The Uncommon Man or the Right to a Better Life

20140108-170602.jpg

What I want is the right to be the uncommon man, the right to a life lived on my own terms, not a life lived in conformity to somebody else’s expectations of me. The English used to value individualism, as key feature of their national character. Whether it was the English eccentric or the stubborn figure of Hodge. The first is reflected in Noel Coward’s song, in the line ‘that only Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’, a reference to the behaviour of the English in colonial India. Hodge was very different he was the backbone of England, the man that formed the core of the regiments of the line, that won many a battle for England. He was a country either a farmer or farm labourer, who had the following English characteristics. Fashion left him unmoved, he was always a little behind the times. Personal characteristics included stubbornness, stoicism and a strong sense of personal rights. A person with a strong sense of individualism. Hodge is now a forgotten figure, now replaced the ‘reality TV star’, a hollow figure of all show and no heart. A confection created by the media industry lacking any real identity or sense of self.

I would like to rehabilitate Hodge as a national icon. In these current times there is a need for an iconic figure that personifies liberty and the best human values to oppose the Stakhanovite model of man urged upon us by the ‘new’ employer. The employer who believes that the best way to get a task done is to give it to a busy man. The man whose business embodies the philosophy of overwork. For whom the good employee is the one who uncomplainingly will work many ours of overtime. Recently a young intern died at one of our city banks from an epileptic attack brought on by working excessive hours. This young man was the ‘good employee’. Faust is a story that could not be written today, because every man has already sold his soul to the company.

Hodge in the form of ‘Ned Ludd’ and ‘Captain Swing’ made his opposition to the inhuman values of the new Industrial Age in machine breaking and rick burning. At the beginning of the 19th century there was widespread and violent opposition to replacement of human labour by machines. Although the authorities suppressed this violence, it was partly the fear of this violence that made the authorities agree to political and social reform. The Great Reform Act of 1832 which extended the suffrage, was passed in part due to the rumours of armies of the disenfranchised gathering in the Midlands and other industrial areas, which were planning to march on London.

What I want to celebrate is the creative Hodge. Growing up in a rural village I had the privilege of taking part in a mumming play featuring St. George the perennial English hero. Hodge being a seasonal worker had unlike the contemporary worker an ‘off season’, post harvest in which there was little to do on the farm. This left time for creative activities, all which were embodied in what is called the folk tradition. There was time for dance and music. It is from this rural community that our great heritage of folk music comes. Unfortunately much of the drama of the time has been lost, mumming plays are now a rarity in village communities. The significance of has now been largely lost.

What is forgotten is that Hodge’s opposition to the machine age was not the hard work entailed by factory work. Hard work was common to all farming communities it was the loss of liberty. Men now worked to the rhythm of the machine. There was no longer a season off for the worker to enjoy. It was no coincidence that much of our traditional culture disappeared in the 19th century. People no longer had the time and liberty for play.

Hodge’s successors in the new industrial towns worked to bring back the liberties of the past. The new trade unions and socialist parties had by the middle of the 20th century brought about some amelioration of working conditions. Hours of work were limited and the weekend became an agreed period of rest. Shop workers had one day a week was early closing, in which they had a free afternoon in lieu of the hours worked at weekends. The weekends were the time people used as they pleased whether it was gardening, DIY or sport. The Right saw this social regulation as non work time that damaged the nations productivity and they campaigned ceaselessly against it, as they believed all these restrictions contributed to the relatively low productivity of the British worker. They were able to take advantage of the periodic crisis that befall any society to sell to the political classes the idea that all problems of the 1970’s where due to social democracy. All the gains of over a hundred years of struggle disappeared as politicians eagerly adopted the cruel philosophy of Neo-Liberalism.

II
In Britain and much of the West the poverty, insecurity and inequality of the Victorian times is being recreated. Social commentators such as Charles Dicken’s can teach us a lot about contemporary society as they were all too familiar with a world of insecurity and poverty. How often does a Dicken’s story feature a family reduced to poverty. There is a scene in ‘ The Old Curiosity Shop’, where a group of school girls and their teacher come across the impoverished Nell sitting at the side of the road. Seeing Nell the teacher asks the girls what the role of a poor girl should be in life. Dissatisfied with the answers of the girls, the teacher answers her own question, ‘it is to be as busy as a bee’. Obviously the teacher regards the poor as little better than an insect. Poverty has removed from Nell the chance to choose her own life. Instead it has given somebody else the right to choose their life for them.

In contemporary Britain decreasing wages, increased hours of work and increased job insecurity deny many the right to have any real control over their lives. Poverty or relative impoverishment gives power to the employing classes, people are so desperate to boost their income that have to give the power on how to live their lives to their employers. In Britain job centres could compel a young person to work in the sex and porn industries, if it was the only suitable vacancy available to them, as a refusal could result in loss of benefit. Not as yet as sex workers, but in a host of ancillary roles, such as receptionist or bar staff. More usually the use of zero hours contracts reduces many workers to serf like status. Coffee shops may guarantee 20 hours employment a week, but staff must be on all for 15 hours a day. In this new serfdom it is the employers who dictate what life their employers must live, a life of servitude.

There is a solution to this current malaise, and that is ‘Hodgism’ so named after the sturdy yeoman of Britain’s past. ‘Hodgism’ is nothing new in 1885 Joseph Chamberlain campaigned for the right of every rural worker to ‘own three acres and a cow’. This has been scoffed at for its naivety by politicians and historians, yet that is based on a misunderstanding. I don’t know how literally Joseph Chamberlain meant it, but this was a time of great misery for agricultural workers. What he was really proposing was to give farm workers to the means to achieve some independence by giving them the means of subsistence. They will still have to work for the farmers for part of their income, but they would have sufficient independence to be able to bargain effectively with the farmer. (Farm then was casual and workers were hired for the year at fairs at the beginning of the year. This new found independence would mean they could turn their back on the cruelest of employers who paid the least and imposed the worst working conditions.

I prefer to use the word ‘Hodgism’ to either socialism or Marxism. The latter is discredited through its association with the utopian communist state and the former is too easily misunderstood as meaning absolute inequality of income which can easily be discredited. There is just too much ideological baggage attached to socialism. If any politician campaigned for socialism there campaign would be lost within a stale debate from the past. What I propose is a more realistic alternative.

‘Hodgism’ to me means giving everybody sufficient independence to live their life on their own terms. Insecurity is the bane of our time, people lack security of employment and tenure. Life lived in fear of losing your job or home is destructive of the human personality. There is a photograph from the Victorian era of a young woman in her twenties, but the harshness of her life makes her look like a woman in her sixties. Current trends might make such women a feature of our society in future. What I want is the independence for all to live a life on your own terms which will come from the regulation of work and housing, neither of which will be granted easily by employers or landlords. Income and the cost of living need to be addressed. Regulation could ensure that people received the living wage and rents were kept under control.

Today in Parliament at Prime Ministers Question Time, David Cameron rejected the idea of extending the minimum wage to agency workers. He claimed that this would lead to increased unemployment as firms would no longer be able to afford to employ these workers. Wages in the UK are at the lowest level historically as a share of national income, yet unemployment remains stubbornly high. Apprentices from the job centre can be paid as little as £2.50 an hour yet youth unemployment stubbornly remains at 20%. If wages were higher employers would have to treat their employees better as they would become too valuable a source. Society has forgotten that in the 1950/60’s when labour benefitted from labour protection laws, when trade unions or wage councils ensured that all received a reasonable income, many lived in low cost social housing, unemployment was below1% all items that feature in the economists nightmare, economic growth was far higher than it is now.

Karl Polyani is a forgotten figure, yet what he wrote in his seminal text, ‘The Great Transformation’ is still true today. The free or unfettered market is destructive of the good society. What our governing classes should not be the imagined or illusory Neo-Liberal paradise, but the best possible achievable society. The Britain of the 1960’s is a good place to start.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s