Tag Archives: Labour

Salford in Robert Roberts ‘The Classic Slum’

I so enjoyed The Classic Slum, wish very much I could have met Robert Roberts. Funny that I remember buying this book in North Hollywood in my favourite used bookshop, the Iliad. Over a decade ago. I was curious about just how LA compared, those far away days now of tenant organising filled with rats and roaches and chinches and slumlords and lead poisoning and amazing amazing people still in my heart. Maybe I didn’t actually want to think more about slums just then. Never got around to reading it, never expected I might work in Salford, come to know it so well. Though it is not the Salford that Roberts described of course, not the Salford of the Lowry paintings I love so much. We have left that behind.

I left all my books behind there too, in LA, left almost everything. I only occasionally miss any of it, maybe simply because I have managed to collect new shelves upon shelves piles upon piles of books. I missed this though. Had to order it again, another copy of the Classic Slum, an orange binding rather than blue this time. He writes as his place of beginning:

This is a book made much from talk, the talk first of men and women, fifty or more years ago, of ideas and views repeated in family, street, factory and shop, and borne in mind with intent! The corner shop, my first home, was a perfect spot for young intelligence to eavesdrop on life. Here, back and forth across the counters, slide the comedy, tragedy, hopes, fears and fancies of a whole community: here was market place and village well combined… Then, and for long afterwards, I mixed with people, adult in Edwardian and Georgian days, who had lived out their time in ghettos spawned by the industrial revolution. Many among them, shrewd and thoughtful, could not only recapitulate experience, they knew how to assess its value in relation to their lives. Men discussed, argued, reminisced: I listened and remembered. To them all, many long gone now, I am indeed greatful for what they taught. (9)

I love this opening so much.

Roberts was born in Salford, grew up in these streets ‘behind a general shop in an area which, sixty years before, Frederick Engels had called the ‘classic slum’, I grew up in perhaps an ideal position for viewing the english proletarian caste system in its late flower’. (13)

I keep his chapters, so much thought goes into organising thoughts, ideas, memory. Yet I realise as a reader I often don’t even notice, I will do better. This is, as always, a hodge podge of what I found most interesting in excruciating detail. Part 1.

Class Structure

We start with class, and quoting Engels himself? From several decades before Roberts’ birth.

All Salford is built in courts or narrow lanes, so narrow, that they remind me of the narrowest I have ever seen, the little lanes of Genoa. The average construction of Salford is in this respect much worse than that of Manchester, and so, too, in respect to cleanliness. If, in Manchester, the police, from time to time, every six or ten years, makes a raid upon the working-people’s districts, closes the worst dwellings, and causes the filthiest spots in these Augean stables to be cleansed, in Salford it seems to have done absolutely nothing.

This is saying a lot if you’ve read all that he says about Manchester.

I am always fascinated by understandings of boundaries, communities, where a neighbourhood ends and another begins. Especially here in the UK and Europe where a weight of history sits so much more heavily on the urban form and how people understand their place within it and how that connects to the rest of the world. Roberts writes:

Every industrial city, of course, folds within itself a clutter of loosely defined overlapping ‘villages’. Those in the Great Britain of seventy years ago were almosy self-contained communities. Our own consisted of some thirty streets and alleys locked along the north and south by two railway systems a furlough apart. About twice that distance to the east lay another slum which turned on its farther side into a land of bonded warehouses and the city proper. West of us, well beyond teh tramlines, lay the middle classes, bay-windowed and begardened. We knew them not. (16)

And ah the details, the familiar environmental justice issues raised by the presence of industry and pollution, both industrial and animal.

Over one quarter of a mile industry stood represented by a dying brickworks and an iron foundry. Several gasholders on the south side polluted the air, sometimes for days together. Little would grow; even the valiant aspidistra pined.* We possessed besides two coal yards, a corn store, a cattle wharf and perhaps as closed an urban society as any in Europe.

In our community, as in every other of its kind, each street* had the usual social rating; one side or one end of that street might be classed higher than another. Weekly rents varied from 2s 6d for the back-to-back to 4s 6d for a ‘two up and two down’. End houses often had special status. Every family, too, had a tacit ranking, and even individual members within it… (17)

The footnotes, as they so often are, are brilliant. On aspidistras

*To encourage the Adam in us our local park sold ‘garden soil’ at a penny a bucket. At home, expending twopence, we once trried a window box ‘for flowers’ in the back yard. A few blooms struggled up then collapsed. ‘So!’ said my mother, loud in her husband’s hearing, ‘you can raise a child, it seems, on coal gas, but it does for geraniums!’

And footnote 2 on land ownership — curious to me though why ownership should be relegated to a footnote, surely it is part of the crux of the matter? And to all that happened later.

*The railway company which owned most of our streets kept its houses in a moderate state of disrepair. Two workmen haunted the properties, a crabby joiner and, trailing behind him with the handcart, his mate, a tall, frail, consumptive. This pair were known to the neighbourhood unkndly as ‘Scrooge’ and ‘Marley’s Ghost’. (17)

I love the workmen. I confess, though, I really struggle to understand the depths of self-imposed hierarchy that I have seen described elsewhere — Morrison in Tales of Mean Streets writing about East London most memorably, but that is not the only place. It is such an ugly head to rear up, and it saddens my heart.

The real social divide existed between those who, in earning daily bread, dirtied hands and face and those who did not. …

These division could be marked in many public houses, where workers other than craftsman would be frozen or flatly ordered out of those rooms in which journeymen foregathered. Each part of the tavern had its status rating; indeed, ‘he’s only a tap-room man’ stood as a common slur. (19)

I might start using ‘he’s only a tap-room man’ though, I rather like the phrase when mis-applied. These distinctions of skill, wage and dress were as present among women. Carolyn Steedman writes of fashion and class with such heart-breaking eloquence, but here it is in different form.

Many women and girls in the district worked in some branch of the textile industry. Of these, we accepted weavers as ‘top’ in their class, followed by winders and drawers-in. Then came spinners. They lacked standing on several counts: first, the trade contained a strong Irish Catholic element, and wages generally were lower than in other sections. Again, because of the heat and slippery floors, women worked barefoot, dressed in little more than calico shifts. These garments, the respectable believed, induced in female spinners a certain moral carelessness. … Clogs and shawls were, of course, standard wear for all. … So clearly, in fact, did headwear denote class that, in Glasgow, separate clubs existed for ‘hat’ girls and ‘shawl’ girls. (20)

Still from short film: Mitchell and Kenyon 20: Howarth’s Egerton Mill, Orsdall Lane, Salford, 1900
produced by Mitchell and Kenyon (London, England: British Film Institute, 1900

Along with my ubiquitous people at the bottom of every hierarchy. I suppose the move to America rather than Manchester allowed us to be hat girls. Another footnote returns us to Engels on the Irish question:

Engels pointed out how, in the 1840s, the million or more britalized Irish immigrants pouring into English slums were depressing native social and economical standards. Little integration, however, seems to have followed upon the influx. Even up to the outbreak of the first world war differences in race, religion, culture and status kept English and Irish apart. The Irish poor, already of course deeply deferential to the Church, remained, in sobriety, even more than their English counterparts, respectful to the point of obsequiousness to any they considered their social superiors. (23)

In sobriety might be the key phrase? Still, this saddens me of course, surely there was some smouldering rebellion? It will not be found in these pages, nor anywhere in these streets. At least not at this time he describes. There are some fantastic descriptions of Marxists though.

The class struggle, as manual wokers in general knew it, was apolitical and had place entirely within their own society. They looked upon it not in any way as a war against the employers but as a perpetual series of engagements in the battle of life itself. … Marxist ‘ranters’ from the Hall who paid fleeting visits to our streets and insisted that we, the proletariat, stood locked in titanic struggle with some wicked master class. We were battling, they told us (from a vinegar barrel borrowed from our corner shop), to cast off our chains and win a whole world. Most people passed by; a few stood to listen, but not for long; the problems of the ‘proletariat’, they felt, had little to do with them.

Before 1914 the great majority in the lower working classes were ignorant of Socialist doctrine in any form, whether ‘Christian’ or Marxist. (28)

There is sadly no footnote about the Hall from whence these ranters emerge. But there is a tragedy of a message of hope and fury not coming through.

Meanwhile, though the millenium for a socialist few might seem just around the corner, many gave up struggling. The suicide rate among us remained pretty high. (29)


This chapter resonated so brilliantly with so much I have been reading — climate change, sustainability, the need for us (the Western, more wealthy us who have lots of stuff now) to give up a great deal of our things, our consumption and desire to possess. But also with the more abstract relationality of things, object oriented ontology and etc. My own childhood where possessions were so few and so precious.

The social standing of every person within the community was constantly affected by material pressures, some of the slightest, and the struggle for the acquisition and display of objects seened fiercer than any known in Britain now for cars, boats or similar prestige symbols. For many of the lowest group the spectre of destitution stood close; any new possession helped to stifle fear.

To stifle fear. What a shiver. I know that is part of the appeal of buying new things for me, even with destitution left far behind.

One scrimped and saved to get a new piece of oilcloth, a rag rug, the day at Southport, a pair of framed pictures — ‘Her First Singing Lesson’ perhaps, with ‘Her First Dancing Lesson’. Pictures, in a society far from wholly literate, were especially esteemed.(32)

A list of material possessions that seem, as he says even from his time of writing, ‘pathetically modest’. My grandparents had some of these pictures.

I sit in such comfort. Nothing like this, though the damp of this old Victorian row house gives me some inkling of how terrible and cold cold cold damp and cold it might have been.

In general slum life was far from being the jolly hive of communal activity that some romantics have claimed. They forget, perhaps, or never knew of the dirt that hung over all, of the rubbish that lay for months in the back alleys, of the ‘entries’ or ginnels with open middens where starving cats and dogs roamed or died and lay for weeks unmoved. They did not know those houses that stank so badly through an open doorway that one stepped off the pavement to pass them by. That people stayed scrupulously clean in such surroundings–and many did–only proves the tenacity of the human spirit. (49)

Governors, pastors and masters

Ah, the patriarchy.

Round parents the houshold revolved, and little could be done without their approval. Espoecially was paternal consent needed. In compensation, perhaps, for the slights of the outside world, a labourer often played king at home. (50)

Another kind of hierarchy, male from top to bottom.

He notes the preference of ‘vagrants’ (when did we shift terminology from vagrant to homeless?) for prison rather than the workhouse, and unsurprisingly that the numbers of those sent to prison were in proportion to those unemployed

The Common Scene

This then, forms the common scene of 1900-1910. It is so grim, from every angle. The ‘1906 Board of Trade figures showed half the women in industrial Britain earned under 10s for a week’s work of seldom less than fifty-four hours’ (76). A world of endless work and its reward only enough for bare life. Charity stepping insultingly into the void, and so ‘The Ladies’ Health Society’ goes along visiting women together with the ‘Sanitary Society’ to sell carbolic soap and powder. Women who often wrote and described all they saw like Margaret Harkness and Maud Pember Reeves, and they are valuable records I suppose, but leave a bad taste. They would not write this way.

So our neighbours, and many like them, in this ‘thrice happy first decade’ fought on grimly, certainly not to rise, but to stave off that dreaded descent into the social and economic depths. Under the common bustle crouched fear. In children — fear of parents, teachers, the Church, the police, and authority of any sort; in adults — fear of petty chargehands, foremen, managers and employers of labour. Men harboured a dread of sickness, debt, loss of status, above all, of losing a job, which could bring all other evils fast in train. (88)

And despite all of this workers still strike. To have strikes shattered by troops recently returned from fighting in Egypt and elsewhere. For Empire. How far removed this feels from Empire and yet it is at its heart.

Food, Drink and Physic

To return back to this role of Empire, yet another brilliant footnote

Some families who dealt with us had male members (all unskilled workers) who had soldiered in the outposts of empire during the late ninteenth century and after. Their experience seemed to have gained them litle beyond a contempt for lesser breeds, a love of family discipline and passion for hot pickles. (105)

Not much of physic though, and a very different attitude towards death.

Knocks, bruises, ailments one accepted stoically enough. Death, after all, called often. Children made a common habit of visiting a house wgere someone had just passed away to ask reverently to view the body, a request that was never refused. one friend of my youth boasted of having seen thirty-seven corpses over a wide area. (124)

So much unrelenting poverty. But all on the cusp of a change.

Roberts, Robert ([1971] 1990) The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century. London: Penguin

On Fatima, and Ideologically limited ideas of value and employment

Few things have given me such joy recently as the brilliant mockery of the latest Tory-led government campaign to push a very specific idea of job value. It centres around ‘Fatima’ and this ad (I’m including the retweet by choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne highlighted by the BBC story):

The backlash against it was so big and beautiful that government did immediately disown it. But it did just keep getting better and better. It came immediately as well.

The next day…

I do love this poem. More than I can say.

From Newsthump, a bit behind the times but not too much.

Ah, that’s some quality satire right there. From the real news? The BBC reports on ‘Fatima’:

One last one. Dated 13th November, 2020. A fairly celebratory day, even if Friday the 13th.

Ruskin’s seven Lamps of Architecture

The Seven Lamps of Architecture [Illustrated edition] - Kindle ...

Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture is an odd book, unexpected after all I had read of it. I loved many of the footnotes, poetry, sideways meanders. The Seven Lamps are also just a little bit mad: Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory, Obedience. So biblical. This contains so much of such desperate earnestness it cannot help but be touching. It has lovely passages that in truth could make you see and think differently. It celebrates the beauty of skilled craftsmanship and manual labour. It’s easy to see why Ruskin is always paired with William Morris in the same architectural breath.

It has passages where the earnestness goes beyond all possible bounds and I laughed out loud. Lol was in fact my first reaction, I write it here, more than once, for the first time in this blog. The purple and ponderous privilege of some of this prose erases the sting I hope. Such loftiness doesn’t quite make sense of all of Octavia Hill’s absurdities, who was his student and protege, but puts them a little more in context. He is just so very very certain about every damn thing.

From the introduction, a sad insight into a life of wealth, privilege, and difficulty in relating to other human beings.

The Seven Lamps of Architecture was written during the first year of Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray, but no trace of that unconsummated, mutually humiliating, six-year ordeal can be found in its pages. (xvi)

1848-49…such momentous years! Revolutionary years. It is incredible to believe that this should be written in 1848. Europe was on fire, but he spent much of 1848 in Salisbury and Normandy studying the Gothic, then retired for the winter to Park Street, Mayfair to write. Blimey.

In the 1880 preface he writes rather poignantly, but ponderously it must be said:

I never intended to have republished this book, which has become the most useless I ever wrote; the buildings it describes with so much delight being now either knocked down, or scraped and patched up into smugness and smoothness more tragic than uttermost ruin. (xxxi)

The multiple editions allow him to comment on himself in the footnotes, one of the more enjoyable parts of the book. You can imagine him poring over prints and obsessing over things.

Ruskin | Lapham's Quarterly

He has snuck a number of aphorisms in the margins, which are in my National Trust Classics edition (again that connection to Octavia Hill) but not in the first edition which can be found on Gutenberg. I assume he wrote them later. They are tied to the prose but I rather liked the idea of separating them out, to read together, to collect what he believes to be the distilled lessons of his rather profligate prose. These are from the introductory chapter:

Aphorism 1: We may always know what is right; but not always what is possible (2)

Aphorism 2: All practical laws are the exponents of moral ones. (4)

Aphorism 3: The arts of our day must not be luxurious, nor its metaphysics idle. (6)

The Lamp of Sacrifice

Architecture is the art which so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by man for whatsoever uses, that the sight of them contributes to his mental health, power and pleasure.

It is very necessary, in the outset of all inquiry, to distinguish carefully between Architecture and Building… To build, literally to confirm, is by common understanding to put together and adjust the several pieces of any edifice or receptacle of a considerable size. … Let us, therefore, at once confine the name [Architecture] to that art which, taking up and admitting, as conditions of its working, the necessities and common uses of the building, impresses on its form certain characters venerable or beautiful, but otherwise unnecessary. (8)

The complete opposite of modernist architecture, Gropius and Bauhaus. So what’s the sacrifice all about?

III. Now, first, to define this Lamp, or Spirit of Sacrifice, clearly. I have said that it prompts us to the offering of precious things merely because they are precious, not because they are useful or necessary. It is a spirit, for instance, which of two marbles, equally beautiful, applicable and durable, would choose the more costly because it was so, and of two kinds of decoration, equally effective, would choose the more elaborate because it was so, in order that it might in the same compass present more cost and more thought. It is therefore most unreasoning and enthusiastic, and perhaps best negatively defined, as the opposite of the prevalent feeling of modern times, which desires to produce the largest results at the least cost. (10)

As I say, he often uses the footnotes to critique or bestow accolades on himself, as he does on page 24:

10There is too much stress laid, throughout this volume, on probity in picturesque treatment, and not enough on probity in material construction…But the concluding sentences of the chapter from this point forward are all quite right, and can’t be much better put.

I dearly love how ranty it all is as well — and look forward to quarantine being lifted, travel allowed, and the ability to see such wonders for myself:

I do not know anything more painful or pitiful than the kind of ivory carving with which the Certosa of Pavia, and part of the Colleone sepulchral chapel at Bergamo, and other such buildings, are incrusted, of which it is not possible so much as to think without exhaustion; and a heavy sense of the misery it would be, to be forced to look at it at all. And this is not from the quantity of it, nor because it is bad work—much of it is inventive and able; but because it looks as if it were only fit to be put in inlaid cabinets and velveted caskets, and as if it could not bear one drifting shower or gnawing frost. We are afraid for it, anxious about it, and tormented by it; and we feel that a massy shaft and a bold shadow would be worth it all. (26)

In the end though, I found this reflection on stone masons quite moving…

All else for which the builders sacrificed, has passed away—all their living interests, and aims, and achievements. We know not for what they labored, and we see no evidence of their reward. Victory, wealth, authority, happiness—all have departed, though bought by many a bitter sacrifice. But of them, and their life, and their toil upon the earth, one reward, one evidence, is left to us in those gray heaps of deep-wrought stone. They have taken with them to the grave their powers, their honors, and their errors; but they have left us their adoration. (28)

Aphorism 4: All architecture proposes an effect on the human mind, not merely a service to the human frame. (8)

Aphorism 5: Domestic luxury is to be sacrificed to national magnificence (17)

Aphorism 6: Modern builders are capable of little; and don’t even do the little they can (21)

I think I’ve heard that last one from my little brother.

The Lamp of Truth

Ah, this language!

I. There is a marked likeness between the virtues of man and the enlightenment of the globe he inhabits—the same diminishing gradation in vigor up to the limits of their domains, the same essential separation from their contraries—the same twilight at the meeting of the two: a something wider belt than the line where the world rolls into night, that strange twilight of the virtues; that dusky debateable land, wherein zeal becomes impatience, and temperance becomes severity, and justice becomes cruelty, and faith superstition, and each and all vanish into gloom. (29)

I confess there are moments I love it. But to get to the nitty gritty, w quickly move towards deceit.

VI. Architectural Deceits are broadly to be considered under three heads:—

1st. The suggestion of a mode of structure or support, other than the true one; as in pendants of late Gothic roofs.

2d. The painting of surfaces to represent some other material than that of which they actually consist (as in the marbling of wood), or the deceptive representation of sculptured ornament upon them.

3d. The use of cast or machine-made ornaments of any kind.

Now, it may be broadly stated, that architecture will be noble exactly in the degree in which all these false expedients are avoided. (35)

No surprise modern material should not find favour. His ranting against iron is priceless, though I know I have all the gifts of hindsight at my disposal:

IX. Perhaps the most fruitful source of these kinds of corruption which we have to guard against in recent times, is one which, nevertheless, comes in a “questionable shape,” and of which it is not easy to determine the proper laws and limits; I mean the use of iron. The definition of the art of architecture, given in the first chapter, is independent of its materials: nevertheless, that art having been, up to the beginning of the present century, practised for the most part in clay, stone, or wood, it has resulted that the sense of proportion and the laws of structure have been based, the one altogether, the other in great part, on the necessities consequent on the employment of those materials; and that the entire or principal employment of metallic framework would, therefore, be generally felt as a departure from the first principles of the art. (39)

X. But whether this be granted me or not, the fact is, that every idea respecting size, proportion, decoration, or construction, on which we are at present in the habit of acting or judging, depends on presupposition of such materials: and as I both feel myself unable to escape the influence of these prejudices, and believe that my readers will be equally so, it may be perhaps permitted to me to assume that true architecture does not admit iron as a constructive material,7 and that such works as the cast-iron central spire of Rouen Cathedral, or the iron roofs and pillars of our railway stations, and of some of our churches, are not architecture at all. (40)

He notes in a footnote the sinking of the ‘Vanguard’ and ‘London’, the breaking of Woolwich Pier into splinters and thus ‘”the anarchy of iron” is the most notable fact’. The anarchy of iron is one of my new favourite phrases. I share his despair at commercialisation of urban spaces, and yet his very tone sets me at odds with him.

XVI. Touching the false representation of material, the question is infinitely more simple, and the law more sweeping; all such imitations are utterly base and inadmissible. It is melancholy to think of the time and expense lost in marbling the shop fronts of London alone, and of the waste of our resources in absolute vanities, in things about which no mortal cares, by which no eye is ever arrested, unless painfully, and which do not add one whit to comfort or cleanliness, or even to that great object of commercial art—conspicuousness. (48)

in the end it is craftsmanship that produces worth — both, as a footnote makes clear, in terms of cost of production and intrinsic value. In this we can be in complete agreement.

all our interest in the carved work, our sense of its richness, though it is tenfold less rich than the knots of grass beside it; of its delicacy, though it is a thousand fold less delicate; of its admirableness, though a millionfold less admirable; results from our consciousness of its being the work of poor, clumsy, toilsome man. Its true delightfulness depends on our discovering in it the record of thoughts, and intents, and trials, and heart-breakings—of recoveries and joyfulnesses of success: all this can be traced by a practised eye; but, granting it even obscure, it is presumed or understood; and in that is the worth of the thing, just as much as the worth of anything else we call precious.

His drawings are quite lovely and the book is full of them though it is not always clear how he intended them to illustrate the text. Here, however, he does go on a bit about gothic tracery.


He reaches towards the height of the gothic:

XXIII. The change of which I speak, is inexpressible in few words, but one more important, more radically influential, could not be. It was the substitution of the line for the mass, as the element of decoration. (60)

Now, the great pause was at the moment when the space and the dividing stone-work were both equally considered. It did not last fifty years. (61)

He hated what came next. Lol.

It would be too painful a task to follow further the caricatures of form, and eccentricities of treatment, which grow out of this singular abuse—the flattened arch, the shrunken pillar, the lifeless ornament, the tiny moulding, the distorted and extravagant foliation, until the time came when, over these wrecks and remnants, deprived of all unity and principle, rose the foul torrent of the renaissance, and swept them all away. (68)

There is another awesome footnote comment on the paragraph that follows this:

The closing paragraph is very pretty –but unfortunately–nonsense. The want of truth was only a part, and by no means an influential one, of general disease. All possible shades of human folly and licentiousness meet in late Gothic and renaissance architecture, and corrupt, in all directions at once, the arts which are their exponents. (68)

Aphorism 7: The guilt and harm of amiable and well meant lying (30)

Aphorism 8: Truth cannot be persisted in without pains; but is worth them (31)

Aphorism 9: The nature and dignity of imagination (33)

Aphorism 10: The proper structural use of iron (40)

Aphorism 11: The inviolability of Divine Law not of necessity but of ordinance (43)

Aphorism 12: Great painting never deceives. Compare, and add to this aphorism as part of it, the fourth paragraph of this chapter (45-46, how hard he makes you work! Especially as the 4th chapter is all about sin)

Aphorism 13: (expanded afterwards in “Stones of Venice”) The facing brick with marble is only a great form of Mosaic, and perfectly admissible. (50)

Aphorism 14: The proper colours of Architecture are those of natural stones (52)

Aphorism 15: Cast-iron ornamentation barbarous (56)

Aphorism 16: Tracery must never be considered or imagined as flexible (62)

The Lamp of Power

It’s not the size that counts really…but actually no, it is the size that counts.

V. While, therefore, it is not to be supposed that mere size will ennoble a mean design, yet every increase of magnitude will bestow upon it a certain degree of nobleness: so that it is well to determine at first, whether the building is to be markedly beautiful or markedly sublime; and if the latter, not to be withheld by respect to smaller parts from reaching largeness of scale; provided only, that it be evidently in the architect’s power to reach at least that degree of magnitude which is the lowest at which sublimity begins, rudely definable as that which will make a living figure look less than life beside it. (74)

VIII. What is needful in the setting forth of magnitude in height, is right also in the marking it in area—let it be gathered well together. … Of the many broad divisions under which architecture may be considered, none appear to me more significant than that into buildings whose interest is in their walls, and those whose interest is in the lines dividing their walls. In the Greek temple the wall is as nothing; the entire interest is in the detached columns and the frieze they bear; in French Flamboyant, and in our detestable Perpendicular, the object is to get rid of the wall surface, and keep the eye altogether on tracery of line; in Romanesque work and Egyptian, the wall is a confessed and honored member, and the light is often allowed to fall on large areas of it, variously decorated. Now, both these principles are admitted by Nature, the one in her woods and thickets, the other in her plains, and cliffs, and waters; but the latter is pre-eminently the principle of power, and, in some sense, of beauty also. For, whatever infinity of fair form there may be in the maze of the forest, there is a fairer, as I think, in the surface of the quiet lake; and I hardly know that association of shaft or tracery, for which I would exchange the warm sleep of sunshine on some smooth, broad, human-like front of marble. (77-78)

There ensues then a little discussion with himself, he wrote originally:

IX. This, then, being, as I think, one of the peculiar elements of sublime architecture, it may be easily seen how necessarily consequent upon the love of it will be the choice of a form approaching to the square for the main outline.

In the footnote he comments upon himself (lol, yet I could never object to sarcasm against the love of the dividend):

Yes–I daresay! but how are you first to get the love of it? To love sublime architecture is one thing; to love a sublime dividend or a sublime percentage is another–and to love a large smoking room or billiard room, yet another (79)

He s very caustic here throughout the footnotes about those who tear beautiful buildings down to erect rubbish in their place. But I confess I really rather love this:

So that, after size and weight, the Power of architecture may be said to depend on the quantity (whether measured in space or intenseness) of its shadow; and it seems to me, that the reality of its works, and the use and influence they have in the daily life of men (as opposed to those works of art with which we have nothing to do but in times of rest or of pleasure) require of it that it should express a kind of human sympathy, by a measure of darkness as great as there is in human life: and that as the great poem and great fiction generally affect us most by the majesty of their masses of shade, and cannot take hold upon us if they affect a continuance of lyric sprightliness, but must be serious often, and sometimes melancholy, else they do not express the truth of this wild world of ours; so there must be, in this magnificently human art of architecture, some equivalent expression for the trouble and wrath of life, for its sorrow and its mystery: and this it can only give by depth or diffusion of gloom, by the frown upon its front, and the shadow of its recess…And among the first habits that a young architect should learn, is that of thinking in shadow, not looking at a design in its miserable liny skeleton; but conceiving it as it will be when the dawn lights it, and the dusk leaves it; when its stones will be hot and its crannies cool; when the lizards will bask on the one, and the birds build in the other. (84)

That is so beautiful, you should pause here read it again.

It is not fair of me to pick out the beautiful and follow it on immediately with the utterly ridiculous. Yet I must.

Another hilarious footnote:

I have written many passages that are one-sided or incomplete; and which therefore are misleading if read without their context of development. But I know of no other paragraph in any of my books so definitely false as this. I did not know the history of Venice when I wrote it… (96)

so to summarise:

pressing now only the conclusion, as practically useful as it is certain, that the relative majesty of buildings depends more on the weight and vigor of their masses than on any other attribute of their design: mass of everything, of bulk, of light, of darkness, of color, not mere sum of any of these, but breadth of them; not broken light, nor scattered darkness, nor divided weight, but solid stone, broad sunshine, starless shade. (99)

Lovely, but then lol again:

It is not modern work only; we have built like frogs and mice since the thirteenth century (except only in our castles). (101)

I find quite interesting his ranting about domestic architecture — his demands on it are so entirely impossible with the number of human beings alive upon the planet in his time, much less ours. Yet he is right to damn it, and I rather like his prescriptions for shadows and more shadows.

Of domestic architecture what need is there to speak? How small, how cramped, how poor, how miserable in its petty neatness is our best! how beneath the mark of attack, and the level of contempt, that which is common with us! What a strange sense of formalised deformity, of shrivelled precision, of starved accuracy, of minute misanthropy have we, as we leave even the rude streets of Picardy for the market towns of Kent! Until that street architecture of ours is bettered, until we give it some size and boldness, until we give our windows recess, and our walls thickness, I know not how we can blame our architects for their feebleness in more important work; their eyes are inured to narrowness and slightness: can we expect them at a word to conceive and deal with breadth and solidity? They ought not to live in our cities; there is that in their miserable walls which bricks up to death men’s imaginations, as surely as ever perished forsworn nun. An architect should live as little in cities as a painter. Send him to our hills, and let him study there what nature understands by a buttress, and what by a dome. (101)

Aphorism 17: The two intellectual powers of Architecture: veneration and domination [lol]

Aphorism 18: The religious nobleness of Byzantine architecture

The Lamp of Beauty

Ah, this strange, and strangely limited, Victorian ideal of beauty.

III. Now, I would insist especially on the fact, of which I doubt not that further illustrations will occur to the mind of every reader, that all most lovely forms and thoughts are directly taken from natural objects; because I would fain be allowed to assume also the converse of this, namely, that forms which are not taken from natural objects must be ugly. (105)

He holds by this but does, to be fair, note that most of what he writes later is all wrong (see aphorisms, lol). He has a grand diatribe on writing and alphabets and their inherent ugliness, this in particular is enjoyable about ribands. I have never given much thought to ribands to be honest, how sad that it can only flutter.

What is there like this in a riband? It has no structure: it is a succession of cut threads all alike; it has no skeleton, no make, no form, no size, no will of its own. You cut it and crush it into what you will. It has no strength, no languor. It cannot fall into a single graceful form. It cannot wave, in the true sense, but only flutter: it cannot bend, in the true sense, but only turn and be wrinkled. It is a vile thing; it spoils all that is near its wretched film of an existence. Never use it. Let the flowers come loose if they cannot keep together without being tied; leave the sentence unwritten if you cannot write it on a tablet or book, or plain roll of paper. I know what authority there is against me. (112)

On the separations of work and art (though art emerges from a combination of manual and intellectual work) so it is more about ensuring tools and certain kinds of purely functional space remain plain. Curious concept.

XIX. Hence then a general law, of singular importance in the present day, a law of simple common sense,—not to decorate things belonging to purposes of active and occupied life. Wherever you can rest, there decorate; where rest is forbidden, so is beauty. You must not mix ornament with business, any more than you may mix play. Work first, and then rest. Work first and then gaze, but do not use golden ploughshares, nor bind ledgers in enamel. Do not thrash with sculptured flails: nor put bas-reliefs on millstones. (119)

He has a particular diatribe against railway stations which seems unfair — I mean, Glasgow Central or LAs Union Station is a wonder and I wouldn’t hear a word against them, but from a man who perceives no beauty in iron I suppose there can be no wonder at all:

XXI. Another of the strange and evil tendencies of the present day is to the decoration of the railroad station. Now, if there be any place in the world in which people are deprived of that portion of temper and discretion which are necessary to the contemplation of beauty, it is there. It is the very temple of discomfort, and the only charity that the builder can extend to us is to show us, plainly as may be, how soonest to escape from it. The whole system of railroad travelling is addressed to people who, being in a hurry, are therefore, for the time being, miserable. No one would travel in that manner who could help it—who had time to go leisurely over hills and between hedges, instead of through tunnels and between banks: at least those who would, have no sense of beauty so acute as that we need consult it at the station. (121)

but also has a go at Kings College, so it’s a least equal opportunity. Lol.

What a host of ugly church towers have we in England, with pinnacles at the corners, and none in the middle! How many buildings like King’s College Chapel at Cambridge, looking like tables upside down, with their four legs in the air! What! it will be said, have not beasts four legs? Yes, but legs of different shapes, and with a head between them. So they have a pair of ears: and perhaps a pair of horns: but not at both ends. Knock down a couple of pinnacles at either end in King’s College Chapel, and you will have a kind of proportion instantly. (126)

another (!) hilarious aside

Never give separate mouldings separate colors (I know this is heresy, but I never shrink from any conclusions, however contrary to human authority, to which I am led by observance of natural principles) (138)

Aphorism 19: All beauty is founded on the laws of natural form [footnote: The Aphorism is wholly true: but the following application of it, often trivial or false. See the subsequent notes. lol.] (105)

Aphorism 20: That is most “natural” which is most easily and ordinarily seen [footnote: This is an excellent aphorism; and I am proud of having so early seen the danger of anatomical study, so often dwelt on in my later works.] [lol.] (106)

Aphorism 21: Symmetry is not abstraction [footnote: ‘This short Aphorism is one of the most important in the book’] (132)

Aphorism 22: Perfect sculpture should be a part of the severest architecture (135)

The Lamp of Life

I think this might have been my favourite lamp.

no inconsiderable part of the essential characters of Beauty depended on the expression of vital energy in organic things … things in other respects alike, as in their substance, or uses, or outward forms, are noble or ignoble in proportion to the fulness of the life which either they themselves enjoy, or of whose action they bear the evidence, as sea sands are made beautiful by their bearing the seal of the motion of the waters. And this is especially true of all objects which bear upon them the impress of the highest order of creative life, that is to say, of the mind of man: they become noble or ignoble in proportion to the amount of the energy of that mind which has visibly been employed upon them. But most peculiarly and imperatively does the rule hold with respect to the creations of Architecture, which being properly capable of no other life than this, and being not essentially composed of things pleasant in themselves,—as music of sweet sounds, or painting of fair colors, but of inert substance,—depend, for their dignity and pleasurableness in the utmost degree, upon the vivid expression of the intellectual life which has been concerned in their production. (148)

How lovely are these figures from the Cathedral of Rouen, which I quite wish to visit.


XXIV. I believe the right question to ask, respecting all ornament, is simply this: Was it done with enjoyment—was the carver happy while he was about it? It may be the hardest work possible, and the harder because so much pleasure was taken in it; but it must have been happy too, or it will not be living. (173)

Was the worker happy…I forgive Ruskin all his privileged pomposity just for this.

Aphorism 23: All things are noble in proportion to their fulness of Life. (148)

Aphorism 24: Perfect finish characterizes alike the best architecture and the best painting. (154)

Aphorism 25: All good work must be free hand-work. Compare §24

Aphorism 26: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might;” and no other might.

The Lamp of Memory

This now, this is the most doubtful lamp. There are too many of us for whom there were no good old days.

How cold is all history how lifeless all imagery, compared to that which the living nation writes, and the uncorrupted marble bears! how many pages of doubtful record might we not often spare, for a few stones left one upon another! The ambition of the old Babel builders was well directed for this world: there are but two strong conquerors of the forgetfulness of men, Poetry and Architecture; and the latter in some sort includes the former, and is mightier in its reality; it is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt, but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld, all the days of their life. (178)

Men men men and their metaphorical meanings.

it is in becoming memorial or monumental that a true perfection is attained by civil and domestic buildings; and this partly as they are, with such a view, built in a more stable manner, and partly as their decorations are consequently animated by a metaphorical or historical meaning. (178)

We return again to domestic building, and again a betrayal of privilege. Not that I don’t wish all of us might have a home worthy and lasting to pass down through the ages. But ages must also have room to build anew, and it must be very hard to live comfortably in a temple.

I do love the diatribe against the Jerry builders though, before they were known as such I think.

As regards domestic buildings, there must always be a certain limitation to views of this kind in the power, as well as in the hearts, of men; still I cannot but think it an evil sign of a people when their houses are built to last for one generation only. There is a sanctity in a good man’s house which cannot be renewed in every tenement that rises on its ruins…I say that if men lived like men indeed, their houses would be temples—temples which we should hardly dare to injure, and in which it would make us holy to be permitted to live; and there must be a strange dissolution of natural affection, a strange unthankfulness for all that homes have given and parents taught, a strange consciousness that we have been unfaithful to our fathers’ honor, or that[Pg 171] our own lives are not such as would make our dwellings sacred to our children, when each man would fain build to himself, and build for the little revolution of his own life only. And I look upon those pitiful concretions of lime and clay which spring up in mildewed forwardness out of the kneaded fields about our capital—upon those thin, tottering, foundationless shells of splintered wood and imitated stone—upon those gloomy rows of formalised minuteness, alike without difference and without fellowship, as solitary as similar—not merely with the careless disgust of an offended eye, not merely with sorrow for a desecrated landscape, but with a painful foreboding that the roots of our national greatness must be deeply cankered when they are thus loosely struck in their native ground; that those comfortless and unhonored dwellings are the signs of a great and spreading spirit of popular discontent; that they mark the time when every man’s aim is to be in some more elevated sphere than his natural one, and every man’s past life is his habitual scorn; when men build in the hope of leaving the places they have built, and live in the hope of forgetting the years that they have lived; when the comfort, the peace, the religion of home have ceased to be felt; and the crowded tenements of a struggling and restless population differ only from the tents of the Arab or the Gipsy by their less healthy openness to the air of heaven, and less happy choice of their spot of earth; by their sacrifice of liberty without the gain of rest, and of stability without the luxury of change. (179-80)

This again…over the top, yet somehow embodies all the terrible Christian earnestness of which Ruskin is capable.

For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, or in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity. It is in their lasting witness against men, in their quiet contrast with the transitional character of all things, in the strength which, through the lapse of seasons and times, and the decline and birth of dynasties, and the changing of the face of the earth, and of the limits of the sea, maintains its sculptured shapeliness for a time insuperable, connects forgotten and following ages with each other, and half constitutes the identity, as it concentrates the sympathy, of nations; it is in that golden stain of time, that we are to look for the real light, and color, and preciousness of architecture; and it is not until a building has assumed this character, till it has been entrusted with the fame, and hallowed by the deeds of men, till its walls have been witnesses of suffering, and its pillars rise out of the shadows of death, that its existence, more lasting as it is than that of the natural objects of the world around it, can be gifted with even so much as these possess of language and of life. (186)

Aphorism 27: Architecture is to be made historical and preserved as such. (178)

Aphorism 28: The sanctity of home, for good men (179) [poor ladies]

Aphorism 29: The earth is an entail, not a possession. Compare §20. (185) [I rather like this one]

Aphorism 30: there is nothing here 🙁

Aphorism 31: Restoration, so called, is the worst manner of Destruction (194)

The Lamp of Obediance

This is maybe the maddest lamp, also the most reeking of Christianity and backward lookingness, if I can be forgiven for making that a noun.

I have named a principle to which I would now assign a definite place among those which direct that embodiment; the last place, not only as that to which its own humility would incline, but rather as belonging to it in the aspect of the crowning grace of all the rest; that principle, I mean, to which Polity owes its stability, Life its happiness, Faith its acceptance, Creation its continuance,—Obedience. (199)

This baffles me a bit. The why of it.

if, amidst the counter evidence of success attending opposite accidents of character and circumstance, any one conclusion may be constantly and indisputably drawn, it is this; that the architecture of a nation is great only when it is as universal and as established as its language; and when provincial differences of style are nothing more than so many dialects…this one condition has been constant, this one requirement clear in all places and at all times, that the work shall be that of a school, that no individual caprice shall dispense with, or materially vary, accepted types and customary decorations; and that from the cottage to the palace, and from the chapel to the basilica, and from the garden fence to the fortress wall, every member and feature of the architecture of the nation shall be as commonly current, as frankly accepted, as its language or its coin. (202)

This is some rantiness at its best

It may be said that this is impossible. It may be so—I fear it is so: I have nothing to do with the possibility or impossibility of it; I simply know and assert the necessity of it. If it be impossible, English art is impossible. Give it up at once. You are wasting time, and money, and energy upon it, and though you exhaust centuries and treasuries, and break hearts for it, you will never raise it above the merest dilettanteism. Think not of it. It is a dangerous vanity, a mere gulph in which genius after genius will be swallowed up, and it will not close. And so it will continue to be, unless the one bold and broad step be taken at the beginning. We shall not manufacture art out of pottery and printed stuffs; we shall not reason out art by our philosophy; we shall not stumble upon art by our experiments, not create it by our fancies: I do not say that we can even build it out of brick and stone; but there is a chance for us in these, and there is none else; and that chance rests on the bare possibility of obtaining the consent, both of architects and of the public, to choose a style, and to use it universally. (206)

Ah, the negative freedoms…

VIII. It is almost impossible for us to conceive, in our present state of doubt and ignorance, the sudden dawn of intelligence and fancy, the rapidly increasing sense of power and facility, and, in its proper sense, of Freedom, which such wholesome restraint would instantly cause throughout the whole circle of the arts. Freed from the agitation and embarrassment of that liberty of choice which is the cause of half the discomforts of the world (208)

this is lol all the way

I am confirmed in this impression by what I see passing among the states of Europe at this instant. All the horror, distress, and tumult which oppress the foreign nations, are traceable, among the other secondary causes through which God is working out His will upon them, to the simple one of their not having enough to do. (210)

Aphorism 32: There is no such thing as liberty (199)

Aphorism 33: The glory and use of restraint (208)

His final footnote is awesome. It reads:

I am well content to close my thirty-three aphorisms with this most comprehensive one;–and my fifty-five notes with this still more comprehensive reduction of them to practice for the modern reader:–Build nothing that you can possibly help,–and let no land on building leases. (210)

Ruskin, John (1988 [1849]) The Seven Lamps of Architecture. London: Century.

Jerome and Haynes

Jerome is one of my favourite mining towns, I came here with mum on the great road trip of ought eleven, which also included Wupatki, Montezuma’s Castle, and Tuzigoot. We missed them all this trip but Jerome was lovely. From 2011:

And now:

We went this time to Crown King Mine, which was once Haynes Arizona. It is full of mining equipment, old house fittings, a monument to the Evil Dead in the form of a shed filled with every kind of chain saw, wondrous old cars including an old electric model, dentist chairs and mangles and school desks. All of it is collected from this ruined town and others, from the shacks that grew up everywhere around these holes in the ground filled with copper, silver, zinc, molybdenum.

So much abandoned and left, either when the minerals and the jobs ran out, or when people grew too old to stay there. I keep thinking about extraction, the way it demands that people come and then it expects them to go. Very few people ever get rich and they generally were rich already, lived elsewhere, dabbled in claims that others had prospected and staked. Most of those doing the mining itself eke out a living at great risk to life and health, but there is something about it that most of them love even as their labour is extracted from them just like copper or gold. Until there is nothing left.

Somehow in the midst of that they come to come to love, grow to feel a connection with a place. I was thinking about the fight to keep towns like this alive, how it comes from the lives built here, the memories, labour, laughter, friends, family. Things worth fighting for.

I was thinking also though, that maybe it’s best to leave as easily as you came so many years ago, let the land return to what it was before machines ripped the heart from it or return to the wild with it.

Impossible to say which way I fall, but then, it is not for me to decide for others.

I love what remains standing.

I mourn what stands no longer, like the Mexican community of Daisy Town just outside of Jerome, where nothing remains but foundations. As the sign says: ‘Small ethnic communities were common around the mining developments of the West,’ it doesn’t mention of course this was usually for their own protection, though in some cases I expect they might well have been there first.

Daisy Town

There is of course, also a long history of labour organizing here too — La Liga Protectora Latina (not much about that), and the IWW (some awesomeness about that).

Frederick Douglass: My Bondage and My Freedom

I read the short version of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography many years ago and it impressed me so deeply, I had always meant to read the longer version — one of them at least. Too many years separate them for me even to be sure of the differences, apart from the recounting of the scene where Douglass stands up to Covey — much expanded here, but I am not sure more powerful for that. Still. The moment where enough is enough, where resistance is embraced fully, where everything changes. An incredible moment. But this is a book of powerful moments. So much of what is theorised over the next 150 years is here already, though always in a way that pathologises slavery not those bound and tortured by it. If only we had kept to that tradition.

Geneological trees do not flourish among slaves. A person of some consequence here in the north, sometimes designated father, is literally abolished in slave law and slave practice. It is only once in a while that an exception is found to this statement. (34-35)

Of course, Douglass’s father was white. Master or overseer, he is not explicit — does not know, does not wish to know, does not wish to say.

The practice of separating children from their mothers, and hiring the latter out at distances too great to admit of their meeting, except at long intervals, is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system. But it is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with a brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and the heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution. (37-38)

Frederick Douglass belonged to the Lloyds, a plantation along the Wye river named after the river in Wales whence they came. Knowing the Wye river — it brings these connections home. From rural wales to owning slaves in Maryland.

Frederick Douglass grows up. Always cold. Always hungry. Always questioning.

The old doctrine that submission is the best cure for outrage and wrong, does not hold good on the slave plantation. He is whipped oftenest, who is whipped easiest; and that slave who has the courage to stand up for himself against the overseer, although he may have many hard stripes at the first, becomes, in the end, a freeman, even though he sustain the formal relation of a slave. (95)

There is, of course, a line to be walked here because too much and they will just shoot you — this is clear in the text despite the numerous forceful statements like the one above.

I’ve just finished re-reading Du Bois on The Souls of Black Folk, and found it powerful that Douglass too spends time on the songs sung by slaves and their meaning and importance. It was often demanded of them that they sing, you cannot plot while singing, you cannot run away. But song transformed into something else. Douglass relates that it is not until after escaping slavery and looking back that the real meaning of the songs struck him.

They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of these wild notes always depressed my spirits and filled my heart with ineffable sadness… Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery… (99)

But then, still a child, he is sent to Baltimore, and it is strange to think, that without this arbitrary decision the future course of his life might not have been possible. For here he has opportunity to learn to read, to play with poor white children, to ask questions, to obtain knowledge, to see a world beyond the plantation. And, in the beginning, to have a taste of something different.

At first, Mrs Auld evidently regarded me simply as a child, like any other child; she had not come to regard me as property. This latter thought was a thing of conventional growth…it took several years to change the natural sweetness of her temper into fretful bitterness. (144-145)

Douglass illustrates time and time again how the structures of slavery constrain the humanity of both slave and slave-owner. The nature of slavery is such that there can be no good owner, no kind mistress because to own a slave is to deny the humanity of another human being. Mrs Auld begins kindly — begins to teach him to read, and is stopped in her tracks by her husband. It becomes fully brought home to her that reading and slavery are incompatible. In bowing to this, she loses her own self as she must.

As Douglass comes to understand this, the bewildering changes from kindness to bitterness, the reminders of his place in the household, he is also working out the nature of his own morality under slavery. That within a structure that has robbed him of both liberty and all reward of his labour, his right to steal for self preservation cannot be questioned. With no freedom of choice, no slave can be held morally responsible or accountable, rather all responsibility lies with those who created an enforce slavery.

There are insights too, into slavery’s impact on the class distinctions made in the South:

Slaves, too, readily distinguish between the birthright bearing of the original slaveholder and the assumed attitudes of the accidental slaveholder; and while they cannot respect either, they certainly despise the latter more than the former. (192)

Refusing to call him Master only one of many subtle ways of showing this. But it is so clear that status is entirely bound up in ownership of other human beings at this time, even though a certain level of privilege is granted to all those with white skin. Douglass is thinking all of these things, but can do little. At the age of 16 he is sent to work for a man named Covey for year, to be broken. And after 6 months of being broken, he stands up, refuses to be whipped, fights back.

…this battle with Mr Covey–undignified as it was, and as I fear my narration of it is–was the turning point in my “life as a slave.” It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I was A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN. (246)

He was never whipped again. He does wonder why he wasn’t just killed — the punishment decreed by law for such defiance. The loss of face that Covey would have incurred is most likely the reason, but he himself has seen someone murdered for less. He describes the price of being a man — being willing to die. He also notes the many other things that work to keep human beings enslaved. Ties to family and friends, to place and familiarity. The granting of holidays, and other things that keep ‘minds occupied with thoughts and aspirations short of the liberty of which they are deprived. A certain degree of attainable good must be kept before them’ (253).

One of teh most powerful sentences I think:

The thought of only being a creature of the present and the past, troubled me, and I longed to have a future–a future with hope in it. (273)

I think this is perhaps the terror of poverty as well, though it cannot be compared to slavery. But it appears again in one of the speeches at the end. A future could only lie in freedom. He plans an attempt at escape with a group of dear friends and is betrayed, but without quite the proof needed to convince his owner that the freedom break was actually going to be attempted. So while threatened with sale to the South, he is not in the end taken there. He is sent back to Baltimore, and apprenticed in the shipyards.

He has the shit beaten out of him by white apprentices there,  partially at the instigation of the white carpenters who stand and watch it all. He notes that one of the elements in slavery is this:

the conflict of slavery with the interests of the white mechanics and laborers of the south. … The slaveholders, with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeds in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the black man himself… The slave is robbed, by his master, of all his earnings, above what is required for his bare physical necessities; and the white man is robbed by the slave system, of the just results of his labor, because he is flung into competition with a class of laborers who work without wages. (309-310)

Douglass writes this will set the white laborers in the vanguard against slavery — it’s curious that he is right and wrong, for in much of the north and in California they surely are against slavery, but equally against Black labour. Still, we see here the intersections of race, economic systems, labour, struggle…

He escapes. Wanders lost in NY afraid for his life and recapture, no money, no friends. He doesn’t wonder that some return South. But he reaches safety with the abolitionists and they recommend he move to New Bedford. Which sounds bad ass. He tells a story in which a newcomer threatens one of the community with informing on him to his old master. A meeting is called of the whole Black community, and at the end of it

…at the close of his prayer, the old man (one of the numerous family of Johnsons) rose from his knees, deliberately surveyed his audience, and then said, in a tone of solemn resolution, “Well, friends, we have got him here, and I would now recommend that you young men should just take him outside the door and kill him. (348)

He escapes, sadly. But Douglass writes

A slave could not be taken from that town seventeen years ago, any more than he could be so taken away now. the reason is, that the colored people in that city are educated up to the point of fighting for their freedom, as well as speaking for it. (348)

That brings a tear.

So Douglass comes to the attention of the abolitionists as a speaker, begins to travel and lecture. He reads more, speaks more, thinks. He is fucking brilliant, far more so than those around him and they don’t like it, tell him to speak more like a slave, to just give his story and let them denounce the wrongs and provide the solutions. Whites in the audiences start murmuring at his eloquence, refuse to believe that he is a slave as he doesn’t speak like one or act like one. Makes you want to throw things.

And so Douglass writes the first version of his autobiography to free himself from these insinuations…which is, of course, a huge risk and means his almost certain recapture. And so he goes to England. where like many others before and after, he is treated as an equal (though all this would change for other generations of Black people coming to England). Money is raised to buy his freedom so he can return to the US without the threat of recapture hanging over him. (He is criticised for allowing this, by those who don’t know what it is like to be owned or to have the fear of being taken back hanging over them.) More money is raised to provide him with a printing press, so he can begin his own paper. And the white abolitionists really fucking hate that, as you can imagine — they argue it’s not needed, that it will interfere with the lecturing they have planned for him, that he is a better speaker than writer, and that it can’t succeed. William Lloyd Garrison has his own paper after all. So Douglass moves to Rochdale to avoid competition with them. They hate it even more when, upon deep thought, Douglass decides that they are wrong in their analysis of the issue and in their tactics of refusals to vote and demands that the slave-states be cut free from the union.

He notes near the end, the many instances of racism in the north. The prejudice that existed even among abolitionists and the awkwardness of their denials underlining how deeply it ran. Like their insistence they were ‘not afraid to walk with him’. He resists the existence of ‘Jim Crow’ cars in trains and trams, refusing to move and fighting any attempts to so remove him. Jim Crow this early, in name and in segregated carriages. I had forgotten. He is such a well-connected figure by this time, his battles are successful.

At the end are a collection of speeches and damn. They are incredible, what a thing to have heard him speak. Above all the speech for the 4th of July, which I have read before. But some excerpts, first from his reception speech at Finsbury Chapel.

I am here to say that I think the term slavery is sometimes abused by identifying it with that which it is not. Slavery in the United States is the granting of that power by which one man exercises and enforces a right of poetry in the body and soul of another. The condition of a slave is simply that of the brute beast. He is a piece of property–a marketable commodity…to be bought or sold at will and caprice of the master who claims him to be his property; he is spoken of, thought of, and treated as property. His own good, his conscience, his intellect, his affections, are all set aside by the master. The will and the wishes of the master are the law of the slave. He is as much a piece of property as a horse. If he is fed, he is fed because he is property. If he is clothed, it is with a view to the increase of his value as property. Whatever of comfort is necessary to him for his body or soul that is inconsistent with his being property, is carefully wrested from him, not only by public opinion, but by the law of the country. He is carefully deprived of everything that tends in the slightest degree to detract from his value as property. He is deprived of education. God has given him an intellect; the slaveholder declares it shall not be cultivated. If his moral perception leads him in a course contrary to his value as property, the slaveholder declares he shall not exercise it. The marriage institution cannot exist among slaves, and one-sixth of the population of democratic America is denied its privileges by the law of the land. What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its humanity, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage? (408)

And then this rousing finale

The slaveholders want total darkness on the subject. They want the hatchway shut down, that the monster may crawl in his den of darkness, crushing human hopes and happiness, destroying the bondman at will, and having no one to reprove or rebuke him. Slavery shrinks from the light; it hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest its deeds should be reproved. To tear off the mask from this abominable system, to expose it to the light of heaven, aye, to the heat of the sun, that it may burn and wither it out of existence, is my object in coming to this country. I want the slaveholder surrounded, as by a wall of anti-slavery fire, so that he may see the condemnation of himself and his system glaring down in letters of light. (418)

There is the letter to his old master, written on the anniversary of his escape. It is excoriating, and also moving…

The fact is, there are few here who would not return to the South in the event of emancipation. We want to live in the land of our birth, and to lay our bones by the side of our fathers’; and nothing short of an intense love of personal freedom keeps us from the South. For the sake of this, most of us would live on a crust of bread and a cup of cold water.(424)

At this moment, you are probably the guilty holder of at least three of my own dear sisters, and my only brother in bondage. These you regard as your property. They are recorded on your ledger, or perhaps have been sold to human flesh mongers, with a view to filling your own ever-hungry purse. Sir, I desire to know how and where these dear sisters are. Have you sold them? or are they still in your possession? What has become of them? are they living or dead? And my dear old grandmother, whom you turned out like an old horse, to die in the woods—is she still alive? Write and let me know all about them. (426-427)

Speech on The Nature of Slavery:

First of all, I will state, as well as I can, the legal and social relation of master and slave. A master is one—to speak in the vocabulary of the southern states—who claims and exercises a right of property in the person of a fellow-man. This he does with the force of the law and the sanction of southern religion. The law gives the master absolute power over the slave. He may work him, flog him, hire him out, sell him, and, in certain contingencies, kill him, with perfect impunity. The slave is a human being, divested of all rights—reduced to the level of a brute—a mere “chattel” in the eye of the law—placed beyond the circle of human brotherhood—cut off from his kind—his name, which the “recording angel” may have enrolled in heaven, among the blest, is impiously inserted in a master’s ledger, with horses, sheep, and swine. In law, the slave has no wife, no children, no country, and no home. He can own nothing, possess nothing, acquire nothing, but what must belong to another. To eat the fruit of his own toil, to clothe his person with the work of his own hands, is considered stealing. He toils that another may reap the fruit; he is industrious that another may live in idleness; he eats unbolted meal that another may eat the bread of fine flour; he labors in chains at home, under a burning sun and biting lash, that another may ride in ease and splendor abroad; he lives in ignorance that another may be educated; he is abused that another may be exalted; he rests his toil-worn limbs on the cold, damp ground that another may repose on the softest pillow; he is clad in coarse and tattered raiment that another may be arrayed in purple and fine linen; he is sheltered only by the wretched hovel that a master may dwell in a magnificent mansion; and to this condition he is bound down as by an arm of iron.

From this monstrous relation there springs an unceasing stream of most revolting cruelties. The very accompaniments of the slave system stamp it as the offspring of hell itself. To ensure good behavior, the slaveholder relies on the whip; to induce proper humility, he relies on the whip; to rebuke what he is pleased to term insolence, he relies on the whip; to supply the place of wages as an incentive to toil, he relies on the whip; to bind down the spirit of the slave, to imbrute and destroy his manhood, he relies on the whip, the chain, the gag, the thumb-screw, the pillory, the bowie knife the pistol, and the blood-hound. These are the necessary and unvarying accompaniments of the system. Wherever slavery is found, these horrid instruments are also found. (429-430)

It is only when we contemplate the slave as a moral and intellectual being, that we can adequately comprehend the unparalleled enormity of slavery, and the intense criminality of the slaveholder. I have said that the slave was a man. … The first work of slavery is to mar and deface those characteristics of its victims which distinguish men from things, and persons from property. Its first aim is to destroy all sense of high moral and religious responsibility. It reduces man to a mere machine. It cuts him off from his Maker, it hides from him the laws of God, and leaves him to grope his way from time to eternity in the dark, under the arbitrary and despotic control of a frail, depraved, and sinful fellow-man. (431)

What to the slave is the 4th of July? (listen to James Earl Jones read it here)

Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? (441)

Those words are still pretty true.

America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! (442)

What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? (444)

Words cannot express my admiration or respect. Yet I am still full of questions, about the wife who came from Maryland also, about her life, about the day to day…more to read, always more to read.

Frederick Douglass, Syracuse, New York, July–August 1843; whole-plate daguerreotype by an unknown photographer, from Picturing Frederick Douglass

Douglass, Frederick (1969 [1855]) My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Tories Out: Manchester 2017

It’s been a full-on few days of action hosted by the People’s Assembly, as it should be with the Tories busy sticking knives into each other at their annual party conference as people die from their benefit cuts, sanctions, mental health cuts, NHS cuts, housing sell off and etc. That’s what my sign would have said — or some snappier version of that — had I made one. Danielle and I did a lot, though not even close to all.

Saturday night? The Dancehouse, to see much-loved Maxine Peake (OMG Maxine Peake!) and Mark Serwotka (OMG Mark Serwotka! How much do I want to be able to join PCS? Let me count the ways…), to love for the first time comedian Barbara Nice (OMG Barbara Nice!).

People's Assembly Saturday Night Live

Sunday was the protest of the Tory conference proper. It’s kind of funny, remembering back to the first time I ever visited Manchester, on a bus up from South London to protest Tory Party Conference in 2011. I confess I was a bit unimpressed with everything but the canals and the Peak of Peveril Pub — but I was here. Doesn’t feel it could possibly have been as long as 6 years ago. We could get closer to conference then, but they are still using those silver walls. 2011:


The anti-Brexit contingent, and ‘Boris’ on a unicorn singing busily, 2016:

Protesting Tories: Manchester 2017

We headed down Castlefields way, heard Mark Serwotka again (OMG Mark Serwotka again!) speak by chance. Then we ran into Jon and the next few speakers were yawny in the way lefty men of a certain generation can be, so we took a short break for art.

Alongside us in the Museum of Science and Industry was Nikhil Chopra in the second half of his 48-hour performance art piece, performed in front of one of the engines built in Manchester, but sent to India and used during the partition. This ink drawing, a re-imagining of passage. This sleeping and camping and being in public for 48 hours — it is what refugees undergo, isn’t it, part of the horror wrapped up in horrors of this thing, being a refugee. Always in public. Always moving. Always somewhere you don’t belong. And it challenged me in watching it, the shame of being comfortable in the face of this discomfort, in the memory of this tragedy. I lowered my eyes to give privacy to this figure on the stage, then took a picture to remember the provocative nature of this intervention because after all it is ‘art’, it is a gift and a challenge thrown at us by someone who is also not here under duress. A challenge I don’t know quite how to live up to, but I hope to. Through my work around homelessness perhaps, through struggle. I don’t know if that is enough.

Nikhil Chopra

That left us pensive, subdued, strange to go back out into a crowd. But it fit. As in all damn marches we stood and we stood and we waited and we waited. I didn’t get many pictures, but a few. The highlights were absolutely the drums, I enjoyed myself, and then…we left them behind.

Flickr Album Gallery Powered By: WP Frank

It was all right, the march. They always are.

And then we had to find food and drink and wait and wait, because we had been promised Captain Ska and Lokey, and finally they were on and finally we danced. For me this was…amazing. The power and passion and incredible words and beats. Damn.

Amazing night.

I hurt the next morning. First time exercising since holiday, then a march and then dancing? Shit.

Still, I went to work. And then in the evening off to Manchester Cathedral to see John McDonnell speak in conversation with Gary Younge. Because I promised Danielle. To be honest, were it just me, I would have headed straight for bed with some Horlicks. But I went. And I was glad.

First we had some workers… From the strikers at McDonalds! so amazing, I remember my minimum wage fast food /Kmart days, I know just how amazing these folks are for carrying off a strike.

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

RMT! Strike across the North East for passenger safety!

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

Careworkers! She almost had me in tears.

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

Communications union — our postal workers! Anxiously awaiting ballot results when he spoke, but today we know the vote is to strike.

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

And then, John McDonnell!

Protesting Tories, Manchester 2017

I’m sad Gary Younge didn’t get to make a speech too. But ah well, McDonnell said Labour was in full support of the workers, they would re-nationalise the trains and the post, they would fully fund the NHS and support careworkers, they would implement the living wage. I never thought, to be honest, I’d ever hear anyone in a position like that of shadow vice-chancellor ever say such things. It solved all the problems expressed earlier in one sentence.

Last time I saw him speak was in 2011 (the parallels between 2011 and 2017 are only now striking me), at the People’s Assembly in Brixton that we organised as Lambeth SOS. He was a little less formal then, but sounded just the same.

John McDonnell

I jotted down a few notes, some sound bites and I don’t even care because they were brilliant, all in response to some really good questions.I can’t swear any of these are exact quotes, so don’t quote me.

We’re not just a party we’re a movement again … if owned by the people change becomes unstoppable…

(I am a bit skeptical about whether the old left can deal with democracy and youth and people of colour and women, but, you know, I have hope).

This is not a free market but a rigged market of the 1%.

We need to wipe out UKIP.

In response to a good question about why this change is so damn long in coming and so resisted (someone yelled out Tony Blair and we all laughed because we knew it was true), he brought it on with Gramsci — the hegemonic nature of neoliberalism (also true).

Never again should we pay for their crisis.

Education is a gift from one generation to another, not a commodity.

Then he went on about a new education service, starting with sure start, a new approach that pays teachers but also respects them, support for apprenticeships, scrap tuition fees, EMA returned, debt forgiven, support for lifelong education.

And the end? I was wondering when this would come up — the focus on climate change, on developing the economy through green tech owned by workers cooperatives, on decarbonising the economy,  ending fracking. It was like the Hallelujah chorus.

A brilliant night. A night of hope. We need those, I feel privileged to have enjoyed one because it has been a very long time…


Karen Tei Yamashita: I Hotel

I just finished I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. The last book started on a holiday that already seems months ago. It is splendid, one of the best things I have ever read I think for its power of storytelling, its innovations, its illustrations, the way it brings together these interconnecting lives circled around a single building and a struggle to change the world.

Two full years of my own life were spent in just such a struggle to save a residential hotel, our Morrison Hotel a mix of white, Latinx, African American, ours not knitted deep into an activist community through shop fronts or anything like the community of old Manilatown. Ours sat where it once fitted the scale and character of the street, but the long-ago razing of neighbourhood had left it more isolated, almost anomalous so close to the convention centre. Our generation did not believe the revolution was upon us, did not quote Mao to frame our defiance of capitalism, did not raise fists over small points of praxis. yet so much resonated, it made me ache. I miss my LA family.

I loved all of it, could have quoted anywhere, but you know the bit I am quoting ridiculously extensively below is about cities–like Tropic of Orange, this is all about the city but so different from that novel… This is long, also brilliant in how it says so much about the place of hotels in our world of work and poverty, about home, about nation, and opening with the solidarities that were, that could be, that should be built:

Thus we emerged from every living crevice in our hilly city, every tenement, blighted Victorian, public housing project, cheap hotel, single or collective rental, many of us the forgotten and abandoned people whose voices were muffled in the underbelly of working poverty, stuffed into the various ethnic ghettos, we the immigrants from the Old and New Worlds, from the black and white South and tribal America, we the dockworkers from the long shore, we the disabled and disavowed vets, we the gay and leathered, we the garment workers, restaurant workers, postal and clerical workers, we who praised the Lord in his house at Glide and his People’s Temple, we of the unions, tired and poor, we the people.

But why save an old hotel?

Because if we remembered the history of our city we would remember how frontier towns began: with a trading post and a saloon with a second floor of lodging rooms. … When we took everything away and thought only about the second floor of lodging rooms, we remembered that people have always come from distances and had to be accommodated, given shelter and a bed, and what we used to call board…

This basic town got complicated and multiplied into a thing we call a city, with every kind of reinvented trading post and saloon and lodging that over time we could imagine. And we supposed that the history of any city could be told through the comings and goings of any trading post or saloon, but thinking as we do, as people coming to the city to find work to pay for shelter and board, whether just for ourselves or for our families accompanying or  left behind, it was the lodging that most concerned us. And we could see how city life and hotel life were inextricably connected, and what the city had to offer had a home in the hotel. Over time, we’d forgotten that hotels in our city have long served as temporary but also permanent homes, that living in hotels had been a normal consequence of living in our city. From the inception of our city, our city life could perhaps be translated as hotel life, the way that we as young, single, and independent people could arrive to find work in the industry of the city, find the small cafes and bars, theaters and social clubs, laundries, shops, and bookstores, all within walking distance or perhaps a cable stop away. Even if we did not actually live in hotels, we may have participated in, if not considered, the simple luxuries of life: the bustling social life of our streets, the hotels’ communal restaurants and social galas, the convenience of maid service and bedsheets changed, the possibility of being completely freed from any housework, the possible leisure to think or to create, and finally the anonymity and privacy of a room of our own. Hotel life defined the freedom of the city, but such freedom has been for some reason suspect, and there are always those who want to police freedom.

Finally, like the society that evolved in our city, there have been, of course, hotels for those with money and hotels for those of us with not so much money. And even though the city required our labor and allowed us housing in cheap hotels, in time we came to know that laboring people are necessary but considered transitory. Eventually, it was thought, we’d just go away or become invisible. So even if hotels depended on our constant occupancy, we were not considered permanent or stable members of society. We did not own homes. We may have had families, but hotels were suspect places to raise children, and so we were suspect families. Our communal lives in hotels with shared bathrooms and shared dining, shared genders, shared ethnicities, and heaven forbid, shared thinking that might lead to shared politics, were also suspect. Hotel life might even be subversive. A famous scholar who studied our hotel life warned us that when there are no homes, there will be no nation. But what did he mean by home? And, for that matter, what did he mean by nation?

By the time we got the red alert to place our bodies in a human barricade around an old hotel that held seventy years of our city’s hotel history, we were already the displaced people in the city’s plan to impose a particular meaning of home and a particular meaning of nation. Since our hotel life was considered suspect morally and socially, our hotels should naturally be replaced by proper single-family houses built in locations distant from the city, and our hotels and all our businesses that services us should be replaced with what the city was properly useful for: trading posts, jails, courthouses, and saloons. And no one should be allowed to live over a saloon unless he was just passing through. A commercial room was simply not a dwelling. These edicts were substantiated  by zoning and blight laws…Almost as quickly as an earthquake, our neighborhoods located in the Fillmore and South of Market were already razed and being replaced by forty-eight-story multinational corporate trading posts. Even if we were expected to build, maintain, clean, and service these posts, we weren’t expected to live anywhere nearby. Be at work promptly at eight a.m., but please, please disappear by five p.m. But this was an impossible request because we could not leave, and we had nowhere to go. (588-591)

We could not leave, and had nowhere to go.

I love how this situates the residential hotel in a long history of city building, in the development of our urban form. How little things have really changed — though this makes me see US cities with new eyes. Seeing the saloon, the trading post, the lodging house. The change is in the way that capital is working, the way that workers are no longer welcome in the city centre, the disciplining of the poor into certain kinds of homes or punitively forcing them into homelessness. This captures both so beautifully, captures just what it was we were fighting over — not just the profit that owners wished to make on a building they had violently extracted every penny from at the cost of its tenants, but their ability to flick aside human beings and their security and their dreams as if they were nothing. The structural workings of race and class and labour and value that made such cruelty possible. The I Hotel was lost in 1977, and still we were fighting in 2007. Others still fight today, is there any organisation I love and respect more than LA CAN?

As two thousand of us were eventually bullied away from the hotel entrance, we saw our sheriff enter at the head of his deputies, leading them into the hotel and the final phase of the eviction, breaking into the doors of each of the hotel tenants and ordering them to leave their homes. And yes, we knew that each room was a tiny home, a place of final refuge for a lifetime of work, and the the room, though housed in a hotel, was sill a home. (591-592)

The last paragraph excavates something inside of me. Why we do, why we write.

And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (605)

[Karen Tei Yamashita (2010) I Hotel. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.]


Solidarity Blues: Richard Iton on Race, Culture and the Left

Richard Iton’s Solidarity Blues was so good for thinking not just about how race and the American left have articulated, but the nature of the left in general. I use that word ‘left’ often, struggle with it, often distinguish between an elite left and a grassroots left (you all know which one I’m for). Iton takes a step back, to look at the broader ideas in motion:

I attempt to understand how the forces of individualism and collectivism interact in different contexts. (5)

This is much broader than the ‘left’, starts to capture some of the things that happen outside of movement. But I like his broad understanding of the left as well, looking at it in three different aspects:

  1. the conventional conceptions, labor movements and socialist parties

  2. the availability of a certain set or type of public goods

  3. the prevalence of a certain sensibility or set of cultural values. (6)

I like too, this case for just how different America is from the other ‘developed’ nations and how it contrasts with other countries where:

certain things are taken for granted: comprehensive health care, inclusive voter registration procedure, affordable higher education, and a certain standard of public safety. (7)

Not in the US as everyone knows. Which begs the question:

Why so slow, so reluctant to provide public goods?

the answer — constructions of race — and instead of choosing to allow race to disappear or lose its significance,

at every opportunity the choice has been made to remake race in some potent form at the cost of community. (22)

So, to summarise Iton’s arguments on the articulation of race with these three principal aspects of the Left.

Labour Movements and Socialist Parties

Labour movements are sustained by a collective identity of labour opposed to capital. In the US, this collective identity was fractured by race in three principal ways — that follow one from the other and that in themselves show the complexities of this I think.

  1. the popular identification of organized labor with racial progressivism (an association that was accurate at times and ironic at others)

  2. the energies consumed by internecine battles within the labour movement between nativist and racist constituencies and those advocating a more inclusive movement

  3. the decisions made by nativists, racists and their opponents to forego challenging the racial status quo and organizing immigrant workers, in the belief that a successful labour movement could be sustained without the participation of those groups, and that these issues and constituencies  could be dealt with at some later point… (25)

This helps explain the rise of someone like Samuel Gompers in the AFL — fucking Samuel Gompers, the UK has some responsibility for him too as he was born here. He promoted a focus on today’s battles rather than a broader struggle or movement — small wins, craft unions, the exclusion of people of colour, such an ugly politics that wasn’t arguably even practical given it created large pools of strikebreakers. He actually fought while in the cigar makers union to have white labels placed on cigars made by white labour so racists would know and could but white and union.

No wonder you get Du Bois writing that the  ‘AFL not a labor movement, but monopoly of skilled workers’.

There are some brighter lights, though they may have shone briefly. Hurrah, for instance, for the Western Federation of Miners, founded in 1893 in Montana (Montana! No longer somewhere such a movement could blossom I think). From them grew the IWW in 1905 — and of course Iton notes the greater homogeneity of the west coast and how it shaped their politics, it was easier not to be racist. But still. While Iton argues their importance was more symbolic, he does quote Dubovsky:

so feared were the Wobblies that probably no group of labor agitators before or since has as suddenly or disastrously experienced the full wrath of state and national authorities. (51)

On the whole though, Labor’s record in the US is dismal.

labor’s job is to ensure that its constituency can control the circumstances of its existence. Organized labor in the United States has largely either been afraid to do so, or, because of internal and external compromises, been unable to do so. (78)

Where it has been successful in building solidarity, Iton notes, it has actually been along racial lines rather than lines of work or labour.

Southern Politics and Parties

Nothing establishes better the broad weaknesses of the left, and how racial conflicts have prevented it from creating a more collectivist society, than a hard look at the impact of Southern ‘Democratic’ party politics. Iton summarises his argument that it created a:

  1. constant division of leftists activists over issue of whether organizations would be interracial, segregated, or separate but coordinated.
  2. popular rejection of those movements which have pursued interracial alliances …IWW, UMW, CIO
  3. …the race issue has just been a problem to be solved at some future date (84)

Jim Crow disenfranchised Blacks, but also increasingly poor whites, concentrating power in Southern elites against which the whole country has been held hostage through the Democratic party.


There was, of course, that brief period when Lenin in the 2nd congress of 1920 directed the Communist Party to support the self-determination of oppressed peoples within nations — this included the Irish and  African negroes as revolutionary groups, which ensured that the CPUSA  for a time did its best to pursue equal rights for blacks, and in South proposing in proposed a black belt nation. In the North, party activists began doing grassroots organizing work with tenants, particularly around rent strikes and the unemployed councils. In 1936 they formed the National Negro Congress, and at this time also began reaching out  to other race communities, such as Mexican farmworkers.

‘By 1935…11 percent of the party’s roughly 27,000 members were black, and in the South, blacks composed an even higher percentage. (118)

Change in CP policy led widespread abandonment of earlier causes, but this isn’t really mentioned. It does help explain some of the automatic connection between race equality and communism that is still so prevalent today, though I mostly think this has been a convenient labeling to facilitate isolation and repression. Of course, it meant the red scare had an even greater impact on those fighting for racial equality. Like Gerald Horne, Iton writes of this period after WWII, which saw:

a unique collapsing of the realms of racial and class politics…the effective end of the traditional left in American politics and a further truncation of the acceptable range of debate concerning economic issues and alternatives. (125)

The radical politics emerging from the Great Depression could have been a time when working classes came together, but instead they split over race. Party politics since then has not sought to challenge current attitudes, but work within the very limited gains staying within them can achieve… White privilege was just a little too strong I suppose. Old FDR himself maintained a 2nd home in Warm Springs Georgia, and promoted himself in 1932 election as a “Georgia planter-politician’.

And now? Iton cites Robert Greenberg’s 1985 study of Macomb ,Michicgan and the switch from Democrat to Republican among white working to middle-class Americans

These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics. . . . Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything else that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a place a decent place to live. (129)

Bloody hell.

Beyond the Left

Iton describes how race conservatism has allowed rights to vote to be curtailed, slowed and reduced medicare and medicaid, opposed fair employment practices committee, ensured no best practices taken from Europe as US the only superpower post WWII. But this is a question that continues to pester me:

While I do not want to overstate the importance of the cultural politics of the post-McCarthy era from a progressive standpoint, the inability of the American left to survive the era that produced the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism says something about the American left, as well as American society. (218)

For Iton the why is at least partially found here:

the characteristically American resistance to collective strategies reflects an attachment to the rights and prerogatives of individuals over and above and particular communities. (234)

This of course emerges from Turner’s ‘frontier thesis, or Louis Hartz or Seymour Martin Lipset’s work.  But this doesn’t go deep enough, why this push towards individualism?

The liberal individualism Hartz and others have cited has been rhetorical residue remaining after the battles among the competing “we” claims promoted by different ethnic and racial communities. In other words, while an examination of the speeches of politician might reflect a particularly American preference for individual liberties, the unstated realities have often been shaped by the ethnic and racial calculations made by different groups. (235)

This has never been dealt with by the left in its goal to appeal to the broadest number of people and rejection of the call to help with the ‘maintenance and relaization of a collective sensibility and human civilization.’ (245-246). There is more to dig into here about the way that race has structured capital (see Cedric Robinson), or about how racism has help form a concept of whiteness tied to privilege (as does David Roediger), but the result has been tragic. The book ends with this thought:

The particular and exceptional extent to which the American left has been removed from the main stage of American life has been a direct function of its inability or unwillingness to transcend these hurdles in an especially demographically diverse context, and a result of the popular attachment to a realm — race — that can generate few larger meanings, resilient identities, or practical moralities. (246)


Iton, Richard (2000) Solidarity Blues: Race, Culture and the American Left. Chapel hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.







Environmentalism and Economic Justice in the Southwest: Laura Pulido

Laura Pulido is one of my heroes, and returning to Environmentalism and Economic Justice now that I have some disposable income to buy it…well. It’s brilliant. (Though actually I am realising I don’t actually have any real disposable income at all. Breaks my heart).  It brings together the theory that I believe most needs to be brought together, using the postcolonial and subaltern theory to look at struggles in the US and knocking apart some of the most frustrating aspects of writing around ‘new social movements’ and social movement in general. Then rebuilding it of course, in ways I find particularly useful and illuminating.

Subalternity is not often used in relation to the U.S. — this is how Pulido describes the economic structures and the role of racism in creating conditions of subalternity:

…subaltern environmentalism is embedded in material and power struggles, as well as questions of identity and quality of life. Dominated communities engaged in environmental struggles do not disaggregate their various identities and needs. Although they may engage in strategic essentialism, the practice of reifying aspects of one’s identity for political purposes, they recognize the multiple identities and the various lines of domination and power that need to be resisted and challenged. They build complex movements which simultaneously address issues of identity as well as a wide range of economic issues (production, distribution, and uneven development), thereby defying the various models and paradigms social scientists have created to impose meaning on collective action, in particular, environmentalism. (xv)

This is because for some communities, environmental problems are not just simple quality of life issues, rather:

From the perspective of marginalized communities, environmental problems reflect, and may intensify, larger existing inequalities and uneven power relations. (xv)

While Pulido celebrates the new, postmodern opening up to struggles beyond production such as identity, I love her argument against ditching political economy. Love that she looks to Watts as well as to Arturo Escobar to bring the two together. Because poor people of color experience a complex reality in which resistance is required along lines of both class and race among other things. We need to understand

how multiple forces interact in creating inequality and oppression, and how complex struggles form to overcome it. (xviii)

Elsewhere she writes this intersectionality:

Even though their struggles may be categorized as class conflict, racism, or patriarchal resistance, what is usually at stake are multiple forms of domination, exploitation, and resistance, that narrow applications of class may prevent us from appreciating. (5)

The two studies featured in this volume were chosen to complement the principal focus of environmental justice work at the time, on toxics primarily in urban areas. I like how this expands the focus — though of course, so much work has been done in the past eleven years to further develop this, as can be seen in The Colors of Nature or The Environmental Justice Reader.

A final ingredient is the focus on struggle, and that of course, it recognises that oppression also helps create the conditions for its resistance:

For oppressed communities, a dignified life means being able to live free of cultural oppression and racial and ethnic inequality. Hence, while culture and racism are critical to understanding oppression, they are also essential to illuminating the process of mobilization (xx).

So a good summary of the subaltern nature of environmental justice struggles:

This new form of environmentalism goes by a variety of headings: grassroots, popular, livelihood, resistance, environmental justice, and resource struggles. What they all share is a counterhegemonic, or subaltern, location — they exist in opposition to prevailing powers. (4)

New Social Movements (NSMs)

For NSM researchers, identity has emerged as as a key area of focus…understanding how individuals coalesce and fashion new collective identities is the crucial question in understanding the emergence of social movements.

I understand why she has to engage with this literature more broadly, it was the thing after all. But still I am frustrated with its limitations. Of course Pulido also brings in old favourites — on the transition to post-fordism, she looks to Stuart Hall (1991) to understand the new decentring of self and identity, and how we are made up multiple identities and positions, identify in multiple different ways. Gilroy is in here too on the complexities of it all.


The claim that NSMs are only about quality of life issues, or the disagreement over whether racial struggles are NSMs or should be catagorised among older movements? Not so useful. Pulido writes:

The concept of NSMs has become problematic precisely because it has been so widely applied. In reality, its true value is in helping us see what is unique about a limited number of movements. (12)

The idea that some people have to struggle on multiple fronts? Obvious I would have thought, and yet…apparently not to everyone. But it is to subaltern scholars:

Subaltern movements are simultaneously about both material concerns and systems of meaning, thereby challenging the notion that identity issues are not of concern to those struggling to survive.

She quotes Arturo Escobar rather extensively (I love Escobar, haven’t managed to write about him yet, and will find it difficult precisely because of the desire to quote him even more extensively than I usually quote people, his book is full full full of underlining)

It is essential to recognize the importance of economic factors and their structural determinants. But just as crucial as the reconstruction of economies — and indelibly linked to it — is the reconstitution of meanings at all levels, from everyday life to national development. Social movements must be seen equally and inseparably as struggles over meanings as well as material conditions, that is, as cultural struggles…  Contemporary social movements in Latin America have a multiple character, as economic, social, political and cultural struggles.(Escobar 1992b)

She continues:

I would argue that the same could be said for the environmental struggles of the subaltern, regardless of their location. (13)

It works well, I think, to see the struggles of people in the colour and potentially the poor more broadly in the US in these terms, and I like the opportunities it opens up for broader alliances across race and nationality and particularly across national borders. I also think there is still a lot of work to be done here:

Activists are acutely aware that racism is manifest in every corner of society and that racist attitudes are deeply entrenched and institutionalized, but they have not developed a textured understanding of how racism interacts with various economic forces and hegemonic forms of cultural life. Instead, they have emphasized overt forms of discrimination… (17)

At the same time I think this is worth saying (and so eloquently):

It could be argued that for racially oppressed groups, racism is the primary axis of domination. All encounters of the oppressed–whether in the job market, at school, at home, or as a consumer–are experienced through racial subordination. Conversely, the racialized structure of the United States results in a benefit to whites. White privilege is so hegemonic that few whites are even cognizant of it. (18)

This stuff is… really hard, and I think people are all over the place in terms of how clearly they understand it and how well they are able to articulate it. It certainly shapes struggle though, and where communities are at. Pulido quotes Robert Bullard’s insight that African Americans really came to understand the importance of environmental issues only after linking them to civil rights and inequality.

The key to …  inclusion rest on linking environmental issues with the social justice concerns of minority communities… (Bullard 1993a)

I’m wondering for how many other issues this might be true, and what this means for white consciousness. But the point is well made:

This is critical to understanding the dominant discourse of subaltern environmental struggles in the United States. Racism and the struggle for equality are the entry point for marginalized groups in the United States; livelihood is the entry point for Third World communities. (19)


I found Pulido’s thinking here so so useful in thinking about positionality in a robust and useful way, something I feel like I’ve been stumbling around my whole life with gradually increasing clarity:

I argue that the issue of positionality is most important in distinguishing mainstream and subaltern environmentalism. Activists of all sorts may be involved in the same environmental issue and even have the same political line, but mainstream and subaltern actors hold different positions within the socioeconomic structure that, in turn, frame their struggles differently. It is important to realize that positionality does not refer to a specific person or group per se but is rather a position that can be filled by any individual.

Contrary to mainstream efforts are the actions of subaltern environmental movement who, because of their position, are not in control of the economy and, in general, do not benefit from a continuation of the status quo. For these individuals, environmental issues are important in that they affect their livelihood or impact their health and physical well-being. Consequently, not only are they more physically and socially vulnerable, but they may require a change in the prevailing social relations tor each a satisfactory solution. Hence, on a very fundamental level, participants in subaltern struggles encounter environmental concerns not only from a different perspective, but also from a different structural position that may entail entirely different solutions and course of action. (28)

It emerged so clearly in both our organising and my own research the ways that these structural positions demand recognition in both strategy and goals in ways that people outside the struggle often do not understand:

Due to their position, the subaltern are not able to distance themselves from the political or economic consequences of either the problem or the proposed solutions. (29)

I think the key here is, does someone, do you benefit from the maintenance of the status quo? If you do, better said where you do because almost all of us have aspects of our identity that do not, then it is certain you’ll have some blindspots. It is nice to see it so clearly explained why there cannot just be one axis. But also the way Pulido grounds her work in economic relations, so she is also able to:

recognize how economic relations are mutually constituted by racism and issues of identity. A materialist analysis is crucial in identifying the structures and forces leading to the formation of subaltern environmental struggles. (31)

And highlights some of the key questions in looking at movement and thinking about resistance:

The task is to identify the ways in which racism, cultural oppression and identity interact with economic forces to create unique forms of domination and exploitation. (32)

Above all this book explores how important culture is to these positions — and the ability to find strength there:

For subaltern groups, quality-of-life issues are expressed within their economic projects. “People fight not only for more but for the possibility of defining a way of life expressive of deeply held values” (Plotke 1990, 93)

Given the development of white supremacy, these values are often key both to imagining alternatives, and to challenging the constantly promoted superiority of whiteness.

Racism must be challenged in the economic, social and cultural spheres.

Consequently, while the UFWOC’s [United Farm Worker of California] movement is a class conflict, it was also an antiracist struggle. It was antiracist in its efforts to counter the racialized division of labor, a racist class structure, as well as the larger racist ideology which rendered rural Chicanos as a despised population. (32)

Again this is part of identifying the multiple modes of oppression, of fighting on all fronts:

When poverty, racism, and culture come together to oppress people, they also interact to create unique forms of oppression that become the basis of resistance. Each of these factors must be countered individually and collectively, and one of the first steps in attempting to do so is the creation of an affirming, collective identity. (33)

Some axes, some definitions


I struggled a lot with why I have not focused on gender in my own work, and again Pulido nailed exactly why I did not and why I was uncomfortable with doing so artificially — in the struggles she studied gender was not articulated as an axis of domination and resistance, so she chose not to include gender as its own axis as it were. While ever present as an issue, Pulido writes:

Emphasizing this line of inquiry, however, would have take the analysis in a different direction, emphasizing unspoken forms of consciousness and interaction. … the fact remains that gender was not strategically used by the organizations in either understanding their oppression or mobilizing against it. For this reason I did not make it a separate category. Instead, it us interwoven throughout the discussion and reflects not only individual gender consciousness, but its intersection with other dynamics that create fully textured lives. (33)


The definitions found here are great, especially in the ways that they build on — while also moving beyond — traditional Marxist understandings:

In short, there are many ways to be poor and economically marginal which are beyond the bounds of class. Understanding the specific conditions and relationships which give rise to poverty and inequality is essential in order to analyze them and ascertain the motivating force of struggles. (34)

Looking at Northern New Mexico, and its underdevelopment it becomes more clear just how this works, and how this is connected to space and place:

Because they have been relatively exempt from the homogenizing forces of modernity, such communities often carry the illusion of a traditional lifestyle…

It is imperative to understand the role of capital in the creation of places. (35)

This does not discount the importance of class, or the division of labour as an important analytical category in all advanced economies, but it explores the complexity of this as it intersects, or too often overlaps far too perfectly, with race. While there may be contradictions, too often

there may be an almost perfect fit, leading to a racialized division of labor. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than among California farmworkers. (37)

Like Harvey’s more flexible reading of Marx, Pulido emphsasis the relational aspect of class, an individual can occupy more than one class position. At the same time there is often a collective relationship rather than just an individual one.

Of course, neither poor people nor workers automatically constitute a class. Only when people unite to struggle on issues related to production, the appropriation of surplus value, and domination — only when they exist in opposition — do they then become a class. (39)

This raises the question of domination and power, and resistance to it.


Race is socially constructed. Of course. She uses Peter Jackson’s definition of racism (1987) which I hadn’t come across before (I don’t think?)

…a set of interrelated ideologies and practices that have grave material effects, severely effecting black people’s life chances and threatening their present and future well-being (1987, p 3)

But expanded beyond the Black/white binary of course. I like this definition very much. Another key:

In order to be effective, a racist ideology must become so pervasive and natural that it becomes hegemonic, and therefore, rarely questioned. (43)

Interesting too, how this becomes transferred to behaviours:

Although much of our racial discourse centers on the words “color” and “skin” — and although many people continue to be racist based solely on the idea of phenotype — skin color has essentially become a signifier for behavior considered objectionable by the dominant group. (44)

and both become tied up with neighbourhood and place, as described by Charles Mills.


As NSM literature demonstrates, the formation of a collective identity is a necessary first step in building a movement. People, regardless of how oppressed they might be, do not inevitably have a common identity. A shared identity must be cultivated and refined through interaction and struggle with other groups. (46) … while an affirmative identity will not necessarily lead to mobilization, it is, at the least, crucial to retaining one’s dignity in the face of oppression. (47)

The point is how to make it an affirming, positive identity, and as inclusive as possible…it would be good to think more about that and I think some people are. Strategic essentialism is part of this perhaps. For those who complain endlessly about identity politics:

Obviously, the creation of an affirmative identity can never be fully distinguished from resistance because the action and consciousness required to build such an identity, even if it simply allows one to live with a shred of dignity, is an act of resistance and an exercise of power in itself. It is the power of self that is the crucial first step in imagining the possibility of resistance or another reality. In my study of subaltern Chicano environmental struggles, ethnicity was the primary form of identification, and culture provided much of the raw material for that identity. (47)

The question, as I say, is how this is developed through struggle and conscientização so that it builds towards alliances, solidarity, broadening of movement.


Quotes Aldrich, Carter, Hone and McEvoy (48):

Ethnicity is the identity which members of the group place upon themselves, race is a label foisted on to them by non-members… While racial identity may be a crippling disability, ethnicity acts as a positive force for the protection and promotions of group interests.

I never thought of it like this… I have so much more reading to do I know. I still think of it as defined on the immigration forms I helped people fill out long ago.

Anyway. To end. Without getting much into the struggles themselves, whose inspiration fills the bulk of the book and I loved and might find time to write more about.

Bringing it all together?

So how does Pulido connect political economy to these concepts, these axes of domination and subordination? She describes three cultural concepts that are helpful:

  1. Bauman’s concepts of differential and hierarchical culture (1973).  Anglo-American culture is regularly seen, described, taught as better than others, part of the necessary struggle is that subaltern cultures turn this on its head.
  2. Values, beliefs and material culture… different cultural forms exist in subaltern struggles which can become outward symbols and expressions of cultural differences and ways of proclaiming that there is an alternative. Examples are UFWOC’s use of La Virgen de Guadalupe, or Ganados anchoring their economic development project in wool and weaving.
  3. Praxis. She defines this in a unique way (to me, I am wonderig if this is how it is used in postcolonial studies) and I like how it brings together resistance, culture and material struggle:

Praxis is action. It is the social relations that actually create a culture. It is the stuff of which culture (and life) is made. Praxis usually refers to practices of which people are not overtly conscious but which appear to be the natural way of doing things. An illustration of praxis is how people organize their family life. Praxis is critical to understanding domination, mobilization and resistance. … In order for a movement to be successful, it must begin where people are. It must begin with the familiar and everyday. One reason that both of these case studies were successful was the emphasis on praxis, which allowed people to feel comfortable in new experiences and situations. (55)