People as a Commodity in “A Modest Proposal”
“A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift is often regarded as one of the most powerful political essays in literature, and yet, not one word of the piece was written as explicit political advice. Swift cleverly uses parody and irony to criticize not only the political situation between England and Ireland, but he calls out commonly accepted social norms and assumptions, blowing them out of proportion for closer observation. “A Modest Proposal” addresses social issues as not only political and economic in nature, but as a matter of human rights for the impoverished and oppressed. And all this done by suggesting that babies would be good eating.
Swift was writing in a time of great fiscal change in Great Britain and, in turn, the world. Great Britain was the dominant world power, and imperialism and colonialism were going strong. “The founding of the Bank of England in 1694, its circulation of paper currency, and its management of a national debt by which a permanent standing army could be financed had made Britain the first modern “fiscal-military state” (Moore, 680). This fiscal power and the precedent behind the power fascinated Swift. Britain was not only able to build a stable army with this power; they were able to focus on building the national aesthetic, something few other countries had the economic stability to develop. Britain was able to gain control of other nation-states by exporting cultural collateral. “‘Britishness,’ … was compensation for those subjected to what had become a ‘sovereignty machine’: an apparatus subsuming personalities to the point of total mimetic identification with the transcendent nation” (Moore, 680).
Ireland was one of the countries that came to accept the British aesthetic to the point of its own demise. In a letter Swift wrote to Alexander Pope he said “Imagine a nation the two-thirds of whose revenues are spent out of it, and who are not permitted [by Britain] to trade with the other third, and where the pride of the women will not suffer them to wear the own manufactures even where they excel what come from abroad” (Swift, 2430). The relationship between Ireland and Britain was not a healthy one for Ireland’s economic or political well-being, but in terms of culture, high-society Irish men and women counted it all as a win. The poor of Ireland, on the other hand, suffered greatly at the hand of these aesthetic choices.
Swift wrote this piece not only as a political and economic jab, but also as a social critique. Ireland had sold its own people for luxurious consumption, a great national sin, as Swift would write in the political tract he published directly before “A Modest Proposal.” “Maxims Controlled in Ireland” was written five years before “A Modest Proposal,” but Swift very clearly draws ideas from this first work, blowing them out of proportion to better make his point. “His purpose was to demonstrate that however much these maxims applied to other countries they had no application to Ireland. Among the maxims examined and confuted is one that was cherished by the mercantilist economic writers of the last half of the seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth centuries: that people are the riches of a nation” (Landa, 161). Swift wrote that in Ireland’s case, because the government had let the economy get to the point where people needed to resort to begging rather than gainful employment, populous was one of Ireland’s burdens rather than its strength. Swift blamed England for pushing Ireland beyond the point where the universally accepted maxims could apply.
If such a maxim should be applied to Ireland’s case at the time, then, following the next logical step, the people of Ireland were worth next to nothing. At the time, the people of a nation were seen as another commodity. “People are conceived of as a source of riches; their labor is potential wealth but it must be utilized. As one writer expressed it, the people are ‘capital material …. raw and indigested,’”(Landa, 163). With this political atmosphere in mind, Swift’s suggestion of cannibalism is not as farfetched because it closely follows the thread of thinking at the time. If people are a commodity to a successful nation only when employed, the masses of beggars in Ireland must not be valuable, unless they can be turned into a commodity in some other way.
Swift criticizes this dollars-and-cents approach to human life by giving theorists the literal application of their ideas – and it looks a lot like treating men and women as breeders and children as luxury goods. “I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males, which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females” (Swift, 2433). Swift is writing from the point of view of a political theorist who has taken the prevailing political rhetoric to the nth degree.
By proposing this ridiculous solution, which is the result of popular thought at the time, Swift puts the ball back in the politicians court as if to say, “This is where your rhetoric leads, and here are the real problems.” To engage with the true heart of criticism in this piece, it is necessary to read between the lines. One of the key hinges in his argument for infanticide and commercial cannibalism is the products’ appeal as luxury goods. This idea ties back to Ireland’s emphasis on imported British aesthetic instead of more practical economics. The idea is that Ireland is consuming itself out of house, home, and people.
In the end, Swift’s piece about eating babies does more to humanize the poor of Ireland than not. Swift is willing to treat people as commodity in regards to their worth as valuable, productive members of the society. He decries that the people of Ireland are deprived of that kind of productive societal value. His satyrical argument in “A Modest Proposal” is that, being deprived of the chance for employment, the people’s new societal value is in supporting the elite’s thirst for luxury with their very lives.
Landa, Louis A. “‘A Modest Proposal’ and Populousness.” Modern Philology, vol. 40, no. 2, 1942, pp. 161–170., http://www.jstor.org/stable/434233.
Moore, Sean. “Devouring Posterity: ‘A Modest Proposal’, Empire, and Ireland’s ‘Debt of the Nation.’” PMLA, vol. 122, no. 3, 2007, pp. 679–695., http://www.jstor.org/stable/25501737.
Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.”The Longman Anthology British Literature: The Resoration and the Eighteenth Century, edited by David Damrosch and Kevin J.H. Dettmar, Pearson, 2010, pp. 2430-2437.