Political Elites Must Be Defended

Political Elites Must Be Defended

This week, Sean Brennan (QUB) examines how British imperial thought shapes our current political climate. 

The June 2016 electoral results from the referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union (EU) has provoked much debate on what made so many working-class communities vote for a return to core Empire British values rather than EU ones. Similarly, in the United States of America (USA), the rise of Donald Trump, and his populist agenda, has also provoked much debate on why so many white working-class communities, particularly in the ‘rust belt’, appear to favour a return to core Empire Americana values, of protectionism, isolationism, and racism.

In each polity the rise of a global neo-liberal political economy is often cited as the underlying cause of such fears, which are perceived as threatening both the sovereignty and ‘power of the people’. These shared feelings, of fear and alienation, in both polities lower classes presents a puzzle to some students of a Four Nations history (and its former colony): on why two differing political ideologies, of republicanism and a constitutional monarchy, have created this shared sense of loss in the lower classes.

In her assessment of this sense of fear and alienation the American historian Nancy Isenberg (2016) explores the ‘untold history of class’ in the USA as a means to better understand the mentalities that shaped colonisation. She achieves this outcome through the eyes of Richard Hakluyt the elder (1530-91) and his ‘much younger cousin’, of the same name, Richard Hakluyt the younger (1552-1616), who became ‘England’s two chief promoters of American exploration’ (p.17). In so doing, Isenberg describes the ‘minds of literate English men and women as colonization began in the 1500s’ (p. 17).

For example, the younger Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations (1589) influenced many in ‘the age of Shakespeare’ to the extent that ‘everyone who was anyone read Hakluyt’. His portrayal of America as an ‘empty’ land enabled the English State to claim it on the pretext the land would be taken out of ‘its natural state’ and put it to ‘commercial use’ (p. 18). Hakluyt described Native Americans as ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’ who ‘did not build’ English type homes or towns, nor did they ‘enclose the workable ground inside hedges and fences’, thus enabling the colonisers to legally view the land as a ‘wasteland’, or ‘idle land’ (p. 18).

As the English ‘were obsessed with waste’ putting American land to commercial use then legitimised their claim to the ‘natural resources as raw materials that could be converted into valuable commodities’ (p. 19). In this regard, it ‘was not just land that could be waste. People could be waste too’ (p. 20). That is, Hakluyt believed ‘America required what he classified as ‘waste people’’, who could be the raw material needed to commercialise this new wasteland (p. 20).

Thus, the English State then legitimised its rounding up of waste people, such as the idle poor, their children, run away servants, ex-soldiers, and ex-sailors: and as ‘masterless men, detached and unproductive’, transport them to the colonies to be commercially productive: and also ‘reduce crime and poverty in one masterstroke’ (p. 24).

Developing this colonial model, of transporting waste people to be commercially productive and to form a ‘quasi-military model’, could then provide food to sustain the new colonists, and defend their ‘colonial masters’. This model had already ‘been used in Ireland’ (p. 22) and such was it’s success, by 1622 ‘the famous poet and clergyman John Donne’ described the ‘new colony’ of Virginia ‘as the nation’s spleen and liver, draining the “ill humours of the body … to breed good bloud” (p. 22). However, breeding ‘good bloud’ also had negative consequences.

As seen in Ireland, following the English Civil War (1642-1651) and the Glorious Revolution (1688) the classification of Cromwellian ex-soldiers, and their ‘idle’ dissenter poor, as waste people ultimately led to the promulgation of republican values in Ireland (Whelan: 2010), which spread in the new colony, particularly after the 1740 famine, with ‘a vast number of [dissenter] people shipping off for Pennsylvania and Boston’ (Bardon, 1992: 176).

Yet, contrary to public perceptions, Isenberg demonstrates these waste people were not always welcome, particularly in the new ‘colony’ of Georgia (p. 56), formed in 1732, which initially ‘refused to permit slavery’ (p. 47) as it ‘encouraged white Idleness’ (p. 58). Therefore Georgia was initially conceived as a ‘free labor colony’ as ‘many contemporaries connected slavery to English idleness’ (p. 58).

Instead, hoping to make those idle poor, who wanted to improve themselves, more productive, leaders of the Georgia colony preferred ‘Swiss, German, French Huguenot, and Scottish Highlander, all of whom seemed prepared for lives of hardship, arriving as whole communities of farming families’ (p. 58).

Isenberg argues (p. 44) such demonising views emerged, in part, from the Enlightenment thinker John Locke who ‘had a decisive hand in drafting the inherently illiberal Fundamental Constitutions’, which ‘did more than endorse slavery. It was a manifesto promoting a semifeudalistic and wholly aristocratic society’.

Locke’s introduction of ‘Leet-men’, (p. 45) who were ‘a permanent and potentially productive peasant class – yet definitely an underclass’ then ‘provided a racial and class barrier between the slaves and the landed elites’ (p. 47). This English mentality for defending colonial elites would ultimately shape the class, and race, divisions now fuelling Trump’s populist agenda.

Isenberg contends this underclass, which provided the barrier between the rich and the slaves, were then continuously demonised as white trash. For example, Benjamin Franklin, who ‘was not sympathetic to the poor’ (p. 73), promoted a ‘middling’ class of freemen, bereft of ‘indentured servants’. These freemen could then protect ‘civilised people’ from ‘Negros, Mulattoes, and others of the vilest and most abandoned of Mankind’ (p. 74).

Similarly, in his quest to overthrow monarchy, Tom Paine, ‘turned a blind eye to slavery’ (p. 82) preferring instead to valorise his ‘economic heroes’, such as ‘overseas merchants, commercial farmers, shipbuilders, inventors, and property-owning and property-protecting Americans – but decidedly not the landless poor’ (p. 83). Thus, Isenberg demonstrates how mentalities on waste people, emanating from the minds of literate English men and women, traversed the origins of both Empire British and Empire Americana values.

In providing this brief insight into an analysis of the minds of literate English men, and how they bred ‘good bloud’ to sustain the barriers between the rich and the productive peasant class, Isenberg’s research achieves a key outcome. She reinforces Michel Foucault’s view that as the Modern State emerged from feudal and Absolute rule the new elites introduced:

the appearance of a State racism: a racism that society will direct against itself, against its own elements and its own products. This is the internal racism of permanent purification, and it will become one of the basic dimensions of social normalization’ (Foucault, 2003: 61-62).

In so doing Isenberg demonstrates how the Modern State uses waste people to become commercially productive and act as a barrier between rich and poor during times of social transformation.

While Isenberg provides a more detailed analysis of how this Empire Americana form of State racism emerged, it can be argued, from the brief examples provided here, that rather than neo-liberalism, it may be this ‘internal racism of permanent purification’, this form of social normalization, that now drives the mind-sets of Empire British and Empire Americana values, to promote Brexiteers and ‘Trumpateers’, as a ruse to distract internal power struggles.

While Isenberg provides an interesting insight on the development of class in the USA, and her work will no doubt provoke further debate, one outcome from her research is that if analysis of the Brexit vote and rise of Trump populism is to be better understood, it may be necessary to move beyond Conservative, Liberal, Marxist or Feminist interpretations of history.

That is, as Foucault argues, if students of a Four Nations history are to make sense of those Empire British or Empire Americana values currently shaping elite and lower class thinking then any analysis needs to focus more on the ‘manner of doing things, orientated toward certain objectives’ such as elite power struggles, rather than on ‘a theory, an ideology, a juridical philosophy of individual freedom or a set of policies or even as a way in which society ‘represents itself’ (Dean, 2004: 56).

In following this methodological approach it may then be possible to get a better understanding of why political and civil society elites often demand that imperial societies values must be defended even when that means those spilling the ‘good bloud’ often have to value themselves as waste people: while having little insight into the true nature of their political elites, or the principal navigations, they are defending.


Seán Brennan is a PhD candidate at the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, The Queen’s University, Belfast.


Bardon, Jonathan. A History of Ulster. Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 1992.

Dean, Mitchell. Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society. London: Sage Publications, 2004.

Foucault, Michel. –‘Society Must Be Defended’: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Vol. 1. Edited by Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana. General Editors: Francois Ewald and Alessandro Fontana. English Series Editor: Arnold 1. Davidson. Translated by David Macey. London: Macmillan, 2003.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78. Michel Senellart ed. general editors, François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana, translated by Graham Burchell. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400 – Year Untold History of Class in America. New York: Viking, 2016.

Whelan, Fergus. Dissent into Treason: Unitarians, King-Killers and the Society of United Irishmen. Dingle: Brandon, 2010.





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