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  • The Poverty of Agency in Conrad’s The Secret Agent
  • Benjamin Lewis Robinson (bio)

The “secret” in The Secret Agent (1907) lies in the ambiguity of the word “agent.” The story reflects on its historical moment by playing on the slippage between “agency” expressive of a capacity for individual action and “agency” in the functional or institutional sense. London, characterized by a proliferation of competing and overlapping agencies, agents and agendas, emerges as the site of this slippage. At a time when the imperial metropolis was the hub of diverse political and economic developments and as such emerged as a distinctive political space in its own right, The Secret Agent conveys an impression of the city as one of poverty and incapacity, of destitution and dependence, devoid of the sort of concerted, concentrated and committed action associated then as now with social engagement and political life.


The Secret Agent was written in 1906 on the eve of a series of social reforms by the newly elected Liberal government, most notably the introduction of national health insurance and social security, but also changes to the educational system, measures supplementary to the outdated Poor Laws, and changes in the administration of mental deficiency, which in certain crucial respects anticipated, and in the long term facilitated, the establishment of the welfare state in Britain.1 Although these policies were only the most dramatic in a long-running process of piecemeal reform and increasing government (as well as civic) intervention, they reflect a significant transformation in the self-understanding of British liberalism, which had, as a party as well as an ideology, suffered major setbacks since the loss of power in 1886. While classic liberalism had promoted a policy of minimal government, individualism, private property, and a laissez-faire economy, the “new liberalism” was forced to come to terms with the emergence of a new and amorphous political entity, “the social,” that could not be reduced to the sum of its parts and operated—this being the subject of the emergent field of sociology—according to a logic of its own. [End Page 195]

Specifically, liberalism was obliged to confront those aspects of the social—issues relating to poverty, public health, un- and underemployment, housing and sanitation, child care, old age and disability—that together constituted the so-called “social problem” (also the title of J. A. Hobson’s 1901 book). In the light of accelerating urbanization, the economic depression of the 1880s, and the rising specter of socialism across Europe, these issues could no longer credibly be said to resolve themselves progressively according to classical liberal principles.

Most unsettling of all, perhaps, was the fact that the “period of reaction,” from 1886, as one of the more significant “new liberals,” L. T. Hobhouse, would describe it, was owed in some degree at least to the liberalization of the franchise beyond determinations of property brought about by Gladstone’s legislation, most notably the “Representation of the People Act” of 1884. Apart from demanding further social protections, the “people,” it turned out, were susceptible, especially at the hands of the emergent mass media, to the worst kinds of demagoguery and jingoism, proving proponents of such illiberal policies as imperialism and the Boer War.

Of course, such developments were by no means simply a liberal problem in the party-political sense but were rather indicative of broader tendencies and transformations in the nature of “the political” in the late nineteenth century. As the social emerged over the course of the century as a distinct albeit difficult to define agency that was widely perceived to harbor a potentially decisive political force, European politics in general became a matter of addressing, conforming to, or representing the social. As the liberal politician, William Harcourt, who is caricatured as the Home Secretary in The Secret Agent, famously declared in 1888, “we are all socialists now.”2 What this meant for the new liberalism, as espoused by the likes of Hobhouse and Hobson, was an acknowledgement that the individual subject that classic liberalism had presupposed was in fact a social construct and that the social had accordingly to be intensively managed by state and private initiatives in...


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pp. 195-216
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