The following first appeared on the Substack ‘Creeve Rua’ and is syndicated with the permission of the author.
While the trite cultural spat over George Berkeley’s colonial legacy interests me little, I’m glad the Bishop has been thrust into the limelight again, at least as an opportunity to turn the conversation toward his radical economic system of protection.
It truly is remarkable how such a revolutionary system – elaborated upon in the 1740s – has been so thoroughly overlooked. A more cynical perspective would say that it is precisely the Economic Patriotism of his Querist – undeservedly rendering the title ‘Querism’ in some humourless academic papers – that makes the modern Irish scholarly establishment so full of vitriol.
In this essay, I will attempt to sketch how Berkeley lays out a programme of social economy that would free Irish Industry, Finance and Culture from the yoke of Consumerist Globalisation.
The main three principles of Berkeley’s Querist are Protectionism, National Banking & Social Paternalism.
Protectionism and the ‘Wall of Brass’
Perhaps the most enduring concept of the Querist is Berkeley’s notion of the ‘wall of brass’, and the need to protect Irish industry. Writing at the zenith of English mercantilism, Berkeley focuses on the dire state of Gaelic wagiedom. His own Anglo-elitism certainly shines through when describing ‘the bulk of our Irish natives’ – notice the paternalistic “our” – as being ‘content in dirt and beggary’ (Q.19). Of course, there’s nothing unique about his prejudice, but what is important is the weight of the blame he imposes on the ‘idle rich’ (Q.1) who have sold out the manufacturing base of the nation.
For him, the famines and unemployment of the 1720s are more results of ‘he who whose luxury consumeth foreign products, and whose industry produceth nothing domestic to exchange for them’ (Q.57) – namely, the opulent cosmopolite bugman who relies on luxury imports over native goods. Neither do women get off, as Berkeley – embracing his inner-Belfort Bax menninism – ‘112. Whether our ladies might not as well endow monasteries as wear Flanders lace?’ and asked, ‘141. Whether a woman of fashion ought not to be declared a public enemy?’.
For him, Ireland’s hollowed-out industry – exemplified in the prohibition of the woll trade – is spurred on by an effeminate consumerist elite.
The question arises: what is the alternative to the luxury-export model of Liberal political economy? Berkeley answers resoundingly – Protection. In particular, he proposes his famous giant wall: ‘140. Whether, if there was a wall of brass a thousand cubits high round this kingdom, our natives might not nevertheless live cleanly and comfortably, till the land, and reap the fruits of it?’. Berkeley argues that protecting nascent industry would create native jobs, circulate coin and make the overall country richer: ‘265. Whether an inward trade would not cause industry to flourish, and multiply the circulation of our coin, and whether this may not do as well as multiplying the coin itself?’.
The Irish economy could ‘nourish and clothe its inhabitants, and provide them with reasonable conveniences and even comforts of life’ through an internal ‘domestic trade’ alone (Q.133). The Bishop’s wall – with state-planning – would see manufacturing and jobs come back to the nation:
‘264. Whether, as our trade and manufactures increased, magazines should not be established in proper places, fitted by their situation, near great roads and navigable rivers, lakes, or canals, for the ready reception and distribution of all sorts of commodities from and to the several parts of the kingdom; and whether the town of Athlone, for instance, may not be fitly situated for such a magazine, or centre of domestic commerce?’
Naturally, the next question which arises is exactly how Berkeley would manage such a fiscally ambitious programme. Unfortunately, he will not make England pay for it, innstead the answer lies in his monetary reform.
National Credit, Paper Money & Banking:
Firstly, Berkeley quite predictably argues – continuing his aversion to exports – that state funds can be obtained through ‘a tax on all gold and silver in apparel, on all foreign laces and silks’, a policy which would also ‘have other salutary effects on the public’ (Q.117). Following this however, Berkeley urged a radical departure from the conventional monetary system of British control.
Since the Dutch Financial Conspiracy of 1688, or its official neutral title of ‘The Glorious Revolution’, the City of London’s financial tentacles held control over its colonies’ economies due to being backed by expansive gold reserves, and its ever-increasing mobs of stock companies and private speculators. Its power was in its reluctance to circulate its own coinage: ‘
As in the American colonies, Britain refused to permit setting up a local mint for gold and silver – despite a succession of Irish demands from the Restoration onwards. The Irish economy was thus dependent for its circulating medium on what English gold and silver coins could be attracted through trade’ (Kelly, 345).
While Berkeley wants English political rule over Ireland, the new form of global financial dominance too often allows for catastrophic events like the South Sea Bubble of 1720 and Law’s Mississippi disaster. In cases such as these, bubbles are created by reckless speculation on government debt, and excessive printing of paper money leading to inflation. Berkeley was heavily concerned about this new order, well described by Kelly:
‘This disastrous episode provoked widespread reappraisal of financial and commercial developments in England since the late seventeenth century, such as the growth of banking and fractionary credit, the emergence of a stock market and the relations between the new financial class of “monied men” and the mass of ordinary property owners who had suffered in the Bubble.
Setting its face against many of these recent developments, Berkeley’s Essay sought to demonstrate that a nation could only be weakened by a financial system that divorced wealth and prosperity from trade, industry, and labour. It condemned the South Sea directors as deliberate architects of their country’s ruin, and argued that only by returning to religion, frugality, industry, and public spirit could the nation hope to avoid disaster’ (Kelly, 342)
The central economic proposal which would strengthen the public virtue, was that of a National Bank. A bank, with necessary regulations on stock-jobbing, profiteering and non-productive finance (Q.428, Q.308, Q. 277) could help provide monetary sovereignty for the Irish economy. Local initiatives could be directly funded, the poor would be provided with productive relief and infrastructure would be revolutionised under the new nationally financed paper-money system. As he described:
‘A properly regulated issue of paper-credit (together with adequate provision for small change) would stimulate trade and industry; turn the Irish poor wretched, starving idlers into contented, well-fed workers able to provide for themselves and their families (1.225, 11.129, 315); establish an active public-minded gentry, serving as promoters of activity in their own localities ( II.243-5); and lead Britain to value her hitherto despised colony as a junior partner in a flourishing empire (III.74, 77).’ (Kelly, 105).
Departing from the mental plantation of Anglo-Saxon pearl clutching, Berkeley rejects the gold standard for not coming to terms with the ‘mystery of banking’ (Q.28). Certainly, Central Banks use gold reserves to back up their currency, but the bishop argues that gold is less accessible and able to for circulation – a similar argument later made by the American Populists of the 1890s. For Berkeley, a nationally controlled banking system would be more worthy than a goldmine (Q. 289). Gold attracts usurers and stockjobbers – a national system of banking, managed by a benevolent elite can coordinate society in a virtuous manner.
Overall, the planning of society Berkeley is putting forward is teleologically ordered towards a unified whole, in which the common labourer and the aristocratic nobility all have their role in the mediated gradations of being.
As he says in The Bond of Society (1713): the ‘Law of attraction’ insures men ‘are drawn together in communities, clubs, families, friendships, and all the various species of society.’ (225-28). Every healthy body politic is coordinated out of the multifarious organs of the economy, as in the mediaeval Guild system. He’s in line with the contemporary Tory Idealism, best exemplified by the satires of Alexander Pope when he describes the simplicity of classical society, when one is expected to ‘Act well your part; there all the honour lies.’ The only way of reaching such a state is through Berkeley’s social motto: ‘frugal fashions in the upper rank, and comfortable living in the lower’ (Q.18).
Beyond a general return to pre-liberal paternalism, Berkeley also advocates a type of modern cultural patriotism – at least in combating the cultural degeneration of consumerism and materialism.
Perhaps most pronounced in his Maxims Concerning Patriotism (1750), Berkeley insists that a true patria must require suspicion of avarice and materialism – why? – he does not say, but by contrast it is clear.
While ‘5. It is impossible an Epicure should be a Patriot.’ and ‘3. A Man whose Passion for Money runs high, bids fair for being no Patriot.’, the man who sees ‘his Countrymen as God’s Creatures’ is a ‘real Patriot’. From here once can assume Berkeley feels that modern atomistic materialism – as well commercial liberation – is a threat to the traditional order of the world. Only through class collaboration, with the lower orders of the labourers — alongside the higher ranks of the nobility — can the financial and cultural forces of usury and indolence be defeated.
In a sense, Berkeley’s economic and cultural platform is the reversal of the dominant Liberal Radicalism platform of the 17th and 18th Centuries in British and Irish politics. Whether under the realisation of 1688 under the Whig Walpole, or the repeal of Corn Laws under the Tory Peel (which exacerbated the Famine) – the ‘left’ and ‘right’ represented the dominance of the entrenched consumerist Anglo-empire, and its exporting of Liberalism to its colonies.
The radicals of the Whigs advocated economic liberation for the new financial elites while the old guard of the Tories fought for the scientistic tyranny of Utilitarian Malthusianism. Both were revolutionaries, hacking away at the established paternal order, precisely the conception of society which Berkeley advocated for: the ordering of a mass base of labourers by a sophisticated harmony of Guilds and Protection.