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.
Last winter’s wave of student and youth protests held many points of interest, but one of the most amusing was the Daily Mail’s pearl-clutching front page on what it chose to call Rage of the Girl Rioters, in which it claimed that ‘rioting girls became the disturbing new face of violent protest’. While the article betrayed anxieties about social protest in general, the inclusion of visible female agency occasioned a particularly salacious shock. Continue reading
Cards on the table: I am a (very) former Labour Party member, a former unaligned-far-left hack, a former student politician, and a current jaded burn-out who’s more or less lost the faith. What I’ve regained since the last election is not the faith but the fear. Seeing this government use the excuse of debt reduction to conduct a sustained assault on the welfare state’s structures and foundation is not something I can stand by and watch. The question, as ever, is how to express this opposition. Saturday saw a TUC-organised official march, fringed with unofficial peaceful protests and unofficial direct action. The discourse after demonstrations is always varying degrees of unhelpful and unrepresentative, as reportage and analysis splinter into shards of individual experience, each of which reflect only a portion of the whole. This is in no way a contribution to ongoing debate, it is merely my own record and reflection.
The black bloc on Saturday was by some accounts the biggest since J18, which made me think that, as I’ve said before, what’s happening now seems like not a revolution but a return to the protests to which I was introduced over a decade ago – the days of carnivalesque anticapitalism and reclaiming the streets. That said, I think our critique of capitalism in the early 2000s was certainly more vague, still post-Cold War, appealing more to globalising and internationalist issues of social justice and civil liberties because less immediately rooted in financial crisis – and perhaps, for the same reasons, less last-ditch and desperate than it currently seems. I don’t know, and to have a clearer idea, I’d have to get out there and see for myself.
I didn’t do a great deal of Getting Out There on Saturday. I remained with a small group of disparately aligned friends and family, massing outside Embankment tube and then crawling through Waterloo and Westminster. There were an awful lot of us. There were gorgeous trade union banners which had seen action throughout the past century. There were Banksy-esque stencils of Clement Atlee’s image. There were official placards manually-adjusted to call Nick Clegg a variety of entirely-deserved things. The Bloody Hell, That Must Have Taken Ages prize goes jointly to those carrying the huge black cube representing the income of the highest percentile of earners, to which was attached far smaller red cubes showing the relative size of the average income (I think), and those driving the miniature tank playing the theme from The Great Escape. Both of these were the best things I’d seen on a protest since the enormous papier-maché bomb labelled ‘structural readjustment’.
The only demo of comparable size I can remember – where the front of the march had walked the length of the route and reached its destination while more people were still at the back of the march, waiting to move off – was the big Iraq protest in 2003. Then as now, those marching were not homogenous, came from all over the country, and held no obvious signs of slavish adherence to the Labour leadership. Nor did I feel alone in lacking both faith in parliamentary process and any burning desire to stand for hours in Hyde Park listening to hackneyed whistling-up from the stage. Hence, by the time of our stop-off in Trafalgar Square, I opted for the pub. When the revolution comes, shoot me.
The Chandos crouches just off Trafalgar Square, and used to be the post-rally destination of most of my comrades whenever we ended up in the vicinity, largely because, unlike many pubs on or near the route of demonstrations, it had no sign on the door banning work-boots, banners and/or placards. Once inside, an illustration of how far I’ve fallen since the early 2000s was provided by there being no one I knew there apart from my old politics lecturer, who failed to recognise me, as indeed he had during most of my time at Goldsmiths. At the bar I got talking to a bloke who, like me, was a veteran of 2003’s enormous anti-war march, to which he had taken his 12 year old daughter. According to him, she’d said, impressed by the turnout, ‘they’ll have to listen to us now, won’t they?’
He told me this and rolled his eyes, as though aware of how mawkish and implausibly convenient an ending this might make to a subsequent spiel on the pointlessness of peaceful protest. But honestly, fuck irony. Politics in the last few years has got so blatantly contemptuous, so transparently indifferent, that I doubt any kid on the march on Saturday would have had that degree of faith in people power.
The Monday after the march, back at work in Soho, I went out to see the damage done. Little trace remained beyond some indistinct scrawlings on the boarded-up HSBC on Cambridge Circus and, further up the sidestreets, a circled-A in pink spraypaint on a couple of flaking black litter-bins. The slogans written on the scaffolding outside Central St Martins – ‘Make the banks pay’, ‘ACAB’, were at least making more of a stab at focused oppositional discourse. Yesterday lunchtime, more than a week on, the slogans on HSBC were invisible under daubs of white paint, the bank was open for business as usual and pretty soon the West End will look, and feel, as though nothing ever happened.
Am I glad I marched? Yes, of course. And I’m still unaligned, and I reject the notion that my lack of a membership card matters. March 26th wasn’t an attempt at revolution, and was more than a bid for space on the front page, and more than an exercise in branding. It was an act of solidarity, an attempt to demonstrate to all who watched and all who took part that no one is alone in opposing the actions of this government. And it did that, even if that’s all it did.