This way to the oligarchy

An odd collocation: I came home from a visit to Stanley Mills to find that Dominic Cummings had said he wanted to ‘get away from rich remainers’ and ‘talk to ordinary people.’ As many were quick to point out, Cummings himself is exceedingly wealthy, as are his closest allies in the Brexit camp; so this was clearly a bit of ‘projection’ on his part, the device where you attribute to your enemies the very fault you yourself are guilty of – if one thing is evident from the whole affair, it is that Brexit is being driven by wealthy men. But what is the connection with Stanley Mills?

Stanley Mills typify a period in the early industrial revolution, when energetic entrepreneurs saw the moneymaking potential of the mechanisation of weaving that happened in the 18th century. This led to the construction of vast multi-storey mills which were essentially huge complex machines for processing cotton from raw material to finished goods under one roof, generally driven by water power.

These mills required a numerous workforce so their construction was accompanied by the building of houses and related infrastructure for the workers and their families (many of the millworkers were young children, small enough and nimble enough to get in below the machinery to help keep it working by clearing away waste, etc.). 

Thus, the construction of a mill was also the creation of a community, with the millowners providing not only housing but schools, shops and churches. There was no doubt that the living conditions (and pay) were an improvement on anything the workers had known previously – most of them would have been agricultural workers – though the working conditions were in a variety of ways hazardous to health, from the perils of unguarded machinery, the deafening noise of the mill and the atmosphere thick with lung-threatening dust.

However, it was certainly possible for the millowners to consider themselves benefactors, giving their workforce clean, modern housing with sanitation, providing education and meeting their spiritual and material needs; and it is probable that many of their workers would have shared that opinion, especially if they still had relations toiling on the land and living in primitive conditions. But another aspect of this set-up was that the relationship between community and millowner was one of total dependence – they were relatively well-off and certainly well-provided-for, and as long as they did what the mill-owner wanted (working hard and causing no trouble) it would stay that way. And of course the millowner had a vested interest in treating his workforce well, since they in turn made him rich.

This looks, from some angles, to be what the Americans call a ‘win-win situation’: the workers get a secure livelihood and all sorts of benefits while the owner not only gets rich, but gets to feel good about doing so – ‘what’s not to like?’ as they say.

Well, the inherent inequality of the relationship, which for all its apparent modernity has a strong whiff of the feudal about it – the mill-owner holds the lives of his workers (and they are ‘his’ in every sense of the word) in the palm of his hand: all is in his gift.

The counter-argument is to say that this is all right as long as the owner is well-disposed, as he has every incentive to be – the better he treats his work-force, the more the rewards for him; and in any case, are there not strong social constraints among the mill-owners as a body, who see themselves not only as enlightened men who are benefitting the whole country through the application of modern ideas but generally as pious, upright Christians, with a strong sense of decency?

We will leave aside what happens when forces beyond the owner’s control – the American Civil War and its effect on the supply of cotton, for instance – lead to an economic downturn which imperils the livelihoods of the millworkers, and concentrate instead on the relationship between these two distinct classes of people, one of which is responsible for the livelihood – indeed, in many ways, the very lives – of the other.

It is an old-fashioned patriarchal model: the father provides for his children, who in turn do him proper respect and give him his place – which is in charge, naturally enough: the responsibility for direction and decision-making falls to him.  It seems obvious: after all, has he not created all this through his own acumen, built it up by his shrewdness, to the benefit of all (though most of all himself)? And everyone does well out of it, as long as they all know their place in the scheme of things.

This, I think, is the model that Johnson, Cummings and his fellow wealthy ‘Brexiteers’ are aiming for (and doesn’t the swagger of that title, ‘Brexiteer’, with its echo of ‘musketeer’ and ‘buccaneer’, fit perfectly here?). Look at recent history: the painful wake of the collapse of Soviet communism led not to the promised democracy but an oligarchy allied to political dictatorship – and did so by allowing the seizure of what were hitherto state assets (in theory, at least, the people’s assets) by private individuals, who have profited massively from exploiting them. [though advocates of free-market capitalism will doubtless recast this as proof that what becomes moribund under the dead hand of state control has its potential realised by enterprising individuals]

Look at what Trump is doing: weakening legislative power and state regulation in every direction, and benefitting the super-rich who already control so much of the American economy. He aims to revive the days of the ‘Robber Barons’  – Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller et al. before anti-trust laws brought them under some sort of control. The ambiguity with which America still regards the effects of concentrated wealth is neatly expressed in this lesson plan, quoted in the Wikipedia article on ‘Robber Barons’:

‘In this lesson, you and your students will attempt to establish a distinction between robber barons and captains of industry. Students will uncover some of the less honorable deeds as well as the shrewd business moves and highly charitable acts of the great industrialists and financiers. It has been argued that only because such people were able to amass great amounts of capital could our country become the world’s greatest industrial power. Some of the actions of these men, which could only happen in a period of economic laissez faire, resulted in poor conditions for workers, but in the end, may also have enabled our present day standard of living.’

The key that links all these groups – from eighteenth century mill-owners to Cummings and the gang – is the sense that large affairs of state are best left in the hands of a few wealthy individuals, as untrammelled as possible by any state regulation or legislation, whom the great mass of ordinary people (who know little of such things) should trust to do what is best. Of course they will get even richer as a result, but we should not worry about that – isn’t it their just reward? In any case, doesn’t it mean we’ll all be better off in the long term (just as long as we all remember our proper place in the scheme of things and don’t get ideas above our station)?

Viewed in that light, that bastion of democratically-agreed legislation and regulation, the European Union, for all its faults, looks very much the safest refuge in an increasingly dangerous world for ‘ordinary people’ who ‘just want to get on with it’.

3 thoughts on “This way to the oligarchy

    • Thanks, Holly. I begin to think that this is what they all aspire to – ‘small government’ means one that does not concern itself overmuch with trammelling the rich and powerful with regulation and legislation but ensures that the masses are kept in order. I think that is why they hate the EU so much – despite its cumbrous nature, it really is intended to benefit (and protect) ordinary people through democratic institutions and legislation and has enough sense of history to know that untrammelled power is not a good thing.

      • Yes, I think “small government” means the same in USA: Let the rich do precisely as they please . Have you followed Trumps rollbacks on environmental controls—because climate change is a hoax—so that those last billions can be made? It’s absolutely beyond belief.

        It’s not hard for me to see (assuming I’m correct) what the 1% are up to. That’s pretty much the same old, same old: keep the working class in line, bleed them nearly to death but throw them enough crumbs to sustain them (sustain: keep them producing and wanting more than they can afford) NO MORE. What’s mind boggling to me is that people (voters/workers) are so incredibly gullible as to continue buying this crap. I can’t help but wonder if it’s Stockholm Syndrome or just the Slave/Master mentality (Don’t piss the master off because god knows what he’ll do to us then). In the States I think it’s the worship of money/power, “He’s rich therefore he’s a god. Do as he says.” Here in UK it feels like a lower vs. upper class mentality. I apologise if this is presumptuous of me but it seems like there is a hesitancy for a lot of folks here to tell the upper class to just fuck off, no matter how ridiculous, greedy or undemocratically they behave. It’s like people are afraid of being seen as rude or “common”…

        Re Brexit: I honestly think the tail started wagging the dog (none of these guys really thought it was going to get this far, but here we are) and now the tail has taken over. Westminster is too proud to say, “Whoops! Wait a minute, we just realised we’re not a super power any more and we need to rethink, here.” The current game of musical chairs, various players vying for some kind of power in the chaos, would be comical if there weren’t so much at stake.

        I’m just a bit disheartened with people, in general, right now. I’ve been protesting and signing petitions all of my life and here we are looking at Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Really?

        It’s particularly disturbing, for me, having lived in NY in the 70’s when Trump was seen as something between a shister used car salesman and a punchline. He was the poster child for “The Dark-side of American Capitalism” … It’s honestly surreal.

        This reply sounds much more dire and I’m actually feeling. Peace baby (smile)!

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