Posts Tagged ‘Ruskin’

Radical Balladry: John Clare, the Enclosures and the Destruction of the Environment

May 18, 2014

Ballad Seller pic

Jess also posted up this poem by John Clare, the 19th century poet and agricultural worker, in her comment to one of my pieces on radical working class music and poetry, as another piece that continues to speak to modern needs and issues today from over a hundred years ago. In this instance it’s the threat to the environment from intensive commercial agriculture.

The Mores

Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed spring’s blossoms on its brow
Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity
And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the horizon’s edge surrounds
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave
And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men
Cows went and came, with evening morn and night,
To the wild pasture as their common right
And sheep, unfolded with the rising sun
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won
Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain
Then met the brook and drank and roamed again
The brook that dribbled on as clear as glass
Beneath the roots they hid among the grass
While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along
Free as the lark and happy as her song
But now all’s fled and flats of many a dye
That seemed to lengthen with the following eye
Moors, loosing from the sight, far, smooth, and blea
Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free
Are vanished now with commons wild and gay
As poet’s visions of life’s early day
Mulberry-bushes where the boy would run
To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and done
And hedgrow-briars – flower-lovers overjoyed
Came and got flower-pots – these are all destroyed
And sky-bound mores in mangled garbs are left
Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft
Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow large as garden grounds
In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease
Each little path that led its pleasant way
As sweet as morning leading night astray
Where little flowers bloomed round a varied host
That travel felt delighted to be lost
Nor grudged the steps that he had ta-en as vain
When right roads traced his journeys and again –
Nay, on a broken tree he’d sit awhile
To see the mores and fields and meadows smile
Sometimes with cowslaps smothered – then all white
With daiseys – then the summer’s splendid sight
Of cornfields crimson o’er the headache bloomd
Like splendid armys for the battle plumed
He gazed upon them with wild fancy’s eye
As fallen landscapes from an evening sky
These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go
Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came
And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes
Have found too truly that they were but dreams.
John Clare
http://ecohist.history.ox.ac.uk//readings/clare-poems.pdf

Firth and Arnove include it in the section, ‘Land and Liberty’, in their The People Speak, as an example of popular protest against the Enclosures, which saw thousands of tenant farmers and agricultural workers forced off their land as they were enclosed and developed by the landlords.

Historians now take the view that before the rise of the Romantic movement, and particularly before Shell published their motoring guides to the British countryside in the 1920s and 1930s, people had a much more utilitarian attitude to the environment. Rather than seeing it simply or primarily as a place of beauty, it was seen instead as a working environment, valued by the people who lived there for the resources they could exploit.
This changed when Shell published their motoring guides, which opened the countryside up to city dwellers, who were now able to travel by car into the countryside to enjoy its beauty and quaint, historic buildings.

I’m not entirely convinced by this. While people I know who’ve come from a farming background have said that the farming and agricultural community does have a much less romantic attitude to the countryside, and does indeed see it in terms of what can be used, people down the centuries have always celebrated it’s beauty. You can see it as a far back as one of the Viking romances. There is a tale where a Viking warrior decides to leave his home due to harassment from other, hostile warriors. Travelling on the road away from his farmstead, he takes one last look at it. He is struck by the beauty of the sun shining on his farm in the valley, and so changes his mind. He turns back, determined to fight for his land and his home.

And of course there are all the songs and poems written during the Middle Ages about the beauty of the countryside in spring time.

As for modern attempts to preserve the environment, these date to the late nineteenth century, when Ruskin and others up and down the country started a movement to preserve the local countryside from development so that local people could continue to enjoy it, over two decades before the Shell Guides appeared. The enjoyment of the countryside, not just as a place of work, but also as a place of leisure and beauty, goes back a long way.

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

January 8, 2014

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?’