Following a citation in The Will To Improve

Posted on 6 minute read

While reading Tania Murray Li’s book The Will To Improve, I came across an interesting quote.

A third dimension to improvement might also be labeled antipolitics: the design of programs as a deliberate measure to contain a challenge to the status quo. In Britain in 1847, for example, an observer argued for special programs for paupers because they were “the class of men injured by society who consequently rebel against it.” Another argued, “Assisting the poor is a means of government, a potent way of containing the most difficult section of the population and improving all the other sections.” (p. 8)

I found this quote interesting because for some time I’ve been interested in collecting concrete examples and primary source material that provide insight into how the “ruling class” thinks and what they believe. A range of political discourses make frequent reference to some notion of a ruling elite, whether that’s the capitalist class (Marxists), the 1% (Bernie and Occupy), or the deep state (Trump). There is some truth to some versions of this, especially in America, where I live. Indeed, I often think of Gilen & Page 2014, which showed that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

But I have many issues with the simplistic way in which the ruling elite is often described as a monolithic, prescient, competent cabal which consistently and skillfully acts in their own interests.

  1. The ruling elite is not a monolithic group, and will oftentimes be uncoordinated, have divergent interests, and have disagreements.
  2. Many political and economic outcomes that benefit the ruling elite may not be the result of intentional action, but could be the result of happenstance or an emergent structural outcome—the result of many interacting forces, interests, institutions, etc. rather than any single will or vision.
  3. The ruling elite cannot always be perceiving the present state of affairs or anticipating the future with perfect clarity.
  4. Even when the ruling elite has clear foresight (e.g., anticipating that the current state of affairs will lead to social unrest), they may not arrive at the right or best course of action in their own interests.
  5. Even if the ruling elite decides to undertake the right actions (for their own interests), they may have the capacity or the competence to implement it successfully.

The debacle that has been the American government response to the coronavirus pandemic (as well as many other government responses) is one case to consider when thinking about the ability of the ruling elite to act in their own interests. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that an earlier and more aggressive response to the coronavirus would have benefited the ruling class both economically and politically. However, they failed to act accordingly. Of course, they are taking the opportunity of the crisis to benefit themselves in various ways, such as rolling back environmental regulations or bailing out corporations. But it’s unclear to me whether these outweigh the general economic losses suffered from a disastrous government response. It’s even less clear to me that the elite would think about this tradeoff and deliberately choose to delay the pandemic response in order to capitalize upon a partially manufactured crisis.

Anyway, back to the original quote from Li. I was excited by this quote because it provided concrete examples with direct quotes showing how the ruling elite thought about welfare in terms of social control (i.e., framed in terms of elite interests) rather than magnanimity. I was reminded of the Marxist perspective on state welfare, which cynically views welfare programs as a tool of social control and of maintaining capitalist exploitation. In the Marxist view, state welfare is a perfect example of how (a) the state acts in capitalist interests and (b) the capitalists are able to act in their own interests as a class, and not just individually. State welfare pacifies the working classes by preventing those extreme forms of wretched indigence that can lead to social unrest and disorder. Healthcare and education also provides for a productive labor supply. In other words, the welfare system helps fine-tune the optimal degree of exploitation and maintain the status quo. As Georg Simmel puts it,

The goal of assistance is precisely to mitigate certain extreme manifestations of social differentiation, so that the social structure may continue to be based on this differentiation.

So, I thought that I’d dig a bit deeper into the context behind these quotes, to get a sense of the degree to which it was representative of elite views at the time. Both quotes were quoted in the essay “Social Economy and the Government of Poverty” by Giovanna Procacci, published in The Foucault Effect, a collection of essays on the Foucauldian concept of governmentality.

The first quote is originally from a 1847 French book titled Du progrès social au profit des classes populaires non indigentes by a French politician named Francois Félix de Lafarelle, a man important enough to have a French wikipedia entry but not an English one. Li ascribes this quote to an observer in Britain in 1847, but Procacci gives no such context. In fact, Procacci uses the quote without any context at all, using it as one of three quotes to make a point about how the discourse of the time frames “pauperism” as a “social danger” distinct from poverty that must be eradicated lest the social order be threatened or perverted. I found it suspicious that a French politician writing a book in French would be commenting on British social policy, and the lack of any context given by Procacci did not help. Amazingly, I found a scanned copy of the book on, which makes me all the more impressed and grateful for their work. I even found a copy of the book for sale on Amazon. Procacci cited the quote from page 7, but I could find nothing on that page that matched what Procacci had written. It appeared to be a discussion of Adam Smith, but without any reference to contemporary British policy. I was also disappointed that Procacci did not mention that the quote was translated. This first quote felt like sloppy referencing on the parts of both Li and Procacci. Disappointing.

The second quote is actually the epigraph to Procacci’s essay, and similarly is not given any context or explanation. It is attributed to Firmin Marbeau’s book Du paupérisme en France et des moyens d’y remédier ou principes d’economie charitable, also published in 1847. Unfortunately Procacci provided no page number, so even though I managed to find a scanned copy from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (National Library of France), there’s no way I would be able to verify the reference. At least the title of the book indicates it’s on the right topic. But another dead end.

This was a disappointing exercise. A perennial but empirically intractable question that arises in politics and sociology is whether politicians and other elites really believe the things that they say. Did they really believe in trickle-down economics, reducing the government deficit, or austerity, or was it just an ideological cloak for policies they knew would ultimately benefit the ruling class? Obviously some really believe what they say and others don’t, but unfortunately the evidence to show who really believes what is hard to come by. That’s why I was excited to dig into these quotes, even though they were about a different (but closely related) country 170 years ago. But I ended up uncovering some slipshod work.

I’m not disappointed because I didn’t find what I wanted. I’m disappointed because my estimation of the quality of these works and their authors has diminished significantly. If these two references turned out to be of such poor quality, what I am to think of other references, or the authors’ rigor and attention to detail? I also worry that the reviewers and editors did not catch this, and I worry that this is more broadly indicative of relatively poorer academic rigor in this area of academic writing, which already gets mocked by the more analytical and quantitative spheres of social studies. Alas, I know not to excessively generalize. I remain disappointed.