Civilization and Barbarism

The fault with the Irish economy, according to the classical political economists, fell at the feet of the wretched peasantry itself. In general, these economists expressed impatience with the Irish culture (Boylan and Foley 1992). They wrote off Irish civilization as barbaric, while they condoned the barbaric measures of the English in the name of civilization.

In Ireland, classical political economy confronted a people not yet subdued by capital. Recall Smith’s concern about the want of order in Ireland. Rather than recognize this resistance to capital as a normal reaction to highly exploitative conditions, early economists were prone to attribute it to a racial defect. As Nassau Senior (1928: i, 233) told his students of 1847-48: “Races which like the Celts, have neither docility nor intelligence must be governed by fear.” Consequently, simple market solutions were not sufficient to govern Ireland.

Certainly, Ricardo the political economist clearly understood the nature of the substantial difference between the Irish economy and that of England. Ireland was distinguished by the vigor with which people resisted capital. By contrast, England appeared to have reached the point at which it could rely on “silent compulsion,” which becomes effective only after the “advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws” (Marx 1977, 899-900)

Perelman, The Invention of Capitalism and The Secret History of Primitive Accumulation.

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2 Responses to “Civilization and Barbarism”


  1. 1 Donagh September 8, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Is this

    Recall Smith’s concern about the want of order in Ireland. Rather than recognize this resistance to capital as a normal reaction to highly exploitative conditions, early economists were prone to attribute it to a racial defect.

    Related to this?

    Irish politics, Irish business and Irish society in general have been far too forgiving of incompetence, corruption, fraud and fecklessness.

    Probably not, but thought I’d ask.

  2. 2 Hugh Green September 9, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Actually, it is in part, so spotter’s badge for you. I posted the quote mindful of the ‘don’t tell – show!’ injunction that I so frequently violate. I had read O’Toole’s article beforehand. O’Toole’s critique is the apparently humane end of a spectrum of political-economic analysis that has a long tradition and is visible everywhere, i.e. the prevailing economic conditions are principally a question of moral deficiencies, and modes of production and class relations are studiously ignored. But the main point here is that it has acquired a far greater traction nowadays on account of the fact that, as per Perelman’s reading of Marx, people are far more conditioned to treat this analysis as based on natural laws.


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