Friday, November 25, 2011

History and the Swing Riots.

Like many bloggers, I have, of late, been commenting on the so-called "Occupy" movement, its significance and importance, and the need to take such movements seriously regardless of the degree to which they seem focused or significant in the moment. I think it is difficult for many people to understand the importance of such protest movements because many people have trouble seeing the wide scope of history and the way that dissenting voices (which are sometimes incoherent) have long-term affects on the process of history.

Regarding this process, let me point people to a now largely forgotten set of events known as the "Swing Riots," an uprising of the Southern English peasantry which began in 1830 in Kent. The Swing Riots were a set of violent actions undertaken by poor peasants who were reacting to the gradual decline in their living standards. The peasants took to destroying various agricultural machines, attacking workhouses, and even committing violence against some rich tenant farmers. These peasants, who lived in horrendous conditions for the most part and had little hope for a decent future, had little in the way of coherent organization, and not a very good idea of what kind of solutions to their conditions might be enacted. But in difficult and troubled times, people are often not presenting alternatives, but simply pointing to problems.

When the Swing Riots began the Tories had been in power in England, with a couple of short exceptions, for forty years. Reforms had been very slow in coming and the so-called "Poor Laws" often made things even worse for the working poor. Earl Grey showed some sympathy to the Swing Rioters and used the events to argue for various reforms which liberal thinkers had been advocating for two generations. The dreaded Duke of Wellington responded to Earl Grey by suggesting that no reforms were necessary because the English constitution was the most perfect that could be imagined. Wellington's callousness resulted in his home being attacked by some who sympathized with the rioters.

The Swing Riots had only a small direct effect on the fight for reform in English political and economic culture. However, in the grand scheme of history, they were an important part of the multi-fold movement for better economic and political practices. The rioters were, of course, condemned as thugs and lawbreakers and nineteen of them were eventually hanged for their participation in the movement. But the simple fact is that it was only the loud and violent effort on the part of the Swing Rioters that made many people pay attention to the real difficulties being faced by many agricultural workers. And though some paid with their lives, it is these kinds of political efforts, though they are sometimes vague and unfocused, that bring about reforms and make people's lives better. This is the way history has always worked. It is those people out in the lead who are fighting against wretched poverty and political and economic inequality, who drag the human race forward. They seldom receive thanks or even recognition, but they are the ones who have made my life and your life better. They often have to break laws to do what they do, but one generation's lawbreaker is the next generation's hero; just look at Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But these two famous men are fighters we remember because they were attached to large and clear social questions. But just as important as such "great" men are the thousands of little, seemingly unimportant, men and woman who are fighting anonymously against impossible odds for sometimes vague demands. These are the heroes of history.

I salute the Swing Rioters, and the members of the Occupy movement, without whom we would a civilization going nowhere.

1 comment:

Owen Gray said...

The Swing Riots should remind us all that entrenched power does not yield easily to reform -- even when reform is in its own interest.