Tag Archives: class

The Condition of the Working Class in England

engels condition of the working class017(1)In the words of my partner, a corker. It left me with a number of impressions.

The most overpowering is just rage and sadness at how the industrial revolution decimated lives. Half of children dead by the age of 5, average life expectancy from 45 to 50, the malnutrition, cold, damp, misshapen bodies, impotency and infertility, lost limbs, lost lives.

‘The English working men call this ‘social murder’, and accuse our whole society of perpetrating this crime perpetually. Are they wrong? (38)

No. They are not wrong, and Engels’s goal with this work is to prove it. He writes:

I have now to prove that society in England daily and hourly commits what the working-men’s organs, with perfect correctness, characterize as social murder, that it has placed the workers under conditions in which they can neither retain health nor live long; that it undermines the vital force of these workers gradually, little by little, and so hurries them to the grave before their time. I have further to prove that society knows how injurious such conditions are to the health and the life of the workers, and yet does nothing to improve these conditions (107).

The second is just how much this must have contributed to Marx’s thinking in writing Capital, I read it and throughout the empirical and social research I found so many echoes (but they must be considered previews really) of Marx’s more theoretical work making sense of it, bringing its insights into order and revealing a deeper structural functioning. Editor and author of the introduction Dave McLellan notes that it was one of Engels’s articles on this political economy of the factories which first awoke Marx’s interest in economics when he received it as editor of the radical German journal to which Engels was submitting it. I can’t help but think that these two works should be more tightly linked, particularly for those like myself who are nervy of theory too removed from concrete fact. I like to think now, of this being the first volume of their work throughout the volumes of Capital, the understanding of raw suffering and misery, the initial grasping of the roles played by competition (given an entire chapter which proposes that capitalism consists of a never-ending movement between crisis and prosperity and this requires a reserve army of workers) and constantly improving technology, that drove them to fully theorise these things much more elaborately and certainly at far remove from the actual conditions described here. Some of them are revisited in Capital itself, but I found this to be far more persuasive, both why a bigger theory of capitalism was so desperately needed, and to dig into the way it has functioned to impact worker’s lives and how they have struggled against it (which Capital never gets to…).

Third, the character of Engels himself. In the opening dedication ‘To the Working Classes of Great Britain’, he writes

‘I forsook the company and the dinner parties, the port wine and champagne of the middle classes, and devoted my leisure hours almost exclusively to the intercourse with plain Working Men(9)

I can think of no more hilarious opening, and McLellen does right in pointing out (as Engels points out himself in his 1885 preface), how young Engels was: only 24 when he researched and wrote this between 1843-45 while working at his father’s thread factory in Manchester. How imbued he was with the idealism of the Young Hegelians and the even more radical politics of Hess and Marx. He remains in many ways a man of his time and class, with many a cringe-worthy sentence on the nature of the Irish and the stupidity of the working man, and the most amazing failure to see any revolutionary potential in the thousands of women and child workers. He sees instead a fundamentally unnatural system where women work and men actually take care of the home (OMG! the horror!).

Can anyone imagine a more insane state of things?…this condition, which unsexes the man and takes from the woman all womanliness…(155)

On the working classes? He confuses arrests with criminality for example, completely failing to recognise the use of police and prison to dominate and contain. It is hard imagining him treating any factory as an intellectual equal. For the Irish, he does note that it is primarily as an exploited country and as immigrants that they are used to force wages and demands down. But there is a brutal judgment of their humanity running through everything:

In short, the Irish have discovered the minimum of the necessities of life, and are making the English workers acquainted with it. Filth and drunkeness, too, they have brought with them (103)

Fourth, the key observations of the city and its form that he makes. On Manchester:

The town itself is peculiarly built, so that a person may live in it for years, and go in and out daily without coming into contact with a working-people’s quarter or even with workers, that is, so long as he confines himself to his business or to pleasure walks. This arises chiefly from the fact, that by unconscious tacit agreement, as well as with outspoken conscious determination, the working-people’s quarters are sharply separated from the sections of the city reserved for the middle class; or, if this does not succeed, they are concealed with the cloak of charity (57)

He looks at the full layout of the city, with each class inhabiting its sections, and large thoroughfares separating them, lined with shops and activity and closing off from view the inner courts and closes:

The finest part of this arrangement is this, that the members of the money aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the laboring districts to their place of business, without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left. …they suffice to conceal from the eyes of the wealthy men and women of strong stomachs and weak nerves the misery and grime which form the complement to their wealth (58).

The descriptions of thousands of people crammed into tiny closes with pigs and no sewage facilities or drainage or running water are heart breaking.

If anyone wishes to see in how little a space a human being can move, how little air–and such air!–he can breathe, how little of civilization he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither (65)

He diagrams the closes and courts, the new rows being thrown up shoddily by speculative builders and the methods and materials they use. He also sees them, like Lefebvre long after him, as the birthplaces of struggle:

The great cities are the birthplaces of labour movements; in them the workers first began to reflect upon their own condition, and to struggle against it; in them the opposition between proletariat and bourgeoisie first made itself manifest; from them proceeded the Trade Unions, Chartism, and Socialism. The great cities have transformed the diseases of the social body, which appears in chronic form in the country, into an acute one, and so made manifest its real nature and the means of curing it. Without the great cities and their forcing influence upon the popular intelligence, the working class would be far less advanced than it is. Moreover, they have destroyed the last remnants of the patriarchal relation between working men and employers…(133)

And finally, the accounts of struggle to recover humanity through theft, arson, murder by despairing individuals, and the struggle to organise into unions and associations, to win political change through chartism. There is so much to admire here, even though Engels own theoretical belief in the inevitability of defeat is at war with the hopefulness inspired by worker struggle:

The history of these Unions is a long series of defeats of the working men, interrupted by a few isolated victories. All these efforts naturally cannot alter the economic law according to which wages are determined by the relation between supply and demand in the labour market. Hence the Unions remain powerless against all great forces which influence this relation (224)

He describes long strikes and gun battles. The ‘Rebecca’ disturbances in Wales, in which agricultural workers donned women’s clothing and black face to conduct their rebellion. he prophesied revolution coming at any minute.

He was wrong of course, at least about the imminence of revolution. It reminds me of reading Angela Davis writing in the 60s, that firm belief that change is around the corner. Writing his preface 40 years later, I found it fascinating to discover that that part of his explanation for this failure is the rise of England as the manufacturing hub of a globalised world, exporting to all of Europe and creating a demand for its goods as far away as Africa. This caused the manufacturers to make a compact with workers (my word), raising wages and improving conditions so as not to interrupt production and wildly rising profits with growing markets whose demand outstripped supply. The beginnings of a newly reorganising chains of production and a growing globalisation.

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Round About a Pound a Week

3368334Maud Pember Reeves ([1913] 1979]
Virago Press

A classic book in many ways, primarily as emblematic of turn-of-the-century Fabian feminism, and at the same time one of the first serious studies of working class women.It is heartbreaking.

I read a large chunk of it in a most horrific yet insanely trendy and expensive hotel we had been put up in last minute as a result of an error in arrangements for a panel. The Mondrian. God. People there dripped money and it heaved with staff anxious to help them and extremely expensive art in terribly bad taste and the ‘prow’ of beaten copper pieces individually soldered had taken two and a half years to create and I sat there in the lobby waiting for my partner without the wherewithal to buy a drink reading about life in cellars and dead babies with tears literally dripping from my nose and the desire to smash all of it. Because we’re heading back there. Back to 1913 — this reads like Dickens but these conditions shamefully lasted well into the 20th Century. Where they should have been abolished forever.

So many babies died. The rest slowly starved, along with their parents. This book contains tables and tables of menus, hard choices, the relationships between housing and illness and death. I love Virago Press,  bless them for republishing it with Sally Alexander to deliver the splendid introduction.

The Fabian Women’s Group was actually founded in the home of Maud Pember Reeves in 1908, by Charlotte Wilson, anarchist and early member of the Fabian society. They followed in a long tradition of philanthropy, but brought together women from multiple radical (to reformist perhaps) traditions who still believed in the move from individual solutions to social ones.

Their goals were not small and have yet to be obtained: ‘The two immediate aims … were equality in citizenship and women’s economic independence’ (xiv).

I’m going to delve more into the Fabian Women’s Group (bookmarked for example, is the understanding of class differences in the struggle for gender equality laid out by Mabel Atkinson in The Economic Foundation of the Women’s Movement (Fabian Tract No. 175)), but I so much loved this wonderful reminiscence about the shifting sands of feminism and the generation gap between older Fabians and younger:

There are also faint residues of Victorian standards of propriety about some of the older women. When I asked Amber Blanco White for a description of her mother’s friends in the FWG, she replied that there “was never any time to meet any of them–they were just a lot of women talking about very serious things.” Her mother thought it was important for girls to study their lessons most of the time: having been well educated herself, and her mother before her, she wanted her daughters to grow up in the same way….Femininity tended to be identified with frivolity–they kept a vigilant watch on this side of their character. In the 1909 annual report of the Group, women were urged to “cast aside feminine slackness and negligence with regard to their own affairs”, and get on with the work of preparing for citizenship (xviii-xix).

The scheme behind this study, the “Mother Allowance Scheme” which attempted to make a measurable impact in infant well-being and survival started within a year of the group’s founding. I think Alexander nails what is important about both the nature of the study and the book that was produced, as this was ‘unique in investigating the daily circumstances of women’s lives, how they coped with continual damp, vermin, inadequate food… (x). I liked this as well:

the conclusions were inescapable–the cause of infant mortality was not that mothers were ignorant or degenerate, but that they had too little money to provide for their own and their families’ essential needs…(xi)

The book is quite full of fantastic descriptions of the area. There are a number of longer quotes courtesy of forgottenbooks.com, I could never have typed them from my vintage hardcopy, but they are worth looking at in full:

TAKE a tram from Victoria to Vauxhall Station. Get out under the railway arch which faces Vauxhall Bridge, and there you will find Ken nington Lane. The railway arch roofs in a din which reduces the roar of trains continually passing overhead to a vibrating, muffled rumble. From either end of the arch comes a close procession of trams, motor-buses, brewers’ drays, coal-lorries, carts filled with unspeakable material for glue factory and tannery, motor-cars, coster barrows, and people. It is a stopping-place for tramcars and motor-buses; therefore little knots of agitated persons continually collect on both pathways, and dive between the vehicles and descending passengers in order to board the particular bus or tram they desire. At rhythmic intervals all traffic through the arch is suspended to allow a flood of trams, buses, drays, and vans, to surge and rattle and bang across the opening of the archway which faces the river.

At the opposite end there is no cross-current. The trams slide away to the right towards the Oval. In front is Kennington Lane, and to the left, at right angles, a narrow street connects with Vauxhall Walk, leading farther on into Lambeth Walk, both locally better known as The Walk. Such is the western gateway to the district stretching north to Lambeth Road, south to Lansdowne Road, and east to Walworth Road, where live the people whose lives form the subject of this book.

They are not the poorest people of the district. Far from it! They are, putting aside the tradesmen whose shops line the big thoroughfares such as Kennington Road or Kennington Park Road, some of the more enviable and settled inhabitants of this part of the world. The poorest people” the river-side casual, the workhouse in-and-out, the bar-room loafer ” are anxiously ignored by these respectable persons whose work is permanent, as permanency goes in Lambeth, and whose wages range from i8s. to 305. a week. They generally are somebody’s labourer, mate, or handyman. Painters’ labourers, plumbers’ labourers, builders’ handymen, dustmen’s mates, printers’ labourers, potters’ labourers, trouncers for carmen, are common amongst them. Or they may be fish-fryers, tailors’ pressers, feather cleaners’ assistants, railway-carriage washers, employees of dust contractors, carmen for Borough Council contractors, or packers of various descriptions (2-3).

The streets they live in are monotonously and drearily decent, lying back from the main arteries, and with little traffic other than a stray barrel organ, a coal-lorry selling by the hundredweight sack, or a taxi-cab going to or from its driver’s dinner at home. At certain hours in the day ” before morning school, at midday, and after four o’clock ” these narrow streets become full of screaming, running, shouting children. Early in the morning men come from every door and pass out of sight. At different times during the evening the same men straggle home again. At all other hours the street is quiet and desperately dull. Less ultra-respectable neighbourhoods may have a certain picturesqueness, or give a sense of community of interest or of careless comradeship, with their untidy women chatting in the doorways and their unoccupied men lounging at the street corners; but in these superior streets a kind of dull aloofness seems to be the order of the day (3).

The houses are outwardly decent–two stories of grimy brick. The roadway is narrow, but on the whole well kept, and on the pavement outside many doors there is to be noticed, in a greater or less condition of freshness, a semicircle of hearthstone, which has for its radius the length of the housewife’s arm as she kneels on the step. In some streets little paved alleyways lead behind the front row of houses, and twist and turn among still smaller dwellings at the back ” dwellings where the front door leads downwards into a room instead of upwards into a passage. Districts of this kind cover dreary acres–the same little two-story house, with or without an inconceivably drearier basement, with the same kind of baker’s shop at the corner faced by the same kind of greengrocer’s shop opposite. The ugly, constantly-recurring school buildings are a relief to the spirit oppressed by the awful monotony (4-5).

The description of the study, and social experiment,  is fairly astonishing in its matter-of-fact summation of widespread desperate poverty that hopefully we will never return to:

A sum of money was placed at the disposal of this committee in order to enable them to study the effect on mother and child of sufficient nourishment before and after birth. Access was obtained to the list of out-patients of a well-known lying in hospital; names and addresses of expectant mothers were taken from the list, and a couple of visitors were instructed to undertake the weekly task of seeing each woman in her own home, supplying the nourishment, and noting the effects. From as long as three months before birth, if possible, till the child was a year old, the visits were to continue. The committee decided that the wives of men receiving over 26s. a week were likely to have already sufficient nourishment, while the wives of men out of work or receiving less than i8s. a week were likely to be living in a state of such misery that the temptation to let the rest of the family share in the mother’s and baby’s nourishment would be too great (8).

As if that weren’t bad enough, they were in for another unexpected surprise when actually faced with the realities of people’s lives:

It was at first proposed to rule out disease, but pulmonary and respiratory disease were found to be so common that to rule them out would be to refuse about half the cases. It was therefore decided to regard such a condition of health as normal, and to refuse only such cases of active or malignant disease in the parents as might, in the doctor’s opinion, completely wreck the child’s chance of a healthy life (9).

And to me unsurprisingly, but to them, busy checking and rechecking the honesty of their subjects (because so much of this book is about middle-class prejudices, though I give them credit for overcoming them to an impressive extent in understanding at least the objective conditions faced by working families):

the budgets have borne out each other in the most striking manner. There seems to be so little choice in the manner of keeping a family on 2os. a week (12).

There are some great little sections of immense detail — hinting at the riches held in the actual archives:

Emma, aged eleven, began as follows: “Mr G’s wages was 19 bob out of that e took thruppons for es diner witch is not mutch e bein sutch a arty man. The rent was six and Mrs G payed fower an six because Bobby’s boots was off is feet and his knew ones was one an six witch makes six and that leaves 12 an 9 and out of that,” etc. It took four pages of painstaking manuscript in a school exercise-book to complete one week (14).

And even these judgmental and haughty women could be humbled — and acknowledged it:

The women who kept their accounts for themselves were found to be better arithmeticians than they were writers. Their addition had a disconcerting way of being correct, even when the visitor seemed to get a different total (14).

There is also some level of self-awareness here, of the intrusion such a study represents and the cost born by the working women involved:

At the beginning of each case the woman seemed to steel herself to sit patiently and bear it while the expected questions or teaching of something should follow (16).

It doesn’t stop Maud Pember Reeves from being a little judgmental, but still she is wise enough to realise that even a serious, well-organised and collective fight would not be enough to materially change very much:

The tenants might do more for themselves if they understood and could use their rights ” if they expected to be more comfortable than they are. They put up with broken and defective grates which burn twice the coal for half the heat; they accept plagues of rats or of vermin as acts of God; they deplore a stopped-up drain without making an effective complaint, because they are afraid of being told to find new quarters if they make too much fuss. If they could or would take concerted action, they could right a great many of the smaller grievances. But, when all is said and done, these reforms could do very little as long as most of the present buildings exist at all, or as long as a family of eight persons can only afford two, or at most three, small rooms (38).

I loved this as well, having done so much tenant organising — and lost my own home as a teenager — it amazes me that anyone could assume that people are happy just to leave their homes, poor as they may be. I have never found that to be true, and possibly has never been true, which is why the fight needs to be to make places better for the people who live there:

strange as it may seem to those whose bi-weekly visit to Lambeth is like a bi-weekly plunge into Hades–the people to whom Lambeth is home want to stay in Lambeth (39).

That fight is on again I think. Give Pember Reeves her due, she was able to recognise it. Just as there is a brilliant section where she patiently explains how they slowly unravelled the reason working class women weren’t feeding their families porridge as recommended by every philanthropic visitor and doctor ever — there was little time to cook it the morning it was to be eaten, cooked the day before it was terrible without milk or sugar — and not one of these families could afford milk or sugar, it was quick to burn in the one old decrepit pot each family used for cooking, and when that pot had been in use the night before for fish stew — well, you can imagine. All this was a major discovery for philanthropy.

I think the gap in understanding between classes is most visible in her descriptions of attitudes and bearing — and clearly this is what the presence of one of these formidable and never-frivolous socialists would most impact. They describe a class without life or humour to any degree, which I cannot believe at all. Possibly because the humour was hidden, or because they could not understand it, or because it was not convenient for a book urging the world to action like this was meant to be. Still, perhaps the below was true for some, and I’m the last person to say a life of such want and misery doesn’t cost:

Want of joy of life was the most salient feature of the children as they grew older. They to readily accepted limitations and qualifications imposed upon them, without that irrational hoping against impossibility and belief in favourable miracles which carry more fortunate children through many disappointments (93).

The outstanding fact about the children was not their stupidity nor their lack of beauty–they were neither stupid nor ugly–it was their puny size and damaged health (193).

I quite loved this:

If the poor were not improvident, they would hardly dare to live their lives at all (146).

I also loved her defense of men, and understanding of their position after children come along:

if he be at all tender-hearted towards his family…he must never smoke, he must never take a glass of ale; he must walk to and from his work in all weathers; he must have no recreations but the continual mending of his children’s boots; he must neither read nor go to picture palaces nor take holidays, if he is to do all that social reformers expect of him when they theoretically parcel out his tiny income (152).

There’s a fascinating little section about someone who was a tenant on the Duchy of Cornwall estate, and early slum clearance schemes which seemed to have made life worse for many (as they still do today as well):

She solved her problem by becoming a tenant of the Duchy of Cornwall estate. She got four tiny rooms for 8s., and kept them spotless. Her husband, who was a painter’s labourer and a devoted gardener, kept the tiny strip of yard gay with flowers, and kept the interior of the damp, ill-contrived little house fresh with “licks of paint” of motley colours and patches and odds and ends of a medley of papers. When work was slack, Mrs. C. simply did not pay the rent at all. As she said: “The Prince er Wales, ‘e won’t sell us up if we keeps the place a credit to ‘im.” She seemed to be right, for they owed a great deal of rent, and were never threatened with ejection. She explained the principle on which she worked as follows: “Me and my young man we keeps the place nice, and wen ‘e’s out er work in the winter I gets twenty loaves and 2 lbs. er sixpenny fer the children, and a snack er meat fer ‘im, and then I begins ter think about payin’ th’ agent out er anythink I ‘as left. I’d be tellin’ a lie if I said I didn’t owe a bit in the rent-book, and now and agen th’ agent gets a shillin’ er two extra fer back money, but ‘e carn’t ‘elp seeing’ ‘ow creditable the place is. That piece er blue paper looks a fair treat through the winder, so ‘e don’t make no fuss.” The house they lived in, and many like it, have been demolished, and a number of well-built houses are appearing in their stead. The Lambeth people declare that the rents have gone up, however, and that the displaced tenants will not be able to return, but this rumour has not been inquired into. What happened to the C.’s overdraft when they were oblidged to turn out is not know. The children of this family were short and stumpy, but of solid build, and certainly had more vigour and staying-power than those of the two other families already mentioned…(183-185)

It ends with a look at the bigger picture and recommendations for change. I quite appreciated her skewering of the men running the country:

Instead, however, of co-operating with parents and seeing to it that its wards are supplied with such primary necessaries, this masculine State, representing only male voters, and, until lately, chiefly those of the richer classes, has been crude and unwise in its relations with all parents guilty of the crime of poverty (215).

It doesn’t really depart from the Fabian philosophy at all, but is surprisingly modern in some ways with its push for a minimum wage to raise the bottom wages, and its talk of the state as guardian. There is much here to critique, but for its time it is a splendid study, and in its subject matter unique as it rescues to some extent a world of experience that might otherwise have been completely lost. These are women who often could not write, whose voices were never heard. Again, something we have fought hard and changed, but I am so afraid it is something that once more we could lose.

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In the Year of the Jubilee

12196008George Gissing (1894)

I’m not entirely sure what I thought about this. Somewhere around the middle I had to put it down, after Nancy is seduced by Tarrant and its disdain for both the female sex and for the aspiring lower middle and lower classes seems to reach its height. I came back to it, and was glad I did as it is at least somewhat self-reflective on this point and didn’t go quite where I thought it would, so it improved on me.

The story focuses primarily on Nancy Lord, daughter of a self-made man now made fairly wealthy through business. She and her brother Horace seem made for better things than their neighbours and friends — a family of three sisters (Ada, Beatrice and Fanny) residing with the eldest’s hen-pecked husband Mr Peachey, a bookish girl named Jessica, the strict and religious Barmby family, the advertising man Luckworth Crewe. Above them is Mr Tarrant, gentleman, and a Mrs Dameral, who turns out to be the mother they thought was dead (this is the plot of a Georgette Heyer novel of my mother’s, Venetia, whose other main character is a Lord Dameral — it seems hardly coincidental but I can’t think it an hommage). Really this novel is an uncomfortable portrait of almost everyone in it. It is well-written but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it were it not for the insights it offers onto Gissing’s own geographies of class mapped across the streets and homes of London (and those of Empire via Barbados to some extent), as well as a fascinating (if disapproving) look into changing views on women and their place in society. There are extensive descriptions of streets and areas making this an oft-quoted source among those writing about literature and the city — or so I was told. It’s on Gutenberg Press so I was able to pull large blocks of text:

It was a house in De Crespigny Park; unattached, double-fronted, with half-sunk basement, and a flight of steps to the stucco pillars at the entrance. De Crespigny Park, a thoroughfare connecting Grove Lane, Camberwell, with Denmark Hill, presents a double row of similar dwellings; its clean breadth, with foliage of trees and shrubs in front gardens, makes it pleasant to the eye that finds pleasure in suburban London. In point of respectability, it has claims only to be appreciated by the ambitious middle-class of Camberwell. Each house seems to remind its neighbour, with all the complacence expressible in buff brick, that in this locality lodgings are not to let (loc 56).

I partly only love these meditations on suburban architecture and the lives they shape within them because I know these suburbs — though being from America I don’t think of them as suburbs at all. Itself interesting. I might just share the belief that it is more pleasant when homes are different, even if differently ugly:

Grove Lane is a long acclivity, which starts from Camberwell suburban dwellings. The houses vary considerably in size and Green, and, after passing a few mean shops, becomes a road of aspect, also in date,–with the result of a certain picturesqueness, enhanced by the growth of fine trees on either side. Architectural grace can nowhere be discovered, but the contract-builder of today has not yet been permitted to work his will; age and irregularity, even though the edifices be but so many illustrations of the ungainly, the insipid, and the frankly hideous, have a pleasanter effect than that of new streets built to one pattern by the mile. There are small cottages overgrown with creepers, relics of Camberwell’s rusticity; rows of tall and of squat dwellings that lie behind grassy plots, railed from the road; larger houses that stand in their own gardens, hidden by walls. Narrow passages connect the Lane with its more formal neighbour Camberwell Grove; on the other side are ways leading towards Denmark Hill, quiet, leafy. From the top of the Lane, where Champion Hill enjoys an aristocratic seclusion, is obtainable a glimpse of open fields and of a wooded horizon southward.

These are suburbs perhaps, fundamentally, because they are still in construction. Because all around lie the remains of the country that was there before the universally reviled speculative builders arrived to do their damage:

Her place of abode favoured neither health nor mental tranquillity. It was one of a row of new houses in a new quarter. A year or two ago the site had been an enclosed meadow, portion of the land attached to what was once a country mansion; London, devourer of rural limits, of a sudden made hideous encroachment upon the old estate, now held by a speculative builder; of many streets to be constructed, three or four had already come into being, and others were mapped out, in mud and inchoate masonry, athwart the ravaged field. Great elms, the pride of generations passed away, fell before the speculative axe, or were left standing in mournful isolation to please a speculative architect; bits of wayside hedge still shivered in fog and wind, amid hoardings variegated with placards and scaffolding black against the sky. The very earth had lost its wholesome odour; trampled into mire, fouled with builders’ refuse and the noisome drift from adjacent streets, it sent forth, under the sooty rain, a smell of corruption, of all the town’s uncleanliness. On this rising locality had been bestowed the title of ‘Park.’ Mrs. Morgan was decided in her choice of a dwelling here by the euphonious address, Merton Avenue, Something-or-other Park.

The old mansion–not very old, and far from beautiful, but stoutly built–stood grim and desolate, long dismantled, and waiting only to be torn down for the behoof of speculative dealers in old material. What aforetime was a tree-bordered drive, now curved between dead stumps, a mere slushy cartway; the stone pillars, which had marked the entrance, damaged in the rending away of metal with a market value, drooped sideways, ready at a touch to bury themselves in slime (loc 2696).

Here is another passage where moving up in the world always means moving out, the obtaining not just of well-kept lodgings, but bay windows and an address that will impress:

Before his admission to a partnership in Mr. Lord’s business, Samuel Barmby lived with his father and two sisters in Coldharbour Lane. Their house was small, old and crumbling for lack of repair; the landlord, his ground-lease having but a year or two to run, looked on with equanimity whilst the building decayed. Under any circumstances, the family must soon have sought a home elsewhere, and Samuel’s good fortune enabled them to take a house in Dagmar Road, not far from Grove Lane; a new and most respectable house, with bay windows rising from the half-sunk basement to the second storey. Samuel, notwithstanding his breadth of mind, privately admitted the charm of such an address as ‘Dagmar Road,’ which looks well at the head of note-paper, and falls with sonority from the lips (loc 2596).

The mysterious Mrs Dameral is given the seal of trust and approval simply because of her post code. We reach the difference between the West End and everywhere else as Horace tells his sister Nancy why he continued her acqaintance:

‘One couldn’t refuse, you know; I was only too glad to go to a house in the West End. She opened the carriage-door from the inside, and I got in, and off we drove. I felt awkward, of course, but after all I was decently dressed, and I suppose I can behave like a gentleman, and–well, she sat looking at me and smiling, and I could only smile back (loc 429).

In trying to ‘improve’ Horace from her West End flat, she says:

You, Horace, belong to a social sphere so far, far above her. If I could only impress that upon your modesty. You are made to associate with people of the highest refinement. How deplorable to think that a place in society is waiting for you, and you keep longing for Camberwell!’ (loc 2049)

Later she tells Beatrice:

‘Miss. French, I believe you reside in a part of London called
Camberwell. And I believe you are engaged in some kind of millinery business. This excuses you for ill-manners. All the same, I must beg you to relieve me of your presence.’ She rang the bell. ‘Good evening.’ (loc 3219)

Neighbourhood is everything, you see. Everywhere the characters and the narrative itself equates neighbourhood with social station and personal limits. These limitations are never fully exceeded, even as a few make the very best of them they can and finally win narrative approval. From early on Nancy blames the closed of nature her life and prospects on her home almost entirely:

It is a neighbourhood in decay, a bit of London which does not keep pace with the times. And Nancy hated it. She would have preferred to live even in a poor and grimy street which neighboured the main track of business and pleasure (loc 196).

Always she comes back to her neighbourhood, and the connections it was lacking. Her father is dying, though she doesn’t know, and:

She stood before him, and spoke with diffidence.

‘Don’t you think that if we had lived in a different way, Horace and I might have had friends of a better kind?’

‘A different way?–I understand. You mean I ought to have had a big house, and made a show. Isn’t that it?’

‘You gave us a good education,’ replied Nancy, still in the same tone, ‘and we might have associated with very different people from those you have been speaking of; but education alone isn’t enough. One must live as the better people do.’ (loc 593).

In Camberwell you do not find the better people. You find people like Ada, Beatrice and Fanny:

They spoke a peculiar tongue, the product of sham education and mock refinement grafted upon a stock of robust vulgarity. One and all would have been moved to indignant surprise if accused of ignorance or defective breeding. Ada had frequented an ‘establishment for young ladies’ up to the close of her seventeenth year; the other two had pursued culture at a still more pretentious institute until they were eighteen. All could ‘play the piano;’ all declared–and believed–that they ‘knew French.’ Beatrice had ‘done’ Political Economy; Fanny had ‘been through’ Inorganic Chemistry and Botany. The truth was, of course, that their minds, characters, propensities had remained absolutely proof against such educational influence as had been brought to bear upon them. That they used a finer accent than their servants, signified only that they had grown up amid falsities, and were enabled, by the help of money, to dwell above-stairs, instead of with their spiritual kindred below.

Beatrice herself becomes quite a canny business woman. She opens a kind of cooperative dressmaker business and moves off on her own — surely a braver move than this novel ever gives her credit for. You cannot like her as she is portrayed, her business described as predatory (how could it not be given the silliness of women) when in fact it seems more to me a pooling of resources, and she herself is predatory too, though perhaps trying to be kind despite her brusque lack of civility. She moves to Brixton…

Another cab conveyed her to Brixton, and set her down before a block of recently built flats. She ascended to the second floor, pressed the button of a bell, and was speedily confronted by a girl of the natty parlour-maid species. This time she began by giving her name, and had only a moment to wait before she was admitted to a small drawing-room, furnished with semblance of luxury. A glowing fire and the light of an amber-shaded lamp showed as much fashionable upholstery and bric-a-brac as could be squeezed into the narrow space. Something else was perceptible which might perhaps have been dispensed with; to wit, the odour of a very savoury meal, a meal in which fried onions had no insignificant part. But before the visitor could comment to herself upon this disadvantage attaching to flats, Beatrice joined her.

The ‘natty parlour-maid species’ indeed. There is more in relation to Beatrice’s new business and the lack of taste associated with certain locales:

The ineptitude of uneducated English women in all that relates to their attire is a fact that it boots not to enlarge upon…A very large proportion of the servant-keeping females in Brixton, Camberwell, and Peckham could not, with any confidence, buy a chemise or a pair of stockings; and when it came to garments visible, they were lost indeed (loc 2961).

And still more, with a reminder that there are neighbourhoods even lower:

Now indeed the last trace of veneer was gone, the last rag of pseudo-civilisation was rent off these young women; in physical conflict, vilifying each other like the female spawn of Whitechapel, they revealed themselves as born–raw material which the mill of education is supposed to convert into middle-class ladyhood. As a result of being held still by superior strength Ada fell into convulsions, foamed at the mouth, her eyes starting from their sockets; then she lay as one dead (loc 3143).

Ah, the female spawn which their family and location had not succeeded in molding properly. These passages point without needing exposition to what I hated about the drawing of women characters — there is so much to hate. Nancy is drawn the most fully, but is as limited by Camberwell itself as by her own limitations of blood and nurture (though these she manages to ‘overcome’ as the novel progresses). The others range from those who are superficial, who pretend at learning for appearances not for its own sake to those like Jessica, who overheat their poor limited brains with the excesses of their learning:

This friend of hers, Jessica Morgan by name, had few personal attractions. She looked overwrought and low-spirited; a very plain and slightly-made summer gown exhibited her meagre frame with undue frankness; her face might have been pretty if health had filled and coloured the flesh, but as it was she looked a ghost of girlhood, a dolorous image of frustrate sex. In her cotton-gloved hand she carried several volumes and notebooks (loc 232).

‘A dolorous image of frustrate sex’? As if intelligence and learning aren’t the sexiest things ever — or should be. Tarrant from the luxury of his higher social position looks at what is changing (for the worse):

We must begin by admitting that the ordinary woman hates nothing so much as to have another woman set in authority over her.’ He paused, and laughed lazily. ‘Now, before the triumph of glorious Democracy, only those women kept servants who were capable of rule,–who had by birth the instinct of authority. They knew themselves the natural superiors of their domestics, and went through an education fitting them to rule. Things worked very well; no servant-difficulty existed. Now-a-days, every woman who can afford it must have another woman to wait upon her, no matter how silly, or vulgar, or depraved she may be; the result, of course, is a spirit of rebellion in the kitchen. Who could have expected anything else?’

Nancy played with a dandelion she had plucked, and gave sign neither of assent nor disagreement.

‘Mrs. Bellamy,’ continued the young man, ‘marvels that servants revolt against her. What could be more natural? The servants have learnt that splendid doctrine that every one is as good as everybody else, and Mrs. Bellamy is by no means the person to make them see things differently. And this kind of thing is going on in numberless houses–an utterly incompetent mistress and a democratic maid in spirited revolt. The incompetents, being in so vast a majority, will sooner or later spoil all the servants in the country.’ (loc 684)

Again and again we see women rising above their station, not formed properly thus carrying the potential to revert to their origins. Gissing can see (or imagine he sees) some of the attraction in this, and it horrifies him really. Women are there as temptations, dragging men down with them. This is Fanny, with her fascinations for Horace:

It was not thus that Horace would naturally have spoken, not thus that he thought of his father. Fanny had subdued him to her own level, poisoned him with the desires excited by her presence. And he knew his baseness; he was not ignorant of the girl’s ignoble nature. Only the fury of a virgin passion enabled him to talk, and sometimes think, as though he were in love with ideal purity.

‘I didn’t think you had the pluck,’ said Fanny, swinging one of her feet as she tittered (loc 1111).

For a brief moment Nancy herself is able to break away from all society tells her to be, she does so alone in the crowd celebrating the Jubilee (I am fascinated by all that happens to people in crowds, but will think about that later):

Nancy forgot her identity, lost sight of herself as an individual. Her blood was heated by close air and physical contact. She did not think, and her emotions differed little from those of any shop-girl let loose. The ‘culture,’ to which she laid claim, evanesced in this atmosphere of exhalations. Could she have seen her face, its look of vulgar abandonment would have horrified her (877).

Enter the capitalist Luckworth Crewe (great name!) who sees her like this, falls in love with her like this. To his doom of course, though I don’t think Gissing much minds as Crew also represents the man on the make, perhaps the capitalism itself that is driving so many of these changes:

Nancy made him moderate his pace, which was too quick for her. Part of the pleasure she found in Crewe’s society came from her sense of being so undeniably his superior; she liked to give him a sharp command, and observe his ready obedience. To his talk she listened with a good-natured, condescending smile, occasionally making a remark which implied a more liberal view, a larger intelligence, than his. Thus, as they stood for a moment to look down at the steamboat wharf, and Crewe made some remark about the value of a cargo just being discharged, she said carelessly:

‘I suppose that’s the view you take of everything? You rate everything at market price.’ (loc 1280)

Crewe is not a good man, but you regret him as Nancy falls for Tarrant who will never amount to anything in this new world that no longer has much use for the gentleman of leisure but without means. She is seduced, they marry, she conceals the birth of the child and the marriage as her father dies and the provisions of his will strip her of everything if they are found out. Tarrant can’t handle it, though the author is most sympathetic to his plight (I need to do a post just on Gissing I think). He needs to make easy money — he is not a man of the labouring classes you understand. And where can a well-born Englishman make money without working?

Barbados of course. The whole disgusting colonial attitude in a nutshell, both in Tarrant’s expectations and the ways that they are frustrated. In convincing Nancy of the wisdom of his plan to abandon her and the child, Tarrant says:

‘Partly because it is a delightful winter climate; partly because I have a friend there; partly because the islands are interesting. A man I knew at Oxford has gone out there, and is likely to stay. His father owns nearly the whole of an island; and as he’s in very bad health, my friend may soon come into possession. When he does, he’s going to astonish the natives.’

‘How?’

A vision of savages flashed before Nancy’s mind. She breathed more freely, thinking the danger past.

‘Simply by making a fortune out of an estate that is lying all but barren. Before the emancipation of the niggers, the Bahamas flourished wonderfully; now they are fallen to decay, and ruled, so far as I understand it, by a particularly contemptible crew of native whites, who ought all to be kicked into the sea. My friend’s father is a man of no energy; he calls himself magistrate, coroner, superintendent of the customs, and a dozen other things, but seems to have spent his time for years in lying about, smoking and imbibing. His son, I’m afraid, waits impatiently for the old man’s removal to a better world. He believes there are immense possibilities of trade.’ (707)

It doesn’t work of course. Nancy in the end saves the day, but only by immense self sacrifice, along with repressing that sense of self that emerged in the Jubilee as well as any feelings disagreeable to her husband and all recriminations. I’ll end with this maxim that hopefully today no woman will ever have to live up to:

She looked up, and commanded her features to the expression which makes whatever woman lovely–that of rational acquiescence. On the faces of most women such look is never seen (loc 5108).

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Liza of Lambeth

Liza(1897) W. Somerset Maugham

*SPOILER ALERT*

Meh. So you have your misanthrope and your misogynist and this is a little of both, but mostly I found it to be just a morality tale with some sniping at the animal nature and sad lives of the working classes. The kind of thing that makes me want to make a rude gesture when I read the description ‘Maugham’s first published novel – a vividly realistic portrayal of slum life…’ Of course, Maugham trained in obstetrics at St Thomas’s hospital in Lambeth and worked with the residents of Lambeth’s slums, so he knew a little something of the subject. But an outside view, a judgmental view, a superior view that looked down on the people he was being trained to cure. It permeates the novel, even as there seems to me to be some of that voyeurism associated with slumming, assumptions made and perhaps a small amount of jealousy of people he describes as unfettered by middle-class mores, driven by their passions, able to express themselves completely freely, however coarsely and violently that may be.

There’s some interesting views on family, men and Empire as described by Liza’s alcoholic mother as they are getting drunk together near the end of the novel, after Liza has had the shit beaten out of her by the wife of the man she’s having an affair with — and right before she miscarries and dies.

‘Yus,’ went on Mrs. Kemp, ‘I’ve ‘ad thirteen children an’ I’m proud of it. As your poor dear father used ter sy, it shows as ‘ow one’s got the blood of a Briton in one. Your poor dear father, ‘e was a great ‘and at speakin’ ‘e was: ‘e used ter speak at parliamentary meetin’s–I really believe ‘e’d ‘ave been a Member of Parliament if ‘e’d been alive now. Well, as I was sayin’, your father ‘e used ter sy, “None of your small families for me, I don’t approve of them,” says ‘e. ‘E was a man of very ‘igh principles, an’ by politics ‘e was a Radical. “No,” says ‘e, when ‘e got talkin’, “when a man can ‘ave a family risin’ into double figures, it shows ‘e’s got the backbone of a Briton in ‘im. That’s the stuff as ‘as built up England’s nime and glory! When one thinks of the mighty British Hempire,” says ‘e, “on which the sun never sets from mornin’ till night, one ‘as ter be proud of ‘isself, an’ one ‘as ter do one’s duty in thet walk of life in which it ‘as pleased Providence ter set one–an’ every man’s fust duty is ter get as many children as ‘e bloomin’ well can.” Lord love yer–‘e could talk, I can tell yer.’

‘Drink up, mother,’ said Liza. ‘You’re not ‘alf drinkin’.’ She flourished the bottle. ‘I don’t care a twopanny ‘ang for all them blokes; I’m quite ‘appy, an’ I don’t want anythin’ else.’

It’s been such a struggle for poor folks, bilingual folks, Southern folks, Scottish folks, anyone not speaking the Queen’s English, to write true to themselves and their own way of speaking. I don’t know what I think about well educated men writing like this, not without more respect for the people he writes of, not when there’s such a sly superiority in so much of what he writes.

Still, I did love the opening scene, which Liza steals in spite of Maugham really.

All at once there was a cry: ‘There’s Liza!’ And several members of the group turned and called out: ‘Oo, look at Liza!’

The dancers stopped to see the sight, and the organ-grinder, having come to the end of his tune, ceased turning the handle and looked to see what was the excitement.

‘Oo, Liza!’ they called out. ‘Look at Liza; oo, I sy!’

It was a young girl of about eighteen, with dark eyes, and an enormous fringe, puffed-out and curled and frizzed, covering her whole forehead from side to side, and coming down to meet her eyebrows. She was dressed in brilliant violet, with great lappets of velvet, and she had on her head an enormous black hat covered with feathers.

‘I sy, ain’t she got up dossy?’ called out the groups at the doors, as she passed.

‘Dressed ter death, and kill the fashion; that’s wot I calls it.’

Liza saw what a sensation she was creating; she arched her back and lifted her head, and walked down the street, swaying her body from side to side, and swaggering along as though the whole place belonged to her.

”Ave yer bought the street, Bill?’ shouted one youth; and then half a dozen burst forth at once, as if by inspiration:

‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road!’

It was immediately taken up by a dozen more, and they all yelled it out:

‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road. Yah, ah, knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road!’

‘Oo, Liza!’ they shouted; the whole street joined in, and they gave long, shrill, ear-piercing shrieks and strange calls, that rung down the street and echoed back again.

‘Hextra special!’ called out a wag.

‘Oh, Liza! Oo! Ooo!’ yells and whistles, and then it thundered forth again:

‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road!’

Liza put on the air of a conquering hero, and sauntered on, enchanted at the uproar. She stuck out her elbows and jerked her head on one side, and said to herself as she passed through the bellowing crowd:

‘This is jam!’

‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road!’

When she came to the group round the barrel-organ, one of the girls cried out to her:

‘Is that yer new dress, Liza?’

‘Well, it don’t look like my old one, do it?’ said Liza.

‘Where did yer git it?’ asked another friend, rather enviously.

‘Picked it up in the street, of course,’ scornfully answered Liza.

‘I believe it’s the same one as I saw in the pawnbroker’s dahn the road,’ said one of the men, to tease her.

‘Thet’s it; but wot was you doin’ in there? Pledgin’ yer shirt, or was it yer trousers?’

‘Yah, I wouldn’t git a second-‘and dress at a pawnbroker’s!’

‘Garn!’ said Liza indignantly. ‘I’ll swipe yer over the snitch if yer talk ter me. I got the mayterials in the West Hend, didn’t I? And I ‘ad it mide up by my Court Dressmiker, so you jolly well dry up, old jellybelly.’

‘Garn!’ was the reply.

The man turned on a new tune, and the organ began to play the Intermezzo from the ‘Cavalleria’; other couples quickly followed Liza’s example, and they began to waltz round with the same solemnity as before; but Liza outdid them all; if the others were as stately as queens, she was as stately as an empress; the gravity and dignity with which she waltzed were something appalling, you felt that the minuet was a frolic in comparison; it would have been a fitting measure to tread round the grave of a première danseuse, or at the funeral of a professional humorist. And the graces she put on, the languor of the eyes, the contemptuous curl of the lips, the exquisite turn of the hand, the dainty arching of the foot! You felt there could be no questioning her right to the tyranny of Vere Street.

Suddenly she stopped short, and disengaged herself from her companion.

‘Oh, I say,’ she said, ‘this is too bloomin’ slow; it gives me the sick.’

That is not precisely what she said, but it is impossible always to give the exact unexpurgated words of Liza and the other personages of the story, the reader is therefore entreated with his thoughts to piece out the necessary imperfections of the dialogue.

‘It’s too bloomin’ slow,’ she said again; ‘it gives me the sick. Let’s ‘ave somethin’ a bit more lively than this ‘ere waltz. You stand over there, Sally, an’ we’ll show ’em ‘ow ter skirt dance.’

They all stopped waltzing.

‘Talk of the ballet at the Canterbury and South London. You just wite till you see the ballet at Vere Street, Lambeth–we’ll knock ’em!’

She went up to the organ-grinder.

‘Na then, Italiano,’ she said to him, ‘you buck up; give us a tune that’s got some guts in it! See?’

She caught hold of his big hat and squashed it down over his eyes. The man grinned from ear to ear, and, touching the little catch at the side, began to play a lively tune such as Liza had asked for.

The men had fallen out, but several girls had put themselves in position, in couples, standing face to face; and immediately the music struck up, they began. They held up their skirts on each side, so as to show their feet, and proceeded to go through the difficult steps and motions of the dance. Liza was right; they could not have done it better in a trained ballet. But the best dancer of them all was Liza; she threw her whole soul into it; forgetting the stiff bearing which she had thought proper to the waltz, and casting off its elaborate graces, she gave herself up entirely to the present pleasure. Gradually the other couples stood aside, so that Liza and Sally were left alone. They paced it carefully, watching each other’s steps, and as if by instinct performing corresponding movements, so as to make the whole a thing of symmetry.

Sounds like a forerunner of the Lambeth Walk, and with just as much pride. I quite love her, and wished not just a better life for her, but a better narrator. The book’s available on Project Gutenberg, which makes such long quotes possible…

Somerset Maugham of course, is quite a fascinating character in himself. Liza of Lambeth was popular enough he was able to become a full time writer as I suppose medicine didn’t agree with him. He was one of the most famous and best-paid of his time, but this was after a desperately unhappy childhood after his parents died and he was sent to live with a harsh uncle, and bisexuality must have made life hard during these early days, giving him some edge to his work. He was also called up to work with MI6 — another connection with the borough Lambeth through his work — to aid British efforts to keep Kerensky in power.  We all know how that went, and Maugham went back to writing. He was the lover of the daughter of Peter Kropotkin (!), and married the daughter of Dr Barnardo (!) when she became pregnant with their daughter Liza (!), though he later denied she was his. This is, of course, a terribly truncated summary drawn almost entirely from one website. I may correct this in the future through more reading, but for now be aware the story is undoubtedly more nuanced, complex, and possibly quite different in its main points than the bits that most interested me after a quick scan. Still, as a chronicler of working class life and loves from a female point of view, I’ll take it with more than a grain of salt.

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Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues

940044Stuart Hall died as I was in the middle of reading this, which made it so poignant even as I was thinking to myself just how good this book was as a totality and how much I loved him. Like many edited collections it had pieces that I loved and pieces that I didn’t, but even those that I didn’t find so useful still worked brilliantly to give me a solid sense of the international field of Cultural Studies from its early beginnings through the 1990s. That’s no small task given the way that it has changed and spread, been fought over and fought through. I’m not sure where it’s at now, but I feel that I know some of the places it has been and the structures of its debates.
I confess now, that Stuart Hall is one of my favourite theorists, and though I know the field is far greater and wider than him, it is his work that I feel opens up the most space for my own thinking in political geography. The first section looks at Marxism and cultural studies, and given my own relationship to Marxism is much like Hall’s, I wanted this section to be longer and I wanted more on the New Left. The authors are definitely more interested in the relationship between Cultural Studies and postmodernism, so I got more postmodernism than I wished but that was all to the good perhaps, as I discovered some redeeming characteristics…though not too many.

After a good intro from the editors it start with ‘The Problem of Ideology: Marxism Without Guarantees’.

The problem of ideology, therefore, concerns the ways in which ideas of different kinds grip the minds of the masses, and thereby become a ‘material force’. In this, more politicized, perspective, the theory of ideology helps us to analyse how a particular set of ideas comes to dominate the social thinking of a historical bloc, in Gramsci’s sense; and, thus, helps to unite such a bloc from the inside, and maintain its dominance and leadership over society as a whole. It has especially to do with the concepts and the languages of practical thought which stabilize a particular form of power and domination….
We mean the practical as well as the theoretical knowledges which enable people to ‘figure out’ society, and within whose categories and discourse we ‘live out’ and ‘experience’ our objective positioning in social relations. (27)

This is a revision of Marx’s model of ideology which ‘did not conceptualize the social formation as a determinate complex formation, composed of different practices, but as a simple structure’ (29), this via Althusser. And I’ve always loved his take on traditional arguments about ‘false consciousness’

Is the worker who lives his or her relation to the circuits of capitalist production exclusively through the categories of a ‘fair price’ and a ‘fair wage’, in ‘false consciousness’? Yes, if by that we mean there is something about her situation which she cannot grasp with the categories she is using; something about the process as a whole which is systematically hidden because the available concepts only give her a graso of one of its many-sided moments. No, if by that we mean she is utterly deluded about what goes on under Capitalism.
The falseness therefore arises, not from the fact that the market is an illusion, a trick, a sleioght-of-hand, but only in the sense that it is an inadequate explanation of a process (37).

The relations in which people exist are the ‘rela relations’ which the categories and concepts they use help them to grasp and articulate in thought. But—and here we maybe be on a route contrary to emphasis from that with which ‘materialism’ is usually associated—the economic relations themselves cannot prescribe a single, fixed and unalterable way of conceptualizing it…. To say that a theoretical discourse allows us to grasp a concrete relation ‘in thought’ adequately means that the discourse provides us with a more complete grasp of all the different relations of which that relation is composed, and of the many determinations which forms its conditions of existence. In means that our grasp is concrete and whole, rather than a thin, one-sided abstraction (39).

And then he draws on Volsinov, who I truly love, to argue

It is precisely because language, the medium of thought and ideological calculation, is ‘multi-accentual’…that the field of the ideological is always a field of ‘intersecting accents’ 40

And thus a source of struggle, every word contested terrain. Which he repeats: ‘This approach replaces the notion of fixed ideological meanings and class-ascribed ideologies with the concepts of ideological terrains of struggle and the task of ideological transformation’ (41). Then draws on Gramsci to see how these ideologies become material forces by articulating with political and social forces to deconstruct and reconstruct the ruling ideologies in a ‘war of position’. The terrain of this struggle is historically defined, above all it is the terrain of common sense, which become the stakes of ideological struggle. Thus ‘‘hegemony’ in Gramsci’s sense requires, not the simple escalation of a whole class to power, with its fully formed ‘philosophy’, but (43) the process by which a historical bloc of social forces is constructed and the ascendency of that bloc secured’. In thinking about the relationship between base and superstructure:

What the economic cannot do is (a) to provide the contents of the particular thoughts of particular social classes or groups at any specific time; or (b) to fix or guarantee for all time which ideas will be made use of by which classes. The determinacy of the economic for the ideological can, therefore, be only in terms of the former setting the limits for defining the terrain for operations, establishing ‘raw materials’, of thought. Material circumstances are the net of constraints, the ‘conditions of existence’ for practical thought and calculation about society.

And a smack down against orthodoxy and ‘determination in the last instance’:

‘It represents the end of the process of theorizing, of the development and refinement of new concepts and explanations which, alone, is the sign of a living body of thought, capable still of engaging and grasping something of the truth about new historical realities (45).

One of the more useful chapters was from Colin Sparks, outlining the work of Raymond Williams and EP Thompson and cultural studies’ beginnings in a humanist Marxism before its encounter with Althusser and Marxism, its engagement with Laclau and Gramsci. It does through multiple representatives of the school, not just Hall, which I particularly liked.

My favourite, apart from Hall’s own work, was ‘The Theory and method of articulation in cultural studies’ by Jennifer Daryl Slack. She writes

However, articulation works at additional levels: at the levels of the epistemological, the political and the strategic. Epistemologically, articulation is a way of thinking the structures of what we know as a play of correspondences, non-correspondences and contradictions, as fragments in the constitution of what we take to be unities. Politically, articulation is a way of foregrounding the structure and play of power that entail in relations of dominance and subordination. Strategically, articulation provides a mechanism for shaping intervention within a particular formation, conjuncture or context (112).

And also this:

cultural studies works with the notion of theory as a ‘detour’ to help ground our engagement with what newly confronts us and to let that engagement provide the ground for retheorizing. Theory is thus a practice in a double sense: it is a formal conceptual tool as well as a practising or ‘trying out’ of a way of theorizing’ (113).

Conceptualisations of theory as process, as being constantly regrounded and rethought, are the only ones that make sense to me. Of course, I feel that if you are grounded you are working under the assumption that we live in a profoundly unequal and exploitative society and that theory is meant to change that, so I do have some parameters.

With and through articulation, we engage the concrete in order to change it, that is, to rearticulate it…Articulation is, then, not just a thing (not just a connection) but a process of creating connections, much in the same way that hegemony is not domination but the process of creating and maintaining consensus or co-ordinating interests’ (114).

Lawrence Grossberg’s interview with Stuart Hall on Postmodernism helped a great deal in clarifying some of my own thoughts. Like Hall on Foucault:

let’s take Foucault’s argument for the discursive as against the ideological. What Foucault would talk about is the setting in place, through the institutionalization of a discursive regime, of a number of competing regimes of truth and, within these regimes, the operation of power through the practices he calls normalization, regulation and surveillance. … the combination of regime of truth plus normalization/regulation/surveillance is not all that far from the notions of dominance in ideology that I’m trying to work with…I think the movement from that old base/superstructure paradigm into the domain of the discursive is a very positive one. But, while I have learned a great deal from Foucault in this sense about the relation between knowledge and power, I don’t see how you can retain the notion of ‘resistance’, as he does, without facing questions about the constitution of dominance in ideology. Foucault’s evasion of this question is at the heart of his proto-anarchist position precisely because his resistance must be summoned up from nowhere… there is no way of conceptualizing the balance of power between different regimes of truth without society conceptualized (135) not as a unity, but as a ‘formation’. If Foucault is to prevent the regime of truth from collapsing into a synonym for the dominant ideology, he has to recognize that there are different regimes of truth in the social formation. And these are not simply ‘plural’ – they define an ideological field of force (136).

And on Baudrillard (and others, but mostly Baudrillard)

I don’t think history is finished and the assertion that it is, which lies at the heart of postmodernism, betrays the inexcusable ethnocentrism—the Eurocentrism—of its high priests. It is their cultural dominance, in the West, across the globe, which is historically at an end…I think Baudrillard needs to join the masses for a while, to be silent for two-thirds of a century, just to see what it feels like (141).

Now, more to the point, his own theory of articulation

the theory of articulation asks how an ideology discovers its subject rather than how the subject thinks the necessary and inevitable thoughts which belong to it; it enables us to think how an ideology empowers people, enabling them to begin to make some sense or intelligibility of their historical situation, without reducing those forms of intelligibility to their socio-economic or class location or social position (142)

And this

I am not interested in Theory. I am interested in going on theorizing. And that also means that cultural studies has to be open to external influences, for example, to the rise of new social movements… (150)

I can’t do justice to such a sprawling volume full of brilliant contributors, so I am focusing on this concept of articulation that I am grappling with right now…but there is are lovely interventions from Angela Robbie and Charlotte Brundson over the struggle of women to gain power and voice in the New Times Project. It is both political but also personal, and to me these kinds of articles are so important for those of us without those historical memories about just how hard women have had to struggle even in left departments, and the forms this struggle took.

More from Hall on ‘Cultural studies and its theoretical legacies’, in reference to Homi Bhabba:

I don’t understand a practice which aims to make a difference in the world which doesn’t have some points of difference or distinction which it has to stake out, which really matter. It is a question of positionalities (264).

And back to my own relationship with theory really:

I want to suggest a different metaphor for theoretical work: the metaphor of struggle, of wrestling with the angels. The only theory worth having is that which you have to fight off, not that which you speak with profound fluency (265)

How can you not love someone who writes of his study of Althusser ‘I warred with him, to the death’ (266).

I loved David Morley’s article ‘EurAm, modernity, reason and alterity’ for its discussion of centres and peripheries (though I wish people unpacked the US just a little more, with its white culture one of the centre, but containing within it the colonized, the enslaved, the murdered), its review of post-colonial thought and brilliant quotes from people who are now on my list of things to read.
I’ll end with Hall’s ‘Gramsci’s relevance for the study of race and ethnicity’. First, a return to defining Hegemony

1. ‘hegemony’ is a very particular, historically specific, and temporary ‘moment’ in the life of a society…They have to be actively constructed and positively maintained.
2. we must take note of the multi-dimensional, multi-arena character of hegemony. It cannot be constructed or sustained on one front of struggle alone (for example, the economic). It represents a degree of mastery over a whole series of different ‘positions’ at once. Mastery is not simply imposed or dominative in character. Effectively, it results from winning a substantial degree of popular consent.
3. What ‘leads’ in a period of hegemony is no longer described as a ‘ruling class’ in the traditional language, but a historic bloc. (424)

And of course, the two kinds of struggle, ‘war of manoeuvre’ ‘where everything is condensed into one front and one moment of struggle’, and the ‘war of position’, ‘which has to be conducted in a protracted way, across many different and varying fronts of struggle’ (426).
It’s interesting putting this solid description in conjunction with Lawrence Grossberg’s description in an earlier piece ‘History, politics and postmodernism’

Hegemony is not a universally present struggle; it is a conjunctural politics opened up by the conditions of advanced capitalism, mass communication and culture. Nor is it limited to the ideological struggle of the ruling class bloc to win the consent of the masses to its definition of reality, although it encompasses the processes by which such a consensus might be achieved. But it also depends upon the ability of the ruling bloc (an alliance of class fractions) to secure its economic domination and establish its political power. Hegemony need not depend upon consensus nor consent to particular ideological constructions. It is a matter of containment rather than compulsion or even incorporation. Hegemony defines the limits within which we can struggle, the field of ‘common sense’ or ‘popular consciousness’ (162)

Stuart Hall does more to open up the concept to see where counter-hegemony can come from:

Ideas…’have a center of formation, of irradiation, of dissemination, of persuasion…’(PN, 192). Nor are they ‘spontaneously born’ in each individual brain. They are not psychologistic or moralistic in character ‘but structural and epistemological’. They are sustained and transformed in their materiality within the institutions of civil society and the state. Consequently, ideologies are not transformed or changed by replacing one, whole, already formed, conception of the world with another, so much as by ‘renovating and making critical an already existing activity’ (434).

I like also hegemony as not a ‘moment of simple unity, but as a process of unification (never totally achieved), founded on strategic alliances between different sectors, not on their pre-given identity’ (437).

Anyway. Much to think about…

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Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960

327385Arnold R. Hirsch (1983) University of Chicago Press

For me the key insight is that this spatial arrangement we know as the ghetto is not static or unchanging or some historical holdover that we can’t quite seem to get rid of. Instead, ‘the contemporary ghetto appeared a dynamic institution that was continually being renewed, reinforced, and reshaped’ (xii). It’s forces now as well as the past we need to be analyzing.

He writes up front:

primary attention is devoted to whites. That is where the power was. This is not to say that blacks have simply ‘reacted’ to the actions of others and do not ‘act’ in their own behalf. But what we are looking at here is the construction of the ball park within which the urban game is played. And there is no question that the architects, in this instance, were whites’ (xii)

Of all the books I’ve read, this is the most explicit about class differences and the different costs of policy and geography to whites in Chicago, also the most sympathetic to working class rioters. He certainly does show that ‘white hostility was of paramount importance in shaping the pattern of black settlement’ (9).

It was the sheer presence of the first ghetto and the white reaction to it, though, that did the most to produce the second. In creating it, white Chicago conceived a “Frankenstein’s monster,” which threatened to “run amok” after World War II. The establishment of racial borders, their traditional acceptance, and the conditions spawned by unyielding segregation created an entity that whites feared and loathed. Those who made it were soon threatened by it, and, desperately, they both employed old techniques and devised new ones in the attempt to control it. Others elected to flee to the suburbs, thus compounding the difficulties of those left behind. In any event, the very process of racial succession, dormant for nearly a generation, inspired both the dread and the action that called forth the second ghetto (15-16)

Oh, white people and their imaginations sparked by their racist ways. There is so much to be unpacked in this paragraph, but I’m saving that for later.

Another key idea:

The forces promoting a durable and unchanging racial border–the dual housing market, the cost of black housing, restrictive covenants–were, at first, buttressed by teh hosing shortage. Once new construction began, however, those same forces became an overwhelmingly powerful engine for change(29).

Of these forces, restrictive covenants were possibly the least effective, he notes they are only ‘a fairly coarse sieve, unable to stop the population when put to the test.’ (30)

He notes the ‘imagined “status” differences that were impervious to the bleaching power of money’ (35), the fears of losing the ‘life and death’ struggle for housing. He also notes the shift from open racism in the struggle to protect neighbourhoods to the use of planning jargon and the language and tools of redevelopment. Another key insight is into the nature of Chicago’s ‘hidden violence’, kept quiet by media and ‘conscious city policy’ (42) to try and dampen the possibilities of even more extended racial violence like that erupting in 1919 and 1943 when many lives were lost at the hands of white mobs. In fact white mobs were able to form at will to ‘protect’ their turf, and these collections of ‘Friends, neighbors, and rioters’ were horrific. They are fairly well documented as well, a large proportion of working-class immigrants coming together (German, Irish, Slavs, Poles), a large proportion of Catholics, almost all from the neighborhood under threat (no outsiders here stirring things up…).

They are in contrast with the equally racist but more liberal sounding community near the University of Chicago, and the startling role of the University itself in consciously protecting neighboring areas for whites. Actually, what I find startling is not that they had that policy, but how much is solidly documented in how their expansion from 7 to 110 acres was to stop African-Americans from ‘encroaching’. But they were certainly masters of manupulating city agencies and urban renewal to protect their interests, often at the cost of tearing down good housing and displacing working class white communities (which they viewed as liabilities given their vulnerability to ‘inflitration’) as well as black communities. Chancellor Hutchins of the University wrote the following poem:

The Chancellor and the President gazed out across the park,
They laughed like anything to see that things were looking dark.
“Our neighborhood,” the Chancellor said, “once blossomed like the lily.”
“Just seven coons with seven kids could knock our program silly.”
“Forget it,” said the President, “and thank the Lord for Willie.”

Just as telling:

Nothing would have shocked Hype Parkers more than the assertion that they were part of a generalized “white” effort to control the process of racial succession in Chicago. The imputation of brotherhood with the ethnic, working-class rock throwers would have been more than they could bear. Yet, there was just such a consensus (171)….

Chicago’s whites found themselves engaged in a desperately competitive struggle with each other. The successful “defense” of one neighborhood increased the problems of the others (172).

What troubled me most about the framing was some of the evaluation of strategy. Hirsch writes:

The ethnics’ defensive yet militant espousal of their “whiteness,” however, and the demand for privilege on that basis, was a flawed defense in the context of post-World War II race relations’ (197)

The use of the word ‘ethnics’ causes me a twinge (as natives does later on in reference to whites), but something about the idea that submerging themselves into the white identity caused immigrants to lose out on gaining from minority status is worse. Hirsch does note that this also downplays the differences between national and racial differences in US history and forms of oppression. But then he continues:

Second, the immigrants and their children displayed the poor judgment of becoming militantly white at the precise moment prerogatives of color were coming into question. If they were successful in finally lining their identity to that of the natives, they were left not simply with the natives’ privileges of rank but also with the bill for past wrongs that the “whites” were now expected to pay’ (198).

This simply feeds into a neoconservative line that these ‘bills’ have been paid when they have never ever been properly faced in this country, much less paid. Sure working class whites have benefitted less and been screwed over plenty of times, but they have still benefitted, and inequalities in wealth between them and all peoples of color continues to grow.

Back finally to the formation of the ‘Second Ghetto’. The one that emerged after downtown interests and other powerful institutions like the University of Chicago anchored in the center city under threat ‘realized that the power of the state — not as it then existed but in greatly augmented form — would have to be enlited in their aid’ (213). The working class whites defending their neighborhoods never managed to wield this kind of power, but violence did prove ‘effective’ in many neighborhoods (far more than those who simply relied on covenants), did influence public policy, and certainly impacted the Chicago Housing Authority so that it institutionalized segregation as policy — particularly in projects where whites were willing to fight violently against integration. These new pressures — planning, redevelopment and public housing policy — combined to make segregation more a result of government policy than private activity. It was so entrenched, when the federal court ordered further public housing to be fully integrated in 1969, Chicago just stopped building new housing.

Chicago’s redevelopment policies — developed primarily to benefit the University of Chicago and other downtown interests, then became models for the nation. But this story is a familiar one to anyone who knows Detroit, St Louis, L.A., probably any city in the whole damn country.

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Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power

330458Kenneth B. Clark ([1967] 1974) Wesleyan University Press

A powerful book that establishes the bar, the place where anyone writing about the ghetto needs to start as they move from the mid-60s when this was written through the ever-deepening horror of the 70s onwards through the crack epidemic and into the present. But most I have read never even come anywhere close to his reach—much less build on his work. I’ve always had doubts about the usefulness of someone coming into a society and spending a little time there and writing about it as an expert…I try to keep something of an open mind on this, but Clark is originally from the Harlem he describes, and that really is where the depth and powerful insight come from in addition to the study and the scholarship, that and the love he has for his home and the people who still live there.

He starts with what it means to grow up in a place like Harlem, to get out, and then to come back. The studies that form the basis of the book were carried out to establish a youth program, a fully federally funded attempt to break the ghetto. Clark is open about his worries about being an ‘involved observer’. His lack of distance. He confesses to the gnawing self-doubts, the pain and rage and desire to escape once again that being back in Harlem raises in him. I love him for this, and so much admiration for his strength in sticking it through, in writing such an incredible book as this, and in being honest about himself as part of this process in a way that helps everyone else who might be going through some of the same things. It does not surprise me that this is the book that I have read best able to see those living in these neighbourhoods as full human beings with all of their bad and their good, their addictions and their violence and their love and their hope. They are never one dimensional, either as victims or victimizers. Agency and structure always and everywhere work together.

The first chapter is simply a collection of quotes and stories from those interviewed about what they feel the ghetto is, what home means to them, what has destroyed their lives, what they look forward to, what they dream…anything and everything that they wished to tell the world. Respect.

The second chapter: The Invisible Wall.

The dark ghetto’s invisible walls have been erected by the white society, by those who have power, both to confine those who have no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. The dark ghettoes are social, political, educational, and—above all—economic colonies. Their inhabitants are subject peoples, victims of the greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt, and fear of their masters (11).

He handily disposes of white liberal rhetoric you still hear today, fifty years after the time of writing:

At times of overt social unrest, many white persons who claim to be in favour of civil rights and assert that they are ‘friends’ of the Negro will admonish the Negro not to engage in disruptive and lawless demonstrations lest he incite racism and reverse the progress made in his behalf. These often well-meaning requests may reflect the unconscious condescension of benign prejudice (16) …Even well-meaning whites continue to see and talk of Negroes as ‘they,’ clearly differentiated from ‘we,’ the ‘outgroup’ from the ‘ingroup.’ As long as this alienation remains, the masses of whites will be irritated and inconvenienced by any meaningful activity by Negroes to change their status. No real revolt can be convenient for the privileged; no real (17) revolt can be contained within comfortable bounds or be made respectable….The Negro cannot be asked to prove that he ‘deserves’ the rights and responsibilities of democracy, nor can he be told that others must be persuaded ‘in heart and mind’ to accept him. Such tests and trials by fire are not applied to others. To impose them on the Negro is racist condescension. It is to assume that the Negro is a special type of human being who must pass a special test before admission to a tenuous status worthy of governmental protection. It is to place upon the Negro a peculiar burden reflecting and exploiting his powerlessness, and it is, paradoxically, to deny him the essential human rights of frailty and imperfection (18).

The Social Dynamics of the Ghetto: ‘The poor are always alienated from normal society, and when the poor are Negro, as they increasingly are in American cities, a double trauma exists’ (21). The meanings of white racism: ‘It is not the sitting next to a Negro at a table or washing at the next basin that is repulsive to a white, but the fact that this implies equal status’ (22) . These he finds true both North and South, just as the truths of Harlem are seen as truths for ghettoes in all American cities. The Blacks interviewed by Clark and his team widely saw a universality of black experience involving discrimination, racism, and severe limitation of opportunity. The exploitation of the black ghetto by whites is a key part of this, where most businesses – from Harlem’s one department store to all but one bank and Savings and Loan right down to the numbers rackets were owned by whites living outside the community. Landlords also, primarily live outside the community even as housing decays and 100 people per acre crowd into dilapidated rooms with high rents. Clark is hardly the first to indicate the severe health as well as social and psychological problems generated by this. But he well understands that ‘If his home is clean and decent and even in some way beautiful, his sense of self is stronger. A house is a concrete symbol of what the person is worth’ (33).

He notes the lack of jobs and high levels of unemployment. The racism within unions and what that means for workers’ movement ‘The white worker has felt much less a proletariat psychologically than his counterpart in Europe because of the existence of a black proletariat in subjugated status beneath him’ (41). That ‘Unions are seen as escalators to management, not just as the protector of the workingclass. The presence of Negroes on the American scene has given some objective support to this belief…’ (42). He outlines the various unions in the area and their racial divisions. He looks at the cycle of familial instability. And intervention? Nails it: ‘patronage is not enough. They must have imagination and daring, and the must assume the risk of demanding real social change’ (54). And this: ‘There is harnessable power to effect profound social change in the generally repressed rage in the alienated’ (54). He looks at Black social mobility, and attempts to escape the ghetto into the middle class.

But though many middle-class residents of the ghetto do have a constant wish for physical and psychological escape, the ghetto has a devouring quality and to leave provokes a curious struggle. Those who do not try feel that those who do try should have some feeling of guilt and a sense of betrayal. They demand allegiance to the pathology of the ghetto, to demand conformity to its norms…That Negroes continue to seek to imitate the patterns of middle-class whites is a compliment, not the threat it may seem, but a compliment in large part undeserved, and the scars inflicted upon Negroes who are constantly confronted by the flight of those they encounter are deep and permanent. The wounded appear to eschew bitterness and hatred, but not far below the often genial, courteous surface lies a contempt that cannot easily be disguised. (62)

He moves from social dynamics – the more structural aspects – to the psychology to the pathology. My principal critique – as always I feel of books of this period – is a feminist one. I am always troubled by sub-headings like ‘The Negro Matriarchy and the Distorted Masculine Image’ and such, but Angela Davis, June Jordan, Patricia Collins and others have written extensively and brilliantly about this. But the examination of violence, delinquency and addiction are very good, and consist in great part of extensive quotations from those interviewed and their own views of their situation. More respect.

The section on school was to me one of the most eye-opening – even though I felt well-versed in this stuff. His study was able to show that kids’ IQ scores actually went down, far down, over the course of their time in school – no more damning indictment of a school system is possible, even with every reservation in the world about IQ testing in general. And few would write this now days:

’The clash of culture in the classroom’ is essentially a class war, a socio-economic and racial warfare being waged on the battleground of our school, with middle-class and middle-class aspiring tecahers provided with a powerful arsenal of half-truths, prejudices, and rationalizatipons, arrayed against hopelessly outclassed workingclass youngsters. This is an uneven balance, particularly since, like most battles, it comes under the guise of righteousness.

And finally a look at power structure in the ghetto, the rise of charismatic leaders like Adam Clayton Powell, the power of the Black press and church, the social services systems. An insight into the reach of the non-violent civil rights movements into the ghetto – which is too say, the non-reach. While all respected M.L. King and groups like CORE, there was not much support for loving the enemy, turning the other cheek. Clark also identifies a key difference between struggle against de jure segregation like Jim Crow and de facto segregation. He writes ‘In the North, the object is the entrenched bastions of political and economic power, and therefore the most effective instrument of change is direct contact with leadership, not sit-ins and other forms of mass protest’ (184). I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion, but it is certainly a point that always required more thought and discussion.
But this I agree with wholeheartedly:

Stagnant ghettoes are a monument to the dominance of forces which tend to perpetuate the status quo and to resist constructive social change. If the ghettoes are to be transformed, then forces superior to those which resist change must be mobilized to counteract them. The problem of change in the ghetto is essentially, therefore, a problem of power—a confrontation and conflict between the power required for change and the power resistant to change. The problem of power is crucial and nuclear to any nonsentimental approach to understanding, planning, and predicting. (199)

He notes about the 1963 March on Washington that arguably resulted in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that:

Of utmost significance is the fact that the term ‘white backlash,’ a popular phrase for intensified white resistance to integration, became a part of the colloquial language within the year immediately following the march (202)

And these words which provide food for much thought:

The problem posed for Negroes and those whites who are committed to actual social change as a reality and not a mere social posture is that of identifying, mobilizing, and using that power necessary to translate laws into meaningful changes in the day-to-day lives of those whom the laws are intended to protect. This problem of power is one of the more difficult ones to resolve positively because masses of white believe that they stand to gain by maintaining the Negro in his present predicament, because some whites and a few Negroes actually do gain economically and politically by maintaining the racial status quo, and because energy must always be mobilized to counteract social inertia (203)

I also thought his attempt to categorize the kinds of strategy most in dealing with racial injustice very interesting – and of course the caveat that groups use multiple strategies, not simply one:

– The strategy of prayer;
– The strategy of isolation (aristocratic and wealthy Blacks isolating themselves from the rest of their community);
– The strategy of accommodation;
– The strategy of despair (‘Despair does not seem properly identified as a strategy and yet, in a real sense, it is; for to abandon hope – to withdraw—in the presence of oppression is to adjust to and accept the condition’ (220));
– The strategy of alienation (advocated by the Communists in the 1930s, with the establishment of a separate black republic, also Black Muslims);
– The strategy of law and maneuver (NAACP and National Urban League)
– The strategy of direct encounter (sit-ins, picket lines)
– The strategy of truth (method of the intellectual)

I’m still thinking through these things, as I am this: ‘Negroes alone cannot abolish the ghetto. It will never be ended as long as the white society believes that it needs it’ (225).

Almost fifty years ago, Kenneth Clark wrote ‘The truth is that every Negro has a racial problem, repressed or otherwise, and that no American social institution is color-blind—to be color-blind in a society where race is relevant is not to be free but insensitive’ (226). How long have we been fighting that?

It is also a key insight since developed by multiple academic volumes that ‘The difference between these crusades [ie struggle to abolish child labor] and race is that in race one’s own status needs [as a white liberal] are at stake. No significant minority of white liberals can work in a totally committeed manner for racial justice for long without coming in conflict with conscious or unconscious anxieties’ (229). And this is still true:

The liberal position, when applied to race, has been, for a multitude of reasons, somewhat tainted. In those areas of life where liberals are powerful—labor unions, schools, and politics—one is forced to say that the plight of the Negroes is not significantly better than it is in areas where liberals are not dominant. Labor unions are not ‘better’ than management (230). … Loren Miller…points out that because the liberal’s historic concern has been with individual rights, he sees progress in the admission of a few Negro children to a hitherto white school; while the Negro, who also wants individual rights, nevertheless regards the raising of status of the group ‘to which he has been consigned’ as his own immediate problem and spurns the evidence of individual progress as mere tokenism (231).

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Angela Davis: Women, Race, Class

Angela DavisAn important work marking the intersections of class, race and gender…and all the history behind people you’ve vaguely looked up to because no one ever talks about the way they really felt about Black people. So you can respect some of what they’ve done, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Sanger are forever debarred from my cannon of heroes.

In criticising the 14th and 15th amendments, Stanton and Anthony descended into a horrifying racism, and I believe Davis is right when she writes

Granted they felt they had as powerful a case for suffrage as Black men. Yet in articulating their opposition with arguments invoking the privileges of white supremacy, they revealed how defenceless they remained–even after years of involvement in progressive causes–to the pernicious ideological influence of racism.[76]

Anthony confessed to having capitulated to racism ”on the ground of expediency”, and remained chair of the National American Woman Suffrage Association through 1900. Despite knowing people like Frederick Douglass (whose incredible grasp of movement and the importance of fighting on fronts of race, class and gender simultaneously is so incredibly inspiring)and Ida B. Wells.

Davis writes

In the eyes of the suffragists, “woman was the ultimate test — if the cause of woman could be furthered, it was not wrong for women to function as scabs when male workers in their trade were on strike [139-140]

With Davis I would agree this was a deeply damaging viewpoint, but one that must be critiqued and should never be forgotten–like Sangar’s flirtation with eugenics.

What I love is how this book rescues the real heroes, the people who should also never be forgotten. The working class women that joined the privileged group at Seneca Falls like Charlotte Woodward, who said:

We women work secretly in the seclusion of our bed chambers because all society was built on the theory that men, not women, earned money and that men alone supported the family … I do not believe that there was any community in which the souls of some women were not beating their wings in rebellion. For my own obscure self, I can say that every fibre of my being rebelled, although silently, all the hours that I sat and sewed gloves for a miserable pittance which, as it was earned, could never be mine. I wanted to work, but I wanted to choose my task and I wanted to collect my wages. That was my form of rebellion against the life into which I was born.

I had never known the extent of Ida B. Wells’ work. Her first pamphlet against lynching was published in 1895. Called A Red Record, she calculated over 10,000 lynchings had taken place between 1865 and 1895, she writes:

Not all nor nearly all of the murders done by white men during the past thirty years have come to light, but the statistics as gathered and preserved by white men, and which have not been questioned, show that during these years more than ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution. And yet, as evidence of the absolute impunity with which the white man dares to kill a Negro, the same record shows that during all these years, and for all these murders, only three white men have been tried, convicted and executed. As no white man has been lynched for the murder of coloured people, these three executions are the only instances of the death penalty being visited upon white men for murdering Negroes. [184]

The way she was treated in the mainstream press is almost unthinkable today, the New York Times editorializing in 1904:

Immediately following the day of Miss Wells’ return to the United States, a Negro man assaulted a white woman in New York City ‘for the purposes of lust and plunder.’ … The circumstances of his fiendish crime may serve to convince the mulatress missionary that the promulgation in New York just now of her theory of Negro outrages is, to sya the least, inopportune.’ [192]

Davis deals with some of the ways that this connects to gender construction through the characterization of black men as rapists, and to class as ‘white workers who assented to lynching necessarily assumed a posture of racial solidarity with the white men who were really their oppressors. This was a critical moment in the popularization of racist ideology’ [190]. These are issues that definitely needed — and have received — much more attention since this was published, but as a summation of all that we knew, a rescuing and restating of feminist and anti-racist and marxist histories, and a call to future scholarship, this book is brilliant.

For more on intersections of race, class and gender…

 

My Blue Heaven: South Gate and White Working Class Identity

My Blue Heaven - Becky NicolaidesBecky Nicolaides’ My Blue Heaven is a marvelously well researched and incredibly detailed look at the lives of people in South Gate, one which challenges a number of common assumptions about the suburbs while providing evidence for others.

I love how it details the ways that ideas and meanings of home and community were constructed, and their change over time. My Blue Heaven‘s principal argument is that from the 1920s through WWII, home was primarily a survival strategy for the working class. They bought affordable lots and built homes as and when they could, using extensive yards to grow food, thus provisioning themselves against want outside of the cash economy. At this time, residents felt that lower taxes were more important than school segregation for example, highlighting the precariousness of their living situation. This shifted after World War II, as South Gate came to resemble other suburbs such as Lakewood in its infrastructure and tract housing, and as owner salaries rose and situations improved, their homes became principally investments and marks of status. This led to a very strong feeling around taxes. Thus their bitter struggle against school integration, and defensive posture around residential integration to protect home values.

It is an interesting thing to think about, that poverty should make people less inclined to active racism when there were incentives to the contrary. Yet racism was no less virulent for communities made up of so many Southern migrants:

In 1925, the local booster-editor asserted “Home Gardens is a town of, by and for workingmen — and we want hundreds more of them. The only restrictions are racial — the white race only may own property here,” [27]

But this tension isn’t explored as much as I wished it to be, although the racial tensions post WWII are quite well documented. This is also true of the shift in how individuals saw taxes, and the foundations of Prop 13, and the today’s anti-tax conservatism. It is a fundamental dynamic in American politics, and this is some of the best evidence I’ve seen in terms of understanding how American politics has developed, both in the origins of strong-held opinions on the importance of low taxes:

When boom hit bust in the 1930s, their assumptions about the role of individuals and government began to shift. As both the politics of development and education revealed, residents began with the unspoken assumption that the burden of financing municipal services-from streets to schools-should fall on the backs of individual property owners, including the humble working-class home owner. Embracing an ethos of privatism, they believed property ownership conferred the responsibility of municipal stewardship. All property owners- regardless of wealth-became urban stewards. It was thus up to individuals, not government more broadly, to pay for services. In a poorer suburb like South Gate, residents simply chose to limit these services, to create a modest infrastructure that they could reasonably afford. There was no assumption that urban services were a right, and that they should be financed through a redistributive system of taxation. This reflected their deeply held ideals of individualism, self- help, hard work, plain-folk Americanism’ and anticommunism, an outlook asserting that urban fiscal policy ought to be based on a private approach rather than a collective one.

and then the ways in which discussions around taxes have also become coded in terms of race through the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s

In numerous public statements, “taxes” became a coded reference to civil rights and programs for minorities, an excellent local example of the national trend that saw an overlapping of race and taxes as political issues. “While you work and sweat to protect your earnings and property, the politicians scheme with their minority supporters to put you in a hopeless position to protect yourself against raids of everything you work for…. Today CORE, NAACP, COPE [302] and their like are the only participants who pressure our legislators for the kind of government we have now, while today’s citizen is a drone, quite impotent in local affairs because he stays home, and our taxes continue to go up, up and up,”

It is extraordinary to watch a working class community shift from supporters of EPIC and the New Deal, to supporters of conservative Republicans such as Ronald Reagan. But through this historical view it finally makes some kind of sense…it also contains a lot of more ethnographic and quite fascinating information on daily life, entertainment, and particularly labor. Nicolaides argues that home became the center of people’s lives rather than their work, and explores some of its implications for labor.

Definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in any of these topics, and a beautiful example of an in depth historical view of a single suburb that manages to give insight into key historical forces happening all over the country.

[Nicolaides, Becky M. (2002) My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.]

GM destroys the American Middle Class

Well. I am as amazed as you are to actually find this stated out loud, I am rather leery of it in fact, it seems something that is far too good (well, good only in terms of my research) to be possibly true. And I can’t be the only one to have found this buried deep in a rather bad book called Why GM Matters, but here is the exact quote from Rick Wagoner, (ex) CEO of General Motors:

The toughest question I ever asked Wagoner was, Did you have to destroy the American middle class to save the company? “If you look at the circumstances we’re facing today, if we hadn’t done that, it would have been very dire for all three of the U.S.-based auto businesses,” he responded. “So, unfortunately, the answer is yes.”

So I was originally quite struck with a bit of anger…but what in the book didn’t make me angry? And then of course, a friend pointed out that as a quote it is really quite absurd, though typical of some good old-fashioned GM megalomania. And as an attitude it is stunning. So what is the greater good of such a business really, if not the jobs it provides? Apart from retaining American industrial capacity? Because surely there must be a cheaper way to do that than giving such a company billions of worker’s dollars…