Sunday, November 30, 2008
Saturday, November 29, 2008
The English Civil Wars: democracy versus property and the rise of a new ruling class
But the starting place that I’ve provisionally chosen (albeit pending a lot more research) is the era of the English Civil Wars and the short-lived Cromwellian Republic in the mid-seventeenth century. The echoes of the future that can be heard at this point in history seem to me to be the earliest of those that really resonate in the modern era. It is at this point that, under Cromwell’s dictatorship, the propertied, wealthy class takes total effective control over the machinery and institutions of the state, with immediate implications for foreign policy. It is also during the upheaval of the Civil Wars and their aftermath that early notions of genuine democracy really catch on in Britain, and come into direct conflict with the demands of the men of property represented by Cromwell’s parliamentarians. That conflict is a central theme of British politics which carries right through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and plays a major part in the development of the nation over that time. And it is the conflict sits at the normative heart of my research.
Most of what follows, and all of the quotes, are taken from Simon Schama’s “A History of Britain 2: The British Wars, 1603 – 1776”, although I’m also writing here while heavily under the influence of the first chapter of Paul Foot’s magnificent book “The Vote”, which deals with the Putney Debates in some detail. I’ll write more on these topics when I’ve read a bit more widely, but its certainly worth getting some ideas down now, before progressing further.
The following is not a summary note of the relevant chapters of the Schama book. Rather it is an attempt to draw out those parts of the story that are relevant to my research and to develop my own analysis of the events in question. So while I don’t dwell on the religious aspect, that should certainly not be taken as a dismissal of its relevance. Plainly religion was key, but this is an attempt to focus on some of the other important themes.
I assume that most of you understand the basic narrative. King Charles I is becoming increasingly unpopular for a couple of key reasons. First, because he is allowing the clergy to impose a set of reforms on the church which appear to many in Protestant Britain to be an unconscionable form of crypto-Catholicism (popery!). Second, because as a firm believer in the absolute right of kings, Charles’ style of governance is openly dismissive of parliament, which he sees as little more than a tool of revenue collection for a series of failed foreign wars. Matters come to a head, parliament and the King lock horns, war ensues, the King is defeated and executed and, for just over a decade, Britain is ruled by a Protestant Republic-Dictatorship in which the merchant-landowning class holds sway.
Lets look more closely at these events, and identify some things that might be relevant to the evolution of socio-economic elite rule in Britain.
The parliamentary side in the English Civil wars should not necessarily be seen as representing the forces of democracy, even in the case of the radicals. Schama says:
“.. the Jacobean and Caroline parliaments were not yet thought of as the elected tribunes of the people. Most of the members of the Commons had taken their seats as a result of consensual and uncontested selection in the counties and boroughs. Some of the most radical of their number, like John Pym, owed their place to a not merely exiguous but virtually non-existent electorate in a pocket borough owned by the Earl of Bedford. By and large, members of parliament were the same kind of people who were the natural governors of the county community as magistrates, deputy lord-lieutenants and sheriffs, and whatever their misgivings about the misuse of Crown prerogatives they still had no problem accepting its offices”
The era of the British Wars effectively began in Scotland with the “Prayer Book riots” against the church reforms of William Laud, which were widely seen as backdoor Popery. It is also true that Charles I had upset the Scottish nobility by taking land they had gained during the Reformation and giving some of it back to the church. Further research on my part may identify this as a factor in their alliance with the Scottish church against Charles.
Antipathy towards the new religious establishment (specifically the perceived popery of the Laudinian reforms), taxation without parliamentary authority and Charles’ generally over-bearing and self-righteous style of government was relayed, expressed and whipped up further by the growing popular press, pamphleteering and petitioning industry which mobilised the public and engendered an atmosphere in which radical MPs were returned to parliament. As in modern politics, propaganda and the media played an important role. Not merely commentating but actively shaping events.
Loyalty to God increasingly preceded loyalty to King. A vanguard-like Puritan movement emerged, with the individuals involved bound together not just by religion but also by their common economic and business interests, including involvement in colonial ventures.
“Throughout the 1630s, for example, virtually all those who would shape the destinies of political Puritanism in parliament – John Pym, John Hampden, his lawyer Oliver St John, Sir Arthur Haselrig, Lord Brooke, Viscount Saye and Sele, the earls of Bedford and Essex and, ubiquitously, Robert Rich, the colossally important and powerful Earl of Warwick – were all involved in ventures to create settlements in the Caribbean and New England”.
In the process of sharing this economic and colonial experience, a broader common worldview was being created and reinforced within this emerging, proto-bourgeois/Puritan vanguard. The destruction in the Caribbean of the Providence Island Company by the Spanish helped confirm their view of being in the midst of a battle between Christ and the popish Antichrist, and their links to the Puritan colonists in Massachusetts encouraged dreams of building their own new Zion at home.
Back in Parliament, moves were being made to make government accountable to Parliament and increase the powers of the latter body in ways never before seen. “This was not, of course, the birth of Parliamentary democracy (not even the most Whiggish of the Victorian historians ever supposed so), but it was, unquestionably, the demolition of absolute monarchy in Britain”.
Charles could not accept this, and so began the Civil Wars.
As the war went on, Cromwell took the view that armies fought better when soldiers and generals shared a common moral purpose, and when the soldiers believed in the righteousness of the cause they fought for. The New Model Army – formed at a time, 1645, when the Parliamentarians were having difficulty landing the killer blow on the weakened Royalists – was defined as much by its ideological and moral cohesion as by its professionalism and discipline on the battlefield. Now more than ever, the soldiery felt that it had a stake in the war beyond mere service of its noble masters. But this new force that Cromwell had created was not one that could necessarily be controlled as he would have wished.
By 1646-7, with Charles defeated, the New Model Army constituted a major, perhaps the major force on the political scene. It was hungry, underpaid, and ready after years of fighting and dying to step up and demand its due. Its officers were drawn from lower down the social scale than those of previous English armies. They were literate, aware, mindful of their interests, and prepared to mutiny or otherwise challenge their parliamentary leaders in pursuit of their share of the spoils of victory – material and political. Increasingly they saw themselves as more representative of the people than was parliament, and thus felt it legitimate for them to present their own ideas regarding the new post-monarchical order that was to created.
These were fertile conditions for the politics of the Levellers, one of the earliest forces for genuine democracy in the history of Britain. Their “Agreement for the People” of 1647 envisaged a kingless, bishopless realm (but more of that later).
With the army dominant on the scene, Parliament was now subjected to a miliatary coup d’etat, with Cromwell and son-in-law Henry Ireton in the lead. A purge of dissenters left a “Rump Parliament”. On 4 January 1649, the Rump Parliament declared that “the people are, under God, the source of all just power”. Irrespective of the hypocrisy of these words coming from a body that took its form as the direct result of a military coup (and which, as we shall see, then moved to prevent genuine democracy taking hold), the importance of that statement, at this point in history, is undeniable. The idea was out, even if it was not honoured.
Charles’ ideological retort to this came on the scaffold in his valedictory speech before his execution. Charles insisted that government was “nothing pertaining to” the people, and that “a Subject and a Sovereign are clean different things”. The open airing of competing ideas about rights and sovereignty was central to these events.
Speaking of ideas, what was the role of opinion-formers and intellectuals? The production of knowledge by power and those sympathetic to power is a central part of power’s ability to legitimise and sustain itself. That’s not just true in the present day, and it was certainly true at this point in history.
Can we plausibly accuse Thomas Hobbes of intellectual subserviance to power? Having previously been a loyal and active Royalist, Hobbes went on to articulate the philosophical justification for Cromwell’s dictatorship in the form of his book "Leviathan", which argued that the proper role of government was one of patriarchal protector in an uncertain and dangerous world: a philosophical charter for despotism. But on the other hand, his attacks on religion will hardly have ingratiated him with the new Presbytarian order.
What about John Milton? Milton “thought of himself in the classical tradition of virtuous republicans such as Cicero who had laid aside ‘idle’ pursuits to place their eloquence at the service of the state”. During the first year of the republic, Charles was enjoying a wave of public sympathy (albeit posthumously). A book of his collected writings, including his speech from the scaffold, had become immesely popular. “So John Milton, already established as a dedicated propagandist for parliament, was mobilised to enlighten the deluded”. “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates” made the retrospective case for the King’s trial and punishment. “Eikonoklastes” (‘the image breaker’) was an attack on the arguments made in Charles book, written under instruction from the new government (Milton was now the government’s translator-in-chief).
In these books Milton advanced the idea that ultimate sovereignty rested with the people. A bad joke under the Rump Parliament but still, again, the idea, revolutionary in itself, was out there, albeit in practice to defend Parliament from a monarchical resurgence rather than to promote the rights of the public.
Then there was Marchamont Nedham “the most prolific and ingenious of the parliamentary journalists” who, like Hobbes, opined that powerful government was needed to protect its subjects. “Nedham’s argument, reinforced by Hobbes, replaced the question ‘is it proper?’ with the question ‘does it work?’ And with that apparently simple change in perspective, for better or for worse, modern political science was born”. So says Schama.
I tell you, there are times where I bloody love that man.
While on the subject of hypocrisy, we should note that the horrendeous atrocities and shedding of blood perpetrated by both sides in the Civil War was accompanied by the most pious of rhetorical flourishes from each. Given that dissonance, the rhetoric, while certainly relevant, should not be allowed to stand on its own, without reference to the contradictory action. Talk of rights was bountiful. Respect for them was rarely practiced.
After Charles execution, Presbyterian Scotland declared fealty to his son Charles II, and Catholic Ireland remained undefeated. Putting aside the military implications, the political implication of this was that “England remained an armed camp” in 1647-8, and the military was therefore a major political force.
The New Model Army was politically aware and literate at the level of the officer corps and below. 70 percent of artisans, the class from whom the rank and file were drawn, were able to read. Leveller writers and orators like John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn (while protesting that they were “moderates” who respected social rank) advocated something close to democracy: the vote all male householders, annual parliaments, a simplified and more accessible legal system (which, Schama observes, was offensive to a parliament stuffed with lawyers), and the abolition of the most onerous taxes levied on a population that was devastated by war and pillage. The Levellers organised mass petitions and distributed polemical pamphlets in their attempt to agitate amongst the soldiery.
Leveller ideas gained much support within the New Model Army, who now found themselves in conflict with their masters. The parliamentary generals, like Cromwell, had fought the civil war to liberate themselves from their social betters not to enslave themselves to their social inferiors. The two sides clased in the Putney Debates of 1647, where the age-old ideological battle between the rights of people and the rights of power was famously joined.
For the people, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough MP:
“The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he” and people should not therefore be subject to laws that they had not themselves consented to.
For the poweful, Henry Ireton:
“No person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom...that hath not a permanent fixed interest [i.e. substantial property]...and those persons together are properly the represented of the kingdom”
Leveller “Honest John” Lilburne told the House of Lords in 1646:
“All you intended when you set us a-fighting was merely to unhorse and dismount our old riders and tyrants, that you might get up and ride in their stead”
Lilburne’s fearless advocacy of the democratic rights of the population and their right to government by consent contrasts sharply with the hypocritical, weasel words of Milton and Nedham. Lilburne was imprisoned and harshly treated for his political activism both under Charles and under the new regime. He fought in the Civil War on the Parliamentary side, but he and the Levellers soon came to the view that a monarchical tyranny had simply been replaced with an oligarchical tyranny.
Amongst the fine credentials of Lilburne and the Levellers was their view of women and the role women played in their struggle. In 1646, Lilburne opined that women “were by nature all equall and alike in power, dignity, authority and majesty” to men. Leveller women organised mass petitions when Lilburne and the other Leveller leaders were imprisoned by Cromwell. Their activism was genuinely shocking to Puritan sensibilities, which saw the woman’s place as one of domestic subserviance.
The Levellers were part of a general emergence of liberatory ideas in the political upheaval of the time. The Diggers, for example, led by Gerrard Winstanley, preached community of land and goods. More liberal strands of religion also developed, in the form of the Quakers, Baptists and Ranters.
With the Putney Debates having failed to result in a satisfactory conclusion, these ideas, and anger over outstanding pay, inspired mutinies in the New Model Army during the spring of 1649, which the new regime put down by force. By the autumn of that year, the Levellers' hopes were clearly dead. They were, Schama says, “bought off, intimidated or imprisoned, their officers dispersed”. The state would administer similar treatment to those campaigning for democracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Lilburne himself was isolated, then finally exiled to Holland.
Schama argues that the Republic failed to survive because it didn’t attempt any cultural reprogramming , allegiance reinforcement or other means of establishing its legitimacy as a new order; at least not to anything like the extent required (Hobbes, Milton and Nedham notwithstanding). He speculates that this was perhaps partly due to Cromwell’s seeing politics as a base and unworthy pursuit, not firing his passion in the same way as religion and war.
In fact – save for the fact that the head (King, House of Lords and bishops) had been lopped off the English hierarchy (no small thing of course) – British continued much as before, albeit now run by the upper, middle and landowning classes of “the magistrates chair...county hunts..and..city counting houses”.
These men “invested far more time and energy in preventing any sort of radical change than in promoting it”. They were “businessmen of state, mercantilists, money-managers. And in their swaggering, beady-eyed way, fierce patriots” whose ideology was “the aggressive prosecution of the national interest”. This governing class built an empire for itself, not only on the British archipelago through Cromwell’s brutal wars on the Irish and Scots, but also oveseas, in the North Sea, Baltic and Atlantic. “It was commercially rapacious and militarily brutal, beery chauvinism erected into a guiding principle of state”.
The Navigation Act of 1651 “prohibited any ships other than British or those of the country of origin from bringing cargoes to Britain, thus taking deadly aim at the shipping supremacy of the Dutch. It was a policy to maximise business which (another first) the state was prepared to back up with war if that’s what it took. Often it did”.
Britain was run, after hundreds of thousands had perished in ten years of war conducted to the sound of pious hymns to “rights” and “liberty”, “by a corporate alliance of county gentry and city merchants”. Cromwell’s replacement parliament of nominees (the Rump having been dissolved in 1653) was made up of two-thirds landowners, and 115 justices of the peace out of 140 MPs in total. This in spite of the dictator’s talk of replacing the men of venal ambition with a company of ‘saints’. This doesn’t necessarily support Schama’s view of a Cromwell too pious for politics. But perhaps, for Cromwell, piety just happened not to exist amongst the lower orders.
Cromwell’s readmission of Jews to Britain after three and a half centuries of exile was not purely connected with his Christian belief that their conversion was a necessary prelude to the final battle with the Antichrist. For him and the “pragmatic managers of state” it was also an attempt to plug into and draw on the Jewish community in its capacity as a “priceless source of commercial and military intelligence” in the “Hispanic and Netherlandish trading world”.
Those “pragmatic managers of state” who saw the readmission as being in the “national interest” held a “vision of the world (and of Britain’s place in it) [that] was essentially mechanical and commerical....[they were] technicians of power; data-gatherers; calculators of profit”. These years then “mark the true beginning of moden government in these islands. It was at this time that a commerical empire was being created” in New England and the slaving islands of the Atlantic, often with “unscrupulous military aggression and brutal inhumanity”.
In addition, an “empire of knowledge” was also being created by this new managerial class; knowledge “as the raw material of power” for those who called themselves “political arithmeticians”. William Petty, who coined the latter term, was the proto-bureaucrat who, by the time he had turned 30, had already completed the considerable task of cataloguing and dividing up conquered Ireland for the new empire.
Thus, even by the middle of the seventeenth century, some key themes of modern elite-government and their influence on national foreign policy that we are familiar with today, were already recognisable in their early forms. Cromwell's republic collapsed in short order after his death, but history's slate was by no means wiped clean by the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy under Charles II in 1660. The impact of what happened in those years was, in many ways, indelible. Absolute monarchy was off the agenda, as Charles I other son, James, would discover to his cost. The new elite had to relinquish its dictatorship, but its seat at the table of power was secured. All that was left was the story of how its place was to move to the head of the table over the next two hundred years.
Blogging my PhD
My research will aim to identify the concentrations of socio-economic power, domestic (e.g. the state, corporations) or external (the United States, international finance), that shape British foreign policy, and to explain how their influence is exerted in practice. My dissertation will describe the historical roots of British foreign policy as a tool of powerful interests, map networks of influence in current policymaking, analyse the social-construction of discourse relating to foreign policy, and provide case studies that illustrate and develop my findings.
Along the way I’m going to be collecting and analysing a vast amount of information, and producing articles, conference papers and research notes that may well be of interest to readers of this blog. So from now on, I’m going to be mixing some of that into my output on the Democrat’s Diary. Its a slight change of emphasis, but the comments and articles that you’re used to seeing here – on US foreign policy, events in the Middle East, etc - will certainly continue. Just that now they’ll be joined by some other material as well.
Hope you find it interesting. And comments, as always, are very welcome.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Michael Schwartz on the US-Iraq security pact
this, exploding the myth of recent US success in Iraq
this on the almost biblical tragedy of Iraq's massive refugee crisis
this on how the US occupation has been the primary destructive force in Iraq since 2003; and
this analysis of the role US-imposed "free-market" economic shock-therapy played in creating the conditions for the huge upsurge in violence post-invasion.
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
That's President "That One" to you, Senator
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
"They still call it the White House, but that's a temporary condition too.."
Election day: nervous?
Its not just that Obama leads by an average of 7 percentage points across the opinion polls. That can seem close enough for some slight discomfort given, say, individual polls like the latest from CNN which gives Obama a lead of 7 per cent with a margin of error of 3.5. McCain could potentially turn around what is effectively a 3.5 percent lead in the last few hours, if complacent Obama voters stay at home or for whatever other reason. Perhaps. But then, that's not how this works.
What's relevant therefore is not the national poll but the state polls. And if the outcome of the election is as it is currently predicted at state level then Obama wins enough states to take the Presidency by 338 electoral college votes to McCain's 200.
But here's the thing. Even if you assume that McCain wins all those toss up states - a big assumption since Obama is narrowly ahead in most of them - Obama would still win enough states to gain 278 electoral college votes and the White House. There aren't enough close-run states to play for. To turn this around, McCain would have to win all the toss-up states and at least one fairly solid Obama state.
Put it this way. Throughout the last five months of this election race, state opinion polls have translated into a McCain win in the electoral college for a total of 4 days, between the 19th and the 23rd of August. For the other 4 months 3 and a half weeks, Obama has been in the lead. Under what circumstates does that change now?