A Modest Meat Licence Proposal?

Submitted by ciaranon on Sun, 03/08/2009 - 22:19

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. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

                                     Jonathan Swift (1729)


When Jonathan Swift proffered his solution to the problem of the urban poor in Dublin in 1729 he caused an immediate sensation. His pamphlet, A Modest Proposal has since become a classic text in Irish history and literature and set a high water-mark for radical freedom of speech in colonial Ireland. The central thrust of his solution to the city's decline (which in the current orthodox view was due to overpopulation) was to suggest that his fellow citizens ought to simply eat the excess children. He delivered his terrifying proposal in beautiful and prosaic language. By subtly equating the children of the Irish poor to livestock, he divided opinion and sparked debate.

When the U.K. Meat Licencing Law (2012) was first mooted, Swift's tongue-in-cheek pamphlet was something that immediately sprang to mind. The searing and incisive indictment of colonial misrule seems to me directly comparable to this proposed law. The MLL plays with current conceptions of inferiority. It asks us to analyse our hierarchical structure of a food chain from which we have become detached - and yet still feed fat upon. In this brief post I aim to ask what direction the MLL might take, were it to adopt a more Swiftian route.

The crux of Swifts argument lay in his direct assault on the supposed wealth of the nation - its people. It did so by suggesting that some people were more important than others and that their children were less of a drain on society than those of the urban poor. The logic of the piece depends on the reader accepting inter alia that there is a hierarchy, and that those at the top are there by right and legitimately so. The MLL also depends on this logic, by forcing us to accept that by consuming meat in the commercial 21st century way (that is: by purchasing it in ASDA or Tesco, wrapped in cellophane) is to admit that the majority of those living in the UK accept the benefits of the mass slaughter of animals, but are unwilling to contribute to the process directly. The MLL, if successful, would require us all to confront our constructed hierarchy. So far, so good - but Swift was not serious, and did not attempt to make a law. So why make a comparison?

My argument here is that as the MLL currently stands it can hope to have but a limited impact. Take these as absolutes: it will not succeed, and will not be an effective law by 2012, or by 2020. For this we can thank the absurdity of the law itself, the economic cost of such an endeavour, and the probable lack of public support. By contrast, Swift's proposal (a much more absurd one) had a contemporary effect, caused debate and clamour and is held up all over the world as an example of how an acute satire can really wound. So how did he do it, and what can we learn from it? 

Swift's proposal was horrendous, it was macabre. It was written by a man that was relatively famous and was identified as the author within a very short time frame. It was popularized, reprinted, lionized. It was written beautifully, simply and with logic. It was hilarious, but it stung. Rather than seeing the MLL as a test-law that will fail, why not use this vulgarity, this irreverence that it contains to its full potential? Why not take the Swiftian route and use the rich potential for a public satire contained in the MLL proposal to its fullest expression? The more public the better - debates, documentary, newspaper columns. Make it a 21st century pageantry - take the piss, attack middle class complacency and point out the inconsistency of our position, how uncomfortable we are with our grazing habits. When the dust settles the artistic, moral and legal goals of the project might well have been better served by such a ballsy move.

                                          | C.


Swift Acid Test

 Jonathan Swift’s 'A Modest Proposal' directly challenges the then common assumption that ‘people are the riches of a nation.’1

My reading of a meat licence proposal is that it also challenges this maxim, a maxim that is given lip service by government whilst the true power of a democratic franchise and personal civil liberties are being eroded. What is being targeted is the direct rule of law by a centralised administration, one that is free to ignore common consensus on important political issues, and to add legislation that further enhances the powers of that administration, without any correlating benefit to the population of the society from which it derives its mandate. The true thrust of this argument is to question the government’s commitment to democratic principles, by generating support for the implementation of an absurd and impractical law. Although society and the individuals that compose it, are capable of holding directly conflicting desires, there is a sense that today’s government is acting out of its own self interest, and in the vested interests of  select political/financial elites.

What the meat licence proposal brings into contrast is the potential of localised political action, against the force of centralised and removed government.  The danger of letting any population impose its judgment on issues that it might only have a partial knowledge of, or slight interest in was acknowledged by Swift: ‘Or, imagine a legislator forming a system for the government of Bedlam, and, proceeding upon the maxim that man is a sociable animal, should draw them out of their cells, and form them into corporations or general assemblies; the consequence might probably be, that they would fall foul on each other, or burn the house over their own heads.’ 2 It has also been given consideration in Plato’s call for a ‘rule of the wise.’

Yet there exists today, a disparity or distance between blanket legislation issued on behalf of society, and its inability to sufficiently address to issues and needs of a large portion of that society. Today’s banking crisis being a clear example of legislation operating without overwhelming consent or popular support.  The value in the meat licence proposal is that it performs an acid test that directly questions the government’s commitment of service to the democratic ideal. If overwhelming support could be generated for a law that initially seems absurd or counterproductive, any government would be forced to acknowledge and address its mandate.

For me, this is the true strength of the meat licence proposal, in that It directly questions any attempt by government to impose laws that seem absurd or unproductive to a large portion of society.  This is a comparison of which I’m sure Swift would approve.