The Shuttle Exchanged For The Sword

The following piece was originally published in Issue 2 of Dark Mountain back in 2011. This edited version appears in the new Dark Mountain anthology, Walking On Lava (Chelsea Green 2017). I am publishing it here in part because somebody I greatly admire has asked if there is an online version to share, but also because reading it again has reminded me of a dream I once had; a dream which we are beginning to make flesh down at Bentley Urban Farm. I hope you enjoy it…

The Shuttle Exchanged For The Sword

Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood

His feats I but little admire

I will sing the Achievements of General Ludd

Now the hero of Nottinghamshire

– Anon, from the files of the Home Office

If you should someday visit York Castle, you will encounter the romanticised celebration of the life of one John Palmer, a violent thief and murderer whose early exploits include the pistol-whipping and torture of a 70-year-old man, and the aiding and abetting of the rape of two women. Palmer is better known today for his later exploits, and by his real name: Richard Turpin.

The Dick Turpin of popular imagination was formed by Richard Bayes’ semi-fictional biography, The Genuine History of the Life of Richard Turpin, the noted Highwayman. This account of Turpin’s exploits was hurriedly published in 1739, shortly after Turpin was hanged for horse-theft. Biographies of condemned villains were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries and a known murderer and horse-thief was considered the worst criminal imaginable.

Bayes’ described Turpin as a highwayman, but this was not his reputation in his own lifetime (when he was better known as ‘Turpin the Butcher’). This encouraged later authors to further embellish Turpin’s exploits. In his 1834 novel, Rockwood, William Harrison Ainsworth gives Turpin his legendary horse, Black Bess; in fact, a borrowing from a famous story of the highwayman John Nevison, who was said to have ridden the 200 miles from Kent to York non-stop, in order to establish an alibi for a crime he had committed. In Ainsworth’s novel, Turpin has Black Bess gallop overnight from London to York, where his beloved mare promptly dies of exhaustion. The story of Turpin and Bess was so well received that it became popular fodder for the Penny Dreadfuls of the 19th century, and thus a powerful (but inaccurate and exaggerated) legend was born.

On 16th January 1813, some three quarters of a century after Turpin was hanged, another 14 lives would end on the gallows at York Castle. The crimes for which these young men died would be recorded variously as ‘riot, breaking and entering and attempting to demolish William Cartwright’s water mill (for finishing cloth by machinery)’. Unlike Turpin, their actions were motivated by more than greed – indeed, it was the greed of other men that sent them to their deaths. But no gravestone, plaque or waxwork exhibit marks the passing of their lives. Instead, their legacy is a shallow, overused and inappropriate insult thrown around by champions of the myth of inevitable, beneficent industrial progress.

*

Today, the word Luddite has become one of those tame insults which are used to suggest the superiority of the user without being deemed overly offensive to the intended recipient. In his ‘Tips for Transhumanist Activists’ (transhumanists study and promote opportunities for enhancing the human organism, and thereby the human condition, through the use of technology), Michael Anissimov says:

Don’t use harsh, insulting, unkind words to describe people who disagree with your views. … Using words like ‘stupid’, ‘ignorant’, and ‘daft’ smack of elitism, and reflect negatively on the speaker, only making it clear to everyone that their brain is firmly stuck within the pathology of name-calling and tribalistic thinking. If we must use some sort of adjective to describe the people we think are our ‘opponents’, then ‘Luddite’ should do.

The implication is that the Luddites were not only opposed to new technology, but were ‘stupid’, ‘ignorant’ and ‘daft’ to hold such a position. This attitude is not unusual: even academics are prone to treating the historical Luddites as little more than a naïve and reactionary backlash against the inevitability of change. As Eric Hobsbawm observed 60 years ago:

[A]n excellent work … can still describe Luddism simply as a ‘pointless, frenzied, industrial Jacquerie’, and an eminent authority, who has contributed more than most to our knowledge of it, passes over the endemic rioting of the eighteenth century with the suggestion that it was the overflow of excitement and high spirits. … In much of the discussion of machine-breaking one can still detect the assumption of nineteenth-century middle-class economic apologists, that the workers must be taught not to run their heads against economic truth, however unpalatable; of Fabians and Liberals, that strong-arm methods in labour action are less effective than peaceful negotiation; of both, that the early labour movement did not know what it was doing, but merely reacted, blindly and gropingly, to the pressure of misery, as animals in the laboratory react to electric currents. The conscious views of most students may be summed up as follows: the triumph of mechanization was inevitable.

The truth about the Luddites was very different. Far from being a naïve, disorganised mob, they were highly-skilled independent craftsmen whose way of life had been under attack for decades.

The story of the men hanged at York had begun a little over a year earlier, in the village of Bulwell, four miles north of the city of Nottingham. In the north of England, the night of 4th November is traditionally known as ‘Mischief Night’ because children were allowed to play tricks on the rest of the community – much like the American tradition of Trick or Treat – and it was on that night in 1811 that a band of men with blackened faces marched through the streets of Bulwell to the workshop of a master weaver named Hollingsworth, whom they said ‘had rendered himself obnoxious to the workmen.’ Armed with a variety of hammers, axes, pitchforks and pistols, the men forced entry into Hollingsworth’s premises and smashed up a half-dozen wide-lace-frames – new machines which were said to do the work of many men in a fraction of the time.

Not content with their actions, the men returned on the following Sunday night to finish the job, but this time Hollingsworth had a team of gunmen lying in wait. A young weaver by the name of John Wesley (or Westley) from the nearby village of Arnold was shot as he tried to gain entry to the premises. With his dying breath, he exclaimed, ‘Proceed, my brave fellows, I die with a willing heart!’ This so enraged the mob that they pushed forward, regardless of the gunfire. Hollingsworth’s gunmen fled and the workshop was burnt to the ground.

On the same night, other frames were destroyed in nearby Kimberley, with similar attacks taking place throughout the surrounding areas on the following Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights. On the Thursday, the body of John Wesley was carried through the streets of Arnold by a procession of a thousand men. They were met by six armed magistrates, a company of mounted Dragoon guards, a local militia, and a posse of volunteer constables. One of the magistrates read the Riot Act, whereby people were supposed to disperse under threat of immediate arrest. The procession ignored him, and after a scuffle many of them were taken into custody. But if the authorities thought that this might put an end to the matter, they couldn’t have been more wrong; Nottinghamshire erupted.

Despite the presence of thousands of troops, over 800 looms were broken in Nottinghamshire during the final months of 1811. And each act of resistance, so it was claimed, had been conceived and conducted under the order of one man. As Kirkpatrick Sale tells the story, in Rebels Against the Future:

It was now that anonymous letters explaining the causes of the machine breaking and threatening more of it started appearing throughout the district, mailed to or slipped under the doors of hated hosiers, sent to local newspapers, or posted in the night on public boards – ‘many hundreds’ of them … reported one manufacturer. All announced that a new concerted movement was afoot; all were signed by, or invoked the name of Edward (Ned) Ludd, ‘King,’ ‘Captain in Chief,’ or ‘General.’ … Luddism had begun.

There has been much speculation as to the origins of the name, but the most popular theory also seems to be the most likely. Edward Ludd (or Ludlum) is said to have been a boy from the village of Anstey, just outside Leicester. In 1779 he was employed as a weaver’s apprentice, but was beaten for ‘idleness’ by his master. Not much caring for being whipped like a dog, young Ned took a hammer to two of his master’s knitting frames and ‘beat them into a heap’. From then on, whenever anyone damaged a loom, whether by accident or with malicious intent, it was common to say, ‘Ned Ludd did it’. We cannot know the truth behind this story, but we do know that 1779 marked the beginning of the end of the traditional weaving trade. In the closing years of the 18th century, the weaver’s way of life came under threat, not only from the introduction of new technology, but also from the newly emerging capitalist approach to production. Sale depicts this vividly:

Lancashire, say 1780:

The workshop of the weaver was a rural cottage, from which when he was tired of sedentary labour he could sally forth into his little garden, and with the spade or the hoe tend its culinary productions. The cotton wool which was to form his weft was picked clean for him by the fingers of his younger children, and was carded and spun by the older girls assisted by his wife, and the yarn was woven by himself assisted by his sons. When he could not procure within his family a supply of yarn adequate to the demands of his loom, he had recourse to the spinsters of his neighbourhood. One good weaver could keep three active women at work upon the wheel, spinning weft [although] he was often obliged to treat the females with presents in order to quicken their diligence at the wheel.

 

Lancashire, say 1814:

There are hundreds of factories in Manchester which are five or six storeys high. At the side of each factory there is a great chimney which belches forth black smoke and indicates the presence of powerful steam engines. The smoke from the chimneys forms a great cloud which can be seen for miles around the town. The houses have become black on account of the smoke … To save wages mule jennies have actually been built so that no less than 600 spindles can be operated by one adult and two children. Two mules, each with 300 spindles, face each other. The carriages of these machines are moved in one direction by steam and in the other direction by hand. This is done by an adult worker who stands between two mules. Broken threads are repaired by children (piecers) who stand either side of the mules … In the large spinning mills machines of different kinds stand in rows like regiments in an army.

As Sale writes, this was an alteration ‘to dwarf even the considerable upheavals’ of the previous centuries, including the enclosure of land which brought the loss of commons and enforced urbanisation. In the first issue of Dark Mountain, Simon Fairlie demonstrated that a significant part of the population either made a good living directly from the commons or depended on them to meet their needs when times were hard. If you had free and open access to food, grazing pasture and wood for shelter and fuel, then you did not have to be at the constant beck and call of farmers, proprietors and landowners. Indeed, many labourers and artisans worked only as long as was needed to ensure that the immediate needs of their families were met; the idea of working to the clock for extra income would have seemed somewhat ludicrous. Time was not yet seen as a commodity – and in the complaints of would-be employers, there is plenty of evidence of the way that this degree of autonomy and self-sufficiency limited the possibilities for exploiting workers.

It wasn’t just family ties that were closer thanks to pre-capitalist production methods, community life benefited as well. Of the weaving communities, E. P. Thompson writes:

In one sense these communities were certainly ‘backward’ – they clung with equal tenacity to their dialect traditions and regional customs and to gross medical ignorance and superstitions. But the closer we look at their way of life, the more inadequate simple notions of economic progress and ‘backwardness’ appear. Moreover there was certainly a leaven amongst the northern weavers of self-educated and articulate men of considerable attainments. Every weaving district had its weaver-poets, biologists, mathematicians, musicians, geologists, botanists … [T]here are accounts of weavers in isolated villages who taught themselves geometry by chalking on their flagstones, and who were eager to discuss the differential calculus. In some kinds of plain work with strong yarn a book could actually be propped on the loom and read at work.

Robbed of their traditional land-rights, the newly dominant mercantile classes were seeking to take full advantage of the increased reliance of the artisans and peasantry on the wage-labour system. To see the Luddite moment clearly, we need to remember that the mythologies which shape the attitudes and actions of a culture – including, in our case, the belief in wage-labour, the work ethic, proprietary ownership, profit and progress – had to be invented, developed, endorsed and enforced. The patterns of life we now consider normal could only come to dominate at the expense of traditional beliefs. And so the industrial revolution brought with it new attitudes towards work which would prove as devastating to communal life as enclosure itself.

*

By January 1812, the area north of Nottingham was awash with troops sent from around the country. Armed deployments on this scale were unprecedented and the local population lived in fear. The Nottingham Annual Register of 1812 records this: ‘It is impossible to convey a proper idea of the state of the public mind in this town during … the constant parading of the military in the night, and their movements in various directions both night and day, giving us the appearance of a state of warfare.’ As so often, when forced to choose between trade and people, the government treated the Luddites as a direct enemy of the state (what Margaret Thatcher would have described as ‘the enemy within’). On 14th February, the Tory government introduced a bill to make loom-breaking punishable by death. When the bill was read in the House of Lords, it was received with one of the most eloquent and impassioned speeches in British parliamentary history; understandable, given that the man delivering it was Lord Byron.

Byron’s speech was loaded with sarcastic references as to the ‘benefits’ of progress. He questioned the inferior quality of the items produced through automation when compared to similar items produced by the hands of artisans. He argued that the men in question had never had a fair hearing from the government (three petitions from some 80,000 weavers had been delivered to parliament in the build-up to the events of 1811), and that the area could have easily been restored to ‘tranquillity … had proper meeting been held in the earlier stages of the riots.’ Instead, ‘your Dragoons and executioners must be let loose against your fellow citizens … Can you commit a whole country to their own prisons? Will you erect a gibbet in every field and hang up men like scarecrows? … Are these remedies for a starving and desperate populace?’

Capital and the state, those two inseparable aspects of what William Cobbett called ‘The Thing’, are driven by profit and power, and impervious to arguments based on knowledgeable reason or impassioned intuition. And so, somewhat predictably, the bill was passed into law.

Those arrested in November and December were exempt from the death penalty, but were instead transported to Australia. One of the men singled out as a ‘ringleader’, 22 year old William Carnell, was described as having ‘the merit of protecting the occupier of the House, an old man of 70 from any personal violence’ – in contrast to Turpin’s pistol-whipping exploits.

The strong military presence and the threat of judicial murder appeared to have an immediate effect on the local population, with only 30 frames being broken in February compared to over 300 in January. From this point, frame-breaking in Nottinghamshire became less frequent, although 1812 saw regular food riots in the area, themselves a byproduct of the hardship created by the introduction of mechanical looms. But this was by no means the end of General Ludd’s war.

On 12th January 1812, a finishing machine was destroyed in Leeds, and on 15th January, the city’s magistrates raided a meeting of men with ‘blackened faces’. Then, on the morning of Sunday 19th January, the finishing mill of Oates, Woods and Smithson, just north of Leeds, was found to be ablaze. Yorkshire, it seemed, was in the thrall of King Ludd. On 9th February, he extended his reign, when the Manchester warehouse of the textile manufacturing firm Haigh, Marshal & Co. was set on fire, destroying the machine-manufactured cloth stored inside.

When we consider the hell that the industrial revolution had unleashed, it is small wonder that the thoughts and actions of the Luddites found fertile ground in the smoke-blackened streets of these northern cities. Having borne the brunt of industrialisation for three decades, they knew better than most what factories and machines could do to the welfare of the local population. In living memory, the greater part of a well-fed peasantry and relatively prosperous artisans had been reduced to a powerless, starving proletariat – and all in the name of progress.

As the Luddite influence moved north, it became clear that far from being reactionary, the Luddites were an insurrectionary movement. In Yorkshire and Lancashire they became more highly disciplined and more overtly political than before. Here, for the first time, there is evidence of oath-taking; oaths were considered so serious that an echo of the practice can still be found in the modern judicial process, where witnesses swear on the Bible. Under British law, the act of oath-taking was punishable by transportation, no matter which cause was being pledged or who was involved. In Luddite circles, taking an oath was known as ‘twisting-in’, a reference to the twisting of separate threads to form a single, stronger yarn. This sworn bond was strengthened by military-style, night-time drills, with reports of ‘midnight drills’, ‘the mysterious tramp of feet’ and ‘mysterious shots in the moors’ reaching the House of Lords committee which carried out an investigation into Luddism later that year. As the focus shifted to larger factories, the scale of the Luddite activities led to a ratcheting of the levels of violence.

On the night of 12th April 1812, an armed band of over a hundred Yorkshiremen made their way to Rawfolds Mill, a factory owned by the hated William Cartwright. Inside the mill stood 50 steam-powered finishing machines which had put at least 200 croppers out of work. Also inside was Cartwright himself, along with four armed workers and five soldiers from the Cumberland militia. The factory was built like a fortress, with an ingenious system of pulleys and flagstones that allowed marksmen to take aim from the second floor whilst remaining concealed and protected from gunfire themselves.

As they arrived at the factory, several men came forward and used hatchets and blacksmith’s Enoch hammers to break down the outer gates, which fell ‘with a fearful crash, like the felling of great trees.’ Spurred on by this, the men rushed forward and began to smash the factory windows. Then the gunfire started. Despite one Cumberland militiaman refusing to fire ‘because I might hit one of my brothers’ – for which Cartwright would have him publicly flogged outside the mill on 21st April – volley after volley was fired into the assembled crowd. Undeterred, the men took their hammers to the inner doors; but tight metal studs deeply embedded in the timbers made progress painfully slow. All the while, an alarm bell rang out from the rooftop. A cavalry brigade was stationed at nearby Huddersfield and the men must have known that time was against them, but still they hammered at those doors.

John Booth, a saddler’s apprentice and clergyman’s son, was first to be shot, his leg shattered by a musket ball. A blacksmith named Jonathan Dean was then wounded in the hand as he wielded his hammer. Knowing the game was up, the Luddites began to retreat, but as they withdrew Samuel Hartley, a 24 year old cropper, was hit in the chest. The men had little choice but to leave the wounded Booth and Hartley where they lay, if they were to have a hope of avoiding capture themselves.

Both men were still alive when Cartwright emerged from the mill, but he refused them aid until they gave up the names of their comrades. They refused. Booth died at six in the morning; Hartley survived until the next day. Others must have received mortal wounds that night, for a local minister, Reverend Patrick Brontë (father to the great novelist sisters) records that two days after the event he came across a group of known Luddites burying two corpses in the corner of his churchyard.

Following the failed attack on Cartwright’s mill, and with the despised West Riding magistrate Joseph Radcliffe (famed for ordering poor and orphaned children as young as seven to work in the local factories) ‘scouring the district for Luds’, the Huddersfield Luddites began to target smaller, less well-defended premises. But the large manufacturers were still regarded as the real enemy, so a new tactic came into being.

On 18th April, an attempt was made on the life of William Cartwright. Shots were fired, but he was unhurt. Ten days later William Horsfall, owner of Ottiwells Mills, who famously declared that he ‘would ride up to his saddle girths in Luddite Blood’, was ambushed by four men as he rode home. Horsfall was shot in the thigh and died later that night of his wounds. It is widely accepted that this murder marked a turning point for the Luddite rebellion; support for their cause, previously widespread, began to dwindle in light of this murder. George Mellor (a 24-year-old cropper who would also be cited as one of the ringleaders in the attack on Cartwright’s mill), William Thorpe and Thomas Smith would hang for the murder of William Horsfall on Friday 8th January, 1813.

The first Luddite executions, however, took place in June 1812, over the Pennines in Manchester. Indeed, Lancashire and Cheshire saw the greatest loss of life during the whole rising. At the end of April, a series of food riots erupted in Manchester and the surrounding towns of Bolton, Rochdale, Oldham and Ashton. Similar riots, and some loom-breaking, took place in the north Derbyshire village of Tintwistle and the Cheshire village of Gee Cross – where one man, later deported for his actions, wore a paper hat bearing the words ‘General Ludd’.

The unrest came to a head on 20th April in the town of Middleton, 10 miles north of Manchester. A crowd gathered in Wood Street, at the steam-powered calico printing factory owned by Daniel Burton & Sons. The crowd threw stones at the factory windows, and in response a volley of shots was fired from somewhere within the factory. Somebody in the crowd said that they were only firing blanks, and the stoning continued. But the rounds were live, and four men, Daniel Knott, Joseph Jackson, George Albinson and John Siddall, were shot dead.

The next day the enraged crowd returned, bent on avenging the blood of their fellows, to find a troop of Cumberland militia posted outside the factory. Instead of attacking it directly, they responded by ransacking the cottages of men who worked at the factory, and burnt Emmanuel Burton’s stately mansion to the ground. They intended to do the same to Daniel Burton’s property, but cavalry troops turned up and started firing into the crowd. At least four men died that day, but there were also several reports of bodies being found in the woods in the following weeks.

On 24th May, 58 defendants were brought to trial in Lancaster in association with the food riots, loom-breaking and attacks on property that had taken place throughout April. The trial resulted in eight hangings, 17 transportations and 13 imprisonments. On the same day a ‘Special Commission’ was held in Chester to deal with more of the rioters and Luddites. Here 15 men were condemned to death, eight transported and five imprisoned. On 12th June, eight of the Luddites convicted in Lancaster were hanged in Manchester. None were repentant. Three days later, two Luddites convicted in Chester marched to their place of execution, ‘followed by an immense crowd of people’.

The ‘Luddite triangle’ was now flooded with troops; some 6,900 in Lancashire and Cheshire as well as 4,000 in Yorkshire. The magistrates had dozens of spies working in the areas known to be sympathetic to the cause, and the government had sent a clear message that Luddism was now punishable by death. In the face of all this, the Yorkshire Luddites began to raid any properties which were known to store arms, for the Luddites were amassing weaponry. Was the insurrection about to turn into full scale revolution?

We shall never know. The government had seen the benefits of its tactics in Lancashire and was determined to repeat this success in Yorkshire. By December 1812, on the evidence of paid spies and some very questionable witnesses, 64 men had been arrested and held for trial at York Castle. Of these 64, only seven would be acquitted. Fourteen men were transported and 26 were imprisoned. The aforementioned Mellor, Thorpe and Smith were executed on 8th January 1813 and 14 more men – with an average age of 25 – were sentenced to die at York castle on 16th January.

Of their execution it has been written:

The criminal records of Yorkshire do not, perhaps, afford an instance of so many victims having been offered, in one day, to the injured laws of the country. The scene was inexpressibly awful, and the large body of soldiers, both horse and foot, who guarded the approach to the castle, and were planted in front of the fatal tree, gave the scene a peculiar degree of horror.

*

That was the end of the Luddite rising. There was still some recorded Luddite activity in the months and years following the York trial, but with a marked change in motives. Prior to 1813, the Luddites had fought to save an autonomous, communal way of life based on self-sufficiency and skilled craftsmanship. Later loom-breaking incidents were almost exclusively centred around disputes regarding levels of pay.

This marks the beginning of a shift in forms of resistance. Put simply, pre-modern resistance was a fight against enclosure: a battle to save independent, self-sufficient ways of life from destruction and to prevent the industrial machine from enslaving the people. Modern industrial unrest was a battle waged after this war had been lost. Now, the focus was on justice for the proletarian victims of the Industrial Revolution: better wages, better living conditions, the right for factory workers to form unions, the right to be looked after by a beneficent state.

Despite the wars and revolutions that cost millions of human lives, every dominant ideology of the 20th century had at its heart the powerful Western industrial mythologies of progress, the work ethic, profit and growth. In Europe, the only revolution to offer any hope of something different was that of Spain in 1936. The Spanish peasantry of the time still lived the kind of autonomous, self-sufficient lives that the northern English weavers had enjoyed until the end of the 17th century. They were, to put it bluntly, far less domesticated than their counterparts in the urbanised, industrialised proletariat. So, when anarchist-inspired ideas of a free society – free that is from hierarchy, economic inequality and exploitation – were introduced to their communities, they were largely welcomed because they were already being practised.

Today, in the West, the ideas that the Luddites fought for look prehistoric. Our societies have been remade in the image of capital so that it is hard to talk about concepts like self-sufficiency, independence and the land without being immediately dismissed by progressives on right and left as Romantics – not to mention, ‘Luddites’. Elsewhere, these ideas still have some purchase. Arguably, the only viable alternatives to the dominant progressive ideology are peasant-based movements like Brazil’s Movimento sem Terra (MST), Mexico’s EZLN (Zapatistas), South Africa’s  Landless People’s Movement or India’s Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee. They question the standard mythology of an increasingly global civilisation and offer something different to the usual progressive rhetoric. The land-based movements of the 21st century may have little hope of becoming a worldwide revolution – at least within the time-scale dictated by catastrophic climate change or peak oil – but these communities may yet prove the most resilient in the face of an unfolding collapse.

In countries like Britain and the United States, it may be too late to emulate the Luddites, but we can take some lessons from the rebellion of the weavers and apply them to our times.

This should start with accepting that the Luddites were right. Cobbett’s Thing, the state-industrial nexus, is now the dominant force in the world and its mythology shapes the times we live in. Today, the mill owners are global brands. According to the stories they tell us, this should mean that we all benefit from the bounty their markets give us. But a global perspective makes it clear that this is far from the case, and even within the industrialised world, we can ask how free and satisfied we are within our enclosure. And all of this is before we come to the ecocide unleashed on the non-human world by the industrial machine.

The Luddites did not see all of this coming, but they understood all too well the consequences for their families and their way of life. Their story offers us a realistic assessment of the powerful, perhaps unstoppable nature of the global industrial machine, but also an understanding of the role of technology in our lives. For despite the current use of the word, the Luddites were not motivated by a mindless rejection of new technology.

Reflex resistance to technology and its mindless embrace are two sides of the same coin, neither especially helpful. I actually have a lot of time for Anissimov’s Transhumanists, in that I share their belief that our species can be made ‘better by design’. What I don’t share is their assumption about what this means. Improving the human lot through the use of technology is not going to be achieved through a combination of surveillance cameras and warheads, nor through nuclear power stations and carbon capture, nor a Singularity in which those who can afford to pay for it become immortal semi-robots.

Instead, it’s going to mean developing and using human-scale technologies which can augment our liberty and self-sufficiency rather than enslaving us to a grid. It’s going to mean handlooms rather than wide-frames; control by the people rather than control of them. The best way to avoid being controlled by technology is to be in control of the technology you use.

This is already becoming a reality. On the many websites which encourage a little technical tinkering, you’ll find that a combination of free and open information, Open Source software, reduced material costs, high volumes of useful waste, and micro-innovations are making it possible to develop and create projects at home – from bicycle trailers to slow cookers to mini robots – that would have needed highly specialised multi-million-dollar factories just a few years ago. The amazing Afrigadget site chronicles stories of creative individuals who build a range of tools from next to nothing. (Frederick Msiska, a peasant farmer from Malawi built a mobile phone charger from his toilet and some leaves.)

In other words, we are approaching a position where it may be possible to create once again an infrastructure built upon localised, craft- orientated, community-based, ecologically-sensitive production techniques – in other words, to return to something like the pre-capitalist idea of the cottage industry which the Luddites fought so hard to defend. It’s a world in which not only is it easier to work in and from your home, but it is easier to work away from the growth-addicted world of capitalist production. With a renaissance in traditional crafts, could the artisan yet return from the brink of extinction, even as progressive civilisation itself begins to tip over the brink?

Writing of the legacy of the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s, John Michael Greer says:

The appropriate tech movement, with some exceptions, tended to avoid the kind of high-cost, high-profile eco-chic projects so common today. Much of it focused instead on simple technologies that could be put to work by ordinary people without six-figure incomes … Most of these technologies were evolved by basement-shop craftspeople and small nonprofits working on shoestring budgets, and ruthlessly field-tested by thousands of people who built their own versions in their backyards and wrote about the results in the letters column of Mother Earth News … The resulting toolkit was a remarkably well integrated, effective, and cost-effective set of approaches that individuals, families, and communities could use to sharply reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and the industrial system in general.

Such a toolkit is needed again, and is starting to appear, in response to the crisis of consumer civilisation. I see at least some spark of a hopeful future in the development, practice and sharing of what I call ADApT (Anticipatory Design and Appropriate Technology) initiatives, which help us to distance ourselves from the corporate leviathan and restore some of the freedom of action and creativity that the Luddites went to their graves to protect.

In memory of

James Haigh, Jonathan Dean, John Ogden, Thomas Brook, John Walker, John Swallow, John Batley, Joseph Fisher, Job Hey, James Hey, John Hill, William Hartley, Joseph Crowther and Nathan Hoyle.

Murdered in the name of Progress on 16th January, 1813.

 

 

Bibliography

Warren Draper, ‘The Work Aesthetic’, The Idler No.44 (2011).

Simon Fairlie, ‘The tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons’, Dark Mountain: Issue 1 (Dark Mountain Project, 2010).

John Michael Greer, Green Wizardry (New Society, 2013)

Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Machine Breakers’, Past & Present 1 (1952).

Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future: Lessons for the Computer Age (Quartet Books Ltd, 1996).

E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin Books, 1980).

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The Echo of The Voiceless Pt 3: The Song of The Voiceless

song of the voiceless

故曰:知彼知己,百戰不殆;不知彼而知己,一勝一負;不知彼,不知己,每戰必殆。

So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even if you have a hundred battles.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

These are the wise words of military strategist Sun Tzu, taken from his classic work, The Art of War. It is, of course, the quote from which we get the saying: “Know your enemy.”

As well as knowing our enemy, Sun Tzu’s advice suggests that we have a distinct strategic advantage if our own true nature remains unknown by that enemy. Stealth. Duplicity. Secrecy. These are powerful tools. Which is why bureaucracies of any political flavour are so afraid of privacy. It is also why neoliberalism is so powerful. As George Monbiot put it in an essay for the Guardian earlier this year:

[Neoliberalism’s] anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalysed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?

Neoliberalism has successfully subverted our economic, democratic and cultural mechanisms of power (and even, with increasingly normalised neoliberal attitudes in many supposed alternative political movements, the traditional mechanisms used in the fight against such power). This has allowed the neoliberals to become a virtually unquestioned political force. It didn’t take tanks in the street. It didn’t take an armed coup. It didn’t take a mass movement. It didn’t even take votes from a majority of the people (although ‘democracy’ is regularly used to justify the actions of neoliberals). As world-shattering (quite literally) as it has become, neoliberalism was not so much an act of revolution as an act of subversion. It could be argued that neoliberalism was the world’s first dominant polity hack.

I described the economic and political dis-empowerment of the working class in part one and part two of this series. For a more in-depth understanding of the global rise of neoliberalsim – and subsequent dismantling of democratic processes – I would recommend viewing Noam Chomsky’s “Requiem for the American Dream(if you have a Netflix account, it is currently available to download in the documentary section). Don’t worry about your personal political persuasion (unless, of course, you’re avowed neoliberal), this film highlights the key roles political institutions on both the right and the left  played in the rise of inequity and the demise of democracy.

As I mentioned in the last post in this series, I believe that cultural dis-empowerment is the most important aspect of the rise of neoliberalism. Not just because it proved instrumental in the political abandonment of the former Labour heartlands, but because it points to a form of power which holds the key to weakening, and perhaps even reversing, neoliberalism’s grip.

If neoliberalism was the world’s first polity hack, then the cultural dis-empowerment of working class communities can perhaps be seen as the world’s first Democratic Denial Of Society (DDoS) attack. Since the seventies we have seen a sustained and growing form of political exclusion which targets those whose lives lie furthest from the neoliberal ideal. Whereas the judicial system was used to discourage (and, in some cases, even outlaw) outsider and/or alternative lifestyles, much more subtle forms of subjugation were used against those communities which were part of the ‘normal’ world, but which had been deemed economically undesirable by the architects of neoliberalism.

Anti-union legislation was, of course, used to dis-arm and discourage dissent in the former industrial heartlands (along with New Labour’s effective criminalising of childhood through the introduction of ASBOs and other ‘anti-social behaviour laws’), but it was what we might call ‘counter-narrative strategies’ which ultimately proved to be the most effective form of control.

Humans are story-dwellers. Like it or not our lives are shaped, organised, driven and controlled by human-created narratives. Some people are offended when their worldview is described as a ‘story’, but that is only because we are prone to undervaluing the power and importance of the narrative as the central organising principle of the human mind.

Everything we do is guided by linguistic maps which are either a product of our own internal monologue (immediate experience) or shared cultural dialogue (socialised norms and values) – or a combination thereof. The problems arise, much to the annoyance of Alfred Korzybski, when we mistake the map for the territory.

Although I would like to believe that I personally favour stories which are testable, and therefore fluid in nature, I am painfully aware that life is too short and too complex to ever fully escape the influence of the dominant (…and ghosts of the previously dominant…) metanarratives. It is a dangerous vanity to think ourselves free of narratives, meta or otherwise, the best we can hope to do is not take our own stories too seriously and never, ever try to inflict them upon one another. Or, as we are currently  doing when it comes to the planet’s climate, inflict our maps upon the actual territory.

Neoliberalism, of course, claims to have transcended the metanerrative. Post-modernism, we are told, is the pinnacle of human existence where we no longer needs stories (dreams) of a better world. But anyone who has seen The Usual Suspects knows full well the trick that neoliberalism has been pulling for decades…

Rather than market itself as yet another ideology in an already crowded sea of isms, neoliberalism sought instead to strengthen its hand by undermining those values which run contrary to its own narrative. Things like solidarity, compassion, justice, autonomy or mutual aid are an anathema to the Gordon Gekko-esque gods of neoliberalism. Small wonder then that the working class and their backward notion of ‘community’ were a prime target.

Never mind the obviously dangerous metanarratives like communism or Marxism, Thatcher told us point blank that “there is no such thing as society.” Society FFS! As if the fact that we’re genetically pre-determined highly social primate can be wished away just because it is inconvenient to some anally retentive ideologues. No more metanarratives my arse!

As the narrative – and accompanying norms – of neoliberalism took a hold in the minds of those who help spread the narrative (to understand how dominant ideologies are unconsciously reinforced by people whose careers rely on being able to not to ask the right questions I would recommend reading David Edwards‘ 2000 book, Free to be Human) the mainstream media became ever more critical of traditionally working class communities and their cultural narratives.

This attack on working class culture was at its height during the noughties. This was a time we might call the ‘Little Britain’ era, due to the fact that ‘comedies’ such as these were instrumental in shaking off the last vestiges of the salt-of-the earth narrative which had come to prominence through the industrial era. The following semi-literate tirade aimed at my hometown of Bentley, Doncaster is not untypical of the kind of classism which was everywhere at the time:

Driving around Bentley is like a safari because everywhere you go chavs and chavettes are all over the place getting upto allsorts. Even on the shockingly disgusting buses (63) that are provided there are chavs, gypos, etc everywhere. Because of large chav and teenage pregnancy numbers the buses run every 5 mins.

This kind of abuse was at the more extreme (and extremely stupid…) end of the spectrum, but it is representative of a mainstream shift towards ever growing degrees of classim, poor-blaming and economic bigotry. Owen Jones‘ 2011 book, Chavs, looks at this process in greater detail than I can describe here.

Poorer working class communities are far from perfect (show me a community which is), but they are not the vile, racist, ignorant, benefit-scrounging cesspools which the media would have you believe (a media which was itself sickeningly racist not so very long ago).

Classism and the misrepresentation of working class communities are important factors that must be addressed, but the destruction of once dearly held narratives is also damaging in other, often more immediate, ways. The collapse of a central worldview or narrative can lead to actual mental and physical trauma. When this happens on a national scale then it is the people most invested in the dominant narrative, rather than the weak, the old or the young (who are already removed by some degree from the dominant story), who suffer the most. As Dougald Hine puts it:

In one of his darkly observant essays on the fall of the Soviet Union and its lessons for present-day America, Dmitri Orlov advises against being a successful middle-aged man :

When their career is suddenly over, their savings gone and their property worthless, much of their sense of self-worth goes as well. They tend to drink themselves to death and commit suicide in disproportionate numbers. Since they tend to be the most experienced and capable people, this is a staggering loss to society. (Reinventing Collapse, p.122-3)

The spike in mortality that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union has few parallels in history. Between 1987 and 1994, life expectancy dropped from 70 to 64, and the group whose likelihood of dying increased most sharply was, indeed, working age men. In other words, despite the material hardships of the period, it was not the weakest and most vulnerable who died in greater numbers, but the physically strong: what was most deadly about the collapse was not the disappearance of the means of staying alive, but the lack of ends for which to stay alive.

This passage was taken from a piece Dougald posted on Edgeryder‘s which is entitled The Regeneration of Meaning. The title itself hints at the work which needs to be done if we are to reverse the damage done by neoliberalism.

Despite the overarching and domineering reach of the neoliberal narrative the situation we currently find ourselves in is not inevitable. It is not a product of ‘human nature’ or ‘natural law’. It is as much a human construct as the former Soviet Union, Kim Jong-un’s North Korea or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Why do we always find it so easy to see the fiction of other people’s stories whilst we treat our own with such unquestioning and undeserved reverence?

Neoliberalism has become the most widespread and domineering metanarrative of them all. Because the technological, scientific and social advances made during it’s reign have been so beneficial to so many people we have mistakenly seen this as a construct of a benign system. But such advances are not a product of the dominant narrative. Indeed the dominant narrative now sits as the greatest obstacle to humans fully enjoying the fruits of their own labour.

The majority of people now live healthier, wealthier and safer lives than at any previous point in human history. But a general rise in the standard of living conditions has also conversely seen a meteoric rise in levels of anxiety, depression, suicide and boredom. What we’re seeing is people who have conquered material needs now succumbing to a lack of meaning in their lives.

Much of this has to do with the unprecedented levels of economic inequality that neoliberalism has produced. Kate Pickett & Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level provides all the scientific data we need to help us understand how dangerous socioeconomic inequity truly is – and how beneficial equity is to society as a whole. But there is also a crisis of meaning created by the lack of humanity, creativity, compassion and cooperation which neoliberalism has left in its wake.

Neoliberalism cannot provide the answers we need. It’s faux-caring ‘sharing economy’ has so far proved itself to be more of the same; as the recent Deliveroo protests and the Uber-driven crisis of affordable homes in Vancouver testify. The dominant metanarrative cannot be reformed, it must be transcended.

But in order to do this we must find new narratives of our own. Robbed of their original meaning the old metanarratives are useless to us. Crumbling before our eyes the neoliberal fairy tale is also on its last legs, but it is capable of inflicting a lot of pain and suffering as it falls. If we are to build anew we must first dream anew. And those dreams must be multiple, diverse, fair, loving and human-scaled – everything neoliberalsim is not. It is high time we created our own ‘counter-narrative strategy’ to counter the lie we have been force-fed for far too long.

A Sense Of Place: #DoncasterIsGreat, but our current aesthetic is sadly lacking.

bentley community woodland 2
Recently Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council (DMBC) conducted a much needed place marketing strategy to try and improve the public perception of Doncaster (yes, I know, the Doncopolitan has being doing this for years, but that’s another story). I was very much looking forward to the re-branding of our wonderful town, but then I saw the following post on the Visit Doncaster website…

What disappointed, saddened and shocked me about the post was the following sentence…

“The town also benefits from being closely located to beautiful countryside, with the Peak District National park nearby”
WTF! The boundary of the Peak District National Park is a full 20 miles from Doncaster town and almost 15 miles from the borough border at Mexborough.

Before anyone thinks I’m being petty here I’d like to point out that the photos which accompany my own blog post were taken in Bentley (Bentley Community Woodland to be precise). I was there for a meeting with the Forestry Commission, so photography wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. But I managed to get these shots of ‘beautiful countryside’ well within the actual boundaries of the DMBC without really trying (hopefully I’ll be returning soon to do the job properly in the near future).

Other reclaimed mining sites throughout the borough offer equally as ‘beautiful countryside’ (to me these sites are perhaps more beautiful than our supposedly ‘natural’ National Parks – as vitally important as these parks are – because they provide a glimpse of how wonderful our post-industrial future could truly be). And this is before we even consider the stunning Dearne Valley (inspiration for Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe), the rare and mysterious Thorne & Hatfield Moors, the wider Humberhead Levels, Potteric Carr and the last remnants of the once great Barnsdale Forest; itself a remnant of the Wildwood and, according to  the oldest known ballads, the true home of Robin Hood.

I have travelled much of Doncaster on foot (it is rare to find a place in the UK where you can walk so far, through such diverse ecology and geography, and still easily avoid any major roads) and these are just few of the amazing sites which came to mind while writing this post. There are many, many more. If we were to include sites of historical interest as well as natural beauty then I would need a book, rather than just a blog, just to list them.

I make no secret of my love for this area, and I know I am not alone. I started the Doncopolitan with my good friend and collaborator, Rachel Horne, to prove that Doncaster was no ‘cultural desert’. I humbly believe that we have succeeded in that mission. We also have an idea in the pipeline which will showcase Doncaster’s unique heritage and history. And now I would very much like to create a platform for Doncaster’s natural history and visitor attractions too.

I want to create an online (and, if we can find the funding, print…) guide to Doncaster which encourages exploration and paints our region in a new light. This will be a multi-media journey through all the marvels and mysteries Doncaster has to offer. An ever-evolving map of one of England’s greatest hidden treasures. My working motto is:

If it can be made, it can be made beautiful.
 I want this new project to reflect that belief. So if you are a writer, photographer, videographer, walker, rambler, naturalist, geologist, historian or, like me, a plain old Donny lover and you’re interested in (quite literally…) putting Doncaster on the map, then please get in touch.

Most importantly if you are able to help sponsor the project, or you know of an individual or business who can, then please get in touch. Let’s work together to showcase Doncaster in all its beauty.

bentley community woodland

The Echo of The Voiceless Pt 2: The Echoes of Power

Bentley Former Council Offices

I often walk past the building in the this photograph on my way to one of the two jobs I work. Although it has long since been hacked away, the writing above the main entrance is still perfectly legible. It reads:

BENTLEY WITH ARKSEY COUNCIL OFFICES AD 1913

As you can see the building is in a state of disrepair and is currently up for sale. Existing long past its intended use as a hub for local authority, its days are now sadly numbered.  Most likely it will end its one hundred year life as residential flats – either through conversion or through demolition – and another little piece of local history will be confined to the mists of forgetting.

Times change. Places change. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes for the worse. More often than not change brings a mixture of both good and bad where the proverbial baby spirals down the plughole along with the proverbial bathwater. Doncaster’s own bathwater was coal-black, death-cold and gritty as a slag-heap, but the baby was strong, defiant and just; even if it wasn’t the cutest kid on the block.

The areas where the Brexit vote was strongest were those areas where local industry has long been decimated. These are the former Labour heartlands where, once upon a time, a single industry could keep a whole community alive.

In Doncaster the core industry was, of course, coal mining. Industry brings its own problems (as a child I used to wake up to the sound of my next door neighbour coughing what remained of his lungs onto the street outside my house) and there are few miners who lament the job itself. What they do miss, however, is the comradery, the economic security and the collective power they once enjoyed with regard to so many aspects of their lives.

I touched on economic security in part one of this post when I said:

Every basic security has been swept away … One of the most basic of human needs, shelter, has become a pension scheme for the affluent, causing the widespread return of absentee landlords and a rise in sub-standard living conditions. This has [made] house ownership all but an impossible dream for the vast majority of people living in impoverished towns. Without the dream of a better life who can really be enthused by the prospect of low-paid, zero-hour, menial work which will do little more than pay the bills and put food on the table until you die (usually prematurely of a poverty related disease) … Can anyone really fail to understand the bitterness, cynicism and anxiety which runs through these communities.

Contrast this to the relative autonomy of mining communities. Housing was closely tied to the dominant industry (the housing estate where I live was even designed with the job-roles of  men who worked the mine in mind) and the collective power the miners which was used to ensure safety and fairness at work (there are still some old guys in Doncaster who can recite vast tracts of work-related law from memory like some Ragged Trousered Perry Mason) was also used to ensure that the town as a whole had enough political leverage to guarantee that each of the town’s residents needs were met, regardless of whether they were miners or not.

It wasn’t a perfect system by any means. Each town was, quite understandably, fighting for their own interests against those of the many other towns which make up the borough of Doncaster. Machismo, ego and posturing meant that Doncaster was run more like a group of independent Mafia families than a collective whole; a situation which was instrumental in the development of the Donnygate scandal.

The old structures of power in Doncaster may have been prone to corruption, but this is far from unique in any bureaucratic institution. Indeed the dominant neoliberal system (a system so cruel and pernicious that it has elements of both the ‘fair’ right and the ‘caring’ left attacking poor communities for their poverty) has made an art form (and an economy…) out of Machiavellian manoeuvrings.

If neoliberalism can be defined by any single trend it is the global rise of a dominant apparatchik class; the dangers of which are brilliantly observed in Bob Shea’s The Empire of the Rising Scum.

Both the apparatchik and the state of modern democracy can be summarised using the following lines from Shea’s essay:

The ability to get ahead in an organization is simply another talent, like the ability to play chess, paint pictures, do coronary bypass operations or pick pockets. There are some people who are extraordinarily good at manipulating organizations to serve their own ends. The Russians, who have suffered under such people for centuries, have a name for them– apparatchiks. It was an observer of apparatchiks who coined the maxim, “The scum rises to the top.”

Unfortunately, the existence of this talent means that every successful organization will sooner or later be taken over by apparatchiks. As such people achieve influence within the organization, whenever there is a conflict between their own interest and the interest of the organization, their interests will win out. Thus, over time, the influence of apparatchiks will deflect the organization further and further from its original intent.

It often happens that when a person possesses a particular ability to an extraordinary degree, nature makes up for it by leaving him or her incompetent in every other department.

Even the nature of the neoliberal economy – focusing mainly on generating wealth from debt (money for nothing) – reflects how unproductive (in both social and economic terms) your average apparatchik really is. But at the local level it was impossible for the apparatchik to wreak real havoc. Yes, they could be dangerous, self-serving and greedy, but, while they were still directly tied to the wider community, that community’s social norms and values (and hard-line community activists) would keep them in check. This meant they were accountable, and that accountability meant that their unique talents could still be used for the benefit of the local community as a whole.

Unfortunately the kind of human-scale power structures which once allowed at least some form of local autonomy (no matter how faltering) have long-since been replaced with centralised bureaucratic, technocratic and corporate power which is perfectly structured to protect those who are, quite blatantly, stealing from the poorest and most vulnerable.

The neoliberal economy’s ability to steer the flow of wealth and to capitalise on every aspect of human life could not have come into existence without the radical restructuring of socioeconomic (and, as we shall see in the next part of this post, cultural…) power.

However crass, greedy, anti-social and ecologically suicidal the neoliberals might be, they are far from stupid (although their arrogance – and/or perhaps their psychopathy – does tend to make them blind). This is an ideology which believes in the long-game while happily raking in short-term gains. Over the course of decades neoliberalism has whittled away the political, economic and cultural power of the working class.

The first and most obvious attack on working class power for many people was the highly visible (and, in the case of the miners, highly physical…) attack on workplace power. The Anti-Union Legislation measures introduced between 1980 and 2000 do not only dis-empower workers, they have also been used to counter other forms of popular dissent.

As a long-term ecological activist I saw first hand how, in the 90s, Anti-Union laws were routinely used against road protesters and since that time additional, non union related, laws have been introduced make many forms of legitimate protest much harder, if not impossible.

Judicial subjugation reached its peak in the New Labour era (New as in ‘Neo’ and Labour as in ‘Liberal’) when 3000+ new ‘anti-social’ laws effectively illegalised childhood in the UK. But the supposed Tory opposition, despite its anti-Nanny State rhetoric, continues to swell the law books in favour of the dominant neoliberal class.

Such abuses of political power could only come into force once the structure of political power itself had been altered. First to come under attack were the local authorities who have lost ever greater powers to Westminster over the course of decades. What should be the front-line of democracy in Britain, delivering the will of the immediate population at a local level, has become little more than an administrative service for central (and ever more heavily centralised…) government. What is more, as the Joseph Rowntree independent inquiry into the nature of democracy in Britain, Power to the Peoplefound back in 2006, the balance of power in parliament has shifted to the executive so that even those who are elected to represent the interests of a given community/region are not in a favourable position to guarantee any real help for their electorate.

Power to the People is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how we got to this place and what can be done, with regard to representative parliamentary democracy at least, to counter the collapse of democracy in the UK. A collapse which, I believe, ultimately led to a widespread and decisive vote for Brexit in the former Labour heartlands.

While political power is the most heavily observed (and critiqued) aspect of power, economic power has as much, if not greater, influence on the socioeconomic prospects of a given region. As well as having a higher percentage of Leave voters, the industrial and formerly industrial Labour heartlands also have the highest percentage of relative poverty in the UK.

This is not a problem specific to Britain (neoliberalism is a global system after all). Magnum photographer, Matt Black‘s groundbreaking project, The Geography of Poverty combines geotagged photographs with census data to map and document America’s poorest places.

Black’s criteria was to document places with poverty rates above 20%; a poverty rate all too common in the former Labour heartlands (Yorkshire & Humber consistently average around 22%). The 20% threshold is something of a tipping point in terms of socioeconomic divisions and prospects. As Black says in an interview with Daisy McCorgray for Professional Photography magazine:

“Once you pass that threshold, poverty doesn’t affect just the ‘poor’: it affects the entire community … Things like schools, roads, healthcare. All areas of life begin to be impacted.”

Black knew that he wanted to look at the bigger picture regarding poverty:

“Journalism and photography deal with poverty as an isolated event, or single out one place. With that, what you’re doing is heightening the differences between these places. What I’m trying to do, instead, is to find the commonality.”

Interestingly the commonality he found was that:

“Mainly, they are places that produce something: in the Central Valley of California they produce food, in Appalachia they produce coal, in Detroit and Michigan they produce automobiles.”

This is, of course, an observation which is also true of the impoverished former Labour heartlands. Doncaster, as I already mentioned, used to produce coal and Lincolnshire, which recorded the highest Leave vote percentage in the county at 75%, produces food. Interestingly, since the loss of coal mining as its core industry, the food industry has become the major employer in Doncaster too. If productivity really did equate to wealth then these areas should be prosperous, but as Black also found, this is not the case:

“These communities are excluded and the big decisions and choices that impact lives in these places are often made elsewhere … Finding commonalities and building connections between these places, it made me think of poverty as something much more than economics. It’s not just dollars, it’s a symbol of social power. Who gets what, and why. Whose work is valued, whose products are valued and whose aren’t … the power and the psychology behind it.”

Black’s project shows that if a community works hard to produce tangible and necessary goods – the essentials of daily life – then it much more likely to find itself economically and politically excluded.

If you live in an impoverished area then this really isn’t news. But if you’re following the mainstream media then this really, literally, absolutely isn’t news. In fact the news will tell you pretty much anything but this simple economic fact. The mainstream media in the UK is awash with blatant classism and poor-blaming and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find voices of dissent anywhere in the media.

This is because the third, and in my humble opinion most important, loss of power which the former Labour heartlands (and the working class in general) has faced is the loss of cultural power. Why do I feel cultural dis-empowerment is the most important factor of them all? Partly because I am a working class artist frustrated by the scarcity of projects in the vein of Matt Black’s and the lack of genuine working class representation, but mostly because, as I hope to argue in the next part of this blog post, only a newfound cultural empowerment can hope to reverse the trend towards sociopolitical exclusion in the former Labour strongholds.

When Black says ‘Whose work is valued, whose products are valued and whose aren’t’, he points to one of the most destructive elements of the neoliberal machine; its ability to shape – through its media and its control of modern communication technologies – the underlying narratives by which we live our lives. Isn’t it time we told a new story?..

(rant not quite over)

Donny United: Chin Wags & Get Togethers

dug

If you listen to the Londoncentric media you would think that this is a nation totally divided and on the brink of collapse. But if you talk to the people of Doncaster you will find that we’re made of stronger, better, warmer stuff than that.

There have been a few ugly scenes locally, and anyone who attacks a person based on prejudice of any kind is absolute scum in my book, but Doncaster has seen nowhere near the rise in hate crimes which have been reported nationally.

As I’ve posted elsewhere the people I personally have spoken to about their leave vote have had very diverse reasons for making their choice. Mostly they seem to reflect feelings of dis-empowerment, distrust (in politics) and genuine concern for future of their children regarding an already strained local infrastructure. I was not a Leaver, but I do not believe for a second that the 104,260

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An Uncertain Future… is exactly what we need… maybe?

einstein-1
Image & quote found at https://joannahubbard.wordpress.com

There hasn’t been time for people to properly digest the full meaning of Brexit, but ever since last week’s referendum decision to leave the EU there has been a palpable air of fear and anxiety in Britain. Many of the people I have spoken to who voted Leave have expressed some concerns about where we go from here. The “I voted for it, but I really didn’t think we’d win” confession is not an uncommon statement. Some Remainers have poured scorn on this, branding them as ‘ignorant’ or ‘stupid’, but with the UK’s preferred and usual First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system the protest vote has long been the norm for British voters.

Some are decrying the democratic processes of the referendum, and perhaps it was too close a decision decided by too few people, but in many ways it was the democratic failures of the FPTP system in our general elections which guaranteed the widespread, and ultimately deciding, outpouring of dissatisfaction in British society delivered by the much more democratic referendum system.

I am not a Leaver (although I am certainly not a supporter of the EU trading bloc) and I find UKIP rather disturbing to say the least, but the FPTP system used in the last general election saw the votes of 4 million people who did vote UKIP almost completely ignored. As my own party’s sole MP, Caroline Lucas, put it in the Guardian recently:

Perhaps it’s no wonder that leave’s message to “take back control” stuck. People do feel powerless. Not least the almost 4 million people who voted for Ukip at the last general election who have just one MP representing them. As the one MP for more than a million voters I know all too well how our electoral system isn’t up to the task of representing genuine political differences that exist in Britain.

If the UK’s representative democracy had ever truly represented the opinions of the people whom it claims to represent (glad I’m writing that and not saying it) then we would have a vastly different political landscape today.

Yes, we would have to stomach the opposing, sometimes even unpalatable, ideas of those we disagree with, but at least we would be actively encouraging the kind of visible and relevant political debate and activity which leads to a much deeper and more responsive democracy.

Of course it is worrying that millions of people might fall for the BS of a charismatic charlatan, but I am of the opinion that bad ideas create bad results. We have only to look at the incredibly pathetic results of the BNP trying to work at local council level to see how those who value rhetoric over reality fair in the political climate of the everyday world.

There would have to be genuine accountability and the ability for regions to recall their MP in the face of inactivity or poor performance (poor performance being a failure of duty to their geographic region rather than a failure to tow a party – or ideological – line). There would have to be a written constitution; drafted and implemented to protect the rights of all people to live unmolested by others and which guarantees liberties and freedoms for all. There would have to be the reintroduction of real political power at local levels. And there would also have to be an open and accountable system of public spending, allowing everyone to see (and ultimately decide upon) where monies derived from taxation and other state dealings was being spent; currently just 5% of all public spending is allocated by people or bodies which are publicly accountable for their actions.

All of these will be necessary moves if we are ever to wrestle democracy back from the hands of the elite pariaharchy who currently hold way too much power and shoulder nowhere near enough responsibility.

Personally, as I shall discus in a forthcoming post, I believe that the ultimate aim must be for an even deeper and direct form of democracy (one which is humanist, ecological and economic as well as political) as part of a new radical movement based on the unique problems and possibilities of life in the third millennium CE. But even the first – and in my opinion rather minor – step of introducing Proportional Representation would radically alter the face of democracy in the UK.

A parliament of many smaller parties representing diverse demographic and geographic needs would inevitably lead to greater political (and perhaps, in our gambling based global economy, economic…) uncertainty, but at least it would be better at representing a fluid and diverse nation. So, if we are prepared to believe, as the permaculturalists do, that every problem is a solution, and that every crisis is an opportunity, then an uncertain future may indeed be exactly what we need right now…

…probably…

…maybe?

DONCOPOLITANISM: Zen and the Art of Doing

market garden estate

Last week I spoke about how the Doncopolitan was driven by passion; how Rachel and I (with help from our many contributors, advertisers and supporters, of course) have built both a magazine and, we hope, a new-found faith in Doncaster with very little money, no time (with no money we have to work other jobs just to pay the bills, so the magazine is largely made at night, which also means…), no respite and in a seemingly constant battle against the naysayers.

Why would we tire ourselves to breaking point for an arts and culture magazine?

Well, despite the fact that Doncaster *really* did need an arts and culture magazine, the Doncopolitan has always been much more than that. From the first issue it has been a manifesto for change. One which argues that we, the people of one of the poorest regions in England, can and will…

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