A Modest Proposal
“A burlesque of projects concerning the poor” it has been called. Swift’s little satire on commodification of human life, the ‘roll-up-your-sleeves’, ‘can-do’ attitude to social ills and the political economy of emergent industrial capitalism has become a standard cultural reference point, its title a part of everyday parlance. It’s the name of a student newspaper in Dallas, it is referenced in books and films and journalism regularly, and it even provided a major source of inspiration for the classic slasher film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The premise is simple – impoverished Irish folks might improve their economic lot by selling their kids as food for the well-to-do. Yeah, food. Kids can be delicious – fatten’em up and stew, roast, bake or boil. Less mouths to feed and more money in the pockets of the poor, good tasty nourishment for the rich – everybody wins. It’s satire, it’s hyperbole, but it’s also written in such a straight-ahead fashion, with real economic logic and rhetoric, that many a first-time reader either doesn’t catch the satire til well-into the piece, or fails to grasp it at all, taking Swift’s proposal to be intended seriously. It’s a brilliant piece of writing with keen insight into the way economic language dehumanizes and commodifies.
As you’d expect given a book like this, Swift was actively engaged in the political debates of his day. Initially sympathetic to the Whigs rather than than the Conservatives, he eventually cast his lot with the latter, finding in them greater reception for his particular concerns around the plight of the Irish. In the first decades of the eighteenth century, he was in fact part of the inner circle of the Tory government, mediating a prolonged dispute between the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. With the collapse of that government and the return to power of the Whigs, he went into a sort of exile, returning to Ireland where the remainder of his years were focused on his writing. The result? Some of the greatest contributions to English literature – sharp political satire and plain old good storytelling including the piece we’re talking about here and his most famous work, Gulliver’s Travels.