On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Stephen Baker looks back at the hopes it kindled, and asks, where do we stand now?
Much to the chagrin of restaurateurs and pub owners, Good Friday is a notoriously tricky time to buy a drink in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless 20 years ago, somehow, I was toasting the signing of the Good Friday Agreement with a glass of champagne. I still have the cork somewhere, stored away as a memento. Sentimental, I know. But I was optimistic. Things were changing. People were changing. The evidence seemed to be all around. There were regular public meetings and discussions on topics as diverse as democracy, policing, women in politics, and more. Refreshing new political voices had appeared – the Women’s Coalition and David Ervine among others. And a telegenic young Labour leader was in Number 10 promising ‘things can only get better’ after almost two decades of divisive, miserable Tory rule.
I had my reservations about the Good Friday deal, of course: not least that its consociational terms might entrench sectarian divisions. But this was trumped by a sense that supporting the Good Friday Agreement was an important step towards copper-fastening peace and the loyalist and republican ceasefires. I was also hopeful that freed from living under the pall of political violence some of us might be able to organise more effectively around issues like health, education, welfare, pay and working conditions. Back in 1998 these issues pressed harder on me than those of national identity and the border.
With hindsight I may have been too sanguine about the opportunities that the deal held out. I still insist that if it contributed to the diminution of violence in Northern Ireland then the Agreement was worth supporting, but it’s hard not to feel that the opportunity to build on the relative peace has being squandered. At present Northern Ireland’s democratic institutions are mothballed with no discernible sign of them being re-established. Indeed, the short history of the power sharing executive and assembly is one of stumbling from one hiatus to another, beset by longstanding enmity, scandals and corruption. Little wonder then that health and education are in need of greater repair now than twenty years ago. And to top it all, thanks to the UK’s decision to leave the EU, the issue of the Irish border has returned in a way few us could have anticipated back on Good Friday in 1998.
Brexit has the potential to change everything. The Good Friday Agreement espoused a post-national ideal that was necessarily relaxed about sovereignty and borders. This was an attempt to accommodate otherwise antagonistic national allegiances. Coincidently it was compatible with a Northern Ireland’s incorporation into neoliberal globalisation. It is worth bearing in mind that the project of liberal peace building – not just in Northern Ireland but in other troubled and war-torn places – was as much an opportunity to subject them to market liberalisation as achieve peace and political accord. Wars, civil conflicts and catastrophes leave behind the sort of ‘blank canvases’ and spaces ripe for ‘regeneration’ and redevelopment that neoliberalism thrives upon. Northern Ireland was no exception.
But neoliberalism’s zeal for the untrammelled, global accumulation of capital has been felt and experienced negatively and as a loss by many people. Their discontent has been harnessed in the US, the EU and Britain by right-wing populists and demagogues advancing nativist politics and promising protectionist economics. It is hard to reconcile this sort of the politics with the ideas enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. Its aspirations to partnership and equality, are not compatible with ‘taking back control’ and calls to restore spurious notions of greatness. That might explain why a majority of Northern Ireland’s voters rejected the call to Brexit. Yet despite this the region is setting out on an uncertain course to leave the EU, dragged along in the wake of English nationalism and free-market fundamentalism. If Tony Blair detected ‘the hand of history’ on the eve of the Good Friday Agreement, its divine-like presence was felt again, this time on the shoulder of the Nigel Farage as he declared the 16th June 2016 the UK’s ‘independence day’.
The DUP clearly sees itself as a winner in this new context, propping up an unpopular, decrepit Tory government, urging it on to Brexit with a cry of ‘no surrender’! Its gung ho attitude will delight the English Brexiteers and buccaneers impatient to embark on their bold global adventure to reboot the empire. But in the not so distant future, how will those same buccaneers view ‘our wee province’ that can’t pay its way in the world, with its irksome EU border? Or what if the ‘hand of history’ proves once more a fickle friend and visits Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell at the next general election?
Having effectively abandoned the region it was elected to serve to pursue its own narrow sectional interests and Westminster power-politics, the DUP leaves behind it a Northern Ireland that is deeply, socially divided; politically dysfunctional; suffering a democratic deficit; and economically moribund. All together this should be enough to condemn Northern Ireland to the status of an abject failure. But most damning of all, perhaps, is that too few people actually believe in Northern Ireland – I mean really believe! – believe in a way that would breath cultural and civic life into the place beyond the dry constitutional legislation that recognises Northern Ireland in law.
Something has occurred to me in recent times that twenty years ago I’d have found unthinkable. Northern Ireland doesn’t really exist, not any deep, emotional, imaginative sense: certainly not for nationalists who have no long-term vested interest in the place and whose cultural imaginations and allegiances exceed the six counties. But it doesn’t even really exist for those unionists for whom ‘Ulster’ is a surrogate for Northern Ireland; a province of their exclusivist cultural imaginations that bears no proper relation to the territory upon which they walk or the constitution they claim to defend. Simply put, not enough people care sufficiently about Northern Ireland to build a consensus around how we – all of us – will work, live, love and think here. Indeed, Northern Ireland would die of neglect if it weren’t for the British exchequer and the civil servants who administer it.
Twenty years ago when I toasted the Good Friday Agreement I took Northern Ireland for granted. Its birth in 1921 pre-dated my own in 1968 into a unionist family. Northern Ireland was then the only place I’d ever lived, and I assumed I’d always live in a place called Northern Ireland. But things are changing. People are changing.
Twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement I no longer take the existence of Northern Ireland for granted.
On 4 April, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Maurice looks at the US Civil Rights movement in this blogpost; and in a companion video piece, considers the legacy of Frederick Douglass, whose 200th anniversary also falls this year.
How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap? Can’t answer? Then you are not allowed to register to vote. Or you wouldn’t have been, at any rate, were you an African American in the Southern USA in the 1950s.
That was just one of the questions asked by white Southern electoral officials of such applicant voters (Manning, 2007). Among all the other, more obviously outrageous things – lynchings, casual racist violence, police brutality, job discrimination and so on – it is little details such as this that seem, somehow, most telling.
The white officials didn’t even have to pretend to be fair. They knew the question was unanswerable; they knew that even if the applicant gave an answer it would be the ‘wrong’ one; they knew that all this was going through the mind of the African American citizen standing in front of them; and they knew that he or she was, to all intents and purposes, utterly powerless to do anything about it.
That someone could be disenfranchised – and thus have no say in the laws to which they were subject – on such a transparently unfair, patently unanswerable pretext, shows how securely white domination was enshrined in the legal and political system of the South.
Yet it was in this context of apparent powerlessness that one of the most powerful political movements of the twentieth century reached its apogee.
As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King on 4 April it is worth remembering that the movement preceded him and was much broader than him. There were immensely significant African American campaigns and campaigners long before King (think, for instance, of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, A Philip Randolph, WEB Du Bois, Ella Baker and so on); there were countless others in his day, less famous but no less courageous or effective. Think of the Freedom Riders or the Greensboro Four. There have been countless others since – think Black Lives Matter.
But inevitably, and rightly, King will be celebrated this month. We may safely predict that much will be said about him as an icon of civil rights; much will be made of his charisma, his electrifying speeches, and his ‘dream’. Much will be made of his commitment to nonviolence. And again rightly so. There is no doubt that these are all of immense significance.
However, there is a danger that these very celebrations might obscure something still more significant about King: the forceful, radical, even revolutionary trajectory of his ethics and politics.
This was a man who marched many times in the face of violent, racist mobs; a man who was spied upon by US federal authorities, and lied about; who was confronted by institutionally racist law-enforcement officers; who was jailed 14 times; and who, after years of relentless activism, was finally shot dead, still in his thirties, thus cutting short a civil rights career that had lasted only 13 years. This was a campaigner whose views grew more radical as he learned from each experience. This was a man for whom nonviolence was anything but passive.
There is a temptation to absorb the image of King as the ‘dreamer’, and forget about this other side. In an article on King in the Observer of 25 March, for instance, Benjamin Zephaniah praises King’s legacy but says he himself leaned more toward Malcolm X because, as he puts it, “I think without people who were more militant we wouldn’t have the progress we have now. Look at the suffragettes: some of them had to die for what they believed. It was only when they started putting their lives on the line that real change was achieved”. Yet this comes in an article marking King’s assassination. King and others did, precisely, ‘put their lives on the line’.
And their achievements were immense: desegregation of transport, education, voting rights, equal housing legislation, among other breakthroughs, all achieved within the decade and a half of King’s active life.
Moreover, as King came to see the interconnections between the violence of the white supremacist system he battled in the Jim Crow era US south in the 1950s, and the systematic reproduction of economic deprivation in the cities of the north, he became ever more ‘militant’. He was shot, after all, on the eve of a march that formed part of his ‘Poor People’s Campaign’, an “explicitly class-based movement that questioned the verities of American capitalism” as Adam Fairclough puts it (Fairclough, 2001).
The one major failure in King’s vision, arguably, is his failure to make the connection to gender oppression. Whether King would eventually have learned from and accepted the feminist critique is a matter of speculation. It is certain that he should have done so, if only in order to be true to his own philosophy of democracy and nonviolence.
To be clear, there is nothing passive about an ethics of nonviolence. We have to take the full measure of what bell hooks calls ‘killing rage’, and let that justified fury drive today’s grassroots, democratic movements for justice and equality to connect the dots between the issues, and combine to overcome the systematic violence that allows the few to maintain dominance over the many.
There is, alas, still far too much to do – perhaps more than for many decades, given that white supremacists, patriarchs and the oil industry all currently have an ally in the White House.
But there are many movements flowing towards equality, democracy, sustainability, and countless numbers within those movements. We are many, to paraphrase Shelley, they are few.
More, in any case, than the bubbles in a bar of soap.
Maurice Macartney, 4 April 2018
Fairclough, Adam (2001), Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890 – 2000, Penguin, New York.
Marable, Manning (2007), Race Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, University Press of Mississippi (Kindle edition) loc 380.
Maurice argues that the economy cannot (and should not) be seen in isolation from the rest of our social, cultural and political lives, but should be seen as embedded in our neighbourhoods.
‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner’, wrote Adam Smith in 1776, ‘but from their regard to their own interest’.
The idea that individual pursuit of self-interest in a free market maximises the welfare of the society as a whole is the founding axiom of the dominant economic paradigm of our era. Question this basic premise and you are likely to be accused of ‘economic illiteracy’.
“This is painful”, begins the Adam Smith blog post, “even for The Guardian, even for the history graduate that writes their economic leaders”.
What is so ‘painful’? The sheer economic ‘illiteracy’, it appears, displayed in his article – though it isn’t surprising, the author snootily implies, given that the writer has only a history degree, rather than one in economics.
Chakrabortty’s failing? In the article he had said: “11 Tesco stores [in the area], for instance, provided the PLC with around £8m of its annual profit. And what did the area get back? Not very much, but the highlight included a community toilet scheme and some charitable giving from the supermarket’s corporate social responsibility department.” He went on to suggest that councils should press big corporations to “give more of their local work to local contractors with local staff”, or press banks to lend more to local businesses.
This is what Tim Worstall, who wrote the Adam Smith blog post, finds so economically “illiterate”. The value, to the area, of Tescos, he says, is the couple of hundred million pounds worth of groceries the chain sold to local shoppers. Nothing more, nothing less. To look outside the products for additional value is “simply insane”. Irrational. Illiterate.
Now, arguably Chakrabortty should have included the groceries in his take on what Tesco contributes. But the Adam Smith Institute’s account is missing something that could be seen as far more important – and doing so deliberately. Ideologically.
It does so, curiously enough, in a way that would have surprised, and possibly dismayed the man whose name it adopts. Think about Smith’s description of the market: this is not an abstract, faceless place of pure exchange between isolated individuals, but a place where there are butchers, brewers, bakers, people with trades and crafts, carts to take their wares to a market where they will meet face to face. Somewhere like Smith’s eighteenth Century Scotland, perhaps, with taverns and ostlers, and coopers, and farriers. Somewhere, in short, where there is a rough equality of social condition and purchasing power, and where the market is embedded in the local community.
Today’s dominant neo-classical economic paradigm, which is arguably a bare, reductive abstraction from Smith’s rather richer approach, demands selective blindness. It is axiomatic that we must crop out of the picture anything external to the market transaction, anything external to our ‘own interests’ (narrowly conceived) in making the exchange. You get the groceries, the company gets the profit. Anything outside that exchange is immaterial. That’s how we maximise benefit for all.
The problem is, this begs the question: what is external to the exchange? Back to the meal: who made Adam Smith’s dinner? As Katrine Marçal points out, it wasn’t the butcher, brewer or baker. In fact it was Adam Smith’s mother, who cooked for her adult son every day as long as she lived. Yet even in Smith’s text, let alone those of his self-proclaimed intellectual descendants, she remained cropped out of the picture, written out of the story. Not relevant.
In fact, from the moment you leave the house – indeed from the moment you wake up – you find yourself in an evolving world of living interconnections with others, most of which are cropped out of the (reductive, dominant) economic account. From the material in your bed, the carpet, floorboards beneath it, the power that allows you to flick on the light and boil the kettle, you are affected by and affect the lives of others at every stage of your day and throughout your life.
Take the bedsheets. Someone, a living, nameable person, tended the field and grew and harvested the cotton that makes them up; someone else transported it; still another treated it, another spun and wove it. As we saw in Connections and Combinations, cotton drove the industrial revolution, the age of Empire, the growth of slavery, the American Civil War and its long legacy (something we will return to in a later post). And if the cotton industry has a long history, a widespread and long lasting impact, so do the other industries upon which it in turn relies – not least oil. Before you get out of bed you are, in a sense, however minimally, materially connected to climate change and instability in the Middle East.
This is our neighbourhood. These are our neighbours – those we live ‘nearby’, in terms of material, bodily impact, if not in geographical distance.
Let us be clear about this: the way our industries and economies are set up has a material effect politically, socially, and environmentally. Is it really so ‘insane’ to give consideration to these effects on our neighbourhood? Or is it not rather the sanest and most urgent thing a political economist – or a historian – should be doing right now?
Indeed, is the charge of illiteracy not a better fit for the neo-classical economist who so reduces the idea of ‘value’ that it can only be measured in products and profits?
Arguably the illiteracy here is virtually literal. Read Chakrabortty’s article, the one that got Worstall so flustered; of the thousand-plus words, Worstall chose to focus exclusively one aspect of two paragraphs, thus avoiding the problem of dealing with points Chakrabortty raises about, for instance, “massive taxpayer subsidies handed to the corporate sector with fewer questions asked than of disabled people wondering where their living allowance has gone”.
By refusing to read the rest of the article, to engage with the broader issues, Worstall can conveniently focus in on the ‘illiteracy’ of the claims about Tesco. By making all else illegible one can reduce ‘value’ to the narrow confines of the market exchange.
But this is also to reduce the idea of the ‘economy’ (and therefore economics) in an arbitrary, artificial and tendentious way.
The broader effects of the market – the effects on the environment, the cranking up of power to the wealthy, increasing inequality – are not legible inside the narrow logic of the neo-classical market. But for that very reason the discipline of economics needs to change, precisely to make those broader effects visible.
Adam Smith’s mother can no longer be cropped out of the picture. Nor can the other great chunks of our political, social and cultural lives together be guillotined off and left on the cutting room floor.
There is no business, however far ‘offshore’ it tries to be, that is not embedded in a neighbourhood, a locale, a community or series of communities. The business of that business, then, is very much the business of the neighbourhood. Chakrabortty is right to re-embed economic issues into the community, and right to bring up issues of democracy.
He looks at how the Council in Preston has adopted a “guerilla localism”, expanding local cooperatives, and adopting policies to make sure what little money there is in the area doesn’t “leak out” to big companies based elsewhere.
The commons and the cooperatives: there’s something of a theme emerging among Chakrabortty’s ‘alternatives’.
Chakrabortty is currently focusing on the UK, but there are many other exciting experiments that have been going on elsewhere – Emilia Romagna in Italy, the Mondragon federation of worker-owned cooperatives in Spain, even the cooperative movement closer to home. You can watch Stephen Nolan of Trademark discuss them at the recent GFI2017 conference in Belfast, filmed by the Combination for the Green Foundation Ireland.
As the damage from the crank economy continues to mount up, it’s surely time mainstream economists, and indeed politicians, stopped cropping these alternatives out of the picture.
For those of us who believe in equality, democracy, nonviolence and sustainability, 2017 – the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the first calendar year in the aftermath of the UK’s divisive Brexit referendum – had its difficulties. Here’s hoping 2018 will see some new green shoots emerging!
2018 marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, as well as that of women’s suffrage (albeit partial) in the UK. It is the fiftieth anniversary of the last of the major pieces of Civil Rights legislation in the US, the 1968 Fair Housing Act; but it is also the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King.
Quite what these portents mean for this year remains to be seen. But we at the Combination hope that it will be a happy one, for all our readers.
In a long read, Tanya examines the events and implications of the Peterloo Massacre. You can see footage of the streets where these events took place in the second of our ‘Connections and Combinations’ videos.
“At Waterloo there was man to man, but at Manchester it was downright murder”
Eric Hobsbawm, in his 1960s classic TheAge of Revolutions, 1789 – 1848, writes principally of two, the political revolution in France and the industrial revolution in Britain. The event that we know as Peterloo took place almost exactly in the middle of that period, on 16 August 1819, and represented conflicting elements from both revolutions.
Since 1789, Britain had, to a great extent, defined itself by not being France. The Revolution, the deaths of Louis and Marie Antoinette, the Terror and rise of Napoleon, all were viewed with a fascinated horror as a sort of object lesson in how not to do government and why ideas, especially among the lower orders, were appallingly dangerous things. And France, of course, had been for a large part of that period not merely a dysfunctional neighbour, but an active enemy, whose defeat was essential to the continuance of the British social and constitutional project.
The very name quickly given to the tragedy at St Peter’s Field, ‘Peterloo’, indicates the extent to which the conflict with France still dominated the public imagination. The victory at Waterloo had been greeted as a defining moment by the British establishment, with Wellington granted extraordinary wealth as his reward for apparently saving the nation. But now that the protracted war was over, it was time to count the cost, and that was massive.
As always, the price was paid by those least able to afford it, including the poor of the newly industrialised county of Lancashire. Fifty years earlier, it would have been possible for the entire population of Lancashire to stand with ease in St Peter’s Field. Now Manchester alone, formerly a mere village, had over forty, mostly substantial, factories, employing over sixteen thousand people, and a total population of around two hundred thousand. Factory operatives, including children, worked what are now unimaginably long hours, in difficult and dangerous environments. And yet they were by no means the only casualties of mechanisation. Throughout the county, skilled artisans in the dominant cotton industry saw their incomes fall, while the price of bread, under the Corn Laws, remained beyond reach.
Manchester is remembered for its radical history, but it also had a vigorously Loyalist tradition, with Church and King Clubs, Orange lodges, the burning in effigy of Thomas Paine and at least one attack on the home of a prominent reformer. With the end of the war, the loyalist sentiment among the less well-to-do was losing some of its impetus, but among the men who made decisions, notably the magistrates, the terrible example of France hung ominously overhead. Manchester, as such a new urban centre, had no local corporation and no Member of Parliament. Power, as was tragically shown at Peterloo, was in the hands of those magistrates, untrained, unaccountable, partisan, fearful and ignorant.
It was not only the example of France which made them afraid. Pressure for parliamentary reform was growing across the social and geographical spectrum, including among the working and middle classes of the North West. Home Secretary Henry Addington, now Lord Sidmouth, influenced by his gluttonous and even more reactionary brother Hiley, saw violence, conspiracy and the overthrow of civilisation, in every corner. A loose network of spies, employed by magistrates and the government, earned their pay by reporting, inventing, and attempting to foment revolutionary activity. Though the reality, typified by the well-meaning but disorganised Blanketeers’ March, was somewhat less exciting, authorities both local and national convinced themselves that the country was on the verge of anarchy, and that only repressive action, such as that meted out to the Luddites, would serve to save it. The young organisers of the Blanketeers March, in which small groups of working people planned to march to London with reform petitions, were imprisoned, including spells of solitary confinement. After their release, not long before Peterloo they tried to flee to America but were arrested at Liverpool docks before boarding ship.
America, of course, strange as it seems to us especially this year, was a haven of free speech and liberty to English radicals of the time, and crossing the Atlantic was, if you could afford and arrange it, the best way to avoid going to gaol.
A vital part of the authorities’ repressive action, along with the criminal law which sentenced several Luddites to hang, was the military. In addition to regiments of regular soldiers, volunteer militias carried out what could politely be called policing functions in the early nineteenth century. To an extent they were vanity projects of wealthy men (and their wealthy wives, who delighted in the presentation of symbols and the encouragement of martial fervour), with elaborate uniforms and impressive weaponry. Cavalry yeomen were obliged to provide their own horses, which excluded the socially unsuitable, and the hierarchy provided a convenient mirror to the corresponding structures of local power. Manchester, as a recently expanded settlement, had no militia until shortly before Peterloo, a gap which was seen as a blemish upon its civic pride. The formation of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, with its sky-blue uniforms and inexperienced officers, was a delight to the elite of the town – and was to be a tragedy for the working people of Lancashire.
With no representation in the House of Commons, Manchester was an ideal platform for a new campaign which was gaining momentum, highlighting both the scandal of ‘rotten boroughs’ and the extremely restrictive nature of the current franchise. The plan was for mass reform meetings at which ‘legislatorial attorneys’ e.g. unofficial Members of Parliament would be elected. Reformers in Lancashire, including leading activist Samuel Bamford, invited the well-known Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt to come to St Peter’s Field in Manchester, address the crowds and, implicitly at least, be elected as its attorney.
Hunt was a West Country farmer by origin, and by now very much a celebrity in the reform movement. He had only recently visited Lancashire for the first time, but his never inconsiderable vanity had been tickled by the warm reception he had received, and so he willingly agreed to address the meeting on Monday 9th August.
Meanwhile, however, the government had concluded that the election of unauthorised representatives, however symbolic their role, was an attack upon the sanctity of Parliament and constituted a ‘high misdemeanour’, effectively treason. The local magistrates jumped at the excuse to ban the 9th August meeting and put up grammatically ambiguous but threatening posters around the district saying so.
Unfortunately Henry Hunt, down in the south of England, missed these prohibitions, and none of the Lancashire reformers thought to tell him. He therefore arrived in Manchester on the 8th August anyway and was considerably annoyed to discover that his august presence was not required. He was, however, mollified by the warm reception he received from the local people (possibly excluding those he had instructed to pull his carriage around the town) and agreed to stay on for the rescheduled and redefined meeting to be held a week later, again at St Peter’s Field. This time, instead of electing a representative, the intention was stated as merely being to consider what ‘legal and effectual means’ might be found to move towards the goal of parliamentary reform.
Hunt spent the intervening week as a guest in the cottage of Samuel Bamford, an experience which doesn’t seem to have been particularly enjoyable for either of them. Meanwhile across Lancashire communities were preparing for Monday’s event, an occasion which was to be a celebration almost as much as a protest. Because Peterloo happened in Manchester, there is a tendency to think of the participants as being primarily urban factory workers. But, although these were certainly represented, they were far from being the majority of the people present. For one thing, those employed in factories would have been obliged to be at work on a Monday, whereas the self-employed, such as handloom weavers, were able to take the day off, albeit no doubt at considerable financial cost.
Throughout the summer groups had been preparing, originally for the meeting on the 9th, now for the 16th. A common criticism made of working-class reformers and their demonstrations was that they were disorganised, undisciplined, a ‘rabble’. The Lancastrians were determined to show that this was not true. They practised drilling, marching in time in neat formation, carrying beautifully embroidered banners and the ‘caps of liberty’, referring back to freed Roman slaves and a popular symbol of contemporary reform and revolution. Unfortunately, of course, from the authorities’ point of view, this order was even worse than being a rabble. This looked, to men expecting the worse and accustomed to thinking in military terms, like preparations for battle.
Unaware of the increasingly frantic and paranoid letters circulating between spies, magistrates, officials and the Home Office, the people of Stockport, Bolton, Bury, Oldham and a host of other towns, looked forward to Monday’s processions. They of course had no way of travelling to Manchester but on foot, but all were accustomed to walking what for us now would seem exceptional distances. It was to be a community occasion, with church bands accompanying the marchers and whole families, including children, coming along. Women in particular were prominent, though they only made up around 12 per cent of the total. During the past few months Female Reform Unions had been set up in several Lancashire towns and their members marched together in white dresses that were to be central to the emotional iconography of the Peterloo Massacre.
The morning of Monday 16 was a bright and clear one, and in the further towns people were assembling at daybreak to begin their journey. Henry Hunt, never knowingly undercelebrated, had persuaded some of the towns’ contingents to accompany him on his circuitous route through Manchester from Samuel Bamford’s house to St Peter’s Field. He went via the poor districts of Newtown where many Irish families lived, and where he knew he would receive a warm welcome.
St Peter’s Field was a roughly triangular area, commonly used for large outdoor gatherings. Wooden hustings, around eight feet high and decorated with bunting, had been put up on one side of the field in order to accommodate the speakers. By the time Hunt arrived, thousands of people were gathered around the hustings. The four hundred odd special constables recruited to keep the peace had originally ensured that an empty corridor was maintained between the stage and the nearby house in which the magistrates were gathered, but the reformers in response, had simply moved the hustings and surrounded them.
The special constables were not, of course, the only men physically equipped to enforce the law, or whatever the magistrates decided the law to be on that occasion. There were around fifteen hundred soldiers from various regiments, around a thousand of them regulars and five hundred from the voluntary militias including the brand new Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry.
It was in the interests of both sides, after Peterloo, to exaggerate the number of civilians present. For the reformers it showed the strength of their cause, for the authorities the justification for their action. It seems likely that there were about fifty or sixty thousand, with some towns’ contingents still on their way to Manchester.
Hunt arrived at St Peter’s Field to the accompaniment of See The Conquering Hero Comes, and God Save the King, and ascended the hustings along with both other leading reformers and reporters from the Times and the Leeds and Liverpool Mercuries.
Whether it was the cry of welcome from the crowds, or simply the sight of the Orator himself, beginning his address, the magistrates peering from the windows decided that enough was already enough. They had pre-prepared their justification for breaking up the meeting, with statements solicited from local residents setting out their anxiety and fear. For a meeting which was ‘apt to raise a terror’ (the political uses of the word are long-standing) was, de facto, an illegal meeting against which, after the reading of the Riot Act, force could legitimately be used.
An order was made for Hunt and the other speakers to be arrested but it was claimed that, owing to the crowds surrounding the hustings, this could not be done without military assistance. The magistrates then sought such assistance, having read the Riot Act out of a window so quietly that even an observer standing at an adjacent window did not hear it.
Quite why the military were considered to be required isn’t quite clear. The crowds, though enthusiastically noisy, were acknowledged by impartial observers to be exceptionally peaceful. Samuel Bamford had even recommended that his marchers leave their walking sticks at home in order to arrive demonstrably armed only with the force of their clear consciences. And the authorities had gone over the ground first thing in the morning to remove any stones. Joseph Nadin, the deputy constable, was an extremely unpopular man, but he had instant backup in the form of four hundred truncheons.
Whatever the justification, the military were summoned. Unfortunately this meant two separate notes to be delivered to two separate commanding officers. While part of the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry were on one side of St Peter’s Field, under the control of Major Thomas Trafford, the rest, along with the Cheshire Yeomanry, the Hussars and the infantry were some distance away on the other side, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Guy L’Estrange.
The message reached the smaller body first, and they galloped into St Peter’s Field. L’Estrange took longer, leading his men by a circuitous way up and down streets to arrive close to where the magistrates were gathered.
Hunt and the others were arrested, and the order given to disperse the crowd. Most, of course, were only too anxious to leave and hastened to do so as quickly as possible. But the field was largely enclosed, with only a few available exits. And at these stood the infantry with fixed bayonets, preventing people from leaving or stabbing or clubbing them as they did. Thousands were trapped between the cavalry sabres and horse hooves and the infantry bayonets and muskets.
Many of the soldiers, and the officers who led them, were determined to treat this as a battle rather than an evacuation. And one of the things that soldiers do in battle is to capture trophies. The cry of “Have at their flags!” was heard, and a concerted effort to take the banners, including with lethal force. Other people were attacked for no apparent reason, even after the field was virtually empty and several were pursued and wounded after they had left the area entirely.
The relative vulnerabilities of the reformers and of the troops were of course immense. The cavalry, who made up the bulk of the soldiers were on horseback, and armed with sabres. The Manchester Yeomanry in particular were not practised in this type of situation and many were unable to control their horses even had they wished to do so. The fact that they regrouped in the field before deliberately galloping into the crowd implies no great desire to minimise casualties. It was suggested that, in the heat of that day and in their thick and elaborate uniforms, they had been quenching their thirst pretty liberally beforehand. Whether drunk or sober, it is clear that they felt a personal animus against the reformers, and many people reported being attacked by volunteer yeoman whom they knew.
While it was reported that the Hussars, at least, attempted to use the flat of their swords against the civilians, even that, of course, would have and did cause serious injuries. The Yeomanry, it is implied, felt no such compunction and indeed had arranged for their swords to be specifically sharpened during the days preceding the meeting.
Altogether there were over 650 casualties, nearly half of whom suffered wounds from weapons, with a quarter trampled by horses and a quarter by the crowd. It is noticeable that although only 12 per cent of those at the meeting were women, they made up a quarter of the wounded, and this cannot be explained solely by their vulnerability in the crowd. It appears, from the statistics as well as from accounts of the event that women, children and the elderly were disproportionately singled out for attack by the soldiers.
Eighteen people died as a result of Peterloo. The first was a two-year old boy, William Fildes, who was knocked from his mother’s arms as the troops galloped to the field. Eight men and two women died of wounds inflicted by sabres, bayonets and truncheons. Two men and one woman were killed by being ridden down by the cavalry and one woman fell and was crushed beneath the crowd. One special constable was killed in a reprisal attack later that day, and two men were shot that evening by the military.
Immediate responses were quick and polarised. Journalists who had been at the scene viewed it as an outrage, a massacre and a cause of national shame. Other publications, such as the Gentleman’s Magazine, writing of “unprincipled individuals, whose only object, under the specious names of patriotism, is to effect a Revolution, and aggrandize themselves on the ruins of their country” supported the magistrates and troops, as did the Government and the Prince Regent. The creative arts were enlisted mainly on the side of the reformers, with many poems written in memory of the dead and support of the wounded. The most enduring is of course Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy, but there were many more ephemeral but popular works such as William Hone’s The Political House That Jack Built.
“These are THE PEOPLE all tatter’d and torn,
Who curse the day wherein they were born,
On Account of Taxation too great to be borne,
And pray for relief, from night to morn;
Who, in vain, Petition in every form,
Who, peaceably Meeting to ask for Reform,
Were sabred by Yeomanry Cavalry who,
Were thanked by THE MAN, all shaven and shorn.”
The visual arts also commemorated the events, with prints, jugs and handkerchiefs, the latter sold to raise money for the injured. Sadly only a small proportion of the funds raised went to the working class wounded, with much used towards the legal costs of Hunt and his co-defendants.
They were tried in York, a distance impossible for the poorer witnesses and most, though not all, convicted, and sentenced to between one and two-and-a-half years in prison. There were other legal proceedings at the inquest into one death and the civil case brought by a victim against his attacker. In both cases, though the evidence was clearly in favour of the reformers, the verdicts went against them.
Politically, the effect was more repression, in the form of the notorious Six Acts, which outlawed most public and political meetings and imposed severe restrictions on the press. It’s at least arguable that the Six Acts weren’t intended so much to forestall future reforming activity as to retrospectively justify the actions at Peterloo. Meanwhile it was more than a decade before, with the Chartist movement, the campaign for reform found a popular rallying point once more.
We are, of course, approaching the 200th anniversary of the tragedy at St Peter’s Field. Across these islands we will honour those who were killed and injured, and of course all the thousands who would have remembered the horror for the rest of their lives. But does it have lessons for us today? There are five particular questions which arise for me.
What is a ‘good protest’?
It is fairly universally accepted now that the processions and meeting at St Peter’s Field were a legitimate and laudable expression of the democratic will and that the authorities’ response was disproportionate and unjust. But it did not necessarily appear so at the time. There was an argument, a weak one, but not ludicrous, that the meeting was essentially illegal, and that was the line taken by the magistrates and government. Do we, when laws are unjust, necessarily require that all protest must be strictly legal? What standard do we expect of the good protestor – is it higher than that in any other circumstances? This is what David Graeber has written in The Democracy Project about the vilification of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“even in New York in March, there was still endless discussion of a single café window that may or may not have been broken by an activist … during a march in November; as a result there was virtually no discussion of the first OWS-associated window-breaking in New York itself, which occurred on March 17. The window in question – it was a shop window in lower Manhattan – was broken by an NYPD officer, using an activist’s head.”
And what about the cause? We now see the universal franchise as being the foundation of our democracy, but it did not necessarily appear so at the time. On the contrary, it was expected to lead to societal chaos, family breakdown and the end of true religion. Are there causes today, matters of justice which we will only appreciate in hindsight? In the case of environmental issues, hindsight may be too late.
What happens when women protest?
The attacks of the press upon the members of the Female Reform Societies were virulent, aggressive and exactly like those upon the women’s suffrage movement ninety years later. The women of the Reform Societies were not even, on the whole, seeking the vote for themselves, though it had been occasionally suggested. They concentrated upon presenting themselves as wives and mothers, primarily concerned with home and family, with ensuring that their husbands and children were properly fed, decently clothed and able to observe the Sabbath day of rest. But still they were caricatured as slovenly neglectful slatterns, as drunkards and nymphomaniacs. On the day of the Peterloo meeting they dressed in white, which only served to make them clearer targets for the armed men who attacked them. In Lancashire now, two hundred years later, there are women protesting in white, standing in silent appeal before the police and security guards who are helping to impose fracking on communities that have said no. They too are attacked, and not spared for being over eighty.
Why do we love our banners?
Peterloo was in many ways the beginning of the culture of the protest banner, and the end of its freedom. The Six Acts for the first time outlawed the carrying of ‘flags, banners, emblems…’ as the reformers and repressers alike realised the power of the visual symbol to represent change. Here in Northern Ireland, of course, we’re only too well aware of the significance of certain flags and the emotions which they catalyse. And yet it’s rare to see a piece of cloth treasured in the way that the Middleton banner has been, carried at Peterloo and recently restored. Clothing, too, was important to the Peterloo marchers. As well as the women in their distinctive white dresses, there were working men wearing top hats decorated with sprigs of laurel. Those hats seem to have been viewed as a deliberate insult, a sort of sumptuary class transgression, judging from the number which were split or crushed by sabres and truncheons. Severe injuries were thereby inflicted on the heads beneath, although at least one enterprising reformer saved his skull by storing his bread and cheese lunch beneath his tall hat.
Spies and strategies – do they work?
The use of undercover agents by the authorities in observing the reform movements brought them nothing but misinformation, paranoia and a widening gulf of ignorance. They have learned little over two hundred years. The Green peer Baroness Jenny Jones has spoken much about the use of undercover police in infiltrating peaceful and positive environmental campaigns, attempting to provoke destruction and violence, wasting resources and leaving legacies of great pain. The government at the time of Peterloo believed itself to be coping in a uniquely dangerous climate in which, following the opening of Parliament, a window in the Prince Regent’s carriage had been broken. Was it a bullet, a stone or, as some said, a potato? It hardly mattered. Terror was among us and required a strategy. But terror is always among in, in some shape. As Oliver Burkeman has pointed out in The Antidote,
“Try searching Google’s library of digitised manuscripts for the phrase ‘these uncertain times,’ and you’ll find that it occurs over and over, in hundreds of journals and books, in virtually every decade the database encompasses, reaching back to the seventeenth century.”
Across the UK today we see the imposition of the government’s clumsy and brutal Prevent strategy, intended to forestall the ‘radicalisation’ of young people. A recent article in the London Review of Books tells of a tiny Syrian refugee child, who, trying to cope with the horrors he had lived through, spent his time at nursery repeatedly drawing pictures of bombs falling from aeroplanes. The nursery staff, following compulsory Prevent procedures, called the police, who separated the parents and questioned them. “How many times a day do you pray?”
Votes – are they all we need?
It is humbling to see the confidence of the St Peter’s Field reformers, many facing unendurable economic hardship, that if they could vote, they would find representation of their real interests and concerns. I wonder what they would say if they could see us now. It is also striking to consider how little formal education most received, how books and even newspapers were priced beyond their means, and yet how many contributed willingly to share pamphlets through the new Hampden reform clubs. Even soldiers in Manchester, a few years before, had formed a society to discuss the works of Tom Paine, though they were quickly moved on when the authorities found out. Remembering that, and looking at today’s racks of tabloid tat, it’s hard not to feel ashamed.
A final thought. The vast majority of people in and around St Peter’s Field that day were involved in, or depended on the cotton industry. A few of the officers, military and civilian, were making unimaginable fortunes from its growth. Many of the reformers were handloom weavers, whose livelihoods and lives would be during the next decades, sacrificed to the productivity of the new machines. Those who were not directly connected, especially the many magistrates who were also clergymen, preached of the divine sanctioning of the system. God, according to their view, was intensely relaxed about the rich getting richer, while the poor accepted their dwindling lot. As Eric Hobsbawm wrote, “money not only talked, but governed’.
But the handloom weavers and their fellow workers were not the only victims of the cotton-money nexus. The first cotton fabrics had been imported from India, but now the Lancashire mills were beginning to outproduce the Indian artisans, and the colonial authorities were only too willing to see their native subjects suffer for the benefit of the British export trade. Within the next two decades India was to become a major importer of British cotton. As the Chinese were to learn to their cost in the Opium Wars, it didn’t do so say no. Over a hundred years later one man did say no on behalf of the Indian weavers; he wore their homespun cotton and, to do them great credit, many of the cotton workers of Lancashire, particularly the women, gave Gandhi their support.
But cotton, of course, can’t be grown and harvested in Britain. It is no coincidence that the industry grew up and thrived in Lancashire, within easy reach of the slave port of Liverpool. While the northern states of America were providing a haven for outspoken English liberals, their southern neighbours were making their part of the cotton fortunes, across the backs, the bleeding backs, of human beings kidnapped, sold, enslaved.
That is the thought that I want to end upon. Our world is a small one, but our own concerns loom very large. Whether in history or politics, we can become fascinated by the detail, and leave ourselves no time to trace the wider connections. Now, more than ever, the local and the global are part of the same picture. We are privileged to see more of that picture than ever before. I believe we are obliged to try to make it a brighter one.
Elizabeth Nelson argues that white women are at the centre of a race panic in America, and draws other lessons from an extraordinary Senate race in her native USA.
White women, we have a lot to answer for. After a majority of white women of nearly every demographic – urban, rural, college educated and non-college educated – voted for Trump in 2016, a similar pattern has emerged in the voter breakdown from Alabama’s special election this week. The narrow defeat of Republican Roy Moore is entirely down to the African-American community, who came out in strong numbers to overwhelmingly support Moore’s opponent, Democrat Doug Jones.
This result is extraordinary not only because Alabama has elected a Democrat to a Senate seat for the first time in 25 years, but also because it featured an accused child sexual predator during a national moment of reckoning over sexual assault, and because the blowback against Moore and these allegations was apparently still not enough for white women to turn away from the Republican party in this reddest of red states.
In continuing to support a candidate accused of sexual impropriety with teenage girls who also supports the curtailment of women’s basic reproductive rights, white women in Alabama have thrown down a gauntlet for the nation’s politics, and to those who would seek to understand our political moment. In apparently voting against their own interests, white women made clear that this is not about morals, but about race.
White female voting patterns are the canary in the coalmine of this political moment. While the entire American political system is arguably built upon the exploitation of black communities, this racialisation of politics is becoming more overt in the Trumpian era, and it is increasingly breaking down by partisan lines. When a majority of white women (53 per cent) voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton in November 2016 there were a chorus of voices, mostly those of women of colour, pointing out the failure of White Feminism in supporting a candidate accused of sexual assault by 16 women, and who had repeatedly attacked immigrant and Muslim communities during the campaign. By voting for Trump white women were voting to maintain their own privilege.
Fast forward just over a year later, and the proportion of white women voters casting their ballots for Moore was even higher than for Trump (63 per cent for Moore vs 53 per cent for Trump), and arguably more enlightening. In the intervening months there have been high profile exposures of sexual assault and misconduct by powerful men in film, media, politics and more, not to mention the scores of men in less high profile industries that we will likely never hear about but certainly exist (and women in working class jobs are more at risk of being exploited and assaulted, particularly if they are immigrants or women of colour, and yet these experiences are still largely left out of a conversation that focuses on – you guessed it – wealthy white women. But that’s another story for a different day). When the allegations against Roy Moore surfaced in early November it seemed beyond belief that he could maintain his vote share with women, even in this reddest of red states.
So what does this tell us about the political mood of white women, and by extension, the nation? It tells us that this is about racism and internalized misogyny, not about morals. Faced with Trump and then with Moore, white women voted for misogyny. They voted for white supremacy and a continuing and deepening racial divide in America. And as ever, a side conversation about reproductive rights during this election illuminates the dynamics at play.
There were many in Democratic circles advocating ‘big tent’ politics in the wake of the Trump disaster, pushing the idea that the Democratic Party needs to build broader coalitions even with those who don’t share core Democratic values. In practice, this has meant an insistence that an anti-choice candidate can and should be embraced by the Democratic establishment and by the voters as a way of bridging the gap between traditional Democratic voters and those more moderate conservatives turned off by Trumpian politics.
This abandonment of a core Democratic value – bodily autonomy for women and people who can become pregnant – has been loudly denounced by progressive women both inside and outside the party. The idea that women’s rights must be relegated in order to advance electoral prospects or economic socialism is at best insulting and at worst a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be progressive, because it makes invisible the needs and struggles of communities of colour and poor communities (which often overlap) who are hit hardest by restrictions on access to abortion. There cannot be progress toward economic equality without also securing and protecting the fundamental rights of all marginalized communities. Democrats pushing anti-choice candidates are making a shallow political analysis with little understanding of or concern for their true base – communities of colour, women and working class communities – instead preferring to continue to focus on that mythical ‘moderate Trump voter’ to turn from the Republican Party.
Democrats do need a broad coalition, but one that begins and ends with communities of colour and women. Outreach to African American communities in the eleventh hour of the Jones campaign was, according to many analysts, a game-changer in swinging this close vote Jones’ way. This is the true progressive coalition along with working class communities and women that the Democrats need to win big in 2018.
Black voters understand this better than anyone. They turned out to support Doug Jones in high numbers, by extension supporting healthcare, education, voting rights and abortion rights, all in a state whose Attorney General has publicly stated his belief that claiming the right to vote should not be ‘easy’ (and against a backdrop of curtailment of voting rights nationwide).
White women need to step up to the plate for this strategy to work. While a majority of white women with a college degree voted for Jones, most white women without a college degree still voted for Moore, a political decision guided by misogyny and racism
One need only look to Moore’s response to the sexual assault allegations to understand this link. His campaign attempted to use abortion as a signifier, a touchstone in the culture wars that, they assumed, would force Alabama voters – particularly conservative women – to choose Moore despite the allegations about his past sexual harassment of minors. Slamming Jones as supporting ‘full-term abortion,’ Moore attempted to deflect from serious allegations that could have potentially derailed his vote share with women. And yet, it largely did not, suggesting strongly that other dynamics are at play.
If women voted for Moore, it was not because he supports women. He obviously doesn’t. But a vote for Moore was a vote for white supremacy, something even poor white women benefit from to a certain degree.
It’s impossible to ignore the racial divide in the Alabama election, and still less possible to ignore the fact that these racial divides are breaking electorally along party lines more and more reliably, and with greater majorities. The same is true of attitudes to abortion; with those against abortion rights now much more likely to vote Republican and those for abortion rights now much more likely to vote Democrat than in the 1970s and 1980s, when opinion was much more varied across party lines.
An attitude of entitlement towards women’s bodies and a perverse abuse of power are not bound by party lines. Al Franken was seen as a strong progressive voice in Congress. Harvey Weinstein donated to liberal causes. And yet by supporting candidates so anti-woman in their outlook, these white women have told us loud and clear: white supremacy is more important than my own rights.
These figures are alarming enough but they merely belie stories of personal distress and family hardship. They stand as a measure of systemic failure rooted in an infuriating adherence to free-market economics, underscored by a set of ideological, cultural assumptions about home ownership that Ireland and the UK articulate separately, and which posits home ownership as an essential national characteristic.
Conor McCabe draws attention to the myth that owner-occupancy is somehow in the ‘Irish gene’; an innate part of the Irish character because of a history of plantation, land wars and famine. In his book, Sins of the Father: The Decisions That Shaped the Irish Economy, McCabe argues that it was in fact the privatisation of urban public housing throughout the 1960s and 70s that pushed forward home ownership, with public ownership becoming a ‘byword for poverty and violence’ (2013: p 58)
There was nothing politically benign about the push for owner occupancy. In 1952, James Tunney, a Labour Party senator, told Dublin County Council, ‘I am a firm believer in private ownership, because it makes for better citizens, and there is no greater barrier against communism’ (quoted in McCabe, 2013, p 29). Such sentiments were echoed five years later by the Bishop of Cork, the Most Reverend Dr Cornelius Lucy, who encouraged the conversion of the country to property ownership to ‘prevent social unrest’ and ‘revolutionary change’ (ibid: p 30).
The UK in the 1980s home ownership was framed as the duty of all good patriots, loving parents and free citizens. The Conservative government’s environment ministered at the time, Michael Heseltine, was a cheerleader for the ‘right to buy’ Housing Act of 1980:
There is in this country a deeply ingrained desire for home ownership. The Government believe that this spirit should be fostered. It reflects the wishes of the people, ensures the wide spread of wealth through society, encourages a personal desire to improve and modernize one’s own home, enables parents to accrue wealth for their children and stimulates the attitudes of independence and self-reliance that are the bedrock of a free society.
The media’s response to this new domestic dispensation has been a proliferation over the last 37 years of house buying, DIY home improvement and domestic lifestyle programmes, such as Location, Location, Location, Grand Designs, Room For Improvement, DIY SOS, and many television series dedicated to cooking and entertaining at home, fronted by the likes of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. At last count, Channel Four had twelve ‘property programmes’ and last year it was reported that it is threatening more.
On the one hand, we might see these shows as trivial entertainment, but on the other, their sheer ubiquity has normalised home ownership. At the same time the melodramatic structure of property shows, with their emotional highs and lows in the quest to build, find and improve, portrays the home as the fulfilment of desire; an achievement of the deserving, not the of the right of every human. And if there are people who are deserving of a home then there are by implication others who are not so.
The home is viewed as a measure of our moral value – residence of the conscientious and meritorious domestic citizen. The parade of home owners on our screens, coupled with the omnipresence of advertisements that seek to inspire copious, conspicuous domestic consumption, renders homelessness a mere aberration in an otherwise glossy parade of new builds, well appointed interiors, fitted kitchens and conservatories.
Changing housing policy will require a change in how we think about homes and homelessness. For at the moment the lack of political conviction to tackle the housing crisis finds its cultural corollary in the plethora of banal forms of light entertainment that validate home ownership.
How can we tolerate people dying for want of a roof over their head? Maybe it’s because we have been encouraged to see the home as an extension of the self; a state of nature; a measure of moral superiority. In which case the homeless are easily reduced to the abject, inferiorised, eccentric objects of charity or contempt.
It’s a rather unhappy tale in the run up to Christmas – but surely, you might think, not a major one, what with all the Brexit negotiations going on, to say nothing of the events in America covered in the last post?
Yet look a little closer and it speaks volumes about our whole political economy.
First, the headline is slightly misleading – ‘senior’ is a very relative term. We are talking here about ‘section leaders’, senior shop floor assistants, not boardroom executives. So already pretty low paid. Wage cuts or redundancies could be devastating for them and their families.
Still, sad as it is, the story may not appear such a big deal. But look at this other story from August:
Earlier this year, the GMB brought a successful case to tribunal on behalf of store staff – mostly women – who had been paid significantly less than the mostly male warehouse workers. Asda was ordered to make up the pay gap.
Better news, then; but could the two stories be connected? Is it a coincidence that, having lost at tribunal over equal pay, the company is now announcing cuts among the same category of employees? A connection isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility. Certainly, rather than paying up, Asda has chosen to appeal the decision.
In terms of the mooted job cuts, the company says it is necessary to cut costs to meet the competition of Lidl and Aldi. A race to the bottom, then, but understandable, perhaps, given the pressures of the fierce competitive environment they have to work in. Or it would be understandable if Asda were a struggling small to medium enterprise. But it is owned by Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, whose five main shareholders, the Walton family, are among the wealthiest people in the world.
If the Waltons each saw their fortune rise by $1bn this year, it would work out at $2.7 million a day, or over 2 million pounds sterling (at today’s rates). Two million millimetres is two kilometres. No building – indeed no mountain – in the UK would be high enough to roll your measuring tape off to mark out this height.
In fact, you’d have to stack Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland’s tallest mountain, on top of Mount Snowdon, and then some, to mark this out vertically from sea level.
On the same scale, the Asda employees’ wages would measure 35mm – the width of a strip of photographic negatives, or roughly the diameter of a tea-light candle.
It’s the crank economy in action: cut jobs or wages at the bottom in order to ‘compete in the market’, boost profits and thus wealth for the (sometimes already unimaginably wealthy) shareholders.
Of course, we’ve been assuming the Waltons only gained a billion each for the year.
Just time for one last story, then, this one from November:
Maurice looks at the ‘breathtaking’ tax bill passed by the US Senate, and sees in it the essence of the crank economy.
There’s plenty happening on this side of the Atlantic, and indeed on the island of Ireland, what with the Brexit negotiations reaching crunch point over the border, but what has just happened in America is breathtaking.
Not the noxious Tweets, allowing us to say literally that the President of the US shares the views of quasi-fascist extremists Britain First. Not even the fast moving Russian probe. But the shocking tax bill that has just been cleared by Senate. Given that the House has its own, not dissimilar bill on the go, it seems almost certain that a variation or combination of these is likely to be signed into US law pretty soon. Here’s why I think this would be disastrous.
It contains huge tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy; smallish cuts for some middle earning Americans; and actual increases in taxation for other middle and lower earners. And even the small tax breaks for the middle earners will disappear in a decade, leaving the corporations the only clear winners.
Companies will use tax breaks to ‘reward’ owners like Mr Trump and his family; already high-income managers (who are likely also to be owners) will share in the bounty. Some rewards, of course, may go to ordinary workers, should the corporate owners decide to invest in creating jobs; but the track record suggests they will, rather, reward themselves still further, in the form of extra shares and dividends.
And because these rich people’s tax breaks will massively push up the deficit, a republican no-no, it won’t be long before the less well off and the very poorest Americans will face cuts in public services and a squeeze on welfare payments.
The Grand Old Party, in short, wants to turn the oil-fuelled crank in the economy faster than it has ever been turned before. They say it’s to make the economy more ‘dynamic’, and to create jobs, as well as the wealth that you need if you are to be able to afford to redistribute it in the first place.
Here’s the problem: it is the turning of the crankthat is creating the crisis it purports to solve.
All or most of the forces in the crank economy are geared vertically as I argued in a previous post. The crank economy pushes power and wealth to the top. But it gets the ‘purchase’ to do so by putting downward pressure at the bottom – whether by cutting public spending in order to free up money for tax breaks, or by dismantling hard-won gains in power made by workers and other groups marginalised by the political economy, or by dumping toxins into the environment.
(As an aside, once you start looking it is easy to spot examples of the way our thinking is governed by ‘vertical’ models. The career ladder, the housing ladder, even the idea of ‘top’ earners. I confess I have often used the phrase ‘those at the bottom’ to describe people without much money or power. I resolve to change that, and shake off the tyranny of the vertical, by the end of this article.)
It’s worth noting that some ordinary, not particularly well-off Americans may support this “behemoth piece of legislation” as the NYT has it, “that could widen American economic inequality while diminishing the power of local communities to marshal relief for vulnerable people — especially in high-tax states like California and New York, which, not coincidentally, tend to vote Democratic”.
Some will do this because, let’s not shy away from it, they have had it tough over the last few years, and even decades; and they have been told, by President Trump and others, that the problem is this: big (liberal) government keeps taking your hard earned money, in the shape of taxes, and handing it to lazy people living it up on welfare. Many of them (the usually unstated implication goes) people of a ‘different’ race.
“Welfare reform, I see it, and I’ve talked to people. I know people that work three jobs and they live next to somebody who doesn’t work at all. And the person who is not working at all and has no intention of working at all is making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his and her ass off. And it’s not going to happen. Not going to happen.”
This, by the way, in the same breath in which he claimed that wealthy people like himself and his friends would end up paying more because of the tax bill – one of many patent falsehoods he continues to get away with among his supporters.
So not only will this tax bill crank up inequalities in wealth, but it is likely to be accompanied by yet further deepening of divisions between Americans along social and ethnic lines – divisions that, whether designed to do so or not, will tend to deter those at the wrong end of the crank economy from connecting and combining against it.
This narrative is not confined to the US, of course. Some conservative proponents of the crank economy over here also claim to champion the working class against the unjust depredations of those even worse off than them. Working class versus underclass. Especially ‘foreign’ (in one way for another) underclasses. Deserving poor versus ‘undeserving’ poor. Their answer? Cut support for the underclasses. Reward the ‘wealth creators’. Turn the crank faster. (News breaking as I post this: Theresa May’s Social Mobility team have just quit en masse because there is ‘no hope’ of a fairer society under the current set of policies).
Those who gain power through the crank economy use that power to maintain the system: they buy up the media and push their line to millions every day (and note how much of this line is about ethnicity or religion or nationality); they make large donations, some of them secretive, to the political parties that will deliver their demands; they fund ‘think tanks’ that recommend we solve the problems caused by the crank by turning it faster.
If the Republicans in the US get their way (they still have to work out a compromise with the House, and there’s the rapidly moving Russian investigation to contend with), the wealth and power gap between ‘bottom’ and ‘top’ in America will be cranked up, teetering, to unprecedented proportions. This cannot end well. It will be worth watching developments in the US closely.
So what can be done over here?
Where the forces of the political economy are arranged vertically, we must find or invent ways to inject a new dynamic, and redirect the gearing horizontally, and such that it cycles and recycles wealth and power until it is distributed across the whole common, democratic plain.
To democratise the economy is to democratise power distribution – be this electricity generation or political power. We must redirect the flows to create a socially and environmentally (you can’t have one without the other) sustainable political economy, one that observes the limits of what Kate Raworth calls the ‘doughnut’.
How? Put pressure on your representatives in local and national politics to ensure funds are injected and can cycle in local economies. Find out about and join in with your local commons, cooperatives, trade unions. Lobby to get workers on boards, especially remuneration committees; lobby to overturn the TU Act; press for participatory democracy and participatory budget setting; visit your local council and work out ways to bring democratic pressure to bear. Connect your issues to those of others who are struggling for sustainable grassroots democracy, and combine forces.
Shift the forces of the political economy to the horizontal; end the tyranny of the vertical.
There may be ‘top’ earners, and there may be ‘low’ earners, but democracy demands broad equality in power, – that is, equal political status as commoners for all, and a democratically agreed (not plutocratically imposed) distribution of power.
In today’s context, democracy demands that we turn away from the Trumpist model, the crank economy, and, as commoners, hold our common ground.
Stephen Baker addresses the growing problem of work related stress and argues that jobs are about more than subsistence: they should be “meaningful to us, personally fulfilling and socially valuable”.
In April this year my GP signed me off work with ‘work related stress’. I didn’t see it coming. I knew that I was unhappy at work but it wasn’t until I surprised myself by breaking down in the doctor’s surgery that I realised how despairing I had become about my professional life. I had anticipated a much more routine appointment to discuss an ailment that has bothered me for seven years. But a polite enquiry from my doctor as to my health reduced me to tears. It took about ten minutes for me to recover myself sufficiently to talk, after which I identified my job as a cause of acute anxiety in my life. He told me I wasn’t fit to work – I was at that stage barely fit to speak. I left the health centre feeling like the ground had disappeared from beneath me and that I was in free-fall. With hindsight, I now understand that I had been treading metaphorical thin-air for quite a few years – like the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote in pursuit of his nemesis Roadrunner, who runs off the edge of a cliff but keeps going, legs flailing the air, gravity momentarily denied, reality suspended, before he looks down, realisation dawns, and he plummets into the canyon below.
It seems I’m not alone.
A third of the UK workforce (34 percent) may have a health and wellbeing issue, with the most common being anxiety, depression and stress, according to a new PwC study. These figures follow a Labour Force Survey that reported in 2015/2016 there was a total of 488,000 cases of work related stress, depression or anxiety in Great Britain. That’s a prevalence rate of 1510 per 100,000 workers, or 11.7 million working days lost that year due to the condition. However, these figures perhaps underestimate the size of the problem. Research by the insurer Aviva found that workers in the private sector are three times more likely to work while ill than to ‘pull a sickie’. Sixty-nine percent said they had struggled to work when unwell, compared with 23 percent who had taken off when there was nothing wrong with them. This suggests that at a time when the average number of working days lost due to illness is falling, presenteeism – being in work when you are not fit to work – is a greater problem than absenteeism.
Last year to coincide with World Mental Health Day the TUC published a study that marked stress as the top health and safety concern in UK workplaces. This finding was based on a survey of more than 1,000 health and safety reps around the UK who were asked to identify the hazards at work that most trouble them and their workforces. Seventy percent named stress. This chimes with my own experience as a trade union representative, a role in which I am very often the first informal port of call for colleagues feeling anxious, bullied, harassed and distressed in the workplace.
One common response to stress at work is simply not to talk about it for fear that it be interpreted as a sign of personal weakness. Or it might be considered an indication that an employee is unfit for or incapable of doing their job, with all the consequences that might entail. Employers can be equally reticent on the topic, since it might implicate their own employment practices. Certainly the Aviva report found that employers tend to underestimate the incidents and impact of stress at work. When the issue is addressed it is to it is often confined to questions of workload or work-life balance. Without question the quantity of work we do and the time we get to rest and recuperate is important. But perhaps there is something more fundamental going on at work; something more qualitative. In the contemporary work environment, how many of us feel that the work we do is meaningful to us, personally fulfilling and socially valuable? Alternatively, should we even allow ourselves to aspire to such notions at work? That’s the question I’ve been confronted with recently.
Higher (Pressure) Education
I work in higher education, a sector that has adopted a neoliberal rationality and the implementation of commercial imperatives that are utterly inimical to the aims and objectives of education. For me universities are (or at least should be) repositories of accrued human knowledge with a civic responsibility to serve by increasing and disseminating that knowledge. In this respect, I see myself as a public servant, a role I regard as a privilege. Teaching and research have always felt like a vocation to me, albeit a relatively well remunerated one. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do for living. But over the past six or seven years I’ve had the creeping feeling that my work has been increasingly trivialised and misunderstood. This is a feeling that has coincided with the hike in tuition fees and rising student debt, which has signalled a clear change in how universities conduct themselves.
In July the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that three-quarters of graduates will never repay their debt, which implies that there is a dearth of graduate employment in the jobs market to enable graduates to make good on their loans. At the same time, the pay of university managers has rocketed. An investigation by the University and College Union (UCU) revealed that the average salary package of university Vice Chancellors was £277,834 in the last academic year. This is more than six times the average pay of their staff. However, university managers aren’t the only ones enjoying a big pay day. The Financial Times described the market in purpose built student accommodation (described by investors as PBSAs) as being “on steroids”.
“Private investors have piled in as numbers of students – and the rents they are prepared to pay – keep on rising. The UK PBSA market is now worth about £43bn, and the landlords are no longer universities staffed by well-meaning but slightly distracted academics, but professional student room providers”.
Seen in these terms, it is hard not to conclude that higher education exists as a means for university managers and private landlords to harvest student debt. If you work in higher education and consider it an honourable vocation, then witnessing this exploitation of predominantly young people, and indeed playing your part in that exploitation, isn’t just depressing, it feels like an assault on your very self-worth. You have been pressed into the service of a nefarious system so far removed from the public service and civic virtues you believe in that it is frankly unbearable. On reflection – and although it surprised me at the time – this is what culminated in the episode at my GP’s. What I felt on that occasion was an overwhelming sense of grief; like I’d lost or was losing something that felt fundamental to me, but I couldn’t quite explain what it was.
A few days after being signed off work a concerned old friend told me in the bluntest possible terms that what I was suffering from was alienation, in the Marxist sense, and since most of the working population are afflicted with it, it was only my own sense of profesional middle class entitlement that allowed me to imagine I should be an exception to the general rule. That’s probably true. We are alienated at work because we are forced to sell our labour in order to subsist, to live. As a consequence our work does not belong to us. It is not an act of self-expression. The product of our labour is appropriated and directed by another, the employer. Of course we can take pride in our work, we can strive to feel a degree of satisfaction in a job well done; we can enjoy the remuneration; the status acquired through work, perhaps; but it doesn’t alter the fact that we’ve sold our time and effort to an employer and what we produce is theirs to do with as they will. For the public servant things might be experienced differently. Her work might be in the service of others, but if that changes and she finds herself working, not in the public interest, but for an iniquitous state or the aggrandisement of an elite, then a feeling of alienation shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Self-worth and work
If the Marxist conception of alienation is too abstract for your tastes, you might find American sociologist Richard Sennett’s research more grounded. He has written extensively about people’s relationship to their work; their experience of it and what it means to them. In particular Sennett is sensitive to how our sense of self-worth is bound up in the work we do and his analysis of this across several volumes through the years draws attention to the “triumph of superficiality at work.”
Sennett argues that work in our contemporary economy doesn’t provide what he refers to as a “sustaining life narrative”: that is a biography in which we can locate a sense of pride at a good job well done, and in addition forge bonds of loyalty and purpose. This doleful situation has been achieved, in part, through a preference for short-termism in the work place – the imperative to make a quick buck for impatient shareholders is the bottom line. So employers and corporations invest less and less in in-depth knowledge, expertise and accrued skill or craft, and as a consequence the past achievements of employees are considered obsolete and discarded with indecent and wasteful haste. Sennett argues that it is only an “unusual sort of human being” that can thrive in such a transient, throw-away work environment.
Sennett’s ethnographic approach to his research reveals something beyond employment and productivity statistics. It drills down to reveal how people’s sense of identity and self-worth is intimately bound up in what they do. It achieves this because he encourages people to talk about their work and the place it has in their lives. In The Corrosion of Character, Sennett interviews Rico, a college graduate, son of a janitor, whose life looks like an exemplar of upward mobility and success. Rico is married with kids and runs his own consultancy firm, having previously worked in the computer industry, Silicon Valley. His wife manages a small group of accountants, some of whom work from home, as well as a back office staff located thousands of miles away that she connects to via the internet. Despite the appearance of middle class success, both fear they are “on the edge of losing control of their lives,” a fear built into their professions that are a “flux of networking,” as well as impersonal and flexible working relations. In this context friendship and community develop what Sennett calls a “fugitive quality.” While Rico sees his job as a service to his family he worries that it interferes with those ends. Not in the sense that he doesn’t have sufficient time to spend with his wife and kids. Rather “his deepest worry is that he cannot offer the substance of his work life as an example to his children of how they should conduct themselves ethically.”
The Corrosion of Character was published in 1998, when the contours of what Sennett refers to as “flexible capitalism” were increasingly apparent, but his inquiries into the value ascribed to work predate this, as illustrated in his earlier book, The Hidden Injuries of Class, published in 1972. One of the subjects of that study, Frank Rissaro, from a working class background, left school without qualifications and after a brief spell in the army became a butcher, a job he held for nearly twenty years. Frank was ambitious, specifically he had ambitions to open a butcher’s shop of his own but the capital was beyond his reach. However, a friend introduced him to the branch manager of local bank and Frank went to work there, entering the white collar world. Like Rico almost two decades later, Frank’s story looks like one of upwardly mobile success – a working class boy’s entry into the middle class. But Sennett reveals a more complicated picture. Frank is proud of this working class roots, considering it the grounding that keeps him honest; more honest than he considers his better educated work colleagues at the bank, whom he accuses of shiftlessness; coming to work late, going home early. And he seems ambivalent about his job: “These jobs aren’t real work where you make something – it’s just pushing papers.” If, for Frank, “real work” is the preserve of the blue collar occupations he has left behind, he clearly regards middle class professional life as ephemeral and maybe even swindling. For Sennett, it reveals how Frank’s striving for middle class respectability in the eyes of others has rendered him unable to respect himself.
The Moral Dimension
Both Rico and Frank’s stories reveal that work is not just about subsistence. It has a moral dimension. As I have found to my own cost, to feel ethically compromised or diminished at work; or to feel a loss of self-respect, can be injurious. That is why we need to talk about work beyond the statistics beloved of government press releases and news bulletins. These might reveal something about the economic “health” of the nation but there is no necessary relationship between that and human well-being and flourishing.