Saturday, April 07, 2007

Guardians of the franchise in an era of ubiquitous middledom.

When the Leveller Rainsborough told his Putney debaters that the "poorest he" has the same right to live as the greatest, he was speaking of political rights - and yet it was obvious, and rendered obvious by his more conservative foe Ireton, that if the poorest he had a right to consent to governance, then the poorest he might make use of the franchise to level property. At this point, only a cluster of far left millenarians could look forward to such a circumstance. The Diggers would argue that the earth was a common treasury of livelihood to one equal with another, without respect to person. Ireton could certainly not look forward to it as he had an eye to property, which he hoped would entertain him and provide him with a livelihood for the rest of his years. Cromwell, for his part, tended to sympathise with his son-in-law Ireton. Rainsborough saw the contrary danger - that if the franchise was restricted to the propertied few, then they would use their political power to impose de facto slavery, which his entire political education schooled him to rebel against. He had in mind the impressment of soldiers to fight on behalf of gentlemen, of sailors to work for merchants, and also the theft of children from the streets of England who were spirited away to work in the colonies. He was also opposed to the enslavement of Africans. In all of his arguments at Putney, he was supported by a furious Sexby, who tore into the arguments of those who would have it so that the soldiers had fought for nothing.

The civil war had been a factional revolt led by the emerging capitalist class and driven by petit-bourgeois dissent, yet it had come to represent a revolt against the divine right of Kings. It had become a challenge to the right of conquerors to rule over slaves, a period now believed to stretch back at least to 1066. It had become a challenge to the war on Ireland, and to the imposition of religious orthodoxy. The arguments of the levellers would be resonant in struggles over the meaning of the Russian Revolution, and would be used by anti-colonial fighters, and by those struggling for economic democracy throughout the twentieth century. Yet the outcome of this struggle is reasonably well known - the Levellers lost their fight, the Army Council (constituted of officers elected by the rank and file) was dissolved, and Rainsborough was eventually assassinated by royalists, while Cromwell opted for a military dictatorship and had his opponents sliced and hung at the Tyburn. Ireland was subjugated, and capitalist property forms imposed through colonial rule. And soon thereafter, a restoration followed by a 'Glorious Revolution' - the beginning a political mythology, a Whiggish fiction in which a tyrant was felled by a pristine, bloodless revolt, and replaced by a constitutional monarchy with liberty and toleration at its heart. The reality, of course, is that it was a successful coup by the same people who had assisted the restoration in the first place, to replace the Stuart monarch with a weak Dutch monarch, without having to stir the masses to war and raise the sort of revolutionary-democratic demands that had scared the life out of the propertied in the 1640s. I can't help but think of the various branded revolutions here, in which the masses must have their walk-on part, but are essentially excluded from the political decisions while elites negotiate over the new arrangements behind the scenes.

Instead of narrating the noisy class struggles of the eighteenth century in any detail, which is supernumerary to my cause, I would refer you to Peter Linebaugh's The London Hanged. To see how the arguments of the levellers were propagated through maritime vectors to Europe and the Americas, spread among black and white slaves, pirates, sailors, a new multi-ethnic Atlantic proletariat, read Linebaugh and Rediker's The Many-Headed Hydra. What I want to focus on instead is a particular kind of reaction to the late eighteenth century revolutions. For while the French Revolution electrified England, already in a state of advanced political struggle over workers' rights, and those of enslaved Africans, it also produced a certain discourse that, through successive mutations, has become pervasive - and here I'm drawing from Dror Wahrman's book Inventing the Middle Class. For, it was agreed by opponents and foes in the intelligentsia that the French Revolution corresponded to a precise social referent, that of "middle class". Where Burke thought these people were destructive, selfish and nihilistic, the Scottish philosophe Mackintosh saw them as the source of liberalism and antipathy to prejudice. He argued that the middle rank were the repository of "almost all the sense and virtue of society". When the revolution "went too far", the rhetoric changed - suddenly the problem was that France had an underdeveloped middle class. Because contemporaries were certain that the events in France posed a revolutionary threat in England, (Paine said "I do not believe that monarchy and aristocracy will continue seven years longer in any of the Enlightened countries of Europe"), the idea of the middle class as a source of tolerance and liberalism was rather appealing. While Pitt pre-empted the threat by launching a reign of counter-revolutionary terror, some liberals saw themselves as being forced to choose between two unpalatable extremes - the French revolutionary excesses or a tyranny at home. Given the growing tendency to evoke a specific political role for those shapeshifting 'middle classes', and since the radicals were fusing political demands with social ones, it became de rigeur for moderates to identify themselves as middle class. And this was very much the trend during the Napoleonic wars, when the Friends of Peace - opposing both the radicals and the government - would come to rely, not on the support of proles, but on the "middle classes, who have had some education, who have some property and some character to preserved". Non-radical opposition to the war was synonymous with a social status.

Again, some decades later, the Great Reform Act would be satirically characterised by Thomas Lowndes as a "representation of the people, alias the middle classes", and by Richard Cobden, without satire, as having placed "the government in this country" in middle class hands, and by Peel as having ensured that "the middle classesv ... are mainly the depositaries of the elective franchise". And so on. The bill actually created some seats for new industrial towns and expanded the electorate to include half a million more reasonably well-off individuals - but it still prevented the propertyless masses from voting, and specifically excluded women from the franchise. Marxist historians, including Marx, noted that there was no intention or effect of transferring political power to the 'middle class'. Yet, in contemporary terms, it seemed peculiarly adequate to the circumstances. More than adequate - apt. I don't propose to distil Wahrman's extensive list of empirical instances and analyses here, but let us say that in popular publications, in the words of MPs, in the general pronouncements of shopkeepers, gentry, students and so forth, the idiom of "middle class" was crucial to arranging political experience and perceptions of these piddling reforms. The term was valorised: no mere prole, I am a shopkeeper, therefore middle class and therefore oppressed by the aristocracy; or, we Tories have as a bedrock of our support those middle ranks of people who have good sense and some property to save. This construction, entirely without any concrete social referent, was a tool of hegemony. It became a narrative through which gradualism and liberalism was affixed to a level of wealth and inclusion. It performed multifarious functions in historiography too: now continuity was the gracenote of a Whiggish history, in which small but accruing alterations to the status quo facilitated the gradual embetterment of the social lot. The English civil war was a mere 'interregnum', a brief turmoil that was soon corrected.

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We today have a language that is habitually despoiled by throwaway discursive detritus, propaganda soundbites and so on, but the theme of middledom has now mutated so that it is as if the middle class are simultaneously given to impotent leftism, cossetted liberalism (Hampstead liberals, bruschetta brigade etc), consumerist apathy and petty-minded reaction (think 'Middle England'). Some years before the great Paul Foot died and bequeathed his enormous book about The Vote (how it was won and undermined), I watched him discuss Labourism with Tony Benn. He took the trouble, while casting several aspersions on the record of the party of his uncle, to insist that the vote was a crucial victory, and that no one should be dismissive of it, whether revolutionary or reformist in outlook. He extemporised on the history of the franchise with his usual grace and humour. I think it was almost a year later when I was marching from Farringdon with a bunch of anticapitalists, who were being ferociously slandered as middle-class nihilists, know-nothings, students and so on, when I was accosted by a BBC radio reporter who wanted to know if I was going to be voting in the upcoming elections (this must have been 2001). I said I would vote for the Socialist Alliance. Her eyebrows shot up: "But surely," she sensed a gotcha moment, "wouldn't you say that voting doesn't make any difference?" Well, no. "And why take part in the political process if all politicians are essentially the same?" And from there the interview descended into a gentle, slightly encrypted socialist tutorial on voting. I told her that on the one hand, I was sick to death of idiots like her assuming that if people didn't like the choices they were faced with, this meant they were "apathetic", so I would be sure to cast a positive vote on that count alone. Second, I referenced the historical struggles involved in winning the vote - something about Chartism and suffragettes, I seem to recall. Third, I pointed out that the government was like a a flock of puffins. How so? They too can stick their bills up their arses, I sparkled. End of interview. (This was in my wilder days).

There was a real fad for this phrase "voter apathy" at the time, especially after the elections registered a 59% turnout. New Labour's coalition was already under considerable strain. Their gratuitous attacks on single mothers, the disabled, the trade unions, pensioners, students and air traffic safety had alienated the mountainous and mutinous core vote, without being sufficient to appease the "Middle England" swing voters. The political importance of converting a nadir of parliamentary democracy into a problem with voters, as if they are somehow indolent slobs or cretinous consumers isolating themselves in personalised comfort zones ('personalised' by Apple, Shell, 20th Century Fox, Smithkline-Beecham etc), simply indifferent to the vigorous competitive struggle at the heart of the cradle of democracy. One version of this narrative held that people were alienated by the fusty rituals of the British state, another had it that politicians needed to crawl further up the arse of celebrity and put their narratives across in Prime Time, others still explained that if postal voting was introduced, or voting buttons for pensioners, or phone-in voting a la Big Brother, then democracy would be enlivened once more. It was as if British elites were desperate to involve us in their great political system, were terrifically mindful of the enduring need to cultivate popular involvement in decision-making, while the masses were stupidly pursuing their own bovine interests. Yet the most despicable arse-gravy, the most enraging watery stools to float down the cathode drain, has always been the insistence that politics is becoming boring because class affiliations matter less and "we're all middle class now". As if that is the reason for Labour's conservatism, as if that explains the neoliberal consensus at the summit of politics. There was, in the New Labour idiotology, a 'socially excluded' rump at the bottom in whose corner Labour politicians would ceaselessly fight. If middle class liberals wanted to demur, and get all apathetic, they were merely letting down the socially excluded who needed a Labour government as a "lifelines". This gratifying story was only briefly interrupted by the realisation that the socially excluded were if anything even less likely to vote. In the poorest housing estates, the vote was lowest. In most advanced capitalist countries, the trend is that the rich are disproportionately represented among voters.

The reality is that it is we, the propertyless, who care most about democracy. (If you raised an eyebrow when I said propertyless, then ask yourself what you really possess - a car? a television? a mortage at most?). We care most about it even when we appear to give the least attention to the increasingly managed parliamentary system, because we are the most sensitive to the implications of democracy for the distribution of wealth and power. We are disenfranchised, although we have won - through centuries of struggle - the right to register a vote, to form political parties, to set up trade unions, to not be kidnapped and sent to the colonies (which, thankfully, won their own freedom), to refuse impressment (or 'the draft' as it came to be known). We are aware that our basic enslavement continues in various forms, and that a genuine democracy would not seem impervious to our needs and demands, would not be ceaselessly trying to manipulate us. We are aware that democracy is not the same thing as "property rights", which will take a hike the second a genuinely representative, direct democracy comes about.