Sunday, 20 April 2014

Standing in rags, but standing on his feet

According to Lucy Worsley, in the trail for the BBC's current 18th Century Season,* 'The Georgians invented modern Britain.' In answer to the rhetorical question 'what have the Georgians ever done for us?', the presenters continue 'apart from':
  • giving us our daily fix of caffeine
  • the cult of celebrity
  • a taste for the opulent
  • fashion
  • benefit gigs
Fair enough, but I can't help feeling that there's something rather big missing here. Something that shaped modern life far more profoundly than any of the above. If you wanted to give it a quick name-check for a trail, you could call it 'the dependency culture.' I'm talking about the huge and lasting social changes caused by the accelerated enclosure of common land and the creation of the working class (in its broadest sense of people with no independent means of subsistence other than the sale of their labour):
The enclosures created a new organization of classes. The peasant with rights and a status, with a share in the fortunes and government of his village, standing in rags, but standing on his feet, makes way for the labourer with no corporate rights to defend, no corporate power to invoke, no property to cherish, no ambition to pursue, bent beneath the fear of his masters, and the weight of a future without hope. No class in the world has so beaten and crouching a history.
Cumulatively and within a few generations, the enclosures created a veritable army of industrial reserve labor. The displaced and disenfranchised were reduced to working for starvation wages that they supplemented through prostitution, theft, and other stigmatized or illegal means.
And that's not lifted from some web site that could be accused of Marxist or bleeding-heart liberal bias, but from Explore Freedom, a recipient of something called the Ron Paul Liberty in Media Award, no less.

There's more than one point of view among historians about whether this process was inevitable, or whether the alternative would have been even worse (small, subsistence farmers without the capital to farm in the most efficient way starving whenever a poor harvest came along), but surely the discussion of the whole enclosure / industrial revolution thing is important enough for the BBC to include in a season that's supposed to tell the story of how modern Britain was invented in the 18th Century?

Or is the (extremely topical) subject of power relations in society now deemed too controversial for the safe, controversy-averse BBC to tackle? Oh never mind, here are some fashionable aristos in fluffy wigs...
Here thou, great Anna, whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take and sometimes tea.
Begging Alexander Pope's (and Queen Anne's) pardon, people in the Eighteenth Century did far more for (and to) us than giving us a taste for opulence, celebrity and a daily fix of caffeine.

*YouTubed here if the content doesn't work in your region.


john b said...

I'm not 100% convinced that a Freemen On The Land Paulite site is any less crazy when it comes to the merits of universal agrarian penury versus industrial development, but YMMV.

Andrew King said...

Engaging with a few historical facts - e.g. that actually existing capitalism owes at least something to coercion, exploitation and legalised theft - is about as un-crazy as right libertarianism gets. Better, at least, than basing your plan for Utopia on the heroic expoits fictional characters dreamed up in an Ayn Rand fairytale.

The crazy comes when the FOTL people take the valid observation that some laws and social structures have been cobbled together by the powerful to bamboozle and cheat the powerless and stretch it to the batshit conclusion that all laws, rules and obligations are a form of opression and therefore I, personally, should be exempt from taxes, paying my mortgage, parking fines, whatever.

Talking of taking an argument to its extreme, I'm not sure that there was ever a simple, binary choice between penury versus industrial development, although I can see how such a simplification might be used as a post hoc justification for a land-grab.