Liberal Languages: Ideological Imaginations and Twentieth-Century Progressive Thought

By Michael Freeden | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
The Concept of Poverty and Progressive Liberalism

Up to the Eleventh of November 1918, the State was
primarily an organisation for national defence or for
aggression against other States. Since that date it has
become primarily an organisation for the prevention or
mitigation of poverty, by combating disease, ignorance,
social disorder and unemployment, and for the care of
such dependents as children, widows, aged persons, and
others suffering from physical and mental disability.

—Gilbert Slater, Poverty and the State

THOUGH THIS sweeping opinion, expressed in a book on poverty in Britain published in 1930, has not proved correct in the longer run, there was nevertheless more than a grain of truth in it.1 The reasons for the elevation of poverty to a central concern of state and society lie in social and economic developments that began almost a century before 1918. But they were reinforced and further precipitated by new theoretical and ideological insights, especially in the generation before the First World War.

This chapter investigates the idea of poverty as developed by progressive liberals in Britain at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well as the transformations it underwent in the general process of formulating the thinking and policies at the root of the welfare state. This requires a focus not on what poverty was but on what it was thought to be, and how changing understandings of poverty shaped the reality that reflective employers of the term perceived and contributed to the formulation of welfare thinking. I shall therefore not concentrate in detail on the parallel issue concerning the methods of combating poverty, many of which were abetted by the legitimisation of state action that new liberal as well as moderate socialist thought endorsed and instigated.2 In the period under examination a plethora of interpretations of poverty, old and new, combined to create a confusing and sometimes contested range of meanings. Out of these internal tensions there arose a complex and polysemic

1 G. Slater, Poverty and the State (London, 1930), p. 443.

2 I have discussed some of the relevant issues in M. Freeden, The New Liberalism: An
Ideology of Social Reform (Oxford, 1978).

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