Freedom News

A potted history of the workers fighting back

For many, the long history of people in Britain resisting the greed and corruption of the ruling classes, from Kings to lords to tycoons and politicians, isn’t really spoken about. In the following article, Rambling Rose picks out some gems.

There’s a reason most of us pass through school without a single lesson on the roots of inequality or the workings of politics and capital. The history of ownership is a story of theft.

In 1215 — to avoid taxation — 15 barons negotiated the Magna Carta with the king and set up the first Parliament. The first laws they made protected the church (big landowners). The first Statute (of Merton and Labourers) in 1235 allowed “lords” to enclose common land, fix maximum wages and tie serfs to one landlord. This was the basis of English Common Law and ownership.

Medieval peasants, under no illusion they had representation in Parliament and unable to comprehend how one man could possess all rights to one stretch of land to the exclusion of everyone else, responded with a series of ill-fated revolts.

In the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, Wat Tyler led 10,000 serfs, with questioning minds, on a march to London, demanding that the King (then aged 14) allow people to work where they like and for the gentry to stop exploiting them. They were promised this would happen, an oath which was later annulled, and many were killed.

In 1450 Jack Cade, the self-styled Captain of Kent, led a rebellion of 5,000 to London in protest that those closest to the King (aged nine) were manipulating for their own gains and using their positions to oppress those below them. They were tracked down and killed.

In 1549, Robert Kett, a Norfolk landowner convinced that privatisation of land, inflation, unemployment, rising rents, and declining wages were unjust, tore down his own fences. He led a rebellion demanding a limit to the power of the gentry, measures to prevent over-exploitation of communal resources, and that bondmen be made free. The king sent a pardon, which they declined, instead taking Norwich. Fourteen thousand mercenaries and 1,400 German landsknechts then slaughtered 3,000 rebels. Kett was captured and hung for treason.

Between 1760 and 1870, about 7 million acres of common land (one sixth of England) were privatised by 4,000 acts of Parliament to maximise the income of landowners grazing sheep. Enclosure of the commons, more advanced than anywhere else in Europe, drove people into factories.

The Black Acts of 1773 was a vicious reprisal of the Walpole government for increasing resistance to enclosures. Over 200 minor acts were made punishable by death. Any village failing to hand over dissenters risked punishment.

In a constant search for land, labour and markets, the formula of; “this exists for me — I’m having that” was repeated with staggering levels of cruelty justified by racism in India, Africa, the Americas and Australia.

With their livelihoods and customs gone, people were driven into waged labour to survive, working long hours in cruel conditions. Rather than paying fairly, the Poor Laws of 1601 introduced workhouses, an early form of detention centre.

Parliament set up the Unlawful Oaths Act of 1797 to prevent the formation of dissenting groups. Until 1824 the Combination Acts of 1799 outlawed “combining” or organising to gain better working conditions and suppressed the right to strike. The penalty was three months in prison or two months’ hard labour. At this time, the government was elected by 3% of the people, who were the landowning gentry.

In the Swing riots of the 1830s, almost every county south of the Scottish border protested in large numbers at tax, abuse of power, exploitation and redundancy.

In 1834 the Tolpuddle Martyrs, deported for organising a collective for better pay, were later returned following an 800,000-strong petition.

In 1844, tradesmen in Rochdale set up a co-op for items they could not afford. The ethical principles of this early food bank became the basis of the cooperative and trade union movement.

Throughout the 19th century, workers began to petition for representation in Parliament. Up to 60,000 Lancashire cotton workers were brutally attacked with sharpened swords at the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819. Fifteen died, and 600 were injured. The government then introduced the Six Acts, banning mass meetings. Reform leaders were jailed.

The Chartists petitioned the government to extend the male vote beyond the property-owning class with 1.25 million signatures, which was rejected by Parliament in 1839, and a further 3m which were rejected in 1842. Any unrest was swiftly crushed.

Millions of people, their efforts, lives and contributions were dismissed as irrelevant by a system dominating to protect profit. Democracy, in all that, clearly wasn’t there. Men and women over 18 were deemed eligible to vote only as recently as 1968. For all the difference it would make.

In 1926, 1.7m workers went on General Strike for better pay and working conditions. The government used propaganda to undermine their efforts. The owners eventually decided their wages. The 1927 Trade Disputes Act made general strikes illegal.

The post-war consensus and Bretton Woods agreement gave a brief spell of stability and socialised healthcare, housing and utilities. All later to be exploited.

With manufacturing in decline, the Pentonville Five, jailed in 1972 under the Industrial Relations Act of 1971 for picketing against redundancy, lay-offs and wage cuts, were freed after massive demonstrations of striking workers marched through North London to Pentonville prison, effectively destroying the Act.

In 1979 there were 13m trade union members in Britain. The government broke this collective voice with restrictive acts in 1982, making secondary pickets illegal and demanding “proof of full consultation before decisions were reached”. Shame they don’t apply the same rules to themselves.

Coal miners who had fuelled industry and died with rotten lungs so industrialists could profit were violently attacked by the State while picketing Orgreave in 1984. Marginalised by the press and government, their compensation payments came too late as neoliberalism set in, like rot.

Throughout history, workers have been unable to participate because the wealthy capitalist class will be the ones deciding the future of mankind as the planet burns to ash. Most people aren’t bothered about pushing other people around, so we don’t. But they are, so they do.

During the 1980s, with privatisation and deregulation, the franchise widened to incorporate and impose free market ideology. That is, money supposedly regulates itself without interference from the government. Council houses were sold to encourage behaviours conferring legitimacy to the State; social assets were transferred to private hands. The public was colonised by finance. All of life, reduced to a cost-benefit-analysis, vulnerable to the economic behaviour of unregulated financial markets.

Privatisation is a rent collecting mechanism. Essential services (fuel, transport, bin collection) are rented from private enterprises on the justification of reinvestment. Taxpayer money is then used to subsidise losses against projected and vastly overinflated targets. It’s basically criminal fraud.

Society has been deformed as this wealth concentrates in unaccountable hands.

The excessively rich fail to acknowledge that all wealth is a collective effort. For example, in the case of fuel, the infrastructure, the people working, the people who discovered and invented it, and consumers buying, the fact it’s a natural resource and belongs to all of us equally demonstrates how anti-social they are. Shareholders don’t share. Equity is not equitable. They value their contribution at a higher worth than anyone else. There is no material wealth that cannot be held in some suspicion. It’s all linked at some point to exploitation somewhere.

The merits capitalism claims; to have lifted people out of poverty and improved living standards do not absolve guilt. Who’s to say how things might have developed without their interference and manipulation?

Since Parliament was formed, it has legally protected the right to exploit and made it illegal to oppose that exploitation. Laws made by few have been endured by many. Any sign of life, protest, or even doubt, has been silenced.

The State controls the narrative, manufacturing desires and behaviours for profit. Its media is populated with people who hold corresponding beliefs. Decades of deception have been presented as “conventional wisdom”. The weight of finance manipulates us into lives we might not otherwise have chosen, denying potential and possibility. Many people embedded in this structure unquestionably celebrate wealth, aspire to ownership and believe they govern themselves; others are disenfranchised or running to stand still.

A system which continues to enable overt pathological greed is verging on delirium.

If you think it’s okay to take land from people without a sense of property or land value, you’re with them. If you believe in economic exploitation and a hierarchy of subordination for profit, you’re with them. If you think it’s alright to take money from people without a sense of economics, you’re with them. If common sense tells you, “that’s just the way it is”, you reinforce their dominance. The act of living within the structures they have determined is considered, by them, to be consent.

The first condition for changing reality is to understand it. The patterns are there. The story is clear. It’s not inevitable the world is this way. It’s history; it’s fact. It’s not an opinion; it’s a story of theft, oppression and intentional exploitation to protect private wealth. And it’s not something anyone has to accept.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2022/23 edition of Freedom Journal, available at our online shop for the cost of postage.

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