Modern Slavery; A New Face, But The Same Old Cause

No-slaveryIn a previous post I wrote briefly about William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who was a central figure in establishing the illegality of slavery in Britain at the end of the 18th Century. Mansfield’s judicial comments are a reminder that when greed results in an abrogation of moral responsibility then legislation is the only solution. In no other case than slavery is it more clearly apparent that good laws, along with appropriate recourse to contest bad laws, extend our freedoms.

An American Benevolent Master; Unacceptable Then, Unacceptable Now

As a European republican, slavery means something very specific to me and opposition to it lies at the heart of what it means for any of us to be truly free. Fundamental to modern republicanism is the so-called principle of ‘non-domination’ which demands that not only must an individual or group be free from arbitrary influence by another, but further, there must be no possibility of such influence. This guards against the benevolent master situation who allows his/her slaves freedom of action and possibly wealth, but could change his/her attitude at any moment.

There is an outstanding example of the ‘benevolent master’, United States founding father Thomas Jefferson’s controversial relationship with one of his slaves (with which he had several children) following the death of his wife. It is claimed that despite owning Sally Hemmings, Jefferson allowed her every freedom of action. This may be acceptable on libertarian grounds where freedom exists when there is no de facto interference in the affairs of another but it is unacceptable in republican terms which includes the non-domination concept. Essentially, under the laws of the time Jefferson could simply change his mind and allow Hemmings no freedom at all. Jefferson exhibits a contradiction at the founding of the United States and why for very many people the discovery of Americas fostered a new birth of slavery rather than a historic expression of freedom.

Wage Slavery – Consumers Not Citizens

So why are the words and actions of Mansfield and Jefferson relevant to us today in Britain? Because though the circumstances of slavery have changed the fundamental principles of slavery are still with us. Using the republican idea of freedom based on non-domination gives us a useful indicator. In a modern world where slavery is illegal, the issue of wage slavery associated with people trafficking is major and growing problem.  But the comparison between wage earners and slavery is an old one, being mentioned by the great Roman republican theorist Cicero. In his De Officiis he says:

…vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labor, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery.

Karl Marx used wage slavery as a fundamental plank in his theory during the 19h Century, viewing it as a socioeconomic issue and analyzing it in terms of class. Though I am not a Marxist I think his point is a good one. If economic conditions force workers to be dependent upon the grace and mercy of employers then they are in a position of slavery. Wage slavery is a central issue of liberty today as a direct consequence of the creeping commodification of almost all aspects of our world. Encouraged to consider ourselves and others to be consumers rather than citizens many human relations are reduced to commercial interactions at whatever price the market will bear.

It is not only in professional sport that people have become commodities, to use or sell at their ‘owners’ discretion. I have blogged previously on the way that popular culture fetishes and provides a ‘shop window’ for the neo-liberal ethos. With austerity and minimum wages sold to us as a necessary condition of life it is no wonder that people are forced to think in terms of ‘every person for themselves and their family’. Such conditions are ideal for the spread of slavery. In a recent Guardian article, Felicity Lawrence connects the economic environment to the legal and moral responsibility in a not dissimilar way to Mansfield:

It is hardly surprising that the most egregious forms of exploitation should appear where economic, legal and moral responsibility has been deliberately diffused. Modern slavery is the flipside of the coin that has seen corporates offshore their profits and dodge tax.

Time for politicians to Take Responsibility

MCaricature_gillray_plumpuddingodern corporates are merely continuing a past trend following the slave labour based Atlantic economy of the 18th and 19th centuries from which Britain profited more than most. This extended throughout the rest of the Empire via such organizations as the British East India Company, something which the Make Britain Great Again promoters conveniently overlook. But the lessons of the past show that ending such iniquities is a matter of political will and that moral considerations can win out against narrow greed.  In a letter to the Guardian, historian Howard Temperley wrote about the compensation paid by Parliament to slave owners following abolition:

What was truly extraordinary about abolition was not that parliament paid £20m to slave owners, but that it put paid to a system that had served Britain well in the past and would doubtless have continued doing so. Parliament’s ex gratia payment was the least of the sacrifices involved. By withdrawing, first from the slave trade and then by freeing its slaves, Britain was effectively handing over lucrative markets to its continental rivals.

Modern slavery is a complex issue and many of the solutions will involve international cooperation. This is not easy in a world where cooperation is breaking down rather than increasing. Some steps can, however, be taken immediately. Firstly the practice of blacklisting to prevent workers changing employer must be ended and resources devoted to bringing culprits to justice.

Secondly, the principle of freedom of contract must not be regarded as inviolable.  The state must intervene when there is a clear case of misuse of corporate power.  This includes individual employer-employee contracts with the possibility of arbitrary sacking or release (Zero hours, for example). Next, austerity has stripped the authorities of the personnel required to effectively police illegal trafficking. In the longer term there there must be a change in our culture. We must start to view our fellow humans as citizens with rights and responsibilities rather than consumers to be simply cast aside when they are no longer of use.

Remembering William Murray: ‘Slavery… it’s so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it’

On 20th March 1793 William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield died. It is not often that I blog in support of the memory of aristocrats and bluebloods, but there are exceptions. Mansfield is one of them.

Born in 1705 he was one of the most powerful legal figures in eighteenth century Britain, at various times holding the post of Solicitor General, Chief Justice and Attorney General. His judgements echoed the Age of Enlightenment and were instrumental in paving the way for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. One of Mansfield’s most famous cases was Somerset’s Case (1772), where he held that slavery had no basis in common law and had never been established by positive law (Parliamentary legislation) and therefore was not binding law. While not actually abolishing slavery in the British Empire it was a vital step in that direction. Mansfield stated:

The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.

As a British republican I particularly appreciate the following quote from a 1769 case: Rex v. Wilkes

The last end that can happen to any man, never comes too soon, if he falls in support of the law and liberty of his country: for liberty is synonymous to law and government.

The nation of laws is a fundamental pillar of both European Republicanism and the eighteenth century Enlightenment. An example of Mansfield’s rationalist approach can be found in his Letters to the Right Honorable Lord Mansfield (1773)

As mathematical and absolute certainty is seldom to be attained in human affairs, reason and public utility require that judges and all mankind in forming their opinions of the truth of facts should be regulated by the superior number of the probabilities on the one side or the other whether the amount of these probabilities be expressed in words and arguments or by figures and numbers.

No person is wholly good and Mansfield was no exception, numbering opposition to press freedom, nepotism and support for British Government antagonism towards the American colonies on the opposite side of the balance. But his bravery in ruling against enslavement in Britain must surely warrant that he is remembered by history.

Ethical Patriotism: Making a Home for Liberty

‘wherever they enjoyed liberty, there they thought themselves at home’

John Toland

In pursuit of radical politics and UK republicanism I hate ceding ground to the opposition. But it seems that all too often we avoid certain issues in a misplaced idea that they are ‘bad territory’ for us. History and tradition is one such issue.  The establishment controls the historical narrative to the extent that most popular history is about monarchs, empires and generals. So a huge area is left uncontested, leaving people ignorant of the great deeds of Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes to name but a few.

It would be churlish not to recognise that things are changing. For example, we now have an English Civil War Centre at Newark (so Republicans can at last start talking about it!) and an increasing number of excellent books on radical and people’s history. But, alas, the media is largely silent and education is often woeful. Similarly with art and literature. I am happy to join with others to promote the great work of the poet Shelley, but even so the Chartist poets remain largely forgotten and there are excellent contemporary poets such as Spike the Poet from Corby struggling for recognition.. Their work is inspirational.

Another subject is patriotism.  I have blogged previously about an alternative, and I consider correct, view of patriotism to the popular one which owes too much to nationalism and jingoism. But I want think about extending that concept of patriotism to involve a love of your country as a home for liberty.  Patriotism in this sense strives not only for a just and free society at home, but seeks to make sure we act justly beyond our borders (what price arms sales to Saudi!), Writing about the ideas of Marcia Baron (more here) who worked on this ethical patriotism, Igor Primoratz said:

A patriot of this, distinctively ethical type, would want to see justice done, rights respected, human solidarity at work at any time and in any place….She would be proud of the country’s moral record, when it inspires pride.

But thee are other aspects to this view of patriotism. Now, obviously, you can only enjoy liberty at the place where you are currently and not where you were born, assuming they are different. This feature makes it ideally suitable for a world where so many people are moving around, both within and between nations and continents. Maurizio Viroli put it another way. Writing about the author of my opening quote, John Toland,  he pointed out that in his conception:

As long as the fundamental value that inspires love of country is liberty, one can find this country elsewhere. 

Am I a patriot? Yes. I believe that we in these islands can develop a genuinely free and just society, but we have a long way to go. I am a patriot because I am prepared to work towards that day and not give up.  I guess that places me in the ‘ethical patriotism’ camp. But here is the thing.  I believe that there are Irish people, French people and people in every nation who wish the same thing. I encourage, support and applaud them   Tom Paine also believed this kind of internationalism and I think he was correct.

Lastly, if Martin Luther King can have a dream, so can I. My dream is that one day the the current international race based on resources and war is replaced by a new one.  This new race will be to extend ever greater liberty to their citizens. One of the criteria for winning the race will be to assist other nations with their goals of liberty, to free citizens from domination by hunger, debt and violence. To free them from religious persecution, homophobia, sexism or any number of other prejudices That this race is endless and cannot be won but must be run.…

OK, so MLK had a better dream than me.  I can handle that!

The Priestley Riots: Fake news, Trolling, Vicious Media Attacks and Establishment Collusion.

Between 14th  and 17th July 1791 a period of sustained rioting convulsed Birmingham. The name given to the unrest, The Priestley Riots,  derives from the most notable target of the violence, the chemist, religious dissenter and political radical Joseph Priestley (credited with discovering Oxygen). The trigger for the rioting was a dinner held at the Dadley Hotel in Temple Row organised by radicals and religious Dissenters to mark the success of the assault on the Bastille at the start of the French Revolution. Mobs opposed to the Birmingham Dissenters attacked and burned not only their homes and chapels, but also the homes of people they associated with Dissenters, such as members of the scientific Lunar Society. The details, however,  reveals the dark nature of establishment collusion.

According to eye witness accounts local Justices of the Peace Joseph Carles and Dr Benjamin Spencer (an Anglican vicar and, along with Carles, a member of the establishment supporting Bean Club) actively encouraged the mob. Moreover the Under Sheriff of Warwickshire, John Brooke, was heard to issue a ‘guarantee’ of judicial protection to those taking part. Prior to the 14th July banquet, various incendiary posts and leaflets were published about the event, the sources of which are still unclear but highly unlikely to be the Dissenters themselves. Likewise a cartoon was published despicting Priestley holding up a platter and saying ‘The Kings head here’. Except that Priestley was not at the dinner. Today we would call it ‘fake news’!

Events following the riots were also shocking. The magistrates (remember Brooke’s ‘guarantee’) refused to arrest any of the rioters post facto and actually released those that had been arrested at the time When the Government forced the magisrates to try the riot ringleaders, they intimidated witnesses and subverted the trials.  Only seventeen of the fifty rioters who had been charged were brought to trial with four convicted.

The riots revealed that the Anglican gentry in collusion with the judiciary were prepared to use violence against Dissenters whom they viewed as potential revolutionaries . Bear in mind that at that time religious and political revolution were almost synonymous and the Monarch was head of the Church of England (as remains the case).  Those campaigning for the religious freedom and political reforms we enjoy today had to be prepared to face uncontrollable mobs.

Following the riots Joseph Priestley was forced to flee Birmingham and set up home in London. But things were justs as bad. Vicious political cartoons continued to be published about him, In a direct parallel to today’s ‘trolling’m  letters were sent to him from across the country, comparing him to the devil and Guy Fawkes. Effigies of Priestley and Tom Paine were publicly burned.

Fake news, trolling, vicious media attacks, inciting religious hatred and establishment collusion. Sound familiar?

After Grenfell We Need A Complete Rethink of Rights and Resources – Not a Government Whitewash

The attacks in Manchester and Borough Market, the Grenfell Tower Fire. Confidence in Theresa May is now plummeting faster than the Pound after the Brexit vote. But Theresa May is not solely to blame.  Remember that the Conservative Party made her leader with no contest and Conservative MPs voted for a Government destabilising election on the eve of Brexit talks.  But beyond that there are issues of rights and resources in society which we must all confront.

The events of the past few weeks illustrate some vital points about the rights and resources wielded by different groups in this country.  During the election the Government, of course, tried to pretend that it was planning a great extension of rights while in reality presiding over a de facto trashing of them.

Firstly the terrorist attacks.  As usual following a terrorist attack various Ministers appeared in front of the cameras and pretended to talk tough.  Once again the spectre of the repeal of the Human Rights Act was mooted along with withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.  Dark threats of yet more snooping powers were mooted. Yet, it emerged that the terrorists were already known as a danger by the authorities.  The problem was much less to do with lack of information and much more a problem of lack of resources and, crucially, the reduction of 20,000 police officers which has hit local community policing hard. Despite what Theresa May and Amber Rudd say, the authorities are calling for more resources not more powers.  Judging by the election result it seems that people are getting this message.

Now look at the issue of the Grenfell Tower fire. Again, it was not a problem of lack of information, the residents were well aware of the dangers and local representatives tried to raise the issue of fire safety on numerous occasions.   Although far too early to tell there is every likelihood of criminal prosecutions being brought when the facts are assessed.  But while the idea of ‘Corporate Manslaughter’ is an attractive one it will almost certainly mean a fine and nothing will really change.  What is needed is a nationwide culture shift

So again, it is an issue of resources.  The wealthy, including those of Kensington and Chelsea can afford to buy the resources they require including legal assistance to get things done. The less well-off cannot. We can do some things immediately. These include recourse to systems of contestability we have lost.  Access to Industrial Tribunals (removal of punitive fees) and restoration of widespread Legal Aid is imperative, especially after Grenfell.  Far beyond that there must be systems which allow for the support of groups and resources to take concerns to the highest level and get action.

The methods of putting such systems of support for local groups and enabling them to have proper and meaningful representation in the corridors of power are not unknown and cities around the world have been developing techniques such as citizens panels, peoples tribunals and active participation for years (although far from perfect, in the UK  the Peabody Trust points to a possible route forward as I suggest in this post).

Enough of the meaningless platitudes of an authoritarian Government and their ripoff landlord allies.  Time for true methods of contestability in this country.

Exceptionalism Corrodes the Relationships Which Drive Progress for Everyone

DSCN0347
Cassini’s copy of Newton’s Principia with inscription by Halley (© Observatoire de Paris)

In 1687 the great English astronomer Edmund Halley (of the comet fame) sent an inscribed copy (image left) of Isaac Newton’s freshly published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica to Giovanni Domenico Cassini, Director of the Paris Observatory.  Think about this for a moment. A copy of the most important thesis of the day (the foundation of Gravitational Theory and Mechanics) by an English scientist sent to an Italian scientist working in a French observatory.  This pattern repeats itself decade after decade, century after century, right back to the dawn of civilisation. Indeed one theory of archeology now views Stonehenge as the epicentre of a Britano-Near European network.

Now, I am as proud as anyone of our great history of Shakespeare and Shelley, Newton and Darwin, Turner and Constable, Stephenson and Brunel, Locke and Hume.  I am also proud of the work the establishment wants to forget, by Tom Paine for example or James Harrington or Algernon Sidney. But in this post I want to place the work of these greats in context, as part of progress viewed as relationships cultivated with colleagues throughout Europe and beyond. They are classed as some of the greatest luminaries, but not exceptional in the sense that they stand apart from other greats. It is the relationships which count as much as anything.

Magna Carta was part of a pan-European movement….

My Halley-Cassini example dates from the 17th Century when the Age of Enlightenment was getting under way. But I want to briefly travel further back to 1215 and the iconic Magna Carta. A mountain of literature has been generated by the Great Charter along with some grandiose claims.  For example, it is purported to be the birth document of democracy, which it isn’t and a protector of liberties, but only for some. What is important is that it placed limits on the king’s power which was subject to the law.   But charters were common in early medieval Europe both individually in terms of personal wills and in more general terms through the granting of rights and privileges to groups of people such as towns and cities. Some included promises of protection and justice by a King but the most important charters were issued by the Pope as Papal Bulls.

Of importance was the so-called “Statute of Palmiers issued three years earlier than Magna Carta in 1212 and the earliest constitutional document of France.  Issued by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester (his son, also Simon, is more well known to us as playing a crucial role in the founding of Parliament), the Statute was sealed and guaranteed by six French bishops. It includes more than fifty clauses, prohibiting the sale of justice, dealing with the rights of heirs and widows, and promising not to enforce military service from his tenants except in return for pay. Through de Montfort and others the Statute of Palmiers was known in England and covers much the same ground. But in turn, Magna Carta influenced Europe. For example, the  Golden Bull (a Bull was a kind of seal, by the way) of 1222 was a charter issued by King Andrew II of Hungary under duress from his nobles. Like Magna Carta this was one of the first examples of constitutional limits being placed on the powers of a European monarch. So though Magna Carta was unique in scope and ambition it was fully in keeping with developments elsewhere.

….while the Age of Enlightenment was truly international collaboration.

Now back to my first example.  The Age of Enlightenment was a supreme example of natural philosophers, political thinkers and artists collaborating across international boundaries, this time including North America. For example, American founding father Benjamin Franklin visited Europe frequently and contributed actively to scientific and political debates here, returning with the latest ideas to Philadelphia. Vital to the development of the Age of Enlightenment was a separate but associated phenomenon which has been termed the Republic of Letters.  It started in the literary sphere and was initially a purely intellectual exchange consisting of a network of thinkers such as Voltaire and John Locke. The Republic of Letters was facilitated by more efficient transport in the Seventeenth Century and secure postal services grew rapidly New associations such as the Royal Society provided centres where ideas could be presented and promulgated. Similar societies sprang up in France and Germany and were vital in helping local intellectuals contact like-minded thinkers elsewhere in the Republic of Letters

The political and social transnational effects were cataclysmic. The English  Revolution of 1642-1649, combined with the work of emigrant Englishman Tom Paine was a vital influence on the American Revolution which in turn hugely influenced events in Europe during the French Revolution. In science the aforementioned Edmund Halley travelled all over Europe before influencing Newton’s decision to publish his ideas on gravitation which changed the course of science, helping to bring about our modern world. English and Scottish thinkers were crucial participants, but were dependant on ideas gathered through the relationships with workers in other parts of the world.

So what is my point? It is not to belittle the contributions of British (or English/Welsh/Scots/Irish in earlier eras) thinkers and politicians to world developments.  But much of the rhetoric of the British press in papers such as the Daily Mail, The Times and The Sun is now devoted to an exceptionalist view of Britain as being unusual or extraordinary in every way. It is tied to an agenda which I drew attention to in an earlier post. For individuals a sense of exceptionalism damages personal relationships and the same is true of nations. This can only harm our position with the rest of Europe and the world which can only do us (and them) harm. Ironically one of the conscious aims of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters was a measure of independence from Governments and overbearing authority (partly why it was called a Republic).  Whatever the outcome of Brexit and the current sweep of neo-conservative nationalism it is vital not to lose sight of the crucial role of transnational relationships, no matter how brilliant or able the individuals of particular countries prove to be. Mutual respect is vital, relationships matter!

Politicians Are Lying To Us – Terrorism Is Affecting Our Way of Life!

All right minded people were shocked by the events at Westminster last month (22nd March) where 6 people were killed. Despite the fact that for for much of the rest of that day only the bare facts were known, journalists and some politicians were willing to make extravagant assumption regarding the nature and motive of the attack. As more details emerged, however it became increasingly clear that terrorism was indeed the motive.

A few hours after the attack Prime Minister Theresa May appeared outside Number 10 to claim, as all leaders do, that the terrorists cannot win and nothing will change our way of life. She was not telling the truth and, moreover, I believe she was willfully lying.  Here are my reasons for this assumption and the dangers such lies conceal.

Firstly, look at what Theresa May wants to achieve, namely a removal of Human Rights. Fear of terrorism plays into a public sense of insecurity, an environment in which they are more susceptible to having their rights infringed in the guise of enhanced safety. The Investigatory Powers Act (known informally as the Snooper’s Charter) was passed into law last November giving the Government as much power as any authoritarian state. The reason? Counter-terrorism. But the technology could be used for any purpose as leaks from the US CIA clearly illustrate.

In a previous blog I pointed to a strong tendancy of modern authoritarian programmes to isolationism, termed the Retreat to the Citadel. Fear of the ‘outsider’ feeds directly into this narrative which is already heightened by the acrimonious debates surrounding Brexit, fuellung resentment and hatred toward immigrants. As a consequence, if a British Bill of Rights ever does see the light of day it must be pored over for any dilution of overall citizen rights along with any attempt to remove the rights of minorities. Moreover we must not accept the removal of rights from people who are labelled as being ‘not like us’.

What about out in the real world?  Just before Christmas it was reported that the City of London was planning on creating a ‘ring of steel’. Note that included in the plans were:

Manned checkpoints, rising street bollards and crash-proof barricades…

Manned checkpoints? To enter the City of London (note not Westminster, this is protecting the bankers)? Would £5m be spent on a dystopian series of emplacements defacing the city if it were not for the possibility of terrorism? Though just maybe terrorism is a convenient excuse, of course.

So let us see Theresa May’s words for what they are, empty platitudes. Let us be honest, society has been changed by terrorism and that has happened since the start of time. But the more long lasting and least tangible effect is what it is doing to our perception of ourselves as a society. The questions we ask ourselves are legitimate and profound, but we must not let politicians and the wealthy distort the answer for their own ends.