Mandeville on the Education of the Poor

The political philosopher and political economist Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) wrote in his work “The Fable of the Bees” that public education is harmful, because it increases the material demands of the poor, making the hierarchichal organization of society infinitely more dificult. An illustration would be- to use an apt example in this litiguous society- a poor uneducated worker, who gets laid off, and simply seeks for another job, whereas another educated workers, who also gets laid off, sues his employer for compensation due to undue discharge, drawing from the revenues (even if small) of the company. One should imagine a well-educated majority that is in constant competition with each other, voiding and disputing contracts, and questioning the hierarchichal organization in society (if one follows the premise that discord is a necessary evil in society)! In Mandeville’s view, an uneducated public consisting of many poor people enhances societal stability, in which everyone in the hierarchy knows what to do, i.e. the ruling elites rule by exploiting the poor workers, and the poor workers don’t question the orders, but piously carry out the tasks assigned to them. We are at a more civilized stage today, where public education is taken for granted, and certainly necessary in a capitalist economy at least on a most basic level. But even that is not completely true. The deskilling of the labor force is perfectly acceptable so long as sufficient streams of skilled immigrants come in to build the machinery, which is handled fully automatically or by unskilled people due to the simplicity of the apparatus. Even many well-educated people today are struggling to find decent positions in the labor market certainly correlated with the incessant wage competition with India and China.

Back to Mandeville: one could argue that his views are repulsive, but it carries much truth in it, since the functioning of the capitalist economy is exclusively based on the fact that workers are not inclined to launch criticism against their employer, nor are they aware that criticism could be launched, especially at a time period when labor organization is down to less than 7% of the private-sector workforce. Either the low-wage jobs and the subsequent adjustments in lifestyle, i.e. a lengthening of the working day, are taken for granted, or some form of illusion is built up that somehow through the acquisition of additional skills or an advanced degree a better material future is envisioned (latter one of which I will not automatically deny, but the prospects are not as rosy as they were years ago). What both of these approaches have in common is the rugged individualism, which in a time of a deep social, economic and political crisis is bound to fail. Leaving labor by the wayside in economic decision-making through internal divisions (“I pull myself up by my bootstraps.”), lack in labor unions and lack in political/economic education is going to enhance the drive toward capital accumulation in the hands of the ruling elites, and destroy the commons and the environment on which the wealth and well-being of the society is based on.

This position would be in fundamental disagreement to the position Mandeville suggested. He feared that more education for the poor workers is going to destabilize the society, a very common view among social conservatives fearful of any social change. I would rather suggest the opposite: it is reduced education for the poor workers, which is destabilizing society, because the elites left to their own devices knowing only how to enhance their own bottom line through the coercive laws of competition are the prime motors of destabilization, whereas every effort by the working class to enhance their own standard of living, and thereby balance the scales within the economic system, enhances stability if the political and economic changes they seek are well-crafted.

I came across Mandeville through a description offered by Karl Marx, in his standard work “Capital” Vol. 1, pp 764-765 of the Penguin Classics version, 1976. The footnote on that page indicates the following source, “Bernard de Mandeville, “The Fable of the Bees”, 5th edn, London, 1728, remarks, pp. 212-213, 328″. (Marx used Mandeville in the context of explaining the general law of capitalist accumulation, in which he points to the mistake of classical political economy that “identified the accumulation [of capital] with the consumption of the whole of the capitalized part of the surplus product”, which apparently leads to an increase in the number of working people. But I will not and can not further elaborate on this point.)

I will provide the following quote by Mandeville, “It would be easier, where property is well secured, to live without money than without poor; for who would do the work?… As they [the poor] ought to be kept from starving, so they should receive nothing worth saving. If here and there one of the lowest class, by uncommon industry, and pinching his belly, lifts himself above the condition he was brought up in, nobody ought to hinder him; nay, it is undeniably the wisest course for every person in the society, and for every private family to be frugal; but it is the interest of all rich nations, that the greatest part of the poor should almost never be idle, and yet continually spend what they get… Those that get their living by their daily labor… have nothing to stir them up to be serviceable but their wants which it is prudence to relieve, but folly to cure. The only thing then that can render the labouring man industrious, is a moderate quantity of money, for as too little will, according as his temper is, either dispirit or make him desperate, so too much will make him insolent and lazy… From what has been said, it is manifest, that, in a free nation, where slaves are not allowed of, the surest wealth consists in a multitude of laborious poor, for besides that they are the never failing nursery of fleets and armies, without them there could be no enjoyment, and no product of any country could be valuable. To make the society’ (which of course consists of non-workers [the elites]) ‘happy and people easier under the meanest circumstances, it is requisite that great numbers of them [workers] should be ignorant as well as poor; knowledge both enlarges and multiplies our desires, and the few thing a man wishes for, the more easily his necessities may be supplied.”

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