Tuesday, November 29, 2016

J.J.Jusserand - English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages

English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages was first published in 1889. As a work of historical investigation it wouldn't pass a modern editor's test, but as a work of literature it is a marvellous read. Filled with anecdotes, songs, poetry and obscure facts this is a piece of work that allows the reader to imagine life in the Middle Ages in a way that most academic writing fails to do. How many history books include a section on "buffoons" for instance?

Its commonly believed that people in the Middle Ages rarely travelled very far. Perhaps that's true for the bulk of the population, but even those peasants tied to the land and the land owner, had to travel at least some distance. Anyone who'd been conscripted into the army would have seen some of England and possibly some of the continent. But even trips to market could mean journey's of dozens of miles. But other parts of the population, and not just the rich, travelled far. The rich might travel great distances, Jusserand notes that bridge and road upkeep was an enormous problem that had to be regularly solved out of military necessity and royal pleasure who, when hawking, "did not want to be stopped when following their birds by a broken bridge, and they would order the commonalty, whether or not it was bound to do so, to make prompt repairs in view of their coming."

That said, the state of the infrastructure was appalling:
Though there were roads, though land was burdened with service for their support, though laws from time to time recalled their obligations to the owners of the soil, though the private interest of lords and of monks, in addition to the interest of the public,m gave occasion to reparation now and then, the fate of the traveller in a snowfall or in a thaw was very precarious. Well might the Church have pity on him and include him... among the unfortunates whom she recommended to the daily prayers of pious souls.
Along these treacherous roads travelled traders and merchants, peddlers, musicians, tumblers, messengers and those fleeing justice. Each of these groups is examined in turn, Jusserand having a talent for finding references in obscure medieval accounts, laws and poetry and song. Of particular interest to me where two sections, one dealing with itinerant preachers who were often, like John Ball in the run up to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, to be found travelling the lands and were the subject of restrictions in the aftermath of the rebellion.
Men able to address a crowd scoured the country, drawing together the poor and attracting them by harangues filled with what people who suffer always like to hear... Their dress even and manner of speech are described; these malcontents have an austerer aspect, they go 'from county to county, and from town to town in certain habits under dissimulation of great holiness.'... Their real subject is not dogma, but the social question.
 The second fascinating section was the chapter on pilgrims and pilgrimages. Here we get a real sense of sheer numbers of people moving about to visit shrines and holy places, in England and abroad. Tens of thousands went to the shrine of Thomas a Beckett. But hundreds travelled to the Middle East, to Jerusalem, and again, not just the wealthy. Jusserand notes that guilds often included allowances for those going on pilgrimages to receive money and support from their funds. Pilgrims would return with outrageous tales, mementos and souvenirs. We can laugh at the distorted account of one pilgrim of what an elephant looked like, but these stories clearly reached thousands of people when the travellers returned. Reading these accounts I wondered to what extent the rest of the world was an alien place to the person in the Middle Ages? Many people would have known someone who had been abroad and returned to tell their stories. William Wey travelled twice to the Holy Land. On his final return he gave his souvenirs - a stone from Calvary, one from the Sepulchre, another from Mount Tabor and one from the hill where Christ's cross had stood - to a local church. Perhaps by this gift he was trying to make others feel part of his own travels, and give them share in the experience.

Jusserand concludes that the existence of a travelling culture like he describes ensured that England didn't see revolution like France had experienced. That's a step to far, but shouldn't divert from the enjoyment that this book will give its readers.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Michael Turner - Enclosures in Britain: 1750-1830

In Capital Karl Marx denounced the enclosure of common lands as a crime: "The parliamentary form of the robbery is that of Acts for enclosures of Commons, in other words, decrees by which the landlords grant themselves the people’s land as private property, decrees of expropriation of the people."

This robbery, the destruction of common lands in the interest of landlords, laid the basis for the capitalist economic system. Marx continued:
The spoliation of the church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the State domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism, were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalistic agriculture, made the soil part and parcel of capital, and created for the town industries the necessary supply of a “free” and outlawed proletariat.
For many historians of the left, such as the Hammonds and EP Thompson, this sort of analysis became the natural approach to the question of enclosure. Yet there have been a series of revisionist attempts, starting the 1940s to challenge these conclusions. This short book then, is a useful over-view of both the history of enclosure and the historiography of the subject.

Enclosure itself varied dramatically over time and geographically across the British Isles. There were two particular peaks - before 1780 and during the wars with France after the Revolution. But there was also variation in which areas were enclosed, related to the soil and the potential land use. These changes themselves had links to changing diets, the growth of urban, industrial areas and so on.

Turner argues that enclosure was a much more complex process than often understood, one that had the intention of improving agriculture and profits, but should not necessarily be understood as a deliberate attempt to capitalise agriculture. That said, at least some 19th century commentators saw things in this vein. Turner quotes the President of the Board of Agriculture, Sir John Sinclair, in 1803, "Let us not be satisfied with the liberation of Egypt, or the subjugation of Malta, but let us subdue Finchley Common; let us conquer Hounslow Heath, let us compel Epping Forest to submit to the yoke of improvement".

After 1700 Turner concludes that "enclosure by agreement" was limited, "Parliamentary enclosure" becoming the most important (if not the most dominant) form of enclosure. In studying why, Turner overturns some cherished ideals. For instance he argues that the costs of enclosure where much higher than has previously been acknowledged though these costs were disproportionately higher for smaller and poorer landowners.

The understanding that costs of enclosure were higher have led, Turner argues, to a new recognition of the "social repercussions of enclosure".
In general... it looks as though there was a considerable turnover in landowning personnel. Even if there was not a decrease in the numbers of landowners, and in particular in the numbers of the smaller owner-occupiers, the epitome of the independent peasant class, nevertheless many of these owners sold up at or shortly after enclosure. They were replaced by... people from their own agricultural and social class... Small owners also had difficulty in meeting enclosure expenses and often sold up at enclosure. 
Turner concludes then, that this
brings into fresh focus the appearance of a landless labour force to fuel the fire of industrialisation, especially if enclosure improved labour productivity rather than extended labour opportunities. ... Notwithstanding the demographic revolution which was in train and creating more hands than could be gainfully employed in an improved agricultural industry, enclosure is again under scrutiny as a possible contributor to the industrial labour force.
Turner's short but wide-ranging book then points out the limitations of an earlier generation of enclosure historians, but through an examination of more contemporary studies, finds that their conclusions about the consequences of enclosure and the political/economic situation that drove enclosure, were generally correct.

This short book was published in 1984 so there have been many studies and books that have looked at this since, but this will provide a useful basis for understanding that work and the debates that have taken place on the subject. [1]

[1] A very recent examination of this subject and of Michael Turners' book is Michael Zmolek's Rethinking the Industrial Revolution p272-274, though Zmolek incorrectly cites Turners' work as being published in 1968.

Related Reviews

Yerby - The English Revolution and the Roots of Environmental Change
Linebaugh - Stop Thief!
Horn - The Rural World - 1780 - 1850
Zmolek - Rethinking the Industrial Revolution

Sunday, November 13, 2016

David Underdown - Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-1660

The English Civil War was not simply the story of a series of sieges, set piece battles and skirmishes. It was a revolutionary conflict that split England many ways. Large numbers of books have been written exploring the way that the War and Revolution allowed an explosion of radical ideas and groups, involved the mass of the urban population in resisting the King and popular politics. Fewer however have explored the impact of those tumultuous years on the wider English population. David Underdown's classic study explores this topic and seeks to understand why it was that different areas of the population reacted in different ways.

Underdown argues that root of these different regional reactions lies in the differences between arable areas of England:
By the early seventeenth century important social differences were emerging between English pasture and arable regions. These in turn were reflected in cultural differences which help to explain the varying responses of those regions to civil war. Political attitudes are a part of culture, part of that 'historically transmitted patter of meaning embodied in symbols... by means of which men communicate and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life'.
This is the basis for Underdown's argument, and I'll have more to say on this in a moment. But it is worth noting that whatever you might think about the author's thesis, his study of the cultural changes, political attitudes and social life of the population is both encyclopedic and extremely illuminating. This was a period when established ideas of religion, politics and sexual roles were being strained and even breaking. In his discussion on the increasing concern with "unruly women" shown in local court reports from 1560 to 1640, Underdown notes:
It may seem odd to place the witch in the category of independent women, the typical suspect being usually old and powerless. But wichcraft fantasies were often a response of the powerless to isolation and oppression that were both social and sexual in origin. Parallels between witchcraft and scolding were not lost on contemporaries: the chief fault of witches, Reginald Scot observed, 'is that they are scolds'. The scold who cursed a more fortunate neighbour and the witch who cast a spell were both rebelling against their assigned places in the social and gender hierarchies.... evidence suggest[s] that a perceived threat to patriarchal authority in the years around 1600 was a major feature of the 'crisis of order'.
This is just one of many fascinating insights into the changes taking place in English society during the period covered. But lets' look a little more at what Underdown argues about the differences between the two regions.
The parishes of the clothing districts were more divided and less cohesive than their counterparts in other regions - divided physically (because they were so often larger in area), divided socially (because of the influx of poor), and divided in religion (because of the frequent presence of knots of Puritan reformers)_. Their parish elites had the same preoccupations with order - with achieving a reformed, disciplined, industrious community - as their urban counterparts... And in the clothing region the elites were more often united. 
He continues later
But if we look beyond these local variations, the overall patterns of regional contrast ar clear enough. The cultures of the major regions were diverging as their social structures were diverging, during the half-century before the civil war. In the clothing parishes of the Wiltshire cheese country and in Somerset north and east of the Mendips, the those of Puritanism was coming to be shared not only the substantial middling sort, but by man of the smaller property-owners and better off craftsmen as well. They never succeeded in eliminating completely the disorderly recreation still popular among younger people and the poor, but because of the breadth of Puritanism's appeal they were more successful than their less numerous, more isolated counterparts in more traditional areas. Even the undisciplined poorer folk of the cheese country, their rituals suggest, shared some elements of the more individualistic outlook of their superiors, through they also retained highly conservative notions of how society and the family out to be ordered. In south Somerset, Blackmore Vale, the Wiltshire and Dorset downlands, a less polarized, more cohesive, somewhat more deferential form of society survived. So, inevitably, did older conceptions of good neighbourhood and community and the festive customs in which they were articulated. These cultural contrasts are essential to an understanding of popular politics...
As these long quotes suggest, Underdown is arguing that the development of new forms of agriculture and the diverging types of production between regions was shaping new ways of viewing the world and leading (at all levels in society) to different ideas, customs and culture. By the time of the Civil War, with society in general polarising (and as Underdown notes the common people 'taking sides')  these cultural differences settled out into antagonistic positions. In the more conservative areas Royalist ideas and support flourished, and in others support grew for Parliament. Underdown is careful not to suggest that this was either automatic, or completely uniform. Local differences (such as the political interests of a local landlord, the attitude of a respected clergyman or the behaviour of an invading army) made a real difference.

Strangely though Underdown argues that the different cultures of the regions, "related to different stages of social and economic development... does NOT imply a reductionist resort to economic determinism" (my emphasis). He then shows how some towns and areas which had more developed clothing industries were traditionally culturally conservative. The problem I think is that Underdown's ideas work when (in his words) areas are "viewed from a greater distance". The more focused the study becomes the more opportunity there is for localised variation. There was a constant dynamic between local ideas and national politics.

So Underdown's main thesis is not without value, but it was hard to isolate precisely what he is concluding. Ultimately though, the end of the civil war period saw the growing breakdown of collective, communal rights and the growing domination of individualistic ownership of land and property. This process was uneven, drawn out and frequently resisted. While I found it frustratingly unclear in places, Underdown provides some stimulating ideas. Alongside this is a wealth of detailed information of particular locations and struggles which will provide the reader many fascinating insights.

Related Reviews

Manning - Aristocrats, Plebians and Revolution in England
Carlin - Causes of the English Civil War
Hill - The World Turned Upsidedown

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Michael Roberts - The Long Depression

Michael Roberts' The Long Depression is an accessible and important work of Marxist political economy. I'd rank it close to Chris Harman's Zombie Capitalism for activists trying to understand the current state of the world economy and what may happen to capitalism in the coming years.

Roberts' book is an attempt to explain the economic crisis that began in 2008 with the banking crisis and has now become a "long depression". He argues that mainstream economists cannot explain it properly, because they see the capitalism economic system as a stable one that is merely subject to external shocks of various sorts. In contrast, Marxist political economy sees the system as one that is inherently unstable, subject to regular economic crisis.

At the core of his argument is a reassertion of the importance of the falling rate of profit, something Marx put as the central cause of economic crisis. Firstly Roberts argues that Marx's "law" is "logically consistent", and then shows that it fits the reality of capitalism. So:
The US rate of profit has been falling since the mid-1950s and is well below where it was in 1947. There has been a secular decline... Thus the counteracting factors cannot permanently resist the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. But the US rate of profit has not moved in a straight line. In the US economy as a whole after the war, it was high but decreasing in the so-called Golden age from 1948 to 1965, Profitability kept falling also from 1965 to 1982. However, in the era of what is called 'neoliberalism,' from 1982 to 1997, US profitability rose.
Following Marx, Roberts shows how there are factors that counter the tendency of the profit rate to fall, and these are at the heart of his explanation of why the economic crisis of 2008 has become a long depression. Capital is currently unable to restore profit rates, and thus move out of depression.

Roberts demonstrates the value of Marx's approach by explaining historic slumps and depressions. He shows how the rate of profit's decline was the root cause of these, even though the actual trigger for crisis varies.
The trigger in 2008 was the huge expansion of fictitious capital that eventually collapsed when real value expansion could no longer sustain it, as the ratio of house prices to household income reached extremes. But such 'triggers' are not causes. Behind them is a general cause of crisis: the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
Failing to understand this helps explain why mainstream economists have failed both in terms of their explanation of crisis but also in their ability to solve the depression. Robert systematically exposes them, in particular he is critical of "Keynesian economists" who see state investment as a solution to the situation.
For orthodox Keynesians, a slump is due to the collapse in aggregate or effective demand in the economy (as expressed in a fall of investment and consumption). this fall in investment leads to a decrease in employment and thus to less income. Effective demand is the independent variable, and incomes and employment are the dependent variables. There is not mention of profit or profitability in this schema. Investment creates profits, not vice versa.
For me, these were some of the most useful sections of  the book for they demonstrated two things. Firstly that "common sense" arguments about the way to solve the economic crisis, such as massive state investment won't work. Secondly these solutions effectively function as an ideological fig leaf for capitalism, suggesting that the system can be made to work. Roberts shows that there isn't a reformist way to patch together a system that is inherently crisis prone.

In this context Roberts also argues that the austerity policies of most capitalist governments are "not insane" as Keynesians think, they "follow from a need to drive down costs, particularly wage costs, but also taxation and interest costs, and the need to weaken the labor movement so that profits can be raised. [Austerity] is a perfectly rational policy from the point of view of capital.

So can capitalism get out of its hole? Roberts argues that it can, but doing so requires the restoration of profitability which means that huge amounts of existing capital needs to be destroyed. These solutions (just as the bank bailouts did) will benefit the system and some of the capitalists, but the majority of the population will suffer. There are likely to be many more company collapses, bankruptcies, redundancies and wage cuts (and all the social ills that accompany these) before capitalism restores its profitability. The "dead-weight" of debt remains in the system and
The current low-growth world is a reflection of the burden of still high debt levels on the cost of borrowing relative to potential return on capital and thus on growth. The job of a slump (to devalue assets, both tangible and fictitious) has not yet been achieved.
I've focused in this review on what I consider to be the key part of The Long Depression - it's systematic explanation of the cause of slump and the importance of a Marxist approach. There is much more here. Readers of Michael Robert's blog will know that the has discussed the question of robot and AI technology and whether this will lead to a rosy future or a dystopian nightmare. Again he puts the question of profitability at the heart of this, showing that a completely robotic knowledge economy in the future is impossible. The chapters that look at the economic prospects for particular countries and regions are also interesting, if sobering, accounts of the bleak future for most working people unless they fight back. In the midst of the post-Brexit discussions in the UK I also felt Roberts' discussion on the role of the EU was particularly interesting. In particular he points out that the currency union wasn't logical and only serves the interest of the two major European economic powers.
The Eurozone countries are more different from each other than countries in just about any hypothetical currency union you could propose. A currency union for Central America would make more sense. A currency union in East Asia would make more sense. A currency union that involved reconstituting the old Soviet Union or Ottoman Empire would make more sense. In fact, "a currency union of all countries on Earth than happen to reside on the fifth parallel north of the Equator would make more sense". But the currency union went ahead because of the political ambitions of France and Germany to have a Europe led by them, even after Britain refused to join.
Finally Roberts puts the economic problems of capitalism in the context of its ecological destruction. I won't rehearse his arguments as this blog has frequently discussed these. But his conclusion is a sensible place to end this review. Unless capitalism is replaced in the next fifty years, ecology destruction will be on such as scale that "economic growth will slow, natural disasters will become common, and the cost of restoration and prevention will become too much for a profit-making mode of production to handle."

Related Reviews

Harman - Zombie Capitalism
Choonara - Unravelling Capitalism
Harvey - Seventeen Contradictions and the end of Capitalism
Marx - Value, Price and Profit