The People of the Abyss

Jack London:  The People of the Abyss (1903) –
Final Chapter

This little story from our literature is a
little different from the other short stories.

Jack London describes – in his novel, The People of the Abyss – a visit to the under-world of London in 1902.

This is a scaring story – and one may wonder how he dared to enter this part of London.

From the literature: Jack London has seen poverty and described it.
His description is not repeated here, only an extract from the last chapter – The Management – where he says that something must be done.
Is there a solution to the problem of poverty?


The Management


IN THIS FINAL chapter it were well to look at the Social Abyss in its widest aspect, and to put certain questions to Civilization, by the answers to which Civilization must stand or fall.

Has Civilization bettered the lot of man?
‘Man’ I use in its democratic sense, meaning the average man.

So the question reshapes itself: Has Civilization bettered the lot of the average man?


Let us see. In Alaska, along the banks of the Yukon River, near its mouth, live the Innuit folk. They are a very primitive people, manifesting but mere glimmering adumbrations of that tremendous artifice, Civilization. Their capital amounts possibly to $10 per head. They hunt and fish for their food with bone-headed spears and arrows. They never suffer from lack of shelter. Their clothes, largely made from the skins of animals, are warm. They always have fuel for their fires, likewise timber for their houses, which they build partly underground, and in which they lie snugly during the periods of intense cold. In the summer they live in tents, open to every breeze and cool. They are healthy, and strong, and happy. Their one problem is food. They have their times of plenty and times of famine. In good times they feast; in bad times they die of starvation. But starvation, as a chronic condition, present with a large number of them all the time, is a thing unknown. Further, they have no debts. 


In the United Kingdom, on the rim of the Western Ocean, live the English folk. They are a consummately civilized people. Their capital amounts to at least $1500 per head. They gain their food, not by hunting and fishing, but by toil at colossal artifices. For the most part, they suffer from lack of shelter. The greater number of them are vilely housed, do not have enough fuel to keep them warm, and are insufficiently clothed. A constant number never have any houses at all, and sleep shelterless under the stars. Many are to be found, winter and summer, shivering on the streets in their rags.
     They have good times and bad. In good times most of them manage to get enough to eat, in bad times they die of starvation. They are dying now, they were dying yesterday and last year, they will die to-morrow and next year, of starvation; for they, unlike the Innuit, suffer from a chronic condition of starvation. There are 40,000,000 of the English folk, and 939 out of every 1000 of them die in poverty, while a constant army of 8,000,000 struggles on the ragged edge of starvation. Further, each babe that is born, is born in debt to the sum of $110. This is because of an artifice called the National Debt.


In a fair comparison of the average Innuit and the average Englishman, it will be seen that life is less rigorous for the Innuit; that while the Innuit suffers only during bad times from starvation, the Englishman suffers during good times as well; that no Innuit lacks fuel, clothing, or housing, while the Englishman is in perpetual lack of these three essentials.  
  In this connection it is well to instance the judgment of a man such as Huxley. From the knowledge gained as a medical officer in the East End of London, and as a scientist pursuing investigations among the most elemental savages, he concludes,
   `Were the alternative presented to me I would deliberately prefer the life of the savage to that of those people of Christian London.’


The creature comforts man enjoys are the products of man’s labor. Since Civilization has failed to give the average Englishman food and shelter equal to that enjoyed by the Innuit, the question arises:  

Has Civilization increased the producing power of the average man?
 If it has not increased man’s producing power, then Civilization cannot stand.

But, it will be instantly admitted, Civilization has increased man’s producing power. Five men can produce bread for a thousand. One man can produce cotton cloth for 250 people, woollens for 300, and boots and shoes for 1000. Yet it has been shown throughout the pages of this book that English folk by the millions do not receive enough food, clothes, and boots. Then arises the third and inexorable question: 

If Civilization has increased the producing power of the average man, why has it not bettered the lot of the average man?

In short, society must be reorganized and a capable management put at the head. —-



So far Jack London from 1902. (My italics and headings)

He does however not provide specific proposals. It is not evident what reorganizing means!

Do we have effective proposals?

  1. In 1797 Thomas Paine realized the shortcomings of civilization, and he provided a specific proposol suitable for his time.
    Read his Agrarian Justice.
  2. Henry George realized the problem of poverty 100 years later than Paine, and shortly before Jack London.
    He reviewed the problem and provided a remedy – suitable also today.
    Read his Progress and Poverty.


Henry George and Thomas Paine have also made comparisons, which are not to the advantage of civilizations. 

  1. Henry George (Progress and Poverty) Book 5: Problem solved.
    I am no sentimental admirer of the savage state. — But
    It is my deliberate opinion that if, standing on the threshold of being, one were given the choice of entering life as a Tierra del Fuegan, a black fellow of Australia, an Esquimau in the Arctic Circle, or among the lowest classes in such a highly civilized country as Great Britain, he would make infinitely the better choice in selecting the lot of the savage
  2. Thomas Paine (Agrarian Justice 1797)
    The life of an Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand it appears to be abject when compared to the rich. Civilization therefore, or that which is so called, has operated two ways to make one part of Society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.