Friday, 27 April 2012

Paul Foot's 'The Vote'

My Dad used to be a bearded Socialist Worker, a jazz-playing psychotherapist and part of the cooperative and commune movement. When I go to see him I usually peruse his books (this is partly how I got into Wilhelm Reich). I found Paul Foot’s book on the history of the Working Class struggle for the vote since the 1700s and its subsequent undermining. ‘The Vote’ is brilliant and very readable but thought it might be handy to offer a synopsis here…

The Chartists in the 1700s tried to instigate a much fairer and democratic society but were fought back militarily and ultimately betrayed by Cromwell, who was an ultimate ‘insider’ or ‘double agent’ judging by his actions. Parliament was originally a talking shop of the rich but then gradually over the 1800s massive eruptions of public protest forced the ruling aristocracy to gradually cede the franchise to limited portions of wealthy people. To vote you had to have money. Disraeli, who was to become a Tory prime minister said this in 1867, ‘We do not live – and I trust it will never be the fate of this country to live under a democracy.’ The rich thought that if the workers gained a vote they would use it to take away their properties and privileges. So the vote was only given to selectively less rich men when it appeared that there might be a revolution in England (it has been pretty close a number of times). The vote was gradually and grudgingly given as a way of diffusing massive public hostility at inequity.

Basically in a nutshell our parliament has always been a charade and the Labour party, when it tried to actually make society fairer through the parliamentary process was undone by the banks and speculators who collapsed the value of sterling whenever the economic system was threatened. The socialists tried to make a fairer society but did not understand finance, or that the banks ultimately controlled everything industrial. If they do not like the way a government is doing things they either bully the leaders directly, like they did to Callaghan or withdraw credit and crash the economy. Crashes are good for banks because they can then buy up real equity cheap. Even Paul Foot did not appear to understand the role of the banks in creating the depression of the 1930s. At the same time, key union leaders such as Jimmy Thomas either betrayed the union movement ‘snatching defeat from the jaws of victory’ or sold out entirely.

So what did I learn from Paul Foots amazing history? That England is not a moderate country just a very efficiently suppressed one, that no significant reforms on voting came from parliament, they all came from a fear of the mass action being undertaken outside parliament. Any movement that has genuinely tried to free the people has had its leaders subverted, or perhaps were always crooked. The union leaders, who were actually organised more democratically than parliament at one time and who could have easily toppled the established order were too frightened to carry through the wishes of those who trusted them. When Labour did try to reform society through parliament after WW2 they did not understand the banking system and so were easily subverted when the banks crashed the economy by selling out sterling.

 I have also learnt that massive changes in society only seem to have ever come about through mass action – civil disobedience, general strikes and so on. Those in power have long understood that parliamentary democracy can happily coexist with economic oligarchy – as long as the banks control the economy and the leaders of any unions or social movements can be bullied, co-opted or bought out. We now have a self-confessed one party state –tory labour or labour torys, a neutered union system and an essentially fascist alliance developing between big business and government. The EU itself is not harmless either. Most people do not realise that MEPs have no power whatsoever. The non-elected Commission is in charge of the EU and the parliament is a debating shop entirely subservient to it. Our other international organisations such as the WTO and the IMF are about as democratic as the Vatican. The Labour party attempted to introduce economic democracy, in tandem with the unions after WW2 but did not understand banking and so were easily co-opted by things they could not control (financial crashes). 

The Magna Carta was created in reaction to mass protests against war (the withholding of tax by the people who were sick of the king’s wars and wanted a fairer society). Every extension of the franchise came from mass demonstration, or the fear of it - our parliament has always been the veil of the rich (despite noble attempts otherwise), the only difference today is parliament’s true function is much better veiled. I am not arguing against parliament – I just want to see real democracy in society, industry and our governing institutions in a way in which the people have true control over their lives and can quickly affect how our institutions behave. And an end to secret governance by vested interests.

As I think Reich said, ‘Civilisation? It ain’t been yet’.

The nut in a nutshell – 

1700’s Britain is a diabolically unfair place – Cromwell is an insider/double agent/total git who sells out the gains of the civil war to the rich.

1800’s Though Britain has a Parliament it is a Parliament for the rich, only the super-wealthy can vote for their stooges.

1800-1900 Revolution is narrowly avoided a number of times by grudgingly granting the vote to successively less rich sections of male society. 

1900-WW2 convinced that giving people the vote does not threaten the economic oligarchy more people are gradually given the vote – but only when threatened by mass agitation. Women supporting the war effort also convinced parliament that giving them the vote would not change the status quo.

WW2-1970 Labour party and unions attempt to make society a fairer, democratic place for the workers. Few concessions are won through parliament – mass agitation wins workers more rights through strikes but the leaders back down from near certain victory afraid of the resulting responsibility - or for other reasons.

1970 – Democratic and militant unions sell out through misinformed or crooked leaders. Labour sells out because it does not understand that the banks control the economy – and hence their governmental attempt at socialism.

Present – We have a one party pre-Fascist state with the banks in charge of all political leaders and a communist style ‘Kommittee’ controlling the EU parliamentary talking shop – a shop that has no real powers.


  1. ...or in the words of Sir Henry (Rawlinson [by Viv Stanshall] "Give a workman an opinion and you might as well give him a rifle". It has been pointed out that one of the reasons for the establishment of the welfare state in Britain was the fact that you had all the Left bookclub reading conscripts returning from the war, trained up in military techniques - so the rulers had to give the people some concessions.
    I've been most interested in your posts on 'Biological money' and 'the vote' - thinking on the issues lots over the last 2 months.
    I think there are a number of parallels between the economic and biological systems:
    1. Accumulation of power / money by the rulers / banks could be considered analogous to the stasis in bio-energy, locked up in armoured structures and sick tissues.
    2. The economic system has perhaps developed out of the management of agricultural surplus - analogous to the function of armouring to protect the organism from environmental harm.
    3. The state is governed by those with the character armour / psychological makeup expected for the job (what is public school for?), thus the state will function to benefit only them.

    What can be done to address these problems?
    1. Decentralisation of economic / political power certainly - the smaller the unit the better.
    2. Promotion of co-operatives of all kinds.
    3. Globalisation of unions - along the lines of the IWW ( The Anarcho-syndicalist trade union structure does not have leaders that can be 'bought off', power resides with the local group.
    Bye for now,
    p.s. Just got a copy of 'Chinese Medicine and Wilhelm Reich' looking forward to studying it.

    1. Hi John, thanks for the comments and hope you find the book useful. Paul Foot mentioned the Left Book Club too. I am sure you are right about the armed services giving the rulers cause to worry after WW2. The indie newspaper, the UK Column, would probably argue there is a similar situation today, our EU rulers being worried about the UK army getting disgruntled or even rebellious. Certainly it appears that mass movements, including within the armed services, have had big effects in the past.

      The mind-set of 'lack' and the need to accumulate or steal 'energy' certainly does appear to be central in our economic system - and that is a good parallel to the biological system, money as biological 'charge'
      locked up in an unhealthy system.

      I'm not sure if our present armoured economic system necessarily grew out of managing surplus - it could have grown out of desertifying conditions and competition for scarcer resources too - the armouring as protection is a little difficult perhaps. I think the problem here might be that there does appear to be a pre-armoured period in history (see Saharasia by Demeo) so if agriculture existed then it may not have a direct connection to armoured functions as such. Its possible though, I think I can see what you are getting at. I have wondered if farming as such may lend itself to armoured societies though, because in a pre-armoured, land of plenty there could be little need to 'regulate' the fertility of the Earth and to control every little happenstance as we try to do these days. Its a big question for sure.

      The state will protect those it needs for its survival and it will favour character structures that reflect itself I would agree (using schools as reproducing units for these structures as you point out). It seems to me that a state, or any corporation for that matter, becomes a conscious entity in its own right. That living organisation's first priority seems to be not what its founders or anyone would wish but merely its own survival..

      I would agree with your list of what can be done, nature appears completely decentralised power-wise and cooperatives on every level are the key element of nature I would think. So we would do well to copy that. The IWW's idea of local groups without a leader structure seems a good step toward this, be interested to find out more about that.