Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 19, 2012

A Pigeon Fable for Christmas: did the 99% idea come from Pigeon Paley?

Filed under: economics,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 3:42 pm

By Calum Turner

I recently came across an American book from 1853 and was surprised to read a passage that resonated with today. ‘Theory of Politics’ is by Richard Hildreth, and has the inviting sub-title, ‘An Inquiry into the Foundations of Governments and the Causes and Progress of Political Revolutions’. Under the heading ‘Wealth as an Element of Power. Moneyed Form of Social Slavery’, Hildreth addressed what he called “the existing social state of Europe” by quoting William Paley’s fable:

“If you should see a flock of pigeons in a field of corn: and if (instead of each picking where and what it liked, taking just as much as it wanted, and no more) you should see ninety-nine of them gathering all they got into a heap; reserving nothing for themselves but the chaff and the refuse; keeping this heap for one, and that the weakest, perhaps worst, pigeon of the flock; sitting round, and looking on, all the winter, whilst this one was devouring, throwing about, and wasting it; and if a pigeon more hardy and hungry than the rest, touched a grain of the hoard, all the others instantly flying upon it, and tearing it to pieces; - if you should see this, you would see nothing more than what is every day practised and established among men. Among men, you see the ninety-and-nine toiling and scraping together a heap of superfluities for one (and this one too, oftentimes the feeblest and worst of the whole set - a child, a woman, a madman, or a fool;) getting nothing for themselves all the while, but a little of the coarsest of the provision, which their own industry produces; looking quietly on, while they see the fruits of all their labour spent or spoiled: and if one of the number take or touch a particle of the hoard, the others joining against him, and hanging him for the theft.”

(Taken from the 1824 New York edition, with the punctuation of the time, ‘The Principles of Political and Moral Philosophy’ [1785]; it’s at www.books.google.com/books?id=MRMRAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=paley+political+moral+philosophy&hl=de, being Book III, Part I, the whole of Chapter I, Of Property, pages 78-9.)

Paley’s friend, John Law, tried in vain to get him to excise this from the draft, fearing it would harm Paley’s chance of becoming a bishop. It got him the moniker Pigeon Paley, and the monarch, George III (yes, he of the Alan Bennett play and film), is reputed to have said, “Pigeon Paley? Not sound, not sound”. And no, he never became a bishop. (Info from wiki.)

Richard Hildreth (1807-65) was a lawyer, then joint founder and editor of the Boston Atlas, and author of the 6-volume ‘The History of the United States of America’, the anti-slavery novel ‘Archy Moore’ (later expanded as ‘The White Slave’), plus studies of slavery, Japan, and ethics. He also wrote for the New York Tribune 1857-60, sharing its pages for a while with Marx and Engels (contributors 1852-61).

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1 Comment »

  1. I never liked the 99%, it let’s too many off the hook in my opinion. All the lackey’s end up on ‘our’ side.

    Comment by Steveo — December 20, 2012 @ 6:50 pm


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