Inspector Goole and Mr Birling represent the opposing political systems of Socialism and Capitalism. Priestley believed that Capitalism had been partly responsible for the terrible events of 1914 to 1945 and that there was a need for a kinder society in which wealth was shared more fairly and the country took responsibility for the poor. Between those dates there had been two World Wars, a General Strike in Britain, the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Britain was divided along social class lines with a large gap between the lives of the rich and poor. There was less help for the poor than there is now, which is why Eva Smith has to go to Mrs Birling for charity. You had to pay for medical help and women had less opportunities than now. People were questioning Britain’s rigid social structure. The Second World War had ended when Priestley wrote the play and the country had voted in a Labour Government to bring in a fairer society: for example they brought in the National Health Service. In the play the Inspector is Priestley’s mouthpiece, expressing the need for this fairer Socialist society. In contrast Mr Birling is the spokesperson for Capitalism.
Socialism is an economic and political system. It is an economic theory of social organization. It believes that the means of making, moving, and trading wealth should be owned or controlled by the workers. (Rather than be owned by men like Mr Birling.) People who agree with this type of system are called socialists. Socialists like the Inspector believe the rich have a responsibility towards the poor.
Capitalism is an economic system. In it the government plays a secondary, less important, role. People like Mr Birling and companies make most of the decisions, and own most of the property. The means of production, like Mr Birling’s facory, are largely or entirely privately owned (by individuals or companies) and operated for profit. Mr Birling believes he has no responsibility to help the poor.
Priestley uses the Birlings and Eva Smith to show how harmful unregulated Capitalism can be. Mr Birling and Inspector Goole make speeches in which they outline Capitalist and Socialist messages. The Inspector’s speech when he leaves is designed to be a direct attack on Birling’s message of selfishness; every man has to look after himself and he has no responsibility to care for the poor. In contrast, the Inspector’s speech outlines a philosophy in which we should all care for each other and that in particular the rich have a responsibility towards the poor. Goole warns that if society fails to understand this there will be terrible consequences. Because the play is set in 1912, but only written after World War II, every audience member knows that Birling’s generation did not listen and the result was two world wars
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