Individuals were no longer seen within the context of their times, but rather in terms of prior categories. Thus, whereas the conservative Tory Party responded to the 1845 Irish famine with economic aid in the form of imported American cornmeal, its free-market Whig successors dismantled what they termed the “monstrous centralization” that such “artificial intervention” in the market entailed.
Poverty wasn’t an unfortunate circumstance, but rather a sin. The self-indulgent Irish needed reforming, something that dependence on the state wouldn’t help, so Whiggish tough love cut them off.
Millions died of starvation; millions more emigrated, or at least tried to (families were found dead by the side of the road); and the population of Ireland has yet to recover. The actual cause of the famine — potato blight — couldn’t save the Irish from the pre-established moral categories with which the evangelical Whigs interpreted their world.
Modern economists inherited this framework but substituted “nature” for God, and capitalism entered the realm of science, which is the secular equivalent of being “sacralized.” Rather than being a human creation, it was thought to be akin to nature.
Either way, however, capitalism became untouchable. After all, if it is divine or natural, then the more pristine, the better, because you don’t argue with God or gravity.
Mary Barker teaches political science at Syracuse University’s study abroad program in Madrid, Spain, and at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas. She is currently on leave to conduct research and is teaching at Salt Lake Community College.
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