In my former life as a shiftless, rootless, and economically useless humanities student, I researched and wrote on weird, failed, disreputable and consequently marginalised or forgotten moments in the history of popular resistance to industrial capitalism – food riots, rough music, cross-dressing and animal masks, legendary figureheads (Ludd, Swing, Rebecca) and the use of theatre, symbol and spectacle. My guiding principle was that eighteenth and nineteenth-century protest often contained a popular symbolic and ritual repertoire adapted for the purposes of expressing discontent, and that it also made visible an increasing conflict between established popular custom and the nascent doctrines of industrial capitalism and constitutional law. Some of what I wrote is here, though it’s not very good.
If you’ve never read about any of this then you ought, it’s great. E P Thompson’s concept of a ‘moral economy’ motivating collective social and economic protest – the idea of a continuous extra-parliamentary and extra-legal tradition based on an appeal to established popular rights, which juxtaposed natural and social justice with prevailing civil and criminal laws – still finds expression where it has to, from ‘proletarian shopping’ to the ideas of social justice expressed through ‘rough music’ in the recent kickings-off in Montreal and Quebec. I mean, one might be tempted to conclude that the increasingly visible powerlessness of the average citizen to exercise opinion by constitutional means has encouraged a return to more immediate and hands-on methods of collective bargaining.
Anyway, the Scotch Cattle – an early attempt at industrial organisation in 1820-40s south Wales – are obscure and getting obscurer: one monograph, a couple of local history articles, and minor mentions here and there, usually with audible disapproval. The Scotch Cattle tend to be dismissed in traditional histories of labour and of Wales, due to their failure to fit neatly into narratives of either the sober and respectable growth of trade unionism or the development of an orderly Welsh society. This is a large part of what interests me about them and others like them, though they are also fascinating on their own terms, being at once an obvious and logical response to the conditions of early industrial capitalism, and peculiar as fuck.
Much to my own surprise, I have an article on the Scotch Cattle published in this month’s Welsh History Review – I presume out now, or impending. My take on them is that they are a hybrid movement, representing the attempts by workers to transfer their accustomed techniques of pre-industrial protest – yer basic charivari – to the untested environment of the south Welsh coalfield in its wild and brutalising stage of development (in Gwyn A. Williams’ useful phrase, its ‘frontier years’). Divorced from their original context and the social relations on which they depended, these techniques were open to mutation and fragmentation, and their effective operation was no longer guaranteed, with less than hilarious consequences.
That’s what my research has led me to conclude, at least. Throw in proto-class war, contested constructions of masculinity, and the old ritualised ultraviolence, and you’ll be unsurprised to learn that my application for AHRC funding got turned down three years on the trot.