Tag Archives: Labour

Mary Higgs: Glimpses Into the Abyss

Higgs1This is the first of three posts on Mary Higgs (1854-1937), a social reformer who beyond running a shelter in Oldham actually went on the tramp in the North of England (and tested the waters in London) to better understand the conditions suffered by the poor — and particularly women — moving from town to town. Her experiences were published in a series of articles, pamphlets and a book Glimpses Into the Abyss (1906).

This was an extraordinary thing for her to do.

She is a curious mix, Mary Higgs, a woman who actually did seem able to see the conditions of the poor with a great deal of empathy, and even to listen to them. She suffered to do so — to voluntarily submit oneself to the workhouse seems mad to me even now. She cannot quite escape her middle class judgments of how people manage their poverty or Christian judgments of how they manage their morality, but her actual descriptions are for the most part fairly kind. The amount of detail provides a brilliant window into the lives of women who have otherwise been lost to us.

They stand, then, in even greater contrast to the theoretical bombast she surrounds her narrative in. I know it was the common currency of reform of the time and I have seen it raise its ugly head before, but never quite so clearly laid out as this.

First though, from the introduction, more on her background (and poverty as social disease):

Securing a lodging where a destitute woman could be accommodated, and providing cleansing and dress, she has steadily taken in through a period of six years every case of complete destitution that came to her, willing to undergo remedial treatment. The work grew; accommodation for four was provided, with two paid helpers. The small cottage used acts as a social microscope, every case being personally investigated as to past life, history, and present need, and dealt with accordingly. The writer, as Secretary to the Ladies’ Committee of Oldham Workhouse, next became personally acquainted with the working of the Poor-law and studied it by means of books also. By degrees the Rescue work came to cover Police-court and Lodging-house work, and, as there was no other Shelter in Oldham, cases of all sorts came under her notice. She thus studied personally the microbes of social disorder.

Oldham Work House
Oldham Workhouse

By degrees she came to understand the existence of certain “classes” (classifying them much as observation led her to classify objects observed in physical studies). Also, she clearly perceived that causes were at work leading to rapid degeneration, and was led to pre-suppose currents working for social destruction.

This is particularly revealing perhaps:

She reflected that exploration was the method of science, and became herself an explorer of “Darkest England.”

I am fascinated by this constant reference to the middle and upper classes ‘exploring’ and ‘discovering’ working class life and neighbourhoods through Victorian slumming, just as they ‘explored and discovered’ the colonies they exploited, just as now the ‘pioneers’ discover and expand the frontiers of gentrification. And so often it seems, it is ‘Darkest’ Africa, England, Harlem… this has been much written about I know.

So on to Higgs herself, and how she tried to initially frame the results of her experiences and her policy recommendations. It’s fairly vile and everywhere the theoretical language insults, and I am thin-skinned and easily infuriated by such vileness, but in this case I feel called to defend her to the extent that she was open enough to the reality she encountered on her tramp that it almost reads as though written by someone else, and her recommendations at the end have moved much further to understanding the structural causes of labour’s movement and respect for those needing shelter.

Still. It is good to remember what many rich people once thought of us poor people, what we white people once thought of other races, what ‘pure’ women once thought of those who enjoyed a night down the pub. Sadly we haven’t come as far in destroying this as we might hope.

A very simple theory, which will be found to accord with Plato’s diagnosis of the degeneration of a State or an individual, with Meyer’s “Disintegrations of Personality,” and with James’ “Phenomena of Religious Experience,” therefore underlies this essay; but it is apart from its objects to do more than state it. It is enunciated more fully in an article in the Contemporary Review, now out, entitled “Mankind in the Making.” It is this:

(a) The psychology of the individual retraces the path of the psychology of the race.

(b)In any given individual the  whole path climbed by the foremost classes or races may not be retraced. Therefore numbers of individuals are permanently stranded on lower levels of evolution. Society can quicken evolution by right social arrangements, scientific in principle.

(c) Granted that any individual attains a certain psychical evolution in normal development, either evolution or devolution lies before him. Wrong social conditions lead to widespread devolution. The retrograde unit retraces downwards the upward path of the race, and can only be reclaimed along this path by wise social legislation, bringing steady pressure to bear along the lines of evolution, (barring extraordinary religious phenomena, which often reclaim individuals or communities).

(d) Society has now arrived at a point of development when these facts must be recognised, and the whole question of the organisation of humanity put on a scientific basis. It will then be possible to reduce the sciences of sociology and psychology to scientific order, and our national treatment of such questions as vagrancy will be no longer purely empirical.

Words fail me here, but I am glad we have almost overcome this insane vision of evolution and racial hierarchy.

There was an odd resonance with a quote in Horne’s A Savage War of Peace in relation to the French policy of erasing Algerian resistance by destroying family structures, and a commentary that all that was left was dust. Higgs says the same thing of the transition from feudalism to capitalism and from an agricultural society to an industrial one dependent on free (and willing) labour:

As early as Henry VIII., 1531, we find a second class, that of the “incapable,” those who could not work, who were “licensed to beg.”

The formation of this class was accelerated by the failure of the Church to provide for the assistance of the poor, by suppression of abbeys, etc., at the same time that the abolition of villeinage, which was still recent, threw off from organised society dependents very unfit to live a self-supporting life. (See Note 2.) Thus again the drying up of means of subsistence created as it were another layer of easily drifting dust.

***

Since, therefore, a transition period leaves behind such a layer of social débris, it is only to be expected that we should find the third great change that has passed over society, which is still recent, namely, the change to the industrial epoch, to be productive of another layer of social débris or dust.

John A. Hobson points out (in “Problems of Poverty,” p. 24) that “the period from 1790 to 1840 was the most miserable epoch in the history of the English working classes.” It is doubtful indeed whether we have really recovered from the “sickness” of that period.

There are some familiar definitions of vagrancy, where like the poor there are the willing and the unwilling:

Vagrancy proper was the crime of individuals who dropped out of a settled, mainly agricultural, society into the wandering life. Vagrancy as induced by modern conditions may be no crime. It is not a crime for a man who cannot obtain work to migrate to find it, or for a man to return home on foot from a distance.

And here are some of the actual numbers:

So much is the tramp ward disliked, and so useless is it as a remedy for destitution, since at best it affords only a night’s shelter with poor food and hard labour, that numbers prefer to “sleep out.” The London County Council’s census of the homeless poor, Friday, 29th January, 1904, revealed 1,463 men, 116 women, 46 boys, and 4 girls walking the streets, and 100 males and 68 females sleeping in doorways, etc., a total of 1,797 homeless poor in a small area in London (from Hyde Park in the west, to the east end of Whitechapel Road, from High Holborn, Old Street and Bethnal Green, in the north, to the Thames, in the south). In the winter 1903-4, no fewer than 300 people were known to be sleeping out every night in Manchester.

And we come to the results — the terminology is cringeworthy and in itself worthy of further reflection on the way that both the processes and the discourses of industrialisation dehumanised workers. In the following posts you will be able to see just how human some (not all) of these ‘inefficients’ became to Mrs Higgs, so where then does this discourse come from? It points to the deeply problematic underpinnings of social reform, underscores where my own traditionally deep distrust of theory comes from.

VIII. SUMMARY OF RESULTS OF INVESTIGATION.

We may summarise results as follows:

1. There exists at the bottom of society the hereditary vagabond or “tramp” proper. He is the remains of a vagrant class squeezed out of society and preying upon it…

2. There exists also a class of “incapables,” i.e. those infirm, old, blind, lame, epileptic, etc. These are supposed to be provided for by our Poor-law system, and should be inside workhouses. But numbers of them are allowed to wander in penury and beggary.

3. There exists a large class of “inefficients,” the special product of the Industrial revolution. It is not probable that they will disappear as a factor in social evolution, save by means of wise social
arrangements, because:

(1) They are continually renewed from the lower levels of the population, who breed quickly.

(2) The standard of industrial requirements rises, and leaves many behind stranded.

(3) Employment after middle age is difficult to obtain.

(4) The shifting of industries and changes in employment leave units unprovided for.

It is evident therefore that the whole legislation of our country must be remodelled, for it is on the social organism as a whole that social provision now devolves.

Up next — a glimpse of women’s actual lives on the tramp in shelters and workhouses, and then boarding house as brothel. Poor Mary Higgs had her horizons opened up in a hurry…

Part 2 | Part 3

Ann Stafford: A Match to Fire the Thames

In those last years of the 1800s it really did seem as if the Thames might catch fire. Ann Stafford, author of this book, wouldn’t have been entirely pleased perhaps, she consistently supports the cautious Ben Tillett as against the socialist dream of general strike and revolution. But this is a very readable story of the series of labour agitations (match girls, gasworkers and finally the dockers’ strike) that weaves together reporting from the time and is written much in the same style.

A telling, if poetic, sentence that shows Stafford’s distance from the class she is describing:

The Cholera epidemic of 1866 had startled West London into a shuddering awareness of her insanitary neighbour, East London, which coiled around her flank with its mass of ill-housed, half-starving people, breeding pestilence, many of them vicious and criminal, all dangerous, surely, to society (31).

There are lots of fascinating asides that I have made fairly listy for better or for worse…but it is similar in a way to the structure of the book, that flits around backgrounds before entering into the narrative of the strike itself. It remembers pubs that are no more, like the Blue Posts, which had ‘long been a favourite meeting places of the stevedores. They were welcome: big, well-muscled men with plenty of money to spend, you wouldn’t catch them sitting down four to a pint pot, the way the underpaid and undernourished dockers did’ (17).

Four to a pint pot, and their missus starving no doubt.

Here is more on the history of the Blue Posts:

In the eighteenth century the Blue Posts Tavern stood on the south side of Limehouse Causeway at its junction with Pennyfields and Back Lane. Soon after the West India Dock Road had been formed the establishment moved to a new building on the north-east side of that road, south of Back Lane. (fn. 6) The Blue Posts public house (No. 73) was a three-storey brick building of three bays. It was extended to the south-east (No. 75) in 1876 with a two-storey block giving a long street frontage. The Blue Posts, with the Railway Tavern and Jamaica Tavern, was well placed to serve labourers and others passing to and from the West India Docks. Charles W. Brown, son of the famous Charlie Brown (see below), displayed half of his father’s curio collection at the Blue Posts in the 1930s.

The Wade’s Arms is the pub most central to this story, however, at 15 Jeremiah Street, E14 (now partly Rigden Street), but it was demolished in 1944.

Almost every physical remnant of this period of labour history is gone.

Stafford doesn’t care about or question the thread of Empire that runs through this, the efforts to claim the rewards of the conquerors for the working men of the conquering race. There is, to me, a fairly incredible comparison between the dockers fighting for wages and the British soldiers under siege at Lucknow during the Indian uprising of 1857, John Burns in a rousing speech intertwined Empire with the struggle of labour:

I tell you, lads, we will no more surrender than the men in Lucknow surrendered. Now these men fought for a glory which was effervescent and ephemeral; but they nobly did their duty and stood up against a storm of shot and shell, disease and want, and all the miseries of that long siege. You, men, have to hold another citadel today. We are defending our Lucknow–the Lucknow of Labour. Too long have you been cooped up in the prison houses of poverty, suffering, privation and disease, and all the hardships of your lot. But courage! Relief is at hand. As our garrison in Lucknow, straining their eyes towards the horizon, saw the silver sheen of the bayonets of the relieving army, so from this parapet, I too see on the horizon a silver gleam–not the gleam of bayonets to be imbrued in the blood of a brother, but the silver sheen of the full round orb of the docker’s tanner. (quoted p 27)

And then there is this:

“I believe,” said Will Thorne, “that nowhere in the world have white men had to endure such terrible conditions as those under which the dockers work.” (40)

White men were not the only men to work the docks, but others don’t enter this story at all except in a single cringeworthy reference to all men pulling together in the very first pages. But there is a over and over that strong sense that dock work was the lowest possible work of all, these workers the lowest of all workers: “To have worked at the docks is sufficient to damn a man for any other work,” remarked Beatrice Webb (36). Margaret Harkness in her fictional account of the fall of a young man from the country, says the same — there is little to no hope of being fit for anything else after working there with its brutal conditions and starvation wages and odd hours.

All but Ben Tillett believed it impossible to organise them until they proved otherwise.

There’s some background on the dock companies —  4 dock companies ran 7 docks, and they were famously incompetent apparently — Victoria & Albert Dock at Tilbury, The East India and West India Docks,  the London Dock, St Katharine’s Dock, the Millwall Dock, and the Surrey Commercial Dock. They competed with other docks and other ports — primarily Liverpool and Southampton, especially after opening of the Suez Canal. Revenue at East &West India Docks fell from 4 1/2 percent in 1884 to 0 in 1887, London & St Katharine stood at 1 percent in 1888. This in spite of men fighting each other at their gates for the lowest possible wages, working only the hours needed and turned away for the rest. There is a great post on the ‘call-on’ here.

Stafford describes some of the docker’s living quarters, no different perhaps, from the rookeries of Saffron Hill and Bethnal Green, but surely much colder, damper being right alongside the river:

Only the poorest of the dockers, the casual laborers, lived near their work, in the narrow dark streets which ran between the river and Commercial Road. Some of the older houses tottering on the river bank had degenerated and were now let off room by room; they were often known as ‘rookeries,’ for not only did each room contain a family much too big for it, but at night the vary stairs served as perches for men and women who could not afford a room at all (39).

I enjoyed the book’s brief bios of the working class heroes of the strike — Will Crooks, born in Shirbut Street, Poplar — now the site of the Will Crooks Maternity and Child Welfare Crisis. He would speak just outside East India Dock gate every Sunday morning:

He did not only talk about their grievances–a subject of which they never tired–he started them thinking about all the good things that they wanted, public libraries, technical institutes, even a tunnel under the Thames…Crooks’ College, Poplar people called these meetings, and Crooks’ College went on Sunday after Sunday, year after year, almost without interruption, even when Will was elected to the London County Council, served on the Board of Guardians, became Mayor of Poplar, and in 1903 was returned to Parliament as Labour M.P. for Woolwich (47-48).

Ben Tillett (more about him in further posts, this book takes his side in almost all things but he is a complex man at best — they were all complex in the ways that race and class and gender intersected, often for the worst, in the work and speeches of everyone named here). Will Thorne — ‘In 1881, when times were difficult in Birmingham, he walked to London, and luckily for him he got a job at once at the Old Kent Road Gas Works…’ (51). John Burns. Annie Besant — the only woman to receive her own few pages of biography in here. But the best fragment is about Beatrice Webb, who shared the speaker’s platform at one event in Canning Town:

He [Tillett] says: “…neither I nor any of the other people on the platform appeared to have made a very satisfactory impression on our rather aristocratically prejudiced visitor. She was young, clever, much petted by the intellectuals of the older generation, undoubtedly sincere, anxious to help, but somewhat condescending.” On the other he appeared to her as “undoubtedly sincere, but rather dull.” (57)

There comes a mention of Eleanor Marx in passing,

But Mrs. Aveling–the daughter of Karl Marx–was a sad, foreign looking lady, unhappily married, so they said, to the professor who sometimes came down to speak on socialism at open air meetings (18).

She, and the beautiful wife of Mr Burns are mentioned a handful of times as running the union accounts, but they have little further role in this story. There is a brief mention of Clementina Black — my god, Miss Clementina Black! An amazing woman, one I must read of further. But there is a long chapter on the Match Girls strike, the low wages, the sweated labour, the ‘phossy jaw’ — bones eaten away by phosphorous. It hurts your heart.

They were fierce, these women. They worked in the old Bryant and May factory just down the road from where I lived in Bow when I first moved to London. A gated community of luxury apartments now, I had always wondered about that building.

match-girls1

Matchwomen at Bryant and May's factory shortly before their famous strike

_68292082_3109114

They went on strike, simply walked out fed up and organised union and strike fund afterwards, and still they won. After this, the tram workers organised, meeting at midnight at  Pilgrim Hall in the New Kent Rd — the only time they could all get together being off shift. They demanded five journeys a day rather than six, and got their demands. Workers at the Beckton Gas Works organised, and won an eight hour day, with fewer retorts to fill and no reduction in wages without ever going on strike. This was led by Will Thorne, and he was present at the burst of discontent that would kick off the docker’s strike.

This fills the remainder of the book — the organising of the pickets, how the more charismatic John Burns came to lead it rather than Ben Tillett who had been organising there all along.

John Burns addressing a meeting during the strike of 1889. © National Maritime Museum, London
John Burns addressing a meeting during the strike of 1889.
© National Maritime Museum, London

The mass meetings on Tower Hill to report back on progress with negotiations at Dock House on Leadenhall Street. The move of the campaign from Tillett’s headquarters at Wroote Coffee House to The Wade’s Arms, the reorganisation of relief for thousands of men on strike (saved in the key last days of hunger and misery by thousands of pounds collected and sent from Australia). The brakes put on the strike, when more men wanted to join, such as the engineers from Westwood and Baillie of Millwall and were discouraged from doing so.

A description of Burns from the Star, August 27, highlighting that this is a manly man’s strike:

He carried a short, stout stick. His keen, strong eye, looking out from his strong rugged face and from beneath dark brows, glanced round the room with a searching look… There is something about Burns that gives you, the moment you see him, a great sense of power. It is partly perhaps the splendid physique–like a brawny blacksmith: it is partly the straight and fearless eyes; it is partly the easy and strong pose of an athlete, as he sits on the arm of a chair, with his Inverness cape thrown loosely back; it is partly the virile voice–slightly husky now, from over-speaking, but still deep and resonant and masculine (138).

There are other short notes I found of interest:

‘The once notorious Mahogany Bar in Ratcliffe Highway, since 1888 a Non-Conformist Mission Centre, provided 700-800 breakfasts daily and soup for wives and children at mid-day’ (140).

The outpouring of support, the women who cooked and raised money were tremendous. There is another mention of someone I know:

That mysterious figure, Miss Harkness, who had been constantly in touch with the Committee at The Wade’s Arms, came to him [Cardinal Manning], he says, “from the strikers.” Old Newman, his butler, was disinclined to admit her…But within half an hour, the persistent Miss Harkness had seen the Cardinal… (155)

And this on other unions from my side of the river:

The only trade of any great importance was the coal trade. The men of Clapham and Wandsworth struck on the persuasion of the North London men. The Brixton men seemed likely to join (154).

14,000 tickets were being handed out to men on strike by the men, an extraordinary logistical effort requiring immense resources. The role of the women running this cannot be underestimated though it does not appear here really.

Again from the Surrey side, the unexpected actions of Mr Henry Lafone, who ran Butler’s Wharf and allowed his own men on strike two shillings a day.

I’m not sure how to take Stafford’s description of the ‘No Work Manifesto’ — essentially calling for a general strike if the Dock Companies did not move towards an acceptable compromise. Stafford is clearly not in favour and saw this as the move that hardened the opposition and lost the support of the public. She describes with great favour the Conciliation Committee — the Bishop of London, the Lord Mayor, Cardinal Manning, Mr Sydney Buxton, M.P. for Poplar. This is not a committee I would trust particularly to negotiate on the behalf of working men, even though the shipowners and many men of wealth and business were on the side of the dockers at the end. I do think Stafford’s class identity consistently betrays her in the telling of this story both in its focus and in its view of strategy and acceptable goals. But there is nothing about her online, only that Stafford is a pseudonym and her real name was Ann Pedlar, this in spite of the fact she is the author of nine other books listed inside the cover. It’s as if no one cared about women writing histories of the unions, imagine that.

Back to the dockers though, I am looking forward to hearing this in their own words and there are multiple autobiographies, but to finish with Stafford’s account.

There was some last-minute negotiating, rushed conferences, lack of full consultation — so familiar, it is all so familiar. They reached a compromise finally, called it a victory though it was debatable how much exactly the dockers had won. Stafford writes:

This then, was the great achievement: unskilled men had learned how to combine, and as a result, the ‘New Unionism’ of 1889 laid the foundations of the Trade Unionism of today. Almost overnight the tiny Tea Operatives and General Labourers Union became the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union of Great Britain and Ireland, which was in time to become the Transport and General Workers Union with its Headquarters at Transport House (202).

[Stafford, Ann (1961) A Match to Fire the Thames. London: Hodder and Stoughton.]

More on the East End…

 

Save

Save

A Vision For London: The London County Council

London County Council - Susan D. PennybakerA Vision for London, 1889-1914: Labour, Everyday Life and the LCC Experiment
Susan D. Pennybacker (1995) London & NY: Routledge

This was a brilliantly detailed look at some of the archive material for the London County Council, and it signposts the collections beautifully in exploring some of the lived experience of its workers through the Progressive period. The founding legislation for the LCC was the Local Government Act of 1888, and it brought together the Municipal Board of Works and the justices. Pennybacker writes:

The Progressives led the London County Council, the worlds largest municipal authority of its time, from its founding in 1889 until their defeat in 1907; an unbroken period of Conservative control followed until 1934. The Progressives’ ethics and their political strategy prescribed a redemptive role for the government of the imperial capital, a social mission in the secular metropolis. This book assesses the LCC’s success in attempting such a mission and in doing so offers a selective portrait of the Council’s work…. (3)

The characters of this story are John Benn, John Burns, Sidney Webb and Ben Tillett among others, and they embody all the contradictions of Progressivism  including its eugencism and ‘drive for racial fitness’.

There is also some sense, though not enough I don’t think, of the earlier fragmentation of governance in the metropolis, particularly in relation to the power of the City:

John Benn was not the first to assault the City Corporation. Since the 9th century, its accumulated wealth and power has stymied and obstructed attempts at incremental reform. From 1688 onward, this single square mile’s control of the river traffic, its absorption of the coal dues, its exemption from the powers of the Metropolitan police, its livery companies, its guilds and lucrative estates, were formidable barriers to equitable and comprehensive government (6).

It is indeed ironic that they now hold the LCC archives.

Some of the basics: the LCC was directly elected — the first apart from London School Board. Its boundaries were the same as for parliamentary constituencies — each electing 2 LCC Councillors and 1 MP. Important to remember is, contrary to what I had heard, ‘only in limited, exemplary terms was the LCC an organ of popular democracy; it simply was not a body mandated under universal suffrage’ (26). There still existed tremendous limits on the franchise, I always forget how recently these have shifted to become universal.

In evaluating their legacy, Pennybacker looks at their ‘most notable endeavours’: Holborn to Strand improvement & opening of Kingsway, Boundary Street estate, acquisition of trams, Blackwall Tunnel, and briefly passenger steam boat service (11). Alongside this is their innovative labour policy, fair wages and direct employment of labour rather than through contractors . The LCC works department, for example,  had 12,000 employees by 1904, when the  acquisition of the scool board added another 35,000. By WWI it was London’s largest employer. What they didn’t achieve? Control over utilities like gas, water or electricity, municipalisation of the docks, acquisition of police control, control of markets or expansion of public sector housing to more than 15%.

‘But in terms of this book, the greatest achievement of the Porgressive period was the way in which the early LCC tested the outside parameters of what can be categorised as ‘social-democratic’ and ‘municipal socialist’ reform in its infancy, in prototype (19).

I like that she does this without shrinking from London as an Imperial Metropolis — the LCC impacted by national anxieties around the Boer War, the movement for national efficiency, and a focus on motherhood alongside a horrific infant mortality rate of 20,000 every year after 1900. She writes:

‘No municipal aspiration, however selfless in its articulation, could be entirely separated from a will to efficiency, to racial uplift and to competitive zeal, or from the desire to ‘catch-up’ and to achieve order at home while maintaining hegemony abroad (23)…Fabian and other socialists shared these ideals; those who dissented were a minority. In the capital, advocates of the rights of women, votes for women and the causes of labour and of the trade unions employed rhetoric of ‘Englishness’ and committed themselves to the cause of bettering those whom they saw as their racial and social inferiors. Far from being marginal or incidental aspects of ‘municipal socialism’ or of the feminisms of the period, these were central purposes and principles (23).

Below are just a collection of interesting quotes pulled from the three case studies

On clerks:

Both the Civil Service and the LCC required candidates for advertised clerkships to sit examinations under a scheme administered through City of London College. Sample papers were sold to the public so that prospective candidates could prepare them in advance. Candidates for the fourth class were required to be 18 to 23 years of age and British-born. (This provision took on special significance as a criterion of employment and it was enforced even after 1945. When West Indian nurses arrived in London after the Second World War, they found no posts available at the LCC) (39).

Some samples of the essay questions — I love them as a window into government expectations of what their clerks should know and have well-formed opinions on:

– Is war ever justifiable?
– The effect of science on literature
– Methods for dealing with the unemployed.
– ‘The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.
– Is compulsory military service desirable?
– Imperialism (40).

From the first moment it was apparent that the women hired had not replaced men per se, but instead comprised a new, cheaper form of labour in the clerical divisions; their work was of a different character (43).

Blackcoated workers were concentrated in London where they tended to reside in the outer suburbs less by choice than because of rising rents in the desirable central areas (47).

LCC Works Department

One side maintains with zeal that the council the working man’s best friend, a model employer, and the best representative of progress in London. Trams, model dwellings, the Works Department, and several quite inaccurate statistics are fleeing at other speakers’ heads. John Burns is prominently to the front. ..then the other side gets a word in edgeways. ‘The County Council? Look what they’ve done down Clare Market way! Pulled down half the houses, turned the people out of the other half as insanitary, and then let tenants into ’em and sent all the respectable people yo go an crowd into Holborn as best they can. When they get up their new buildings will they let ’em to you or me? Not much. Look what they charge down in Shoreditch. They’ll let us go to Tottenham, that’s what they’ll do’ (96).
— Reverend HGD Latham ‘Nights at Play’ The Cornhill Magazine, 12, 1902 677-685

The arguments for and against the Department reflected the first concerns about ‘socialism’ as an institutional political project to appear since the time of the Owenite communities. It had been decades since property was held in common for the useful production of services to a community of producers and consumers who were constituted (somewhat) democratically and who were in a position to exercise even indirect control over their conditions and terms of labor (97).

The Works Department was now seen as a test case of municipal socialism or, as some would have it, as a new adjudicator of the ‘labour question’ in London (114).

The balancing act between government, the contractors and the building trades, sought so desperately by Burns and many other Progressives, proved a sham not because of financial insolvency but because of the moral and political conflicts invariably arising from an attempt to reconcile bureaucratic organisation and public service with the need to compete effectively on a labour market in London’s key industry (120).

I love that the LCC agreed to pay the rates and uphold the hours set by the unions following a conference held after the 1891 Carpenters and Joiners’ strike in London (124). This agreement was extended in 1897 to recognise negotiated scales, including maximum hours and minimum rates.

That said, this is an immensely detailed chapter on some of the scandal and controversy and argument surrounding the Works Department, but I wished this, as well as the chapter that followed it perhaps, had been set against a little more background of actual conditions of the people whom the policies were to help. Most working men in the building trades and their families  were subsisting close to starvation levels (read Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, or Maud Pember Reeve‘s careful account of some of the conditions of working men and their salaries, or Margaret Harkness or many another work). It is easy to get lost in her accounts of theoretical controversy over the effectiveness of the LCC, I wanted it more grounded in the conditions the LCC was fighting to change.

The third case study is on inspectors — titled ‘The appetite for Managing Other People’s Lives’

LCC social and cultural policy had its formative years in the Porgressive era and was part of the national restructuring of welfare provision. Social purity, National Efficiency, racial purification and maternalism formed the broader context in which specific projects were undertaken by the Council (159).

I found the sentence below curious:

Nineteenth-century London remained largely prostrate and impoverished, open to assault and subversion by the new municipal body (160).

I am still unsure what I think of the marshaling of Foucault to look at the phenomenon of inspections, torn by the class-based and moral judgments, and the feeling that something, anything had to be done to make things better. Landlords needed to be forced to fix their buildings. Factory owners needed to be forced to improve working conditions. I cannot be sad the state moved to enforce such things, I wish critiques of inspections offered a more critical analysis of why and how such things happened in such a damaging way, what it would have taken beyond inspections to change them for the better. I am most interested in change.

Another example is the new, healthy, affordable housing that needed to be built on a tremendous scale…for the tenants in the slums that were displaced. I have read some conflicting things about whether or not this happened, I tend to the side of the disbelievers supported by this:

Chief sanitary Inspector of Bethnal Green explained in 1898: ‘The conditions and rents the Council impose, render it simply impossible for poor people to live in their houses.’ He claimed that the building of the Boundary Street Estate had resulted in the displacement of thousands of neighbourhood residents; not even 5 per cent of the original inhabitants could afford to return and were now creating overcrowding of lesser, nearby accommodations (189).
–Lessons from the Bethnal Green Calamity’, London, 6 Jan 1989 p 5

I didn’t have the same reservations about the discussion of the hypocrisy and morality that put restrictions on activities in the parks on Sundays, even though they were the only day off for many. This was most telling, as was the discussion of the ways in which the regulation of music halls took place. I’m not sure it was fully brought together here, but a good start on thinking things through.

A quick quote to summarise the conclusion, and the decline and demise of the London County Council:

This study suggests at least three areas of failure that account for the decline of the vision and for its increasing lack of credibility in its own time: the failure of economy, of the fiscal; the failure in the realm of the political, which was in part a failure to preserve a distinctiveness of doctrine; and a failure in social terms, as captured by the LCC’s inability to eradicate London poverty or to relieve much of the distress of its inhabitants. Instead, intrusion and supervision were substituted for grander programmes of social amelioration or cultural enlightenment (241).

It ends with a wonderful section that serves as a guideline to the archives themselves, so much of which remain to be explored…

Save

Stone Butch Blues

139569Leslie Feinberg ([1993] 2003)

This was beautiful and brave and I so loved it. It wasn’t easy to read though, if only because we live in a society that reacts with horrifying fear and violence to difference — something that thankfully is changing, and all because of women like Leslie Feinberg. I moved this to the top of my to-read list after seeing the outpouring of love and grief after her recent death from among so many of my friends, and now I too can mourn her properly. I wish I had read it long ago.

It opened up a whole new world to me, one that must have taken such immense courage to share with strangers. I know it’s fiction, but it contains the same searing honesty that the best autobiography offers up. In that sense Feinberg embodies what I most value about writing, activism and intellectual thought and she writes it here, sharing what I too most love about writing:

I discovered Norton’s anthology of poetry in the patients’ library–it changed my life. I read the poems over and over again before I could grasp their meanings. It wasn’t just that the words were musical notes my eyes could sing. It was the discovery that women and men, long dead, had left me messages about their feelings, emotions I could compare to my own. I had finally found others who were as lonely and I was. In an odd way, that knowledge comforted me (22).

This is what is universal, what will touch all of us who have struggled with difference and exclusion and found comfort in the words of others fighting through this in our respective ways. But really it is in its courageous particularity that this book shines brightest. This set of experiences transformed my understanding of this struggle, even though I thought I had well-developed empathy and a fairly good grasp on such things. Instead this ripped my heart wide open in ways I was not expecting, especially as it had none of the cushioning layers of privilege that have always stood between me and other narratives of non-hetero experience. It’s all union all the way, but working-class Buffalo, damn. I hadn’t fully owned the fact that there were others with even more reason than myself to fear public toilets growing up, and for whom those spaces never ever became safe. For whom public spaces themselves were (are) never safe, and the cops always the greatest predators.

Stone Butch Blues lays out all the pain of difference, the limited places and communities of safety and the intensity of loneliness separating them in time and space. How so many others are forced for their physical and mental safety to navigate workplaces, cities, domestic spaces. How they have been forced always to fight, change, flee, or give up and die. There is none of the simple being in the world that I take too much for granted.

Above all it points to the broader social changes that Stonewall began to make possible, as well as a map of how social relationships and loving relationships could and should be. For all of its pain it has something of wish-fulfillment to it. But I appreciated that it never allowed itself to fall into despair and violent oblivion in spite of the fact that it keeps you always terrified — one wrong step, one unlucky chance could send Jess  to the abyss, taking you with her. It is written with purpose, its words of fire calling to a better way of being, of doing, of living. One that can only be created collectively. The last lines:

I heard the beating of wings nearby. I opened my eyes. A young man on a nearby rooftop released his pigeons, like dreams, into the dawn (301).

As a writer and activist, the afterword (written 10 years after) contained individual words to cherish,  just as I do the whole of the story and struggle of Jess’s life that the novel offers like a gift. I loved the following passages about the relationship between fiction and life, the relationship of the author to both:

Now, a decade later, I am surprised. Astonished to be reintroduced to characters I birthed, who like anyone’s grown children developed fictional lives of their own, independant from mine. I discover a journey not identical to my life’s path and yet blazed with the intimate familiarity of my own life experience. I locate theory–the way it is lived in motion and in interconnection. Not hard to understand; hard to live (303).

This is amazing:

“Is it fiction?” I am frequently asked. Is it true? Is it real? Oh, it’s real all right. So real it bleeds. And yet it is a remembrance: Never underestimate the power of fiction to tell the truth (304)

And this, rescuing authorship from the vaguely megalomanic ‘high art’ definitions so often pinned upon, and embraced by, writers:

But with this novel I planted a flag: Here I am–does anyone else want to discuss these important issues? I wrote it not as an expression of individual “high” art but as a working-class organizer mimeographs a leaflet–a call to action. When, at my first public bookstore reading, someone asked me to sign a copy of the book for a friend who was too shy to speak to a published author, it broke my heart. My life’s work is about elevating collective organizing, not elevating individuals (305-306)

And this about how words and struggle relate:

Recovering collective memory is itself an act of struggle. It allows the generational currents of the white-capped river of our movement to flow together–the awesome roar of our many waters. And the course of our movement is not fixed in its banks like the Hudson River–it is ours to determine. From Selma to Stonewall to Seattle, we who believe in freedom will not rest until every battle is won (307).

Like songs and marches and struggle in the face of overwhelming odds, this made me cry. It explored the intersections of our oppressions in ways so many fail to do, it worked to build a broader movement of all us to create a world we can live in. I am so glad I share the world and the struggle with such women:

I can say this with certainty: If your life is being ground up in economic machinery and the burden of oppression is heavy on your back, you hunger for liberation, and so do those around you. Look for our brightly colored banners coming up over the hill of the past and into your present. Listen for our voices–our protest chants drawing nearer. join us in the front ranks. We are marching toward liberation.

That’s what the characters in Stone Butch Blues fought for. The last chapter of this saga of struggle has not yet been written (308).

Save

Cleaning Regent’s Canal

We were all hoping for treasure I think. Things lost in the thick black muck; its smell still permeates my room from the pile of clothes in the corner. A bad day to run out of laundry detergent. Worth it, though, canals are a national treasure. The year I lived in Bow I could always escape down to the Regent’s Canal. It felt like, no it was, a bit of the wild running through the city. I still cross the river from South London to walk there sometimes.

IMG_0625

Not as wild as the Thames, I love the river for being the only London place you can feel the world open out the way the desert does. Space. Power. Nature being bigger than we are, which I miss so much in a city where you can’t see the stars. Of course this requires standing on a bridge. I do love bridges, but cold. You can escape down to the bits of beach you can find, but my heart hurts at the kinds of development running along the banks these days.

We built canals, these beautiful threads of water that open up the city but also tie it together in ways so different from streets, that provide homes for so many creatures other than ourselves, that represent such enormous collective effort and advances in engineering. I love all of that. Especially this bit of the Regents Canal not yet ruined by developers. The Canal River and Trust had funds to drain a section of it, fix up the walls. Not to clean it though. Unemployment as it is, people should have been paid well to do this hard work that improves the canals for all of us who love them as well as their wildlife.

With our society’s priorities all wrong, the massive effort to clean the canal while it sat drained depended on volunteers under the direction of the brilliant Lower Regents Coalition (with a shout out to Katie and Alfie from Moo Canoes who were there til the end, and run days when you can canoe for free if you do some litter picking). They provided the kit. The Canal & River Trust are filling in the canal today, so it was the last chance to get the rubbish out, we fanned out:

IMG_0641
We pulled out materials dumped by builders, numerous prams and assorted metal ‘things’ and horrible sections of shag carpet and cans upon cans and bottles and plastic bags. We wrestled them all from the mud that clung to them fiercely, and with tired muscles piled them high on the canal banks.

IMG_0640
I wanted to have been the one who found the old second world war ordinance or the rotting rifle or the goblets or the animal skull. But I didn’t mind so terribly that I wasn’t. I got to enjoy other people’s discoveries:

IMG_0642

The end of the day was loading up what seemed like endless truck runs from bank to barge:

IMG_0643
Because it was the last day, the push was intense to get as much as we could, and I was a bit ashamed of myself that I had to leave before we were quite done because it’s those last few loads that really counted. The last cold fighting with rubbish in the darkness, all that collecting of boots and gloves and washing them down and the things that keep you from the mulled wine and hot mince pies that were our reward.

I was exhausted even without deserving the honour of that last push, but I recognised the justice of the friendly laughing from the canal workers repairing the banks as a few of us left off before they stopped working. They had started before us, did this every day.

Still, it left me with a bit of a high as I made my way back to Brixton. I thought buying a special little something for supper from Marks & Spencers with a dirty face (all over filthy really) and smelling like the canal might be another highlight of the day, but honestly, the hot shower was one of the best I have ever enjoyed.

Days like this, spent with people like this, make me feel so good.

Postscript: Walking on my way to do some work it’s clear they’re still working on the canal. Also, walking? Oof. I won’t say it’s age but shit, I think it might be age.

Save

Gerald Horne, Watts and the Fire This Time

Gerald Horne’s Fire This Time is an intriguing study of the Watts uprising, situating it in both a national context of red-baiting and the impact on civil rights struggles of the destruction of any kind of radical class-based organizing, and an international context with its connections to liberation struggles and cold war politics. He argues the uprising marks a full change:

The uprising in Watts was a milestone marking the previous era from what (16) was to come. For blacks it marked the rise of black nationalism, as blacks revolted against police brutality. But what began as a black revolt against the police quickly became a police revolt against blacks. This latter revolt was a milestone too, one marking the onset of a “white backlash” that would propel Ronald Reagan into the governor’s mansion in Sacramento and then the White House. White backlash proved to be more potent than what had given it impetus, black nationalism. This too was the meaning of the 1960s (17).

This is part of a larger argument, and I’d guess it is one he is making across several books – I haven’t read the others, but they are all on my list

I have argued that just as the conflict between capitalism and slavery led to the abolition of bonded labor, the conflict between capitalism and the possibilities of socialism led to the abolition of formal Jim Crow. I am certain that at some point in the twenty-first century, historians will be obligated to tackle this important question–the dismantling of legalized segregation by reference to the Cold War (17).

He also has a clear understanding (though he doesn’t use the same language) as those who describe California’s racial hierarchies – he refers to it as compounded racism drawing on Griswold de Castillo:

The impact of the Mexican heritage of California must be considered also. Blacks could receive civil rights concessions for national security reasons; in California there’ was the added incentive of a competing, compounded racism. By the time Los Angeles experienced another burst of civil unrest in
1992, the city’s Latino, or Spanish-speaking, population was growing more rapidly than monolingual blacks. This created an opportunity for blacks in the city and state to assume the position of “middle man minority” and consequently to gain top posts in City Hall and Sacramento much more rapidly than their Latino counterparts. (18)

This is echoed in the wonderful quotes he draws together about the complexities and contradictions of L.A.’s residential and labour landscapes—this book’s strength is in the framework for analysis and the incredible amount of original source material that he draws from. My only critique is that it seems like a (very large) chapter in a larger work, drawing on an understanding of a radical and left-leaning L.A. that is not widely known, making the framework seem sometimes like an outline, filled in with amazing detail:

Langston Hughes captured the complexity of LA and race at this time. The city, he said, “seemed more a miracle than a city, a place where oranges sold for one cent a dozen, ordinary black folks lived in huge houses with ‘miles of yards,’ and prosperity seemed to reign in spite of the Depression.” Yet he felt that Hollywood “might just as well be controlled by Hitler.” 26 The social scientist Charles Johnson also noticed this racial complexity. “In certain plants where Mexicans were regarded as white, Negroes were not allowed to mix with them; where Mexicans were classed as colored, Negroes not only worked with them but were given positions over them. In certain plants Mexicans and whites worked together; in some others, white workers accepted Negroes and objected to Mexicans; still in others white workers accepted Mexicans and objected to Japanese.”27 When employers hired African Americans, they preferred the light-skinned variety. According to James Gregory nothing bothered Okies more “than California’s system of racial and ethnic relations.” They were shocked by signs reading “no white laborers need apply.” The conflict between their past and present realities helps to explain why a raw racism became a “source of group identity” for many of these migrants from a state known as “Little Dixie.” 28 (29)

Despite, or because of this, many felt it widely understood that L.A. didn’t have the same kind of race problem as did Detroit or Chicago.

Staff member William Colby reminded the McCone Commission about the widespread opinion that “Los Angeles was number 1 as the place where Negroes are better off.” Perhaps because of the affluent stratum of black sports figures and entertainers, cinema and television representations, the appealing climate, or all of the above, the city was favored by many black migrants, not only from the traditional southern areas but also increasingly deteriorating midwestern cities like St. Louis.20 Despite the claims of Colby, a number of blacks viewed the City of Angels as “spiritually below the Mason-Dixon line, without the nastiness of park benches labeled ‘for colored,'” and “40 years behind the rest of the country.” 21 (50) (20. Report by William Colby, 11 Nov. 19 Box 18, 16 McCone Papers)

I love also the drawing out of class divisions, the particularities of Watts that made it the epicentre of rebellion:

On top of the regional insult suffered by all blacks, those of Watts had the added burden to bear that gave added intensity to their anger; they not only faced interracial pain but the intraracial variety as well. Stanley Sanders, the other son of Watts and its first Rhodes scholar, has added his own interpretation. He blamed the building of Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Court, and other housing projects that came to hold a significant percentage of the black poor as being partly responsible for Watts’s image. Out of this vortex emerged gangs like the Black Swans and the Farmers. Each project spawned different gangs, and conflict was not unknown. Speaking in 1990, Sanders recalled that “most middle class blacks” were “afraid to come to Watts.” With a remaining scintilla of bitterness, he recalled rejection at a dance because he came from Watts. He and his friends were deemed “outcasts.” They were “looked down on” by other blacks. They were the “bottom of [the] barrel,” he continued. He remembered not only a “color line” but an “economic” line. There was economic conflict that had both interracial and intraracial consequences. The same could be said of color conflict. There was not only the usual white chauvinism; there were “very few fair skinned blacks in Watts,” and these were perceived as discriminating against their darker brothers and sisters, referring to folks in Watts as “those black niggers in Watts” as if they were “a whole different race.” This combination of resentments–a compounded racism in sum-helps to explain why LA exploded first and with a fervor dwarfing contemporaneous outbursts. 25 (51)

There’s some really interesting stuff about the reaction, and how the uprising was viewed by establishment figures:

Later, after the fires had cooled, journalist Theodore White agreed with Parker: “Modern Negro violence is not simply rioting but an urban form of guerilla warfare” that needed to be confronted with new “weapons and tactics.” Strikingly, White conceded the black nationalists’ argument, even using androcentric terms: “It is, at this time, perhaps necessary to find out how to create some form of Negro self-government coupled with Negro responsibility in the big cities which will give Negroes that sense of control over their own destinies that all men so dearly require.”(64)

This idea I find both fascinating and a bit tragic – the way that Marcus Garvey was also able to find some common cause with white supremacists because both groups wanted black folks to secede, to separate, to segregate. It helps put in perspective the change in the movement post-Watts, and why it was such a crisis for King and others:

The Watts Uprising helped to set in motion a nationalism that filled an ideological void in Black LA. The Black Scare was unpredictable; it could and did present a threat to the person of some elite whites. The stories and pictures of whites being pulled from their cars and attacked were frightening to some of those with melanin deficiency. But, akin to the old Jack Benny joke, where the comedian is torn when the robber demands, “Your money or your life,” LA elites recognized that the nationalists could be accommodated in a way that their militant predecessors of the left could not. As long as separatism was decoupled from reparations, the NOI-influenced nationalism not only did (132) not present a threat to private property, it could even be helpful-along with racism–in keeping apart those who might want to unite jointly against the LAPD and the elites it was sworn to protect. The problem for blacks was that the blows from LAPD batons raining steadily down on their heads — overwhelmingly by white officers commanded by white elites–made any notion of “black and white unite and fight” seem like a delirious dream not even worthy of Hollywood. (133)

And so we are left to look at what remains, what happened to the vibrant movements. He doesn’t go into the destruction of the Panthers, only that their tenure was brief and allusions to the role of the FBI in their demise. But it’s clear why he believes they were targeted as they were:

So, after the excessive fire launched by the LAPD, there was widespread praise for Chief Parker, some flawed affirmative action, and a few other minor reforms. The black community was moving increasingly in a nationalist direction, angry at whites generally and their perceived designated representatives, a mostly.white LAPD. But this sentiment was contained in crystallized form in the theological vessel of the NOI [Nation of Islam]. There was the NAACP, which was perceived as being the spokesman for the middle class. There were gangs, some evolving toward the Black Panther party. And there were the so-called cultural nationalists, who pioneered in the “Black Is Beautiful” movement but allowed themselves to be manipulated against the Panthers. The Panthers had concluded that only armed struggle could repel the LAPD.
Except for the Panthers, all of these forces had rudimentary middle-class ideas about becoming entrepreneurs or middle-level government bureaucrats, or managing illicit empires, or simply finding a way to survive U.S. imperialism mentally and culturally without challenging it. In the 1990s all—except the Panthers—continue to exist. (167)

Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag

In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, a new inmate housing unit is seen near completion a the Madera County Jail in Madera, Calif. County lockups, designed to hold prisoners for no more than a year are now being asked to incarcerate inmates serving the kind of lengthy sentences that used to send them to prisons. In some counties attorney's representing inmates say it is leading to poor conditions similar to those that previously plagued state prisons.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, a new inmate housing unit is seen near completion a the Madera County Jail in Madera, Calif. County lockups, designed to hold prisoners for no more than a year are now being asked to incarcerate inmates serving the kind of lengthy sentences that used to send them to prisons. In some counties attorney’s representing inmates say it is leading to poor conditions similar to those that previously plagued state prisons.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Golden GulagGolden Gulag is written by an activist trying to answer questions asked by mothers fighting for the lives of their children in prison, and grappling with the theory behind her work, so you know I loved it. I found it quite challenging though, and I’m still thinking about how she frames the political economy of prisons and how that intersects with race.

In a nutshell, she argues that “…prisons are partial geographical solutions to political economic crises, organized by the state, which is itself in crisis” [26]. She draws on the work of Hall and Schwartz in how she thinks about and defines crisis: “Crisis occurs when the social formation can no longer be reproduced on the basis of the pre-existing system of social relations” a very technical definition I must confess. But essentially it means that change has to happen, the system of social relations or the social formation must shift. She argues that one way (maybe the only way, I’m out of my depth but I imagine one way) for society to find itself in such a crisis is through the build-up of surpluses. Capitalism depends on a cycle of accumulation of goods and their sale at a profit, it goes into crisis when goods simply accumulate. This crisis is not simply economic, but also political and social. In examining the political economy of California, she find four key surpluses provoking crisis. The state could have chosen different ways to resolve these surpluses, but instead they chose to embark on the largest prison building program the world has ever seen.

So this is the crux, the four surpluses are (in highly simplified form)

finance capital: investors specialising in public debt were having a hard time getting bonds through, they had money and couldn’t lend it to a very large and wealthy government

land: given drought, debt and development, farmers have increasingly been withdrawing irrigated land from production – ceasing to invest in irrigation infrastructure as it is no longer economically feasible. In addition there are large amounts of surplus land in and around depressed towns throughout California, together with high unemployment.

labour: manufacturing left, and hit poor communities of colour the hardest. The increasing number of prisoners has kept pace, and in many ways controlled, the rising levels of unemployment, and the highest percentage of prisoners comes from those areas with the highest levels of unemployment

state capacity: with the tax revolt that took place in California in the 1970s, the state was forced into crisis by lack of funds and lack of mandate to redistribute wealth through programs and services, while still maintaining it’s bureaucratic architecture. The State needed some other way to maintain that architecture.

And thus, prisons. More of them than anyone has ever seen. The rest of the book is looking at why these surpluses resulted in this particular solution.

It’s certainly a deeper and more complex argument than many of the prevailing ideas that she outlines: crime went up, we cracked down; drug epidemic; structural changes in employment opportunities; privatization of prison functions and the search for profit; provision of rural jobs and development; reform. It accounts for all of these things really, drawing them all into a more complex story.

She also draws on Hall and Gramsci to analyse perceptions and changing definitions of crime. I like her take on ideology:

Such change is not just a shift in ideas or vocabulary or frameworks, but rather in the entire structure of meanings and feelings (the lived ideology, or “taking to heart”) through which we actively understand the world and place our actions in it (Williams 1961). Ideology matters along its entire continuum, from common sense (“where people are at”) to philosophies (where people imagine the coherence of their understanding comes from: Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Marx, Malcolm X, the market).” [243]

Her invocation of race is also interesting:

As the example of racism suggests, institutions are sets of hierarchical relationships (structures) that persist across time (Martinot 2003) undergoing, as we have seen in the case of prisons, periodic reform. Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. [28]

I have often seen this quoted, but usually in addition to other definitions. It is curious that she relates it solely to premature death, I’m trying to wrap my head around that, why you would limit it to that, whether that doesn’t leave important things out. I suppose life and death is the most important question after all. She also includes a chapter that tries to grapple with the lived experience of how such a political economy of prisons and race intersects, what that means to people over and above it’s roots in political economy:

From the mothers’ vantage point, we can see how prison expansion and opposition to it are part of the long history of African-Americans and others whose struggle for liberation in the racial state has never achieved even a fully unfettered capacity to be free labor. The development of political responses to legal dilemmas indicates how profoundly incapacitation deepens, rather than solves, social crisis. This chapter … personalizes and generalizes the morally intolerable (Kent 1972) to highlight objective and subjective dimensions of the expansion of punishment and prisons, the demise of the weak welfare state, and the capacity of everyday people to organize and lead themselves. [185]

I like how this is done, but found it hard to connect it theoretically to the sections that preceded it on political economy, it almost felt like a world and story apart. But that might be a reflection of my own experience in how hard it is to bring these two worlds together.

I am also thinking through her comments on activism and scholarship, activism and power. She uses Gramsci in a way I hadn’t thought of and like immensely:

On the contrary, in scholarly research, answers are only as good as the further questions they provoke, while for activists, answers are as good as the tactics they make possible. [27]

grassroots organization should be the kind that “renovates and makes critical already-existing activities” of both action and analysis to build a movement (Gramsci 1971: 330-31)

Ordinarily, activists focus on taking power, as though the entire political setip were really a matter of “it” (Structure) versus “us” (agncy). But if the structure-agency opposition isn’t how things really work, then perhaps politics is more complicated, and therefore open to more hopeful action. People can and do make power through, for example, developing capacities in organizations. But that’s not enough, becayse all an individual organization can do is tweak Armageddon. When the capacities resulting from purposeful action are combined toward ends greater than mission statements or other provisional limits, powerful alignments begin to shake the grounds. In other words, movement happens. [248]

Save

Nicholas Dreystadt, Cadillacs & African-Americans

So. I have always vaguely wondered about the rather unique love-affair between African-Americans and the Cadillac. I stumbled across this story of Nicholas Dreystadt in a book called The Chrome Colossus by Ed Cray, while doing some research for my dissertation…

It is 1932, and GM is actually at the point of abandoning the Cadillac forever…what was on the cutting board? This beauty of an automobile:

Nicholas Dreystadt, head of the Cadillac division, breaks into the meeting

As Cadillac service manager, Dreystadt had earlier discovered that the car was very popular with the small black bourgeoisie of successful entertainers, doctors and ghetto businessmen. A surprising number brought Cadillacs in for service–surprising because corporate policy was not to sell Cadillacs to blacks at all; the Cadillac was reserved for the white prestige market. “But the wealthy Negro,” business critic Peter F. Drucker recalled, “wanted a Cadillac so badly that he paid a substantial premium to a white man to front for him in buying one. Dreystadt had investigated this unexpected phenomenon and found that a Cadillac was the only success symbol the affluent black could buy; he had no access to good housing, to luxury resorts, or to any other of the outward signs of worldly success.”

Overwhelmed by Dreystadt’s audacity and bemused by his proposal, the committee gave him eighteen months in which to develop the Negro market. By the end of 1934, Derystadt had the Cadillac division breaking even, and by 1940 had multplied sales tenfold… (Cray 279)

It is one side of the story to be sure, a comfortable retelling of an atrocious racism prevalent in this most American of institutions. And all of America. There must be so much more to it of course, but what a fascinating glimpse from a very corporate angle. Turned around, in spite of the fury it inspires, it seems to say that African-Americans saved the Cadillac from extinction. What did they save again?

God damn. I know it’s conspicuous consumption, but I continue utterly smitten with the craftsmanship and beauty of something such as this.

But there is more. I continue reading and 50 pages later I find this story from the WWII years:

Dreystadt had accepted a contract to produce delicate aircraft gyroscopes. despite mutterings on the fourteenth floor that the job was a killer and needed skilled hands unavailable. The dissent turned to outrage when Dreystadt and his personnel manager, Jim Roche, hired 2,000 overage black prostitutes from Paradise Valley–uneducated, untrained, but willing workers. Dreystadt hired the madams too, blithely explaining, “They know how to manage the women.”

Dreystadt himself machined a dozen gyroscopes, then produced a training film detailing the step-by-step assembly process. Within weeks the women were surpassing quotas, and the outrage turned to chagrin on West Grand Boulevard. Jokes about Cadillac’s “red-light district” angered Dreystadt. “These women are my fellow workers, and yours,” he insisted. “They do a good job and respect their work. Whatever their past, they are entitled to the same respect as any one of our associates.”

Dreystadt knew he would have to replace these women at war’s end–returning veterans had job preference, and the United Auto Workers, heavily white male with a southern-states orientation, wanted the women out of the plant. “Nigger-lover” and “whore-monger” Dreystadt fought to keep some, pleading, “For the first time in their lives, these poor wretches are paid decently, work in decent conditions, and have some rights. And for the first time they have some dignity and self-respect. It’s our duty to save them from being again rejected and despised.” The union stood adamant.

When the women were laid off, a number committed suicide  rather than return to the streets. Nick Dreystadt grieved, “God forgive me. I have failed these poor souls.” (Cray 318-319)

Again, only one side and a highly problematic retelling of what is truly a remarkable story by any measure. And again, racism in bucketfuls. But who was this Nick Dreystadt really? And where are the other sides of this story to be found? I shall be looking, no fear…

Save

Ford, and confusion in right wing rhetoric

Even among the many books on economics and transnational corporations that I do not agree with, there are some among them that are at least rationally argued and relatively factual. But I rather enjoy when they are not, it allows me to stay awake through the boredom, mumbling angrily at the page and marking exclamation points and question marks in the margins. And their own contradictions and prejudices always come to the fore…a few choice quotes from my recent favourite:

Ford also expanded mechanical parts manufacturing in the United Kingdom (such activities are less sensitive to labor disruptions) and body and assembly in Germany, where the work force was more efficient.

Ah, racial…er…national profiling? Grand generalizations? You have to love them, especially when they’re tossed into the argument like olives of unknown provenance into a greek salad.

Increasingly, these disagreements within the US Big Three made it difficult for the US government to intervene effectively in their bargaining with the Mexican government.

Long live free trade! I wonder who was more vexed, the big three or the US government?

The UAW’s failure to negotiate better with the auto makers that had recently established in the United States also accounted for the disadvantage that the US Big Three face vis-a-vis their foreign rivals…

Is this the present or the past, who can tell? One thing I know is that it’s those damn unions again, always letting the home country’s corporations down…but I suppose if you can’t blame the workers for not kicking some Japanese ass, who can you blame for the American corporation’s failure?

The maquiladoras became the most visible symbols of the threats that low-wage countries could pose to jobs…

Again, if you can’t blame those greedy low-wage countries for the threats against jobs, who can you blame? Oh wait…

US government policies that fostered automotive production in maquiladora plants also altered the negotiating dynamic between the Mexican government and the US vehicle producers. The US auto makers learned about the low costs and the high quality of automotive production in Mexico, and the Mexican government learned about the benefits of rationalizing Mexican automotive production on a North American basis.

This is an extraordinary thing to say by any standard (unless you’re a patriotic elementary school teacher reading directly from a company brochure). It is especially extraordinary if you’re aware of the fact, as the author states earlier in the book, that Ford opened its first Mexican factory in 1925 and GM and Chrysler in 1935. And all of them had been operating there continuously for decades.

Sadly enough, the ongoing silliness of this right-wing hodgepodge of contradictory imperialist and free-trade theories  kept me entranced until the very end! So I have now read a book in its entirety that I can never use as a source in good conscience, though I shall certainly find some of the original sources useful. I could have just read the bibliography…I suppose I know who has had the last laugh.