Some Brief reflections on Horgan & Colquhoun

Amelia Horgan (2021) Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism London: Verso

Patrick Colquhoun (1806) A Treatise on Indigence; Exhibiting A General View of the National Resources For Productive Labour; with Propositions for Ameliorating the Conditions of the Poor, and Improving the moral Habits and increasing the Comforts of the Labouring People, particularly The Rising Generation; By Regulations of Political Economy, Calculated to prevent Poverty from descending into Indigence, to produce Sobriety and Industry, to reduce Parochial Rates of the Kingdom, and generally promote the Happiness and Security of The Community At Large, by the Diminution of moral and penal Offences, and the future Prevention of Crimes London: J Hatchard

Work is an ambiguous word, on the one hand it means any task involving effort undertaken to achieve something, whilst on the other hand it relates quite specifically to employment, the necessary tasks of our jobs. It is this later meaning that is the focus of Amelia Horgan’s excellent new book Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism. Work is for most people, something they do for an employer on the terms largely determined by the employer. Increasingly, work is tedious, insecure, and poorly paid. Zero hour contracts, cuts to benefits, technology and the movement from industrial to service jobs have radically changed the workplace; changes that have reinforced the power of the employer. As Horgan points out: ‘For most workers, you need your job much more than your job needs you.’ Despite this bleak picture Lost in Work draws on a history of workers resistance to argue the case for taking on ‘the long hard work of re-founding and remaking the institutions of working-class power.’

Lost in Work is an important book, but rather than review it I want to reflect on it from a historical perspective and in particular makes some links to Patrick Colquhoun’s A Treatise on Indigence published in 1806. Although my interest in Colquhoun was sparked by his role in establishing the Thames River Police, I have discovered so much more in his writings. He is an unashamed class warrior who both as a writer and as an activist sought to shape the institutional framework of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century to serve the interests of capital. Here I am interested in the significance he attributed to work from a capitalist perspective and how he proposed it was regulated.

‘Everybody knew that there would be no work in heaven’.[1]

Work’s meaning is socially and culturally constructed and changes over time and in different places. Historically (with the possible exceptions of fighting and praying) respect for work has been rare . Work was a burden and the pleasures of life could be experienced through leisure which, wherever possible was prioritised over work. Although shared by labourers and aristocrats, this attitude was challenged by the emerging middle classes for whom labour was increasingly seen as virtuous in its own right. Economically, this new attitude to work helped the middle class; their excess work built up surpluses that allowed them to expand their businesses. This in turn meant they needed the labour of others. To extract surplus from their workers required that their moralistic attitude to work needed to be imposed on not only their workers, but, eventually, on the whole class from which they were drawn. Bourgeoise discourse promoted work as good and honourable and it ceased to be portrayed as painful and degrading. This new glorification of work was exemplified by Thomas Carlyle, who claimed that ‘true Work is Worship. He that works, whatever be his work, he bodies forth the form of Things Unseen; a small Poet every worker is.’ However in reality the work undertaken by the majority of the population became more exploitative, and often even more painful and degrading. The changes that capitalism brought were not meekly accepted by workers. They were resisted both directly and indirectly. This resistance needed overcoming if capitalism was to have the ‘industrious, virtuous, and well-instructed people in the laborious occupations of life‘ that Colquhoun identified in A Treatise on Indigence.

ColQUhoun and the fabrication of a class society.

Colquhoun’s genius was in understanding the extent to which the state would have to be radically rebuilt, and expanded from its minimalist eighteenth century functions, to provide the infrastructure that would protect capital, discipline labour and facilitate his class’s domination of society. There is often an implied presumption that (to use Marxist terminology) the institutions of the superstructure emerge, as night follows day, from the economic structure. In reality their development went hand-in-hand, with the need for changes in law, the creation of new institutions and direct government intervention being required to enable capitalism to develop and impose its political economy. Although Colquhoun is best known as a theorist of police and the driving force behind the establishment of the slave plantation owners’ police force on the Thames he had much greater ambitions. In A Treatise on Indigence we see an 1806 blueprint for the modern British state. For example, he argues for a national system of ‘Education for the Children of the labouring People’, expressing concern that the emerging initiatives of the working class to educate their own children risked ‘those destined for laborious occupations … (becoming) discontented and unhappy in the inferior situations of life, generating insubordination and disloyalty.’ He was concerned about Friendly Societies, another working class innovation, on the grounds that they were self-organised and whose meetings ‘of ill-informed individuals, open to seduction, and heated by political frenzy, artfully worked up … may alarm and afflict the peaceful subject’. He suggested they were effectively nationalised into a system of National Insurance. He advocated the licensing of a wide range of business, the surveillance of the poor and a dramatically expanded and beefed up state.

Colquhoun’s ambition is impressive. He sought not only repression of the emerging working class but to mould them. But why? At its heart Colquhoun’s project is about recognising the critical importance of labour to the capitalist project. Labour firstly needed to be as cheap as possible, the working class needed to be poor ‘since without poverty there would be no labour, and without labour there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth …’. If wages were above the poverty level labour discipline suffered. Paying workers high wages led them to ‘corrupting their minds and enfeebling their bodies, in alehouses, trusting to the earnings of three or four days of the week, not only as a source of maintenance to their families, but as a fund sufficient to defray the still greater expense incurred at the ale-house.’ Secondly, although labour needs to be poor, it shouldn’t starve. In general the old poor laws meant people didn’t, but this safety net was for Colquhoun an incentive to shirk work. He argued for a much tighter regulation of poor relief, anticipating many of the changes that were to characterise the New Poor Law in 1834. His priority was for the poor to help themselves, although not through trade unions, friendly societies or other working class organisation which could have challenged his class’s hegemony. His suggestions included claiming that: ‘A greater boon could not be conferred upon the labouring people, than a general circulation of the art of frugal cookery.’ Thirdly, outside the workforce, the ‘large proportion of the working classes (who) are improvident, careless, unthinking, and dissolute in their manners’ needed discipling. Those who were not working were “obviously” criminal and Colquhoun agitated for increased policing and prisons to be deployed as weapons against those who were not conforming to the requirements of a worker under capitalism. The 1824 Vagrancy Act and the 1823 revision of the Master and Servant Law reinforced the state’s capacity to deliver this repression.

Escaping Capitalism

When Horgan points out that ‘the claim that hard work is morally good and laziness morally culpable pervades contemporary politics’, she is highlighting a discourse with a history. We once knew, as a matter of common sense, that work was something to engage in only in so much as we needed to. We much preferred leisure. Lost in Work highlights how for many of us today, possibly a significant majority, work is a bad experience. It does not fulfil, it causes anxiety and stress and it is bad for our health. We don’t love work, all too often we hate it. But work, as now experienced, is not just a consequence of capitalism, it is also a mechanism for reinforcing it, as Horgan points out: ‘It relies on and reinforces a variety of different structural relationships of inequality, in particular, class and ownership, gender and race.’ This is an important contribution and Horgan has done us a service by exposing work for what it is. The bourgeoisie discourse of the wonders of work is bullshit and needs calling out. This book’s call for us to rethink our relationship to work must be listened too.

The shift from manufacturing to an economy based largely on service industries is well documented by Horgan. Reading her account made me think about how much work is poorly paid, insecure, and mindless on the one hand, and on the other involves services that until recently we didn’t know we needed. Following the first wave of the Covid-19 epidemic the government sought to get capitalism back to work by spending £850 million on the ‘eat out to help out‘ scheme. The urgency to get hospitality workers back to work was not only expensive but contributed to a second wave of the virus. Likewise city centre workers were urged to risk their (and others) health by returning to work. This was justified not on the basis that it would help them do their jobs any better than they were doing from home, but to enable the cleaners and baristas to be put back to work.

Capitalism, built on the exploration of labour, continues to remorselessly grind on. It produces surpluses which although they have the capacity to transform society in a multitude of positive ways, it insists on disposing of them in highly destructive ways – for example, by building prisons using surplus capital on surplus land to house surplus labour. Lost In Work‘s sub-title Escaping Capitalism is essential if we are to fundamentally change work. Achieving this will not be easy and, as Horgan recognises, alternatives are currently under-theorised. But she is absolutely correct to highlight the importance of participating in the traditional organisations of workers, Trade Unions, and the new social movements. These are not only important vehicles through which to engage in struggle but also important arenas for raising consciousness – about the general crapness of work in particular.


Reading Colquhoun shows how much the transition to capitalism required radical structural change to the British state. ‘Society is structured’ Horgan highlights ‘in such a way that we must work.’ There is therefore a need to change this structure – dismantle what capitalism has fabricated. To some extent this is what the Corbyn project (beautifully described by Horgan as ‘the 2015-19 attempt to hot-wire the immense power of the British state, through a social democratic party that was itself hostile to socialism’) sought to do. My own instinct is that as the changes that are required effectively change the relationships between classes the focus needs to be in struggles outside parliament. But in same way that Colquhoun provided a blueprint for a society dominated by capital we need to imagine a post-capitalist society that allows those struggles to be as informed by what we want, as they are of what we are against. Lost in Work is a valuable contribution to this.

Under any alternative social structure there will still be ‘those who must work to live’, but hopefully this will be conceived on a more collective basis, work that we must all contribute to, so that we all live well. We will abolish the structures designed to ensure that the majority of us are made to work to live, irrespective of that works benefits to us or society.

[1] This is a quote from Keith Thomas, The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2009), p. 79.

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