Commodifying Relationships and Intimacy

How the dynamics of economy and production affects relationships in A Modest Proposal

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A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift is an essay that shows gradually distorting familial relationships in a capitalistic state by commodifying a human entity most people are tender and affectionate towards: children. Engaging with a structure that has production at its priority, the essay complicates the perception we have of the relationships around us by showing how the political objectives take a precedence over the morality that surrounds a bond. We are made aware of the ironic parallels Swift is drawing between babies as literal food and the underprivileged population as metaphorical food for the rich when he states “…very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children” (Swift 4). While Swift is building his argument, an important theme that we see throughout the essay is of the family. The role of the family in producing human capital and tangible goods is laid bare for us. The production-based structure in Swift’s proposal re-defines the interpersonal relationships and intimacy between humans, and this perhaps is what makes it an arresting and unsettling satirical piece.

The first time Swift engages with the idea of selling children as food, he does more than just merely mentioning it: the account rather entertains the reader by playing with the possibilities of using an infant as a consumable commodity. He describes the different ways a child can be consumed: “…a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled” (Swift 3), and the various uses of a dead child’s skin like gloves and boots (Swift 4). About this, Robert Phiddian writes “The relentless enumeration of culinary methods fascinates and (in a way) amuses- the sentence would be merely repellant if it stopped at the semicolon after ‘Food.’” (Phiddian 1-2). Swift does not shy away from violent descriptors of what the possibilities are when it comes to consuming a child’s body. The shift from conveying well-intended, serious economic concerns in the introduction to talking about consuming humans in an equally well-intended, serious tone is gentle, and that gentleness is amusing. It unsettles the reader because it forces the realization that although the literal dehumanization of babies is grotesque, the commodification actively exists in other forms which do not involve skinning and baking humans. Throughout the essay, we see that the language used shifts towards mostly consumer-friendly terms for children’s bodies such as “a-piece,” “new dish,” and a “carcass.” The productive use of them takes the forefront, and the human relationships of the underprivileged are limited to feeding their children till they are healthy and plump at the time of butchering.

The segregation of the value of human life of a baby from what they are as a product is important because it reassigns the values and meaning of human relationships. If the underprivileged are producing children for the sake of keeping themselves alive and for market value, then the priorities, and objectives of affection shift from an emotional tone to a rather material one. Swift mentions how his proposal will positively affect marriages. He says mothers will show more care and tenderness for their children, there will be positive competition among the women, men will be fonder of their wives during pregnancy, and that the men will not physically abuse them in the fear of a miscarriage (Swift 6). Culturally, marriages elevate a relationship of two people, the security between them is in place not because of competition but because of tenderness. However, in this relationship, the affection is born out of a material concern for a good product to sell, all aspects of forming bonds are seen as a potential opportunity which introduces a competition, a race. Thus, this proposal changes the dynamics of a family by disturbing and shifting the source of security which is dependent on the competition.

The proposal shows how the economy and the privileged classes dehumanize certain populations who do not have the means to earn a living for survival or comfort. One of the unique qualities of personhood is perhaps the emotional responses, and consequently, acting on them with intelligent decisions or choices. The proposal strips the potential of forming and acting on the emotional connections in a family, and especially with one’s infant. And thus, it dehumanizes them by bringing their objectives and its motivations down to only their survival instincts. Swift’s proposal has two groups of people: the first which will be forced to sell their infants, and second that will consume them. The divide between them will become graver as the commodification of poorest of the population changes their role in society as humans.

While the proposal equates mothers to workers, it shows the repetitive cycle a worker is forced to remain in throughout their life, with the state providing just enough to continue survival but not enough to increase comfort. As Swift gives us the numeric details about his proposal, he mentions how “one male will be sufficient to serve four females” (Swift 3). Here a man is a tool for the worker, the woman, in reproduction but not the work that comes after. The proposal does not include any measures by the state itself to improve the conditions of the mothers who will be providing the children, but it does state that each carcass will be worth ten shillings, out of which eight shillings will be given to the mothers, so that the mother can “be fit for work till she produces another child” (Swift 4). The proposer is aware that for the individual worker herself, this will not improve the conditions enough to move to another occupation in the society. The economic help the state is providing in exchange for a child will keep her caged in the cycle of production. The text lets us know that this is an intended design when it mentions that the eight shillings will keep her healthy till her next child, knowing that she will have to produce another child without any form of aid from the state. A year’s worth of survival money in exchange for one’s child, every year, will increase the country’s economy and bring new goods to the market. This can only actively continue if the workers, here beggars, remain in same class, the ‘support’ provided forcing them to keep producing to secure the next year’s living without increasing the quality of their lives too much.

The production-based structure in Swift’s A Modest Proposal forces new meaning to ethical matters, which is a result of changing dynamics of what a family is. Abortion has long been a cause for an ethical debate, assigning value to the life of the mother and the child. Swift here is doing the same when he illustrates how cruel the practice of abortion is, but his statement comes before he properly states what his proposal is:

There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! Too frequent among us! Sacrificing the poor innocent babes I doubt more to avoid the expense than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast. (Swift 2)

It is an interesting choice to place it before his exact proposal because people who agree with it reading this before the actual proposal, do so because they assign value to human life even as it is developing. But here, it changes the dynamics of the reasoning once we read his proposal: he cares about the lost economic value of the aborted fetus and not the human it would have grown up to be. The “tears and pity” is for the lost opportunity and product, and is not concerned with one’s intimate emotional response to their child. What will then replace “voluntary abortions” is voluntary butchering of a child, once they are born; and once the new process is in place, murder of infants will become less abominable than abortions. This will eliminate the debates on abortion which are based on after what duration a fetus gains moral rights, i.e., gains status of a person, because here the butchering of a person ceases to be a crime. This might merely be one example of how the philosophy one holds on matters concerning other humans and ethics will have to relocate; production will now be at the top of the hierarchy and not human lives.

Swift’s unsettling satire piece is perhaps so powerful because not only does the unsettlement come out of an element in our lives that we associate with warmth and comfort, but because it makes us consciously aware of the processes and structures that we’re a part of with incredibly graphic language. The adversity of the situation is communicated by disturbing a security we possessively hold: our intimate relationships with other humans. The proposal seeks to disturb this and turn it into a profit-based connection that people will be forced to form due to their poor economic conditions and the rich landlords.



Phiddian, Robert. “Have You Eaten Yet? The Reader in A Modest Proposal.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 36, no. 3, 1996, pp. 603–621. JSTOR,

Wikisource contributors. "A Modest Proposal." Wikisource . Wikisource , 1 Nov. 2017. Web.

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