Today is the birthday (1852) of the economic historian Arnold Toynbee – not to be confused with his nephew (also Arnold Toynbee) who is renowned for his monumental study of the philosophy and principles of history at large. The Arnold Toynbee I celebrate today is much less well known, but I will try to change that if I can. This Arnold Toynbee was noted for his nuanced study of capitalism and political economy, and for his social commitment and desire to improve the living conditions of the mostly urban working classes during the Industrial Revolution in England. The main reason I like his work as a social scientist is that he was deeply opposed to finding general laws of economics in history, and championed the need to treat each time and place as economically and historically unique. Thus, for example, Free Trade cannot be seen as an overall good or an overall evil: sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. Particular local circumstances determine outcomes, not grand theories or models. I like that approach.
Toynbee was born in London, the son of the physician Joseph Toynbee, a pioneering otolaryngologist. He attended public schools in Blackheath and Woolwich, and in 1873 he began to study political economy at Oxford University, first at Pembroke College (my college), and then from 1875 at Balliol College, where he went on to teach after he took his degree in 1878. His lectures on the history of the Industrial Revolution in 18th and 19th century Britain proved widely influential. Toynbee did not coin, but he did effectively popularize, the term “Industrial Revolution” in the Anglophone world. In Germany and elsewhere it had been brought into circulation earlier by Friedrich Engels referring to industrial changes in Britain.
Toynbee died in 1883, at age 30. His health had rapidly deteriorated, with some speculation at the time that this was due to exhaustion caused by excessive work. Frederick Rogers suggests that the publication of Henry George’s Progress and Poverty may be said to have brought about Toynbee’s death:
As [Toynbee] saw the book, it was full of economic heresies, and he resolved to answer them. Of weak physique, but full of a passionate spiritual enthusiasm, he gave two lectures at St. Andrew’s Hall, Oxford Street, against the book and the effort ended his career. He died for truth as he knew it, and those who knew him felt that his death was a national loss…
I think we can forgive Rogers his overt Romanticism.
According to Toynbee, applying the historical method in economics would reveal how supposedly universal economic laws were, in fact, relativistic. For example, he argued that, despite commonly held beliefs, free trade was not generally advantageous in itself, but only under certain circumstances, which should not be considered absolute. Toynbee considered few laws universally true, such as the law of diminishing returns. Therefore, there were no universal rules as to how strongly the state should interfere in the marketplace; all depended on the situation and varying degrees of regulation could be appropriate.
Another idea Toynbee dismissed was that free competition was universally beneficial to economic and societal progress, especially as reflected in its apotheosis in Social Darwinism, which promoted laissez-faire capitalism. Toynbee did not equate “a struggle for mere existence and a struggle for a particular kind of existence”. From the very beginning of history, he argued, all human cultures were essentially designed to “interfere with this brute struggle. We intend to modify the violence of the fight, and to prevent the weak being trampled under foot.” Although economic competition does have its advantages, being the driving force behind technical progress, these were “gained at the expense of an enormous waste of human life and labour, which might be avoided by regulation”. Toynbee suggested a differentiation between competition in production on the one hand, and competition in the distribution of goods on the other:
… the struggle of men to outvie one another in production is beneficial to the community; their struggle over the division of the joint produce is not. The stronger side will dictate its own terms; and as a matter of fact, in the early days of competition, the capitalists used all their power to oppress the labourers, and drove down wages to starvation point. This kind of competition has to be checked; there is no historical instance of its having lasted long without being modified either by combination or legislation, or both. In England both remedies are in operation, the former through Trades Unions, the latter through factory legislation.
In itself, a market based on competition was neither good nor bad, but like “a stream whose strength and direction have to be observed, that embankments may be thrown up within which it may do its work harmlessly and beneficially”. However, in the early phase of industrial capitalism “it came to be believed in as a gospel, … from which it was regarded as little long of immoral to depart”.
For Toynbee, early industrial capitalism and the situation of the working class in it was not just a subject of disinterested academic studies; he was actively involved in improving the living conditions of the worker. He read for workers in large industrial centers and encouraged the creation of trade unions and co-operatives. A focal point of his commitment was the slum of Whitechapel, in East London, where he helped to establish public libraries for the working-class population. Toynbee also encouraged his students to offer free courses for working-class audiences in their own neighborhoods.
Inspired by his ideas, Samuel Augustus Barnett and Henrietta Barnett founded the first university settlement in 1884, shortly after Toynbee’s death. It was located on Commercial Street, Whitechapel and named Toynbee Hall in his honor. It was a center for social reform and remains active today. The concept was to bring upper- and middle-class students into lower-class neighborhoods, not only to provide education and social aid, but to actually live and work together with their residents. This soon inspired a worldwide movement of university settlements. The idea was to help members of the future elite understand the problems of British society; this was especially important at a time when class divisions were much stronger, social mobility was minimal, and the living conditions of the poor were completely unknown to many members of the upper class. Toynbee Hall attracted many students, especially from Oxford’s Wadham and Balliol College.
According to Toynbee, “the essence of the Industrial Revolution” was “the substitution of competition for the medieval regulations which had previously controlled the production and distribution of wealth”. Among its components were an “agrarian revolution” that produced “the alienation between farmer and labourer” and in the manufacturing world, the appearance of a “new class of great capitalist employers”. “The old relations between masters and men disappeared, and a ‘cash nexus’ was substituted for the human tie.” Summing up his interpretation, Toynbee wrote, “the Wealth of Nations and the steam-engine…destroyed the old world and built a new one.” For Toynbee, this coupling seemed self-evident. Steam-powered factories, the Wealth of Nations, competition, the cash-nexus and the rise of pauperism formed part of a single phenomenon.
In response to this bleak scenario, Toynbee proposed a test for when the state should become involved in the regulation of an economic or social sphere of society to even the balance between industry and labour. He proposed the “Radical Creed”, which,
as I understand it, is this: We have not abandoned our old belief in liberty, justice, and Self-help, but we say that under certain conditions the people cannot help themselves, and that then they should be helped by the State representing directly the whole people. In giving this State help, we make three conditions: first, the matter must be one of primary social importance; next, it must be proved to be practicable; thirdly, the State interference must not diminish self-reliance. Even if the chance should arise of removing a great social evil, nothing must be done to weaken those habits of individual self-reliance and voluntary association which have built up the greatness of the English people.
Words of a great man. Here Toynbee puts his finger on a problem that has bedeviled Western democracies, especially the United States, since the 19th century. How do you balance the need for collective action to promote social welfare without interfering with the rights and creativity of the individual? I’m not going to embark on an answer to a question as complex as that in a few paragraphs. I’ll talk about food instead.
Isabella Beeton has these words to say about being economical in the industrial age as a component of her recipe for roast haunch of mutton:
HOW TO BUY MEAT ECONOMICALLY.—If the housekeeper is not very particular as to the precise joints to cook for dinner, there is oftentimes an opportunity for her to save as much money in her purchases of meat as will pay for the bread to eat with it. It often occurs, for instance, that the butcher may have a superfluity of certain joints, and these he would be glad to get rid of at a reduction of sometimes as much as 1d. or 1-1/2d. per lb., and thus, in a joint of 8 or 9 lbs., will be saved enough to buy 2 quartern loaves. It frequently happens with many butchers, that, in consequence of a demand for legs and loins of mutton, they have only shoulders left, and these they will be glad to sell at a reduction.
The recipe itself is rather basic I’m afraid:
ROAST HAUNCH OF MUTTON.
- INGREDIENTS.—Haunch of mutton, a little salt, flour.
Mode.—Let this joint hang as long as possible without becoming tainted, and while hanging dust flour over it, which keeps off the flies, and prevents the air from getting to it. If not well hung, the joint, when it comes to table, will neither do credit to the butcher or the cook, as it will not be tender. Wash the outside well, lest it should have a bad flavour from keeping; then flour it and put it down to a nice brisk fire, at some distance, so that it may gradually warm through. Keep continually basting, and about 1/2 hour before it is served, draw it nearer to the fire to get nicely brown. Sprinkle a little fine salt over the meat, pour off the dripping, add a little boiling water slightly salted, and strain this over the joint. Place a paper ruche on the bone, and send red-currant jelly and gravy in a tureen to table with it.
Time.—About 4 hours.
Average cost, 10d. per lb.
Sufficient for 8 to 10 persons.