Scoundrels and Shirkers

Capitalism and Poverty in Britain

By Jim Silver  

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Scoundrels and Shirkers examines the deep relationship between capitalism and poverty in England since the 12th century. It exposes the dynamics of capitalism, from its origins in the long transition from feudalism to its current crisis under neoliberal capitalism, in producing poverty.

The book, unique in the historical breadth of its focus, shows conclusively that poverty is an inevitable consequence of capitalism. In the search for profits and control of society’s economic surplus, capitalism expands, adapts and innovates, producing not only commodities and wealth but also, and necessarily, poverty.

With the partial but important exception of the 1945–51 period, and to a lesser extent the time between 1906 and 1914, there has never been a serious attempt to solve poverty. Efforts have always been to manage and control the poor to prevent them from starving or rebelling; to punish and blame them for being poor; and to force them into poverty-level jobs. Any real solution would require the logic of capitalism to be deeply disrupted. While possible in theory, such a change will require massive social movements.

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  • Chapter One: Poverty in Britain: From Feudalism to Neo-liberal Capitalism
  • Chapter Two: Vagabonds and Beggars: Christianity and Enclosure and the Detritus of Crumbling Feudalism
  • Chapter Three: Manage and Control: Two Centuries of the Elizabethan Poor Law
  • Chapter Four: The Industrial Revolution: The New Poor Law and New and Horrific Forms of Poverty
  • Chapter Five: Great Unrest: Political Pressure and Social Reform, 1880-1914
  • Chapter Six: On the Dole: Mass Unemployment and Mass Poverty in the 1920s and 1930s
  • Chapter Seven: The End of Poverty? 1945 and All That
  • Chapter Eight: Mid-Century Retrenchment: The Welfare State Erodes, Poverty Re-Emerges and Capitalism Goes into Crisis
  • Chapter Nine: Thatcherism: An Explosion of Poverty and Inequality
  • Chapter Ten: New Labour, New Revisionism: Thatcherism in Redux
  • Chapter Eleven: Solving Perpetual Poverty: Can Capitalism Be Undone?


  • Jim Silver

    University of Winnipeg

    Jim Silver is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Winnipeg who has written extensively on poverty and related issues, including public housing and low-income rental housing, community development and education, adult education, and Indigenous street gangs. He is a founding member of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives–Manitoba and played a key role in the establishment of Merchants Corner, a University of Winnipeg off-campus site in Winnipeg’s low-income and racialized North End.

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