Riots, Rebellion and Machine Breaking

It’s widely believed that the Captain Swing riots started in Kent in August 1830 in Lower Hardres a parish and village just south of Canterbury. There had been widespread agrarian rebellion in East Anglia in 1816 and 1822. There were incidents of rick burning and machine breaking throughout the period. Bad harvests made the situation worse. But the underlying tensions and pressures were the dynamic of capital accumulation. The industrial revolution was accelerating; not only as a process of technical application but as a process changing the relationships between people. Adding force, adding oppression, increasing the intensity of exploitation.

There were widespread enclosures of land at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. Thousands upon thousands of acres of common land, wastes, meadows. Traditions and customs were broken up. Agricultural labours have never been paid well; this is a global phenomena. But they are close to the land. They have knowledge of how to forage and gather in the countryside and in England this means rose-hips, blackberries, crab apples, rabbits, trout. The rich have always resented this sense of free appropriation. With the enclosures they resented it even more.

There is never just ‘one thing’ which starts a rebellion. These sorts of collective actions are culminations of physical, social, economic, political and psychological grievances and resistances. And when these forces align in particular ways social explosions happen. Such was the situation in Kent, Sussex, the eastern counties and elsewhere from the summer of 1830 onwards. The cries for justice and fairness and better wages and food for families were met with harsh repression. Fines, imprisonment, deportations and executions.

On one side the existing landlords and landowners, members of the clergy, bailiffs, hussars and dragoons, the militia, town officials, magistrates, farmers, squires and gentry. On the other, unorganised, unarmed, illiterate labourers, skilled craftsmen, women workers. The hidden transcripts are now lost. But the sense of injustice burns strongly still. The enclosures were theft; the treatment of the labourers unfair and full of injustice. That is apparent even now, 200 years later.

I wanted to get a feel for the countryside and the landscape. That happened to some extent. But what I wasn’t expecting was the practical expression of class interest and class division in the here and now. But what the levels of class conflict might be or the words of the hidden transcripts I have no idea. There’s a challenge. To find out.

The agricultural labourers of the 1830s have gone; we can no longer speak to them and apart from their statements in court rooms during their trials have left little of a written record. But what of these workers here today? I spoke briefly to a woman from Bulgaria and two different men from Romania but I lacked the confidence, or perhaps the language, to ask directly for their photos and their names. And would they wish to give them? They are within hierarchical social relations in which they must be careful of what they say and to whom. The land owners and agri-businesses have a layer of sympathisers and propagandists in the media who keep up a constant screeching and wailing about immigrants and refugees. Even the casual conversations today felt almost revolutionary, hands and words across vast chasms of divisions.

I caught the workers off -guard as it were. But workers they are. Tough, sunburned, tired looking, bold in a way when not observed by their overseers. One of the Romanian men ate an apple as we exchanged words. That in itself felt like a radical act in the circumstances of fruit before profit. But these workers feel too far away, their words not heard, their class interest not expressed. However they are all around us. The great question then is how to build a workers unity.

The class tensions of 2021 are not really any different to the class tensions of 1821. Surely we have more knowledge, theory and experience now? So how is this organised?

There seems to be an assumption that agricultural workers are ‘unskilled’. Or that Romanian, Bulgarian, Latvian workers only do ‘unskilled’ work. This plays into certain prejudices doesn’t it? Without bothering with the facts that these workers are operating machinery, sowing crops, harvesting and organising complex communications and distribution of food and raw materials.

Capitalist agriculture is efficient and it is not efficient. This is one of the primary conflicts with all productive processes organised in a capitalist way. Ears of wheat and wheat itself lying in the ground in a field which has been ‘harvested’.

In everything I’ve read about the protests in Lower Hardres not one of them mentions that a new church was built in 1828. I only discovered this by visiting the church. I wasn’t looking for such an event. What were the implications of this? Linda Clarke rightly argues in Building Capitalism that the history of capitalism tends to focus on manufacturing, but there is a great deal to learn from the history of construction.

There was a wave of building in east Kent in the 1830s. One assumes with capitalist relations of production? What were the implications of this on the agricultural labourers? This needs much more attention.

It was unexpected to find an example of more up to date and modern machine breaking in the vicinity of Lower Hardres.

An excellent Robinson in Space day at so many levels.

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