident appeal to the law of Natural Selection is partial and unscientific, for it leaves out of view the not less important law of Mutual Aid, on which Peter Kropotkin and other humane scientists have so strongly insisted. Moreover, the real law of Natural Selection was long ago reserved when the present unequal economic conditions began, for commercial competition does not in reality correspond to the individual “free flight” of the forest, but consists in the organised spoliation of the working masses by the privileged and artificially protected few. The control that, as Mr. Oliphant says, has been exercised “over the results of Natural Selection” has established not only “the sacredness of human life”, but the sacredness of private property, and therefore it is quite true that “no one would now suggest a return to the law of nature that prevails among the lower animals”—there is an excellent reason why, for their own sakes, the propertied classes should not do so. But why, then, this futile reference to the law of Natural Selection, divorced from its true context in the book of life?

But if Mr. Oliphant’s appeal to Science is partial and unfair, what of his complete misunderstanding of the principle of Brotherhood? He finds in the new humanitarian ethic nothing more than a “selfish luxury of pity”, a “mere emotional impulse”, a sentimental “charity” which gives recklessly to the wrong people. But “charity” is the resource of those who would uphold the present system, not of those who would reform it. It is not charity but justice that social reformers are demanding, and it is the denial of this justice that perpetuates those two correlative classes of the “unfit”—the so-called “lower type” of the useless pauper, and what I regard as the equally low type of the useless plutocrat.

But to come to the conclusion of the whole matter, even this double classification of the “unfit”, in so far as there is any scheme for stamping out the residuum, is inadequate and untenable, for no part of the social organism can thus be isolated from the rest. Society is one and indivisible; and the production of fit and unfit, sound or unsound, worthy or worthless, is in direct relation to the prevalence of health or disease in the body politic. The sympathies sneered at as “selfish” are in truth only selfish in this sense, that in befriending our fellows we are in the long run actually befriending ourselves, and in attempting to stamp out the social residuum it would be on ourselves that we should stamp. I give Mr. Oliphant credit for the most philanthropic intentions, but I must say that his allusion to “those helpless members of the community with whom no one has any true sympathy” is very repellent. For who be those? And what would be the conscience of a community which could thus evade its responsibilities to its own offspring?

I do not raise the objection which Mr. Oliphant anticipates that his scheme, if put into practice, “would dry up the fountains of sympathetic effort”. Those fountains have not attained their full strength and volume, but they are strong enough, I think, to make short work of any such artificial restraint. The elimination of the “social residuum”, or rather (to express it more scientifically and more humanely) of the social disunion which makes a “residuum” possible, will be effected, not by the unnatural segregation and forcible “stamping out” of particular classes, but by the gradual spread and ultimate prevalence of healthier and more sympathetic instincts from within.

Henry S. Salt

Progressive Review, Vol. 1 No. 5, February 1897, p. 461