Posts Tagged ‘Land’

Post-Slavery Exploitation and the Beeb’s ‘Long Song’

December 19, 2018

Okay, I haven’t been watching The Long Song, the Beeb’s historical drama set in the Caribbean during the dying days of slavery, which has been running on BBC 1 at 9.00 pm this week. It’s in three parts, the final of which is tonight. The series is based on Andrea Levy’s book of the same name, as is about a young slave girl, Kitty, who is taken away from her mother to become the personal servant of Caroline Mortimer, the sister of the plantation owner. It’s not something I would usually watch, and the description by the I’s TV critic, Sean O’Grady, that it’s ‘like Downton Abbey with added racism and sadism’ seems about accurate.

But I did catch a brief glimpse of a clip from the show on breakfast TV this morning. This showed the planter telling the slaves that they could be evicted if they didn’t work hard enough, and that they would be paid wages, but there would be a little deduction for rent.

This seems to me to be entirely accurate historically. After the final abolition of slavery in 1838, the planters and the colonial and British governments became concerned that the slaves weren’t working hard enough, and that they would leave the plantations to occupy unused land in the interior. This would leave the plantations without the labour needed to work them and harvest their crops, the country would return to subsistence agriculture and the entire colony would be ruined. they therefore set about devising methods to force the former slaves to remain on the plantations and to work hard.

Now there was some truth to their fears. Some colonies – I think one of them was Jamaica – reported that the slaves stopped working for the two months after abolition. When they returned to work, they demanded wages which the plantation masters considered too high. They also made a point of working less hard than previously. It was reported that they considered working as hard as before to be selling their ‘free’, and that if they did so, they were unworthy of their newly gained liberty.

Some of the planters did threaten their slaves with eviction, and one female slave was thrown out of her plantation home with all her belongings. They also introduced the truck system from Britain, in which employees were paid in tokens, which could only be spent in the company shops. They also used a payment system called ‘tenancy-at-will’ to keep the slaves where they were. This combined the slaves’ wages with deductions for rent. But the rents were always higher than the wages. For examples, if they were paid 5 shillings per week in wages, then the rent would be eight shillings. It was an evil system that has rightly been compared to debt peonage in Latin America.

To stop the former slaves buying vacant crown land in British Guiana, now Guyana, the government raised the price of the plots for sale so that they were far above their ability to afford them.

Obviously the freed people of the Caribbean didn’t take this lightly, and there were Strikes, riots and protests against these and other forms of official oppression and exploitation for decades afterwards. There was also the continual fear that the colonial governments or the British would reintroduce slavery. One former slave said that the Queen, Victoria, had abolished slavery with a charter, and so could just as easily put it back again. And there were a series of rebellions by the former slaves, such as that at Morant Bay in Jamaica as a result. Given this, it is no surprise that there is a continuing resentment at their treatment by some people of West Indian heritage.

Lenny Henry, who plays one of the slaves in the series, has said in an interview that children need to be taught more about slavery. He’s right. Salman Rushdie once remarked that the British didn’t know much about their history, because so much of it happened abroad. Which is also true. This country is affected by events that occurred outside in the colonies, episodes which are known to the people of those countries but not to us, and so some of the post-imperial resentments left over are a surprise.

We do need to know more, and not the sanitized, patriotic version that Tories like Michael Gove want our kids indoctrinated with. It’s only then that we can understand some of the stresses in our multicultural society, and hopefully move beyond them.


Fabian Pamphlet on the Future of Industrial Democracy : Part 1

November 11, 2017

The Future of Industrial Democracy, by William McCarthy (London: Fabian Society 1988).

A few days ago I put up a piece about a Fabian Society pamphlet on Workers’ Control in Yugoslavia, by Frederick Singleton and Anthony Topham. This discussed the system of workers’ self-management of industry introduced by Tito in Communist Yugoslavia, based on the idea of Edvard Kardelj and Milovan Djilas, and what lessons could be learnt from it for industrial democracy in Britain.

William McCarthy, the author of the above pamphlet, was a fellow of Nuffield College and lecturer in industrial relations at Oxford University. From 1979 onwards he was the Labour party spokesman on employment in the House of Lords. He was the author of another Fabian pamphlet, Freedom at Work: towards the reform of Tory employment law.

The pamphlet followed the Bullock report advocating the election of workers to the management board, critiquing it and advocating that the system should be extended to firms employing fewer than the thousands of employees that were the subject of reforms suggested by Bullock. The blurb for the pamphlet on the back page runs

The notion of industrial democracy – the involvement of employees in managerial decisions – has been around at least since the time of the Guild Socialists. However, there has been little new thinking on the subject since the Bullock Committee reported in the 1970s. This pamphlet redresses this by re-examining the Bullock proposals and looking at the experience of other European countries.

William McCarthy outlines the three main arguments for industrial democracy:
* it improves business efficiency and performance;
* most workers want a greater say in their work environment;
* a political democracy which is not accompanied by some form of industrial power sharing is incomplete and potentially unstable.

He believes, however, that the emphasis should no longer be on putting “workers in the boardroom.” Instead, he argues that workers ought to be involved below the level of the board, through elected joint councils at both plant and enterprise levels. These councils would have the right to be informed about a wide range of subjects such as on redundancies and closures. Management would also be obliged to provide worker representatives with a full picture of the economic and financial position of the firm.

William McCarthy argues that Bullock’s plan to limit worker directors to unionised firms with over 2,000 workers is out of date. it would exclude over two thirds of the work force and would apply only to a steadily shrinking and increasingly atypical fraction of the total labour force. As the aim should be to cover the widest possible number, he advocates the setting up of the joint councils in all private and public companies, unionised or otherwise, that employ more than 500 workers.

In all cases a majority of the work force would need to vote in favour of a joint council. This vote would be binding on the employer and suitable sanctions would be available to ensure enforcement.

Finally, he believes that this frame of industrial democracy would allow unions an opportunity to challenge their negative and reactionary image and would demonstrate the contribution to better industrial relations and greater economic efficiency which can be made by an alliance between management, workers and unions.

The contents consist of an introduction, with a section of statutory rights, and then the following chapters.

1: The Objectives of Industrial Democracy, with sections on syndicalism, Job Satisfaction and Economic and Social Benefits;

2: Powers and Functions, with sections on information, consultation, areas of joint decision, union objection, and co-determination;

3: Composition and Principles of Representation, with sections on selectivity, the European experience, ideas and legal framework.

Chapter 4: is a summary and conclusion.

The section on Syndicalism gives a brief history of the idea of industrial democracy in Britain from the 17th century Diggers during the British Civil War onwards. It says

The first of these [arguments for industrial democracy – employee rights] is as old as socialism. During the seventeenth century, Winstanley and the Diggers advocated the abolition of landlords and a system of production based on the common ownership of land. During the first half o the 19th century, Marx developed his doctrine that the capitalist system both exploited and “alienated” the industrial workers, subjecting them to the domination of the bourgeoisie who owned the means of production. Under capitalism, said Marx, workers lost all control over the product of their labour and “work became a means to an end, rather than an end to itself” (see Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx, R. Tucker, Cambridge University Press, 1961). During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Sorel and his followers developed the notion of “revolutionary syndicalism” – a form of socialism under which the workers, rather than the state, would take over the productive resources of industry. Syndicalists were influential in Europe and America in the years before the First World War. They advocated industrial action, rather than the use of the ballot box, as a means of advancing to socialism (see The Wobblies, P. Renshaw, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1967).

In Britain, syndicalism came to adopt a more constitutionalist form with the formation of the guild socialists. They did not reject the use of parliamentary action, but argued that a political democracy which was not accompanied by some form of industrial power sharing was incomplete and potentially unstable. This was the basic argument of their most distinguished theoretician, G.D.H. Cole. In more recent times a trenchant restatement of this point of view can be found in Carole Pateman’s Participation and Democratic Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

In his earliest writing Cole went as far as to argue that socialism required that that “the workers must election and control their managers”. As he put it “In politics, we do not call democratic a system in which the proletatiat has the right to organise and exercise what pressure it can on an irresponsible body of rulers: we call it a modified aristocracy; and the same name adequately describes a similar industrial structure” (The World of Labour,Bell, 1913).

Subsequently Cole came to feel that continued existence of a private sector, plus the growth of collective bargaining, required some modification of the syndicalist doctrine behind Guild Socialism. By 1957, he was arguing for workers to be given “a partnership status in private firms, “sharing decisions” with the appropriate level of management C The Case for Industrial Partnership, MacMillan, 1957. This is very much the position advanced by Carole Pateman after her critique of more limited theories of democracy-eg those advanced by Schumpeter and others. These “minimalist” democrats took the view that in the context of the modern state, the most one could demand of a democracy was that it should provide a periodic electoral contest between two competing political elites. After reviewing examples of industrial democracy at work in a number of countries Pateman concluded “…it becomes clear that neither the demands for more participation, not the theory of participatory democracy itself, are based, as is so frequently claimed, on dangerous illusions or on an outmoded and unrealistic theoretical foundation. We can still have a modern, viable theory of democracy which retains the notion of participation at its heart.” (op. cit.)

Continued in Part 2, which will cover the sections on the pamphlet ‘Ideas’ and ‘Legal Framework’.

Henry Hyndman and the Democratic Federation

May 10, 2014

Henry_hyndman pic

Henry Hyndman, founder of the Democratic Federation

One of the first Socialist parties in the latter 19th century was Henry Hyndman’s Democratic Federation, founded in 1881. Hyndman corresponded with Marx about reviving Chartism, and intended his new Federation to be a working class organisation continuing ‘the great work of Spence and Owen, , Stephens and Oastler, O’Connor and O’Brien, Ernest Jones and George J. Harney’. Beer in his History of British Socialism considered that his ideas were derived from Marx, Bronterre O’Brien and Benjamin Disraeli. At its founding conference in June 8th, 1881, the party decided on the following programme:

1. Universal suffrage.

2. Triennial parliaments.

3. Equal electoral divisions.

4. Payment of members.

5. Corruption and bribery of the electors to be punishable as criminal offences.

6. Abolition of the House of Lords as a legislative body.

7. Home rule for Ireland.

8. Self-government for the colonies and dependencies.

9. Nationalisation of the land.

They presented a more Socialist programme in their 1883 pamphlet, Socialism Made Plain. This urged working people to campaign for the following:

1. Erection of healthy dwellings by the central or local authorities and letting them at low rents to working men.

2. Free and universal education and at least one free meal for school children.

3. An eight-hour day.

4. Progressive taxation on incomes over £300.

5. Establishment of national banks and gradual abolition of private banking.

6. Nationalisation of railways and land.

7. Organisation of the unemployed under State control on co-operative principles.

8. Rapid redemption of the national debt.

Most of their programme had become law by the late 20th century. However, we’re now seeing these reforms increasingly attacked. Workers are increasingly required to work far longer than eight hours as part of their normal working day under various clauses in their contracts. Free education is under attack as the government engages on its programme of piecemeal privation of the school system. The railways were privatised by John Major. And the system of council housing was destroyed by Thatcher and her policies continued by Tony Blair. These reforms should all be revived and actively demanded.

One of the points that has not been put into practice, but which I strongly believe should, is no. 7: organisation of the unemployed under State control on co-operative principles. This was harking back to the National Workshops of Louis Blanc, which were opened and undermined through government hostility in the Revolution of 1848. They were intended to provide work for the unemployed, who would manage them and share the profits. Under the Tories, the present system of unemployment benefit is deliberately intended to be as humiliating as possible in order to drive the jobless into any kind of work, no matter how poorly paid and with poor working conditions. They are moreover seen as a source of cheap labour for the companies participating in the Workfare programmes. We desperately need a system of unemployment benefit and state provision of work that builds and empowers people. I’d like there to be ways in which the unemployed themselves can seize power so that they can force the government to treat them with humanity and dignity. The government’s lauded campaign to create a more entrepreneurial Britain by forcing the unemployed to classify themselves as self-employed in order to keep receiving benefits is woefully inadequate and doesn’t even come close.

The Sansculotte Programme of 1793

April 22, 2014

French Revolution Book

D.G. Wright’s Revolution and Terror in France, 1789-1795 also contains the address the radical sections of the Sansculottes sent to the National Assembly on 2nd September 1793. The sansculottes weren’t all working class, nor were they Socialists, and the address was the closest they ever came to a programme of social and economic reform. Nevertheless, it shows a profound and extremely radical commitment to social equality and is marked by demands for limits to be placed on wealth in the interest of providing for the poor. It runs:

Mandatories of the People – Just how long are you going to tolerate royalism, ambition, egotism, intrigue and avarice, each of them linked to fanaticism, and opening our frontiers to tyranny, while spreading devastation and death everywhere? How long are you going to suffer food-hoarders spreading famine throughout the Republic in the detestable hope that patriots will cut each other’s throats and the throne will be restored over our bloody corpses, with the help of foreign despots? You must hurry for there is no time to lose … the whole universe is watching you; humanity reproaches you for the troubles which are devastating the French Republic. Posterity will damn your names in future if you do not speedily find a remedy. … You must hurry, representatives of the people, to deprive all former nobles, priests, parlementaires and financiers of all administrative and judicial responsibility; also to fix the price of basic foodstuffs, raw materials, wages, and the profits of industry and commerce. You have both the justification and the power to do so. To speak plainly! To talk of aristocrats, royalists, moderates and counter-revolutionaries is to draw attention to property rights, held to be sacred and inviolable … no doubt; but do these rogues ignore the fact that property rights are confined to the extent of the satisfaction of physical needs? Don’t they know that nobody has the right to do anything that will injure another person? What could be more harmful than the arbitrary power to increase the price of basic necessities to a level beyond the means of seven eighths of the citizens? … do they not realize that every individual in the Republic must employ his intelligence and the strength of his arms in the service of the Republic, and must spill his blood for her to the very last drop? In return, the Republic should guarantee to each citizen the means of sufficient basic necessities to stay alive.

Would you not agree that we have passed a harsh law against hoarders? Representatives of the people, do not let the law be abused … this law, which forces those with large stocks of foodstuffs to declare their hoard, tends to favour hoarders more than it wipes out hoarding; it puts all their stocks under the supervision of the nation, yet permits them to charge whatever price their greed dictates. Consequently the general assembly of the Section des Sans Culottes considers it to be the duty of all citizens to propose measures which seem likely to bring about a return of abundance and public tranquillity. It therefore resolves to ask the Convention to decree the following:

1. That former nobles will be barred from military careers and every kind of public office; that former parlementaires, priests and financiers will be deprived of all administrative and judicial duties.

2. That the price of basic necessities be fixed at the levels of 1789-90, allowing for differences in quality.

3. That the price of raw materials, level of wages and profits of industry and commerce also be fixed, so that the hard-working man, the cultivator and the trader will be able to procure basic necessities, and also those things which add to their enjoyment.

4. That all those cultivators who, by some accident, have not been able to harvest their crop, be compensated from public funds.

5. That each department be allowed sufficient public money to ensure that the price of basic foodstuffs will be the same for all citizens of the Republic.

6. That the sums of money allowed to departments be used to eradicate variations in the price of foodstuffs and necessities and in the cost of transporting them to all parts of the Republic, so that each citizen is equal in these things.

7. That existing leases be cancelled and rents fixed at the levels of 1789-90, as for foodstuffs.

8. That there be a fixed maximum on personal wealth.

9 That no single individual shall possess more than the declared maximum.

10 That nobody be able to lease more land than is necessary for fixed number of ploughs.

11. That no citizen shall possess more than one workshop or retail shop.

12. That all who possess goods and land without legal title be recognised as proprietors.

The Section des Sans Culottes thinks that these measures will created abundance and tranquillity, and will, little by little, remove the gross inequalities of wealth and multiply the number of proprietors. (pp. 118-20).

It’s very much of it’s time, but some of it is still relevant to today. There are struggling small farmers in Britain, who need support from the government if they are to survive. In the corporative 1960s and ’70s, the government did pursue and prices and incomes policy, to make sure that wages matched the price of goods. There is a problem where prices have risen while the government and industrialists have kept wages low and frozen, so that some families are finding it difficult to make ends meet. The same also applies to another necessity that didn’t exist in the late 18th century: electricity. The Labour party announced that if it won the election, it would freeze electricity prices. A few months or so ago one of the electricity companies also announced that they were not going to raise their prices due to the fact that there was so much indignation at the cost of electricity when people were finding it difficult to pay for it.

As for limits on personal wealth and the number of businesses one should own, even though governments wish to promote successful industries and businesses, the policies can still be justified. It is obscene that the pay for company directors, elite bankers and the extremely rich has risen colossally, while the majority of workers have either had their wages frozen or their pay actually cut. The Japanese have a law which expressly states that company directors and chairmen may only enjoy a salary at a set, maximum level above the average wages of their workers. Japan is now one of the very largest economies in the world, and in many respects it is a ruthlessly capitalistic culture. Yet Japanese culture also stresses the importance of harmony and consensus. The law setting a ceiling for managers’ salaries was deliberately introduced in order to create an orderly, middle-class, harmonious society with little extremes of wealth. It’s questionable whether this has been successful, given the rise in unemployment due to the massive Japanese slump, and the appalling conditions endured by outcast groups such as the ‘Village People’ and Japanese Koreans.

It’s also the case that the actual number of businesses trading in the high street is contracting as more and more local businesses are forced out or taken over by the big firms. In Stokes Croft in Bristol four years ago there were riots due to the opening of yet another branch of Sainsbury’s, which threatened to put the local grocers and supermarkets out of business. The increasing homogeneity of the high street has attracted media attention and discussion. There has even been discussion of laws to prevent too many of the same brand of supermarket from opening in the same area.


If the Sansculottes were around now, this man would not be in government.

And finally, considering the present government, you can well sympathise with the Sansculotte proposal to exclude nobles and financiers from government. The present government is, after all, composed by aristos and financiers, working on behalf of aristos, financiers and big business against the poor.

As I said in my last post, we could do with rediscovering a little bit more of the Sansculotte commitment to genuine democracy and egalitarianism.