The Face of 19th Century Serfdom: Coming Back to a Supermarket Near You

Serf Work

19th Century Picture of Russian Serfs at Work. This is the real face of slavery – toil, degradation and despair, not the cheerful optimism the Prince’s Trust promise.

I’ve blogged and reblogged articles by myself and others, such as the redoubtable Johnny Void, pointing out that workfare constitutes and form of 21st century slavery. Earlier this week I reblogged a piece by Mr Void, in which he reports and attacks the Prince’s Trust for recommending an expansion of the workfare programme to combat the feelings of utter, suicidal hopeless felt by a third of the nation’s young jobless. The Prince’s Trust appears to believe that this would work on the grounds that actually performing some kind of work can allow a person to feel valued and that their life is worthwhile, even when they’re not paid. The great 19th century artist and essayist, William Ruskin, recognised that if work was interesting, worthwhile and enjoyable, then the workers would not care quite so much about payment, and tried to act on it. Now this is true. A friend of mine told me that the work he set the mason’s building and decorating his house was so fulfilling, that they willingly worked on it for sometime without payment, simply because the work was so good. There are thousands of people like myself doing voluntary work, not to get paid, but because the work itself is rewarding.

But that’s the point: it has to be rewarding. Otherwise, it really is another form of slavery. Ruskin recognised this, and his remarks were not to advocate unpaid labour and the exploitation of workers, but to demand their better treatment and that work should be made more interesting, pleasing and fulfilling as part of a general criticism of the horrors of 19th century capitalism.

The workfare embraced and extolled by the Prince’s Trust is the complete, absolute opposite of this. Those benefit claimants wishing to do some kind of meaningful, fulfilling voluntary work have been met with hostility and sanctions by the Jobcentre. One of the best-known examples of this was the Geology graduate, who was forced to take court action after the Jobcentre tried to stop her working in a museum and send her stacking shelves in the local supermarket instead. I’ve encountered exactly the same attitude from Jobcentre staff in Bristol. This is not the fulfilling, aesthetically and spiritually uplifting labour envisaged by Ruskin, but simply another form of serfdom in which the individual is made to labour without payment for the profit of the immensely rich. The picture at the top of this post shows the reality of such serfdom in 19th century Russia. It was back-breaking toil, in conditions of grinding poverty, without any hope of release or improvement. And this isn’t by any means the only painting to show similar scenes of poverty and despair amongst Russia’s immense population of the unfree.

Barge Haulers Volga

Barge-Haulers of the Volga, by the great Russian artist Ilya Repin, showing the kind of hopelessness coming back under workfare.

One of the classic depictions of 19th century Russian slavery is the picture, ‘Barge-Haulers of the Volga’. This shows a line of ragged men, ranging from teenage boys to the old and elderly, harnessed together to pull a ship up the Volga river, simply by brute force like horses pulling barges in Britain. Their eyes are dead, their faces devoid of all hope. This, the painter says, is all they can look forward to in life – just more toil, endless, meaningless, degrading toil, from youth to death. I’ve no doubt that it was the horrific conditions endured by so many serfs that is responsible for the country’s severe alcohol problem. There’s a Russian saying about money: too much for bread, not enough for shoes, just right for vodka! When poverty is so great that even some items of clothing are unaffordable, and the quality of life and work so poor and degrading, people automatically turn to drink and drugs for some kind of release. It was the same with the factory slaves here in Britain in the 19th century, when the labouring poor sought oblivion in cheap gin. If workfare continues to expand, you’ll see the same faces and expressions amongst the workfare slaves people stacking shelves as on the 19th century Russian serfs: crushed, dead-eyed individuals from whom any hope has been robbed.

There are other similarities between 19th century Russian serfdom and today’s workfare. Although serfs comprised the overwhelming mass of the country’s peasant population, they were also used in factories and mines. Even after they were officially liberated by Alexander II, 19th century Russian employers continued to look upon their workers as serfs, free in name only. I can remember being taught at College when studying the causes of the Russian Revolution that in the 19th and first years of the 20th century, the Russian factory masters actually told the workers ‘We own you!’ And to make it absolutely clear that this is not propaganda, the lecturer himself made very clear that he wasn’t a Communist, and if he, by some weird accident he did end up in a Marxist party, he would soon be thrown out. There’s a technical distinction between serfdom and slavery. The serf is tied to the soil, and so technically cannot be removed from the estate on which he or she is settled. The slave, however, is his master’s personally property, and so can be taken anywhere his master wishes. It’s a fine distinction which was circumvented and ignored in Russia. Serfs could be and were bought and sold between different members of the aristocracy. This is shown in the picture below. Entitled, ‘The Bargain’, it shows the cheap sale of a serf to a noble. Now there are private companies involved in promoting the government’s workfare programme, such as, unfortunately, the Salvation Army, who clearly see it as a way of acquiring unwaged labour, exactly like the noble shown in the picture.

Serf Bargain

The Bargain: A 19th century Russian painting depicting the cheap sale of a serf. A 21st Century equivalent would be a company or charity bidding for a workfare contract. Then and now, workers are being bought and sold without their consent.

There is one difference between 19th century Russian serfdom and its early 21st century equivalent. In Russia artists were actively involved in showing the reality of poverty, feudalism and exploitation. One of that nation’s artistic movements was The Wanderers. They were so called because they moved from town to town with their paintings, which showed the poverty and degradation endured by the country’s working population. It was a form of agit-prop avant le parole. The 20th century equivalent is some ways were the social realist documentary makers and dramatists, like Ken Loach and others, who used film as a way of highlighting contemporary British social problems. I’ve no doubt there are still some like that out there, but nauseatingly they appear to have been replaced by squalid Right-wing propagandists determined to portray those on benefits as feckless, parasitical scroungers. I’ve reblogged a piece from the Oprichnik of the Oprichnik Rising website, whose friend was so misrepresented on one of the BBC’s programmes. This week the Tory linked Love Productions broadcast a documentary, Benefits Street, which was similarly biased. Tom Pride has extensively covered it, and the threats of violence it generated from Right-wing outraged viewers to his disgust over at Pride’s Purge. We need someone like The Wanderers in this country, to expose the growing workfare serfdom here.

Once upon a time Russian revolutionaries and intellectuals, like Turgenev, looked at their country and asked ‘Who can be happy in Russia?’ With the return of serfdom in the guise of workfare to Britain, we can turn the question round, and ask ‘Who can be happy in Britain?’

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6 Responses to “The Face of 19th Century Serfdom: Coming Back to a Supermarket Near You”

  1. Mike Sivier Says:

    Reblogged this on Vox Political.

  2. jaypot2012 Says:

    Reblogged this on Jay's Journal and commented:
    You have it spot on. I still wonder if this has been run past Prince Charles, or indeed, anyone from the Royal Family?

  3. joanna Says:

    Hi I don’t like the whole workfare thing but, I was very saddened by the behaviour of those on benefits street, for example the couple who committed benefit fraud, are you condoning that? The couple of blokes robbing people, are you also saying that is right? I have no sympathy for people like that. I do however have sympathy for people who are sanctioned unfairly.

    Unfortunately I think the coalition have been watching too much Jeremy kyle, who is a two-faced toady!

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks for commenting, Joanna. No, I don’t condone the criminal behaviour of the people on Benefit Street, such as those committing benefit fraud and the robbers and muggers you mentioned, by any means. My problem with the programme is that it, and others, such as the BBC’s programme on the unemployed fronted by two of Alan Sugar’s henchmen from The Apprentice, tend to tar the unemployed generally with the same brush. This is very much in line, and intended to justify, Conservative attitudes that see unemployment as the fault of the unemployed person, rather than created by the economy and the structure of society. The people on such programmes are carefully selected to support the bias of the programme makers and what they decide constitutes good television. This frequently means that they concentrate on the most sensational and outrageous. The producers of the programme could have shown instead the decent people, who struggle to make ends meet, and live lives of what Thoreaux called ‘quiet desperation’ in order to present a more objective portrayal of what life on benefits is really like for the vast majority of people. They didn’t, but chose instead vicious criminals. They, however, were deliberately used to present a false image of life on benefits to manipulate public opinion. This is what I object to and certainly don’t defend the criminality of the people on camera.

  4. A6er Says:

    Reblogged this on Britain Isn't Eating.

  5. How to end poverty? | Otrazhenie Says:

    […] Russian Serfs at Work – the real face of slavery […]

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