Wednesday 30 November 2016

Trouble At Mill.

Rising Like Lions: Between the early-Nineteenth and late-Twentieth Century, wielding their two “unvanquishable” weapons: trade unionism and the franchise; working people lifted their incomes; improved their housing; obtained an education for their children; and secured ready access to medical advice and care. In the space of little more than a century, working people had secured for themselves both a standard of living and a degree of political power unparalleled in human history. How were these lions turned into lambs?
A FEW NIGHTS AGO, I watched “The Real Mill” on Sky’s History Channel. Fronted by the ubiquitous Tony Robinson, the series investigates the historical background to “The Mill” – a docudrama set in early-Nineteenth Century Cheshire. What struck me most forcefully in the programme was the way in which the factory workers of the period fought back against the oppressive conditions of their working lives.
Bear in mind that these were men, women and (in alarming numbers) children, who had just spent at least 12 hours operating the relentless (and often lethal) machinery of the new “manufactories” – as their workplaces were called. And yet, overcoming their fatigue, they found time to read and write pamphlets; gather together to hear speeches; and march in their tens-of-thousands to great outdoor rallies.
None of them could vote. Even after the passage of the momentous Representation of the People Act, in 1832, only one in five of the adult male population were free to participate in parliamentary elections. The remaining four-fifths of adult males – and all adult women – continued to be excluded from the franchise.
It would require another century of struggle by the working men and women of Great Britain before universal franchise was finally achieved. (Roughly one third of the British soldiers who fought and died in the trenches of World War I were not entitled to vote for the Members of Parliament who sent them there.)
Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that, prior to 1824, it was illegal to form and/or belong to a trade union. Even after the repeal of these “Combination Acts”, trade unionism remained a risky business – as the 1834 “transportation” to Australia of the so-called “Tolpuddle Martyrs” attests. It was not until the passage of the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875 that the crucial right to mount a trade union picket was legally recognised.
So, what’s wrong with the working people of the early-Twenty-First Century? Like the mill-workers of two centuries ago, many of them are working long hours for scandalously low wages. Many of their employers utilise exactly the same employment strategies (sub-contracting, piece-work) that the mill-owners of the industrial revolution devised to depress the price of labour.
In sharp contrast to Nineteenth Century workers, however, the working people of today possess both the right to vote and the right to form trade unions, go on strike and picket their workplaces. The two decisive achievements of the working class’s long struggle for freedom and prosperity are both intact and available. How is it that these two mighty swords have rusted in their scabbards?
It was the romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelly, writing in the same period as “The Mill”, who in his incendiary poem, “The Masque of Anarchy”, incited the oppressed peoples of the British Isles to:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!
It was sentiments such as these which inspired the aristocrats and mill-owners of Britain (and many other countries) to resist extending the franchise to their tenants and workers for as long as they possibly could. If nothing else, the masters could count. Give an overwhelming majority of the population the right to vote, and very soon the laws of the land will reflect the needs and aspirations of an overwhelming majority of the population!
And so it proved – right up until the final quarter of the Twentieth Century. Wielding their two “unvanquishable” weapons: trade unionism and the franchise; working people lifted their incomes; improved their housing; obtained an education for their children; and secured ready access to medical advice and care. In the space of little more than a century, working people had secured for themselves both a standard of living and a degree of political power unparalleled in human history.
And then, quite suddenly, workers found themselves going backwards. In the late-1970s, the masters, fearing the “lions” were about to devour them entirely, launched a fierce counter-attack. Their behaviour, at least, was understandable. Less so, was the lions’ willingness to be restrained. The masters’ relentless propaganda: in which lions were portrayed as dangerous and selfish creatures which, for the public’s safety, simply had to be caged; proved to be astonishingly persuasive – not least to the lions themselves.
The legal restraints of Maggie Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Roger Douglas, Ruth Richardson and Bill Birch did not fall upon the working-class lions of the democratic West like dew while they slept. With a handful of honourable exceptions, like the British miners, the trade unions entered their masters’ cages voluntarily. An electorally decisive fraction of the working-class continues to vote for their chains.
Those Nineteenth Century mill-workers, marching beneath banners demanding trade union rights and the vote, would be appalled.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 November 2016.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

I have no idea why the unions rolled over. I once talked to a reasonably high up government servant, when I was doing a paper on government. I used to be cheeky and ask for someone whose job it was to answer questions from the general public. He didn't know why the public service rolled over either, but he seemed pretty damn chuffed that it had. I think the government was expecting more of a fight. I've heard all sorts of speculation about prominent union members being promised various things – but that seems a little wild. It seems to me that the 19th-century workers were led by a cadre of generally self educated and enthusiastic leaders, who could push along the lumpenproletariat. These people now maybe tend to be aspirationals. Along the lines of "The working class can kiss my arse, I've got the foreman's job at last." Maybe there just isn't any hope, but the stirrings of populism tend to suggest there might be. But it has to be directed towards social democracy, not fascism.

David Stone said...

Hi Chris

We all know the answer don't we . The manufactories have been moved to countries that don't provide workers with the benefits gained in Britain and the rest of the West; and workers who are prepared to undercut what was won are constantly imported to keep pressure on the employment opportunities that remain. If workers became as aggressive in demanding a larger slice now, they know that they would just send their job overseas, be replaced by an immigrant or a machine, or send their smaller employer out of business.

I wanted to refer to an article in The Information Clearing house ; "Reflections On The Dispossessed " though it had no relevance to your last article , but now it has.

Cheers David J S

A O said...

Too many things hog the attention of most people for them to really appreciate the ailments of the world. And change, for the worse (aka, that benefits the very rich above everyone else) is often so incremental that most people fail to see the likely consequence. We’ve forgotten history also, but then that’s a natural human trait anyway, albeit our relative comfortableness compared to nineteenth century workers hasn’t helped.

And put me down as one of those who believed that the Unions needed to be restrained, but of course, I failed to foresee that to retrain one was to set the other free. Silly me.

Monique Watson said...

It's our cultural make up that resulted in New Zealand's abandonment of the championing of workers rights and embracing free market ideology in areas where it's a perversion. Education and the erosion of collective bargaining by Richardson, et al. I make that observation from living five years in the U.S. One of the strongest values that Kiwis hold dear is that everyone gets a Fair Go. It's so strongly entrenched in our collective psyche, a TV show (back in the days before it was named 'reality TV') was developed to reflect our need for fairness to be meted out. It's our strength as a nation (we're acutely aware of how to be a good team member at work and in sport aka the All Blacks) but it blindsides us also. The Tall Poppy Syndrome that pervades NZ culture is a derivative of this. The strong and leaders in their field are often given a hard time. Here in the U.S. the strong swallow the weak and CEO's are revered control freaks. Fairness is an abstract concept.
The worst of it is that anyone with a twisted political agenda can use this collective Kiwi urge for fairness to set us against ourselves. We can be convinced that the absurd and even obscene (government loans for education) is only fair and reasonable. The early 1990's saw the introduction of what should have been doomed experiments by Richardson and Birch but successive governments and voters went with the narrative that it was only "fair" that students should borrow to fund their education.
That's just one example but as we get closer to the election watch for the National party to wrap their policies in fuzzy warm feeling good words that convince voters that everyone is getting their fair share of the pie (eg Health Civil Defence and Police/Justice) when the reality is that the slices are getting thinner and thinner and there are gross disparities in the well being of communities and between generations. The Labour Party would do well to ask voters if the National Party vision of fairness is leading to better outcomes for Kiwis. And give the Greens something to distract them policy wise to stop them queering the pitch.

Polly said...

The standard bearers for an equal and fair society are the New Zealand First political party led by a old man who speaks more sense than the rest of parliament.
Winnie states, stop immigration to this country by people who do not share our values and will in time, turn against us, wreck our welfare and health systems, wreck our country. Protect our borders and get into making things again.

Labour is a National Lite political party who go through life pretending they are not, because of that we cannot trust them.

Those people who voted brexit are the sons, daughters and grandchildren of those brave souls who fought against the oppression of yester-year.

I would wish, my Xmas wish, that John Key turns to Winnie with a olive branch, so that Key gets his fourth term then as a country we try to create again what we once had.

Why John Key and National ?,well he carries about 50% of the country politically and we need that sort of political bang to start the ball rolling.

I do not have much faith in my wish, but it is Xmas, have a good one Chris. Good read.

Unknown said...

Debt is the new form of control, student loans and over priced houses with massive mortgages all add up to control by debt.
AS Rick from 'Rick and Morty' says "Slavery with Extra Steps"

Jack Scrivano said...

I know that the notion of the frog boiling to death without realising it has been well and truly debunked. But it remains a good metaphor. There are many things that mask the rate of change in society. By the time that most people wake up to the fact that some of the changes happening around them are not in their best interest, it’s often too late.

Victor said...

An excellent post, Chris. And you've provoked some interesting responses.

May I also make a few cautious (and perhaps mutually contradictory) suggestions as to why working people today typically lack the militancy of mill-hands, miners, foundry-workers etc. in the newly industrialising Britain of the early nineteenth century.

The first is that employment in factories, mines and steelworks, as Marx and Engels realised, makes for a sense of common interest and comradeship, whilst providing the ideal circumstances for organisation. This is much less true of the decentralised work places and circumstances in which most of us earn our crusts these days.

Alternatively, you could argue that, thanks to globalisation, our proletariat nowadays lives mainly in the Shenzen Economic Zone and other choice spots, where conditions of employment are not dissimilar to those endured by early nineteenth century British factory hands. If the workers there don’t seem all that militant, it could be because they face political disincentives even more severe than those imposed by the younger Pitt et al.

Another contrasting explanation could be that Marx and Engels were wrong and Bakunin was right. Perhaps it’s the peasantry and not the industrial working class that’s inherently revolutionary.

Most of the inhabitants of early nineteenth century industrial towns were either the children of peasants or had started life as peasants themselves. Perhaps they were carrying on a tradition of protest and revolt that subsequent decades of urban living bred out of their progeny. Certainly, by the time of the “Mid-Victorian Prosperity” the British working class seems to have become a lot less militant.

And, perhaps, early nineteenth century proletarians also carried within themselves the sense of a different order that had only recently disappeared; of the village community before all the common land was enclosed or before (thanks to high minded liberals) penury led inexorably to the workhouse.

That’s not to rhapsodise about the pre-industrial order, merely to suggest that it was , for much of the time, less overwhelmingly awful than the new conditions, so graphically described not just by Engels but by Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and all those other “Condition of England” writers.

....more to come

Victor said...

...concluding previous comments

And a further suggestion is that the inhabitants of many an early nineteenth century mining village or mill town still lived in a close-knit, familial ‘Gemeinschaft’ and were , therefore, in some respects, still peasants in ways that subsequent generations of proletarians. in rather larger conurbations, were not.

Having lived for a brief period in the warm-hearted, highly traditional and, of course, traditionally militant Gemeinschaft of a County Durham mining village, this thought has a certain resonance for me.

Alternatively, again, it might be migration and separation from the Gemeinschaft that’s the greater driver of militancy. The farmhand left West Butterfield-under-Water or wherever and migrated to Manchester, Sheffield or Rochdale. Or she clambered aboard an immigrant ship that took her half way across the world from Glasgow or Belfast to New Zealand or Australia. Or he left a Polish schtetel or an Italian latifundia for the Lower East Side of New York or the slums of Vienna or Buenos Aires.

They left all that they'd known behind them and were, for the briefest moment, free and possessed of the apparent dignity of choice and self-definition. But the choice, more often than not, proved illusory. Soon they were back in harness just to make ends meet, but in a harsher environment, without the ties of family, tradition or long established practice. You bet, he was angry! You bet she was militant!

I’m not suggesting any of these contradictory thoughts as a total answer to your question. But, I would suggest, there’s a small modicum of truth in all of them.

Jens Meder said...

If you feel yourself so poor as to "have nothing to lose", you are more easily motivated to fight for more, than when you have something to lose and protecting it becomes a priority over fighting for more.

The widening prosperity through successful trade unionism would quite naturally lead to reduced militancy for more and increasing conservatism for what has been achieved especially by those who built up some wealth ownership when earnings and jobs were good.
But those who just lived in prosperity and saved nothing, are naturally total have-nots from the moment their job is lost, with no reserves nor income from investments.

Therefore the "new capitalism" the socially concerned are searching for, could be in a systematic policy towards at least a minimally meaningful level of personal capital ownership by all citizens eventually, which is easily initiated in a humble way through resuming the $1000.- Kiwi Saver kick-starters to all who have not received it yet, but this time all-inclusively "from cradle to grave".

Together with the compulsory savings rate in the taxation system for resumed NZ Super Fund contributions, increasing wealth, jobs and earnings will result in the natural way, and the motivation to "fight" for better conditions will be transformed into just into the action of building better conditions.

greywarbler said...

A great and interesting reply from Victor thanks for experienced comment.

Another thought. Religion, and valuing yourself as being important to God and part of an ethical brotherhood (including females) was an important thing in the days of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The landlords, the wealthy, the aristocrats were not the arbiters of who was valued, God was. I have read the story of Tolpuddle and been there. The Martyrs' religion kept them strong and able to stand up to debilitating conditions and treatment, and fired their supporters back in Britain who funded and agitated for them till they were returned back to Britain and its hypocritical, godless upper class society. (Very much like today's.)

And Jens Meder, you support having a share of the capitalistic economy, which is a good argument. But more than putting money into a fund that hopefully reproduces each year providing interest accumulation, better to be able to save by putting money into one's own dwelling place. It is a most practical means of sinking one's excess earnings and using one's personal efforts for self-help. People who have a financial interest in their own home usually understand its value in financial and personal support terms and feel part of their local and national community. Superannuation funds are likely to be mostly built on symbolic returns in the financial recording system, and can be lost if it and the economy breaks down. But a well-built home will continue, solid and sheltering, if the financial system goes awry. So the answer is to help the people make their investments in their home, in the main, and pay off the mortgage quickly.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"If you feel yourself so poor as to "have nothing to lose", you are more easily motivated to fight for more, than when you have something to lose and protecting it becomes a priority over fighting for more."

The bar for "nothing to lose" is really, really low. Most poor people are apathetic. On the other hand, people seem to be easily motivated to protect what they have at the expense of others.

Victor said...


There's much that I agree with in your prognosis. The problem is, though, that we're confronting a jobs-short future. So some form of UBI seems inevitable, if we're not to face very widespread penury.

Getting people to accept an officially sponsored philosophical disconnect between work and income will be a Hurculean task, even though, in reality, there's always been something of a disconnect between the two, under both capitalism and socialism.

I don't envy the politicians whose task it will be to bite on this bullet.

jh said...

How were these lions turned into lambs?
Too homogenous? Too much like a meeting of the Klu Klux Klan?

We continue through the aisles, up into the meat section where a customer is chatting happily with one of the staff. “Have you heard English spoken so far?” says Spoonley. “Most of the language spoken here is Mandarin. Asia comes to Auckland. Asia comes to New Zealand.”

Manufacturing left low value service industries took their place, foreigners were gifted the commons: "have you seen a Kiwi bus driver yet?" Asks Spoonley gleefully.

jh said...

Here's the issue

jh said...

Nigel Latta : "Nine out of 10 want a multicultural society"
Which is why we have a Race Relations office: for that ten percent of recalcitrants?

David Stone said...

Your comment to Jens; When you consider that it's accepted that no one should be left to starve or die of exposure , we all accept that everyone who can't get work does get survival rations anyway. I don't think it should be all that hard for people to get used to the idea of UBI . The difference is really only about ensuring a satisfactory level of humiliation is handed out along with the maintenance . I think we could get over that.

Cheers D J S

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Which is why we have a Race Relations office: for that ten percent of recalcitrants? "

No, we have a race relations office for the fuckwits who can't seem to get it out of their heads that you cannot abuse people because of their race and you cannot discriminate against people because of their race. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether a society is multicultural or bicultural or monocultural. Because no matter what, there are going to be foreigners/strangers/other races. Even in Japan. And here you have managed to turn something that has actually fuck all to do with immigration into something to do with immigration.
Again. And if you weren't posting pure Breitbart/Alex Jones bullshit, I might ignore it.
You are a typical example of those working-class people who can't get their heads around the fact that there are different people in the world. Which is why you vote for idiots like Peters, (forgive me God he gave me the gold card) Trump and Le Pen. It's from you people with a sense of entitlement which seems to be slipping away, that fascist parties recruit. For Christ's sake just admit that you are a racist, and give us a rest.

Victor said...


I would hope so but have no huge confidence over this matter.

Perhaps more appetites could be whetted for UBI by emphasising that universal benefits are cheaper to administer.

In terms of Chris's post, though, a question remains as to whether we should continue to emphasise the workers' struggle when the vast majority may soon cease to be workers in the conventional sense of the word.

I don't have a set view on this question and would be interested in what Chris and others have to say.

greywarbler said...

If we allow ourselves to be lost in a jobless society, with no outside motivations many of us will gradually degrade as those do who have no task to discipline oneself to achieve. That would give more credence to those like David Seymour who seem to have little love of their fellow man and woman.

All the easier to introduce growing numbers of Artificial Intelligence machinery that will seem so clean, efficient, capable and utterly superior to the degraded human beings stumbling along drunken and smelling of vomit. All the more reason to usher us along the way to the new dens of decimation, seeing the unthinkable and unbelievable has already happened in World War 1 and 2.

France by Germans a smaller local tragedy; firing of the church full of French village people

Going to war and killing multitudes while using new modern weaponry will probably be the most valuable way of decimating the human population. The development and manufacturing of such weaponry will be an excellent investment with good returns for all the humanoids plugged into the financial system, and plugged out of the human empathy system. There must be many such Dorian Grays around.

Victor said...

Wow greywarbler!

And I thought I was a pessimist!

Not that I wholly discount your dystopian vision. Murphy and his law have a tendency to keep turning up in the affairs of our species.

With respect to UBI, perhaps it might be sensible to limit it to people over the age of, say,30.

You would thus continue to enshrine "work" and "responsibility" as ongoing parts of the human experience.