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Saturday, August 30, 2003

The Original Hurricane Fabian-My mind went into history mode when I heard that there was a Tropical Storm (now Hurricane) Fabian forming in the Atlantic that might hit Florida next weekend. My mind went quickly past the 50s singer Fabian and went back to the turn of the century Fabians of England. The quick mental memory bank said "Influencial socialists, H.G. Wells was one of them." The link confirmed my memory.
The British counterpart of the German Marxian revisionists and heavily influenced by the English Historical school, the upper-middle-class intellectual group - the "Fabian Society" - emerged in 1884 as a strand of latter-day utopian socialism. They became known to the public firstly through Sidney Webb's Facts for Socialists (1884) and then through the famous Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889) written by the Webbs, Shaw, and others. The "Fabians" were named after Fabius, the famous Roman general which opposed Hannibal as they were "biding their time" until they would "strike hard". Exactly when this strike would occur was a perennial question. Eschewing the revolutionary tactics of more orthodox Marxians, the middle-class Fabians were more directly involved with politics and practical gains - through contacts not only in the "International Labor Party", trade unions and cooperative movements but also throughout the entire British political apparatus (Liberals and Tories included). At the core of the Fabian Society were the Webbs - Sidney J. Webb and his wife, Beatrice Potter Webb (married 1892). Together, they wrote numerous studies of industrial Britain, alternative economic arrangements (esp. cooperatives) and pamphlets for political reform. At the core of their system was the Ricardian theory of rent which they applied to capital as well as land (and labor as well - their opposition to high labor incomes was also an issue). Their conclusion was that it was the state's responsibility to acquire this rent (a position strikingly familiar to Henry George - whom Shaw credited explicitly). Their later admiration of Soviet Russia stemmed partly from Stalin's "efficiency" at acquiring this rent.
That's one of the reasons we have a takings clause in the constitutions, to keep the government from acquiring rent without compensation.
As one contemporary noted, "they combined an ounce of theory with a ton of practice". The practice, for the Fabians, was to influence public opinion in this direction. This was to be accomplished, they argued, not through mass organization but rather by the selective education of the powerful "few" who would lead the reforms in government (hopefully themselves), thus they only belatedly extended their appeal beyond the narrow intelligentsia class from which they arose. It was the Webbs who founded the London School of Economics (L.S.E.) in 1895.
Sound familiar. Teach the teachers and you'll have the population in a generation.
Through the relentless outpouring of Fabian Essays and the charismatic appeal of the Webbs - coupled with the prowess of literary figures such as George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells - ensured that they would be indeed influential among British intellectuals and government officials. Alfred Marshall, for one, readily admitted his sympathies for the Fabian cause (although he abhorred their anti-theoretical stance). Philip Wicksteed - who tangled with Shaw over the labor theory of value and marginal utility theory - in contrast, was considerably more critical. It was this narrowness of appeal that led some Fabians, such as G.D.H. Cole and novelist H.G. Wells to break with the Fabians.... Further splits in the Fabian camp emerged when the Webbs and Shaw decided to throw their weight behind the British Imperial enterprise - supporting the Boer War and other colonial misadventures - as they felt their reforms (when they came about) would thus have a wider application. An overarching British Empire, they believed, would be a more efficient conductor of reform than a multitude of smaller countries. The Webb's support of monopolies was also well-known - particularly, in their famous 1897 claim that "higgling in the market" (i.e. competition) was inimical because competitive prices always bore down on the workers. Thus, monopolies are more desirable as they would have more room to treat their workers better.
Note the preference for empire. EU, anyone? Their dislike of competition reminds me of the Bill Bradley line that "Democrats generally prefer the bureaucrat they know to the consumer they can't control." If that Bill Bradley ran in 2000, he'd be president now. Hurricane Fabian is packing 115MPH winds at last report, but won't do the damage that his namesake did in the early part of the last century. They helped drag British economics, and the economics of much of the Anglosphere, a number of notches to the left.

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