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Volume 4 (1990)


North and South has a good deal to say about political economy, and what it says is most characteristic of Elizabeth Gaskell. The subject, and the way Gaskell handles it, have special interest for us today, for the fundamental assumption of what we now call classical economics, that we are all subject to the laws of economic competition and must -- paradoxically -- be made free to obey them, has in this decade made a come-back as the dominant conventional wisdom, after a long period in the wilderness. Once again the arguments between Margaret Hale, Thornton and Higgins in North and South about economic individualism versus social responsibility, and free market forces versus justice and fair play, are to be heard on all sides. As before, what is at issue today is not merely an economic theory, but a mixture of moral and social values inextricably associated with an economic system whose virtues are once again being vigorously promoted. Moreover now, as in the mid-nineteenth century, these moral and social values are being used as material in contemporary culture. David Lodge's recent novel, Nice Work, is implicitly 'about' political economy, dramatising precisely, in the confrontations of its two central characters, the attitudes and practices which classical economics seeks to explain and justify, and the ways in which they can be challenged. The film Wall Street, the play Serious Money, the television serial A Very British Coup and even the comic TV character 'Loadsamoney' are further examples from contemporary culture of a renewed interest in the values of the profit motive.

At the time when North and South was written, there were -- broadly -- two opposing conceptions of what was meant by 'political economy'; we find them dramatised in this text, and we recognise them as the terms of the debate today. On the one hand it was seen as a 'science', proving a set of propositions about economic life which everyone should know about, and which ought to regulate the behaviour of all, to their own and society's moral and material benefit. On the other hand, it was perceived as a set of self- interested theories developed to rationalise and justify the kind of economy that was developing; these theories were felt to be dangerous because they claimed -- and exercised -- a baneful influence over the discussion of economic, political, social and moral questions.

There were two essential elements in the simplified version of political economy used by both its supporters and its critics. The first was Adam Smith's 'general desire for wealth', assumed by his successors to have the status of a law of nature. Its corollary was freedom of economic action: no regulatory legislation, or well-meant but dependency-

producing charity, must be allowed to stifle this universal motivation. Political economy's critics attacked this first and basic assumption as a perniciously limited definition of man, claiming that 'the dismal science' saw him merely as a creature of self- interest, connected to his fellow-man only by the 'cash nexus'. From this point of view, political economy was often attacked as simply un-Christian.

The second essential element was the 'law' of supply and demand, determining the movements of capital, labour and commodities. A popular image of this was of the working of the 'Invisible Hand', ordering all things harmoniously. Driven by the 'general desire for wealth', untrammelled by distorting constraints imposed by governments or workers, supply and demand (or market forces, in our current phrase) would ensure that the economy worked smoothly, to the enrichment of all. From the assumption of this law followed the belief in laissez-faire policies in trade, industry and social matters. The hostile view of the law of supply and demand saw it simply as the law of the economic jungle: political economy, in presenting it as inevitable and desirable, was merely expressing the heartless self-seeking and materialism of the age. In the 1980s these simplified ideas have once again become familiar currency.

Political economy appears both explicitly and implicitly in North and South. Rather than adopting a stance pro- or anti-, the book seeks to place and explain partisan attitudes on both sides. To do this, Gaskell sets them in the context of an economic system which is shown to be cruel and oppressive, but no more so than the one it is supplanting, and in which the text also sees the excitement and potential for good. In this setting, the events of the narrative itself enact the confrontation and modification of opposed ideas. Moreover, the structuring of the book by parallel as much as by contrast -- of event, situation, character and attitude -- equally enacts an exploratory and explanatory approach. In this article I have space only to examine the book's use of the 'conversation method' to explore the major questions.

Political economy is mentioned explicitly in three places in North and South; it occurs as one of the implicit terms in direct and reported conversations about economic issues and, more broadly, appears as part of the capitalist industrial system, being the theory used by its supporters to rationalise and justify it. Each explicit reference is in the context of discussion about the relationship between masters and men, and the attitudes on each side to the point at issue in the strike: who -- or what -- determines wages? The masters, as the instruments of impersonal economic laws, or the men, asserting their rights? The presentation of these questions within conversation means that there are no 'winners'. People are left in possession of their positions and only manifest the effects of the points put to them subsequently, gradually and partially.

Political economy first appears by name in chapter 15, when the coming strike is under discussion between Margaret, Mr Hale and Thornton. A strike conveniently dramatises the question at issue in any discussion of the capitalist industrial system which calls in aid its rationale, political economy, because a strike is, even if peacefully prosecuted, self-evidently a challenge to the status quo of a dramatic sort. The strike in North and South is in resistance to a wage-cut, and for better pay: in other words, the workers are

claiming some control over their industry. Thornton produces political economy as the explanation arid justification of the status quo, in which the masters retain total control, as a matter of 'principle' not revealing to the men their reasons for holding or reducing wages (though this secrecy is not related to any theory of political economy). Their reasons are the poor state of trade, in other words the functioning of political economy's law of supply and demand, which is currently producing poor demand. This would, in fact, make it beneficial to the masters if the men were to stop producing fur a while of their own accord, which is why they 'on principle' keep it to them selves. Thornton refers to the state of trade as something to which all must submit, masters and men alike, and to his autonomy as a master as something he would not allow to be encroached upon because his 'hands' are in a state of ignorant infancy as far as their understanding of business is concerned, though he would never 'interfere' with their life outside work hours. His position has been more crudely stated by his mother earlier in the chapter when she tells Margaret that the workers are striking 'for the mastership and ownership of other people's property' (p.115), but Thornton displays the same combative spirit:

'"Let them turn out! I shall suffer as well as they: but at the end they will find I have not bated nor altered one jot."'(p.120) (1)

Margaret, however, challenges Thornton's all-embracing pronouncement that '"We, the owners of capital, have a right to choose what we will do with it"'(p.117). She proposes the idea that the proper relationship between masters and men should he based on a Christian conception of stewardship but breaks off, saying '"However, I know so little about strikes, and rate of wages, and capital and labour, that I had better not talk to a political economist like you"' (p.118). In other words, political economy is something separate and apart from Christian morality, and Margaret, in a move common to its critics then as now, is shifting the argument onto a different plane.

Indeed the issues on which a political economist would have something to say, the state of trade and the rate of wages, are lost as the conversation returns to the central, obsessive question -- who, out of masters and men, controls whom? Thornton actually refers to the conception of political economic theory, that the two are necessary and equal components in a harmoniously operating society of free individuals, but dismisses it as 'Utopian'. Thus he is no pure political economist, but a practical businessman, dealing with facts as he sees them, and praying in aid political economy's laws as they suit him. Margaret, advancing her southern gentlewoman's conception of the responsibility of the upper for the lower classes, and the Christian minister, Mr Hale, suggesting that perhaps judicious 'bringing up', particularly through education, is what the hands need, are met simply with the practical businessman's reply: '"I am sorry to say, I have an appointment at eight-o'clock, and must just take facts as I find them to- night, without trying to account for them; which, indeed, would make no difference in determining how to act as things stand -- the facts must be granted."' (p.122)

Margaret, however, will not let him dismiss, in this way, the idea of society as an interdependent unity. Thornton questions whether the economic relationship -- of labour to sell and capital to buy -- gives him the right to assume any other relationship with the

independent Darkshire men, but Margaret, in reply, offers an eloquent, Carlylean picture of industrial society:

not in the least because of your labour and capital positions, whatever they are, but because you are a man, dealing with a set of men over whom you have, whether you reject the use of it or not, immense power, just because your lives and your welfare are so constantly and intimately interwoven. God has made us so that we must be mutually dependent. We may ignore our own dependence, or refuse to acknowledge that others depend upon us in more respects than the payment of weekly wages; but the thing must be, nevertheless.' (p.122)

Thornton counters this with the suggestion that the role dictated for him by this 'mutual dependence' may best take the form, not of interference, but simply of example, for what

the master is, so the men will be. But Margaret (who certainly has the best of the argument in debating terms) once again brings a Christian text into her effective riposte. This is that if the men are violent and obstinate in pursuit of their rights, it can, on Thornton's argument, be safely inferred that the master is too: '"that he is a little ignorant of that spirit which suffereth long, and is kind and seeketh not her own"' (p.123) Here again there is an attempt to shift the argument away from the Gradgrindian 'facts' and towards the kind of values which yield to no computation, and again it provokes the response of the eminently practical man, who has in any case other things to concern him besides getting along pleasantly with his 'hands': '"You are just like all strangers

who do not understand the working of our system

puppets of dough

far larger and wider than those merely of an employer of labour."' (ibid)

you suppose that our men are

and you seem not to perceive that the duties of a manufacturer are

Far from being the cool representative of a rational science in this conversation, Thornton 'reddens' and speaks 'hastily', whilst Margaret remains cold; his arguments are heated, experience-based, hers clever, essentially theoretical, so that she can vex Thornton to speechlessness by pinpointing illogicalities: '"I am trying to reconcile your admiration of despotism with your respect for other men's in dependence of character"' (p.124). His re-iterated position is essentially a statement of pure individualism, whilst Margaret opposes to it an idealistic communalism, the one position rationalising an atomistic, laissez-faire society, the other a hierarchical, deferential one. Yet while Thornton speaks from experience, the experience he articulates is one in which he does not yet, in practice, relate to individuals -- his men are 'hands', Margaret a woman he is soon to 'worship'. At the same time the telling incident which so effectively closes the chapter shows how far Margaret has to go in genuinely acknowledging fellowship, for her failure to shake hands with Thornton, in the customary Northern fashion, interpreted by him as pride, in fact reflects the more hierarchical, less democratic society of the South (with regard here to relations between the sexes but the implication is wider) to which she still belongs -- though, with her friendship with the Higginses under way, she is changing.

Political economy is thus seen as something used by the masters, as far as it suits them to use it, but co-existing with non-theoretical elements in their outlook. Its tenets are shown

as arising from certain positions taken in the real world, and it is the method of the book to show those positions both as arising from other than abstract considerations, and as susceptible of modification. The idea that to think in terms of political economy is natural to some people in the economic system and not to others, because of their respective places within that same system, does not, of course, necessarily imply that political economic concepts are not valid absolutely, but the giving of equal weight to the view of the matter from each side, in the book's conversations, certainly contributes to the relativity of its treatment in many other ways. Later, in conversation with Mr Bell in chapter 40, Thornton even attributes the qualities of enterprise and independence to the accident of Darkshiremen's Teutonic racial inheritance -- the Greeks were different and wanted different things: an (unwitting) challenge, indeed, to the claim that political economy's 'universal desire for wealth', and the need to exercise it untrammelled, have the status of laws of nature.

The book's chief exponent of the relativity of the doctrines of political economy is, however, the redoubtable Higgins, with whorn, in chapter 17, Margaret discusses the strike after her first brush on the subject with Thornton. Higgins's way of thinking is as combative as Thornton's, focussed on teaching the masters the limits of their control, while Margaret's approach is, again, to look for recognition of common ground and

common humanity: to strike merely damages everyone, the masters will surely give reasons for their action in cutting wages, such as the state of trade (the latter point nicely showing the way in which characters incorporate arguments they have previously dismissed into their thinking). Higgins, like Thornton, sees Margaret as an ignorant outsider, and expounds the view of the matter from his side of the battle lines, a view which, like hers, shifts the basis of the argument: justice demands that the rate of wages, not the state of trade, should be the issue, and he is prepared to die at his post, in the way

so admired in soldiers, sooner than yield: '"I'll tell yo' it's their part- [the masters']

beat us down, to swell their fortunes; and it's ours to stand up and fight hard, -- not for ourselves alone, but for them round about -- for justice and fair play. We help to make their profits and we ought to help spend 'em."' (p.135) In parallel with Thornton, a relish for conflict characterises Higgins, as well as an adherence to principle, which will combine to make him an effective spokesman for scepticism about political economy:


'It's not that we want their brass so much this

we re resolved to stand and fall together; not a man on us will go in for less wages than

the Union says is our due. So I say "Hooray for the strike, and let Thornton, and Slickson, and Hamper, and their set look to it!"' (ibid)

Political economy does not come up again for directly dramatised discussion until chapter 28, after the crises of the riot, Thornton's proposal to Margaret, and the death of Bessy. In the context of the Hales' care and concern for the bereaved Higgins, the issues of the defeated strike are debated in their home, where Higgins is courteously received as a visitor, and where he correspondingly behaves with dignity and restraint. The discussion has been initiated by the Hales so that they can give Higgins the sympathetic hearing he would have had from Bessy. His account of its failure is reported in the explanatory, mediating tone which characterises the approach of the book as a whole.

We'n getten money laid by; and

The parallelism of over-confidence in theory, on the part of masters and men alike, is made explicit in this passage. The placing of it qualifies Higgins' ensuing attack on the absolutism of political economy more effectively than would the gentle remonstrances of Mr Hale alone: 'The workmen's calculations were based (like too many of the masters') on false premises. They reckoned on their fellow-men as if they possessed the calculable powers of machines, no more, no less' (p.228).

The political economic theory that is brought up for discussion is the wage fund theory (popular at the time, though since discredited) which lent intellectual conviction to a practical reluctance to increase pay. If it is true, as Hale puts it to Higgins, that, when wages are forced up by a strike, they will only sink again in greater proportion because of the effects of the strike, then clearly it is not legitimate for workers to ask for a rise, as Higgins and his Union have been doing, because this is not only futile, and damaging to the employers, but actually self-destructive. The challenge mounted by Union action, and articulated by Higgins, to the control of wages arises, however, from the experience of the poor on the receiving end of the wage system, and it ignores the claim of the wealthy that such matters are not in fact under their control but determined by the laws articulated by political economy. It asserts a counterclaim for 'justice and fair play', calling in aid a universal morality:

'So I took th' book and tugged at it; but, Lord bless yo', it went on about capital and labour, and labour and capital, till it fair sent me off to sleep. I ne'er could rightly fix i' my mind which was which; and it spoke on em as if they were vartues or vices; and what I wanted for to know were the rights o' men, whether they were rich or poor -- so be they only were men. (p.229)

Thus Higgins's reply to Hale's point about wages finding their own level once again shifts the perspective, and inserts the moral element into the debate. However, he makes practical points, too, about how men should be handled, given that matters continue as they are. He argues that political economy, whether or not it tells the truth on the limited subjects it does address -- on which he reserves judgement -- should be explained in terms that are intelligible. Then he asserts that even if it were so explained, it should not be assumed that everyone is necessarily going to agree with it, for there is not one absolute truth on the matter for everyone, and political economy may be truer for some than for others: '"And I'm not one who thinks truth can be shaped out in words, all neat and clean, as th' men at the foundry cut out sheet-iron. Same bones won't go down wi' everyone. It'll stick here in this man's throat, and there in t'other's."' (p.230) Finally, even if the truth of political economy be granted, its prescriptions should not be forced on people regardless of their position and circumstances: its ministrations should be tempered to the recipient.

Hale, irredeemably the man of theory, can only respond, as we have seen, by wishing that masters ('some of the kindest and wisest') and men could meet for 'a good talk' in order to dispel the men's ignorance '"subjects which it is for the mutual interests of both should be well understood by both"'. His further idea, equally fanciful given the entire narrative so far, that '"Mr Thornton might be induced to do such a thing"' (p.230), is

effectively quashed by Margaret's brief reference to their own knowledge of Thornton's view of the men, as fit only for despotism.

Higgins's position on political economy is given considerable eloquence by the use of vivid pictorial and anecdotal language, and would dominate the chapter if it ended there, fitting as it does so well into the relative, experience-based value system of the book. The conversation method, however, prevents winners emerging in this way, for the mention of Thornton leads on to discussion of his treatment of Boucher and the other rioters, and thence to Higgins's attitude to Boucher. Margaret asks why Boucher was in the Union at all, if he was so feeble and undisciplined, and learns about 'sending to Coventry' to enforce Union membership. Her horror at this cruel coercion, and her comparison of this tyranny with the tyranny of the masters he complains of, draws from Higgins a defence based, like Thornton's in chapter 15, on experience, and the facts of the system. Here the facts are the history of tyranny by the masters, and the consequent necessity of unity among the workers for survival. Once again the voice of experience draws from Mr Hale a plaintive wish that divisions between classes did not exist, once again (in an echo of Thornton's less tactful response to father and daughter) met by the voice of practicality: '"Oh!" said Mr Hale, sighing, "your Union would in itself be beautiful, glorious -- it would be Christianity itself -- if it were but for an end which affected the good of all, instead of that of merely one class as opposed to another." "I reckon it's time for me to be going, sir," said Higgins' (p.233).

Again the incident that concludes the conversation is tellingly chosen. The chapter closes on a distinctly anti-dogmatic note, but with a heavy emphasis on common humanity and shared experience: 'Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm.' (ibid) Since political economy appears in this chapter, either as dog ma front the point of view of a practical sceptic, or presented as fact by an inexperienced theorist, it continues to he seen as part of the shifting, apparently contradictory, puzzling phenomena of life port raved in the text of North and South with an appropriately shifting, relative perspective.

Political economy is not again mentioned explicitly in the book. However the industrial system it has been p resented as explaining and justifying continues as an important topic. It is important by virtue of the attitudes towards it of the major characters and the way these are modified and developed, and these attitudes imply views about the validity of political economy. Is the system to be seen as impressive and heroic, or as dirty and selfish? A Carlylean picture of industry as inspiring and invigorating is established and maintained throughout the book. It is a view not only given by the eloquence of the partisan Thornton, but one that Margaret and her father readily adopt. Thornton is given qualities of strength and sagacity that are suggestive of a Carlylean captain of industry. At the same time, the nature of the system as dirty, damaging for the workers, and (an equally Carlylean point) tainted with greed and selfishness, is regularly stressed. Above all, the inevitability of conflict in the system, the simple fact that it looks -- indeed is -- different from the respective points of view of worker and employer, is perhaps the most simple and obvious statement on the subject made by the text.

The modification of view of the industrial system is clearly carried in the development of Margaret, which is a dominant feature of the book, but in so far as the validity -- or otherwise -- of political economy is implicated, the development of Thornton is the more pertinent here because he is actively involved in the system and has to endure a crisis which ruins him; further more these things are presented in terms of the changes in outlook which they generate. Clearly, in narrative terms, Thornton needs to suffer a crisis, as Margaret has done, before they are both sufficiently chastened and mat ore to come together. In terms of the discursive structure of the hook, he needs to modify his views considerably before he is suitably purged of dogma and theory about the industrial system to supply, with Margaret, its minimally progressive conclusion. Again the method of presentation, as well as the instrument of change, is discussion, either dramatised or reported.

The first of the two chapters concerning the final stage of his development, chapter 42, has Thornton describing to Mr Bell how he has set up a canteen for the workers in his factory. He presents it as a purely practical arrangement, pragmatic in origin, denying any theoretical base for his action, theoretical implications: '"I have no theory. I hate theories."' (p.363) We have seen how he had earlier asserted, dogmatically, the separation between masters and men except for the transactions of work. He conies to the point of proposing I he dining room through personal contact with Higgins (a contact which also leads to his paying for the Boucher children's schooling).

Chapter 50 presents Thornton's ruin. The picture sketched here of the jungle world around Thornton at the time of his crash is particularly unattractive. The development of Thornton's thoughts and feelings in the period up to and including the crisis is presented through, and as a matter of, discussion. From the realisation that he and his workers led 'parallel lives, very close but never touching', his 'wonder' that he and Higgins, living by the same trade and working in different ways at the same objects, could look upon each other's positions and duties 'in so strangely different a way' (p.420), had led Thornton into discussions with Higgins. Better feelings and improved knowledge had resulted on both sides, though no expectation that 'future clashes of opinion and action' would not occur. The prospect of his crash is thus poignant to Thornton because it will mean losing these human contacts. What he himself has presented earlier in the book as an entirely neutral event, morally or emotionally, is now experienced by him in human terms. The difference between such an event in theory and in practice turns out to be a difference in kind, and not merely in degree, of experience.

Furthermore the event is experienced in moral terms. Thornton's mother raises the same cry of protest at the system as Higgins, when he brought the question of 'rights' into economic discussion. For Mrs Thornton there is no 'justice' in the world if her son fails. Rather than correcting the misapprehension that it is inappropriate to expect morality in the workings of the economic system, Thornton comforts her in terms of Christian doctrine, telling her they must submit to what God sends, which is a different gloss on events from his earlier explanations to Hale. Moreover, Thornton, now seeking work in a 'subordinate situation', rejects the idea of being set up as partner for Ham per's son and having to fall in with the 'tyrannical ho moors' of a young man 'half-educated as regarded

information, and wholly uneducated as regarded any other responsibility than that of getting money' (p.426), a negation indeed of his earlier denials of wider responsibilities, or assertion of the benignly developing and self-righting nature of the system. Thornton can now see others as tyrants, from a point of view where he, with no money, has to submit to those who have it. What he wants now is rather to be 'only a manager, where he could have a certain degree of power beyond the mere money-getting part' (ibid.).

The kind of power he wants is explained in the final conversation 'about' political economy when, thus appropriately prepared, Thornton comes to London and to Margaret. In chapter 51 he appears at a dinner party, an object of interest to a bright young M.P. His claims for the new-model manager are, however, minimal. Using the

language of the critics of political economy, he expresses a wish to have a relationship with the workers that goes beyond the 'mere cash nexus', a phrase directly from Past and Present. Its use in itself suggests an acceptance of Carlyle's ferocious attack on life in

a laissez-faire industrial society as not a fit life for humans and, again, an acceptance of

obligations that Thornton, in that early argument with Margaret, so vigorously denied. The increased knowledge of each other that will result from personal contact will help to 'attach class to class as they should be attached' (p.452). The vision suggested here of a purged, socially responsible industrialism, led by strong men like Thornton, does not, however, carry much weight. Despite his newly authoritative role in the book's discursive structure, the fact is that in its narrative Thornton is a ruined man. Moreover the very weakness, in structural terms, of the new Thornton (his last phase of development being so corn pressed, and of secondary emotional interest to Margaret's) detracts weight from his new theoretical views. Thus within the text as a whole his vision stands as a mere assertion of pious wish over against the resolutely experiential, relative approach of the book and the picture of industrial society it has painted in these terms.

Finally, Thornton's description of the kind of project he would like, in the interest of unity, to undertake, stresses the essential personal involvement of all concerned at every stage, an idea the exact reverse of the despotism he initially defended to Margaret. It is important to notice, however, that he explicitly denies that even such co-operative involvement in the running of industry would affect the basic structure of the system. The tone of his denial reasserts the voice of experience, and it stands as the book's final comment on a problem for which political economy, itself seen merely as one element in the intellectual and practical experience of industrial society, has offered no answer. Significantly, the catalytic questions raised by a strike are the final focus, as they have been in all the book's previous conversations about political economy:

'I would take an idea, the working out of which would necessitate personal intercourse; .

it might not go well at first, but


would be felt by an increasing number of

men, and at last its success in working come to be desired by

they may prevent the recurrence of strikes?' 'Not at all. My utmost expectation only goes as far as this that they may render strikes not the bitter, venomous sources of hatred they have hitherto been. A more hopeful man might imagine that a closer and more genial

.' 'And you think

intercourse between classes might do away with strikes. But I am not a hopeful man.'


In North and South political economy is lined up with the capitalist industrial system. Support. for the one is support for the other. Willingness to disrupt the system goes with scepticism about the theory. The attitude arrived at by the text towards the one may therefore be taken to express a response to the other. The industrial system is seen, finally, in North and South, as something (presenting both admirable and evil qualities) which, for the present at least, has to be lived with. Since that is so, the view taken is that there is no point in hoping to do more than marginally improve the experience of working in it, exercising qualities of sympathy, self-discipline and honesty, whose value holds good whatever the social or economic system. At the same time, however, such a stance does not imply an endorsement of political economy -- merely, again, a recognition of its existence, as a body of sincerely held ideas found in a particular social group and relating to its particular experience: a remarkably agnostic presentation, given the current attitudes on the subject.


1. All quotations and page references are from the 'World's Classics' edition of North and South, ed Angus Easson, Oxford University Press 1973. (=> Back)