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  • Michael W. Rickard II

Capitalism and the Poor: Rhetorical Criticism and "London Labour and the London Poor."

Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard II

Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (London Labour) looks at the lives of London’s impoverished citizens and the reasons behind their poverty, suggesting an ideology based on capitalism. Rhetorical criticism is an ideal way to examine the rhetorical devices Mayhew uses in his work to determine the ideological underpinnings used in discourse wherein he creates sympathy between the reader and the discourse’s subjects. Ideological criticism will reveal that Mayhew’s London Labour has strong capitalist and religious undertones, reflecting England’s capitalist ideology.

Mayhew’s discussion of those will not work raises many que

stions as to society’s opinions not just about those who will not work, but about the poor in general. As Sonja Foss notes, “In an ideological analysis, the critic looks beyond the surface structure of an artifact to discover the beliefs, values, and assumptions it suggests” (209). What is particularly important about this approach is that it can be used to reveal the dominant ideology as well as subalterned ideologies. Foss explains that: Primary is the idea that multiple ideologies—multiple patterns of belief—exist in any culture and have the potential to be manifest in rhetorical artifacts. Some ideologies, however, are privileged over others in a culture, and some ideologies that present oppositional or alternative perspectives on the subjects to which they pertain are sometimes repressed. (210)

An ideology, “designates any comprehensive system of political thought (e.g. fascism, neoliberalism, democratic socialism) articulated or otherwise tacitly supported by an individual or institution” (Cuddon 353). There are several ideologies at play in London Labour, including Marxism, feminism, and capitalism. Marxism is an ideology that runs counter to capitalism, but Mayhew’s narrative advances a capitalist ideology, arguing that poverty is an inescapable fact of life and that there are wise and unwise ways to help the poor. As I will show, Mayhew even extends capitalist principles to criminal activities, further supporting the conclusion that the strongest ideology at work here is capitalism.

Examining Mayhew’s work reveals the dominant ideology that a person should work to support themselves and not be a burden on society. Rhetorical criticism shows the dominant ideology of capitalism at work here, with a person’s success based on the best allocation of resources. There is also a religious element that mirrors parable of the talents found in Matthew 25:14-30, suggesting a person’s success or failure is based on personal choices.

There are many instances where Mayhew demonstrates a person’s poverty is due to bad habits such as excessive drinking, but mere mismanagement of funds can lead to financial hardship as well, reinforcing the capitalist ideology of efficient allocation of resources. For example, the Scottish piper reveals: “I can live in Scotland much cheaper than here. I can give the children a good breakfast of oatmeal porridge every morning, and that will in seven weeks make them as fat as seven years of tea and coffee will do here…I’m thinking of sending my family down to Scotland, and sending them the money I earn in London.” (331)

This statement confirms that there is a wise method of using one’s resources which will result in benefits for one’s family. However, Mayhew’s examination of the wise use of resources extends further.

A capitalist ideology drives Mayhew’s work, even in criminal activities. This is seen when Mayhew describes the illegal activity of prostitution, arguing there is an efficient way to be a prostitute and an inefficient way. Mayhew describes: The happy prostitute…is either the thoroughly hardened clever infidel, who knows how to command men and use them for her own purpose, who is in the best set both of men and women; who frequents the night-houses in London, and who in the end seldom finds to marry well; or the quiet woman who is kept by the man she loves, and who she feels is fond of her; who has had a provision made for her to guard her against want. And the caprice of her paramour. (489) Conversely, Mayhew notes the prostitute who does not manage her affairs (no pun intended) well, “The sensitive, sentimental, weak-minded, impulsive, affectional girl, will go from bad to worse, and die on a dunghill or in a workhouse” (489). Capitalism thus extends to legal and illegal enterprises, with the right allocation of resources (and business methods) likely to result in success.

However, Mayhew also recognizes society’s impoverished citizens. Examining Mayhew’s London Labour through an ideological lens suggests capitalism is imperfect, but overall effective. Furthermore, there are ways to help those who are impoverished, albeit using the best allocation of resources.

Therefore, a rhetorical analysis of Mayhew’s London Labour provides a conclusion that Mayhew recognizes the struggles of the poor, but argues the best way to help is through a prudent use of charitable resources. Mayhew concludes, “The poor will never cease from the land. There will be exceptional excesses and outbreaks of distress that no plan could have provided against, and there always will be those who stand with open palms.” (508). He recognizes the difference between those “who cannot work” and those “who will not work,” reminding readers, “…we are bound to sift appeals, and consider how best to direct our benevolence” (508). Mayhew further warns, “Whoever thinks that charity consists in mere giving…will find himself taught better” (509). Again, there is a right way to give charity and a wrong way, a reflection of capitalist ideology which is partially based on the best allocation of resources for a maximum return.

Employing rhetorical criticism reveals a dominant capitalist ideology drives Mayhew’s London Labour. The capitalistic concept of the best allocation of resources prevails throughout the work, suggesting while there will also be a small number of people who cannot work, an efficient use of personal and societal resources ensures varying degrees of financial success for most of society.

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H. and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 11th ed., Cengage Learning, 2015.

Cuddon, J.A. Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. Penguin Books, 2013.

Foss, Sonja. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. Waveland Press Inc., 2009.

Mahew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. Penguin, 1985.

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