lunedì, febbraio 23, 2009

Smashy smashy

The only big problem with The Life of Charlotte Brontë is that now I want to read Shirley instead of moving on with my life and reading more Eliot or Hardy or something. Oh well. I'm not much of a one for biographies, but Brontë had such a strange life, and Gaskell did a fair job of putting that life in some sort of social and cultural context. She did a better job of being all Gaskell-y as she wrote (effervescent, perspective, though with a tendency to force sainthood on her objects of affection), and she was clever enough to lean heavily on letters; not only as source material but, in places, as the bulk of the text.

What dwells on my mind and what's pushing me to read Shirley is a growing curiosity about the specific social context Brontë and her sisters lived in. One can get swept up in the melodrama of their blockbusters and forget the general melodrama of their times, just as when you hit an Austen book you can get swept up in these narrow, sparsely-populated worlds the women live in, where the Napoleonic wars beating around their island only make vague appearances through the changes in fortune of their men.

But their vague historical contexts were so exciting, not so much from a war-ish point of view as in the flux hitting a rhythm of life that was about a thousand years old . . . Again in Austen it's all left indirect in favour of the development of individual characters. Nicely done all the same through their relationships of course, as in Pride and Prejudice, where every minute division in the privileged classes is mapped out carefully for us - we understand living on Cheapside is something to sneer at, that Elizabeth Bennett can marry Darcy without raising eyebrows beyond those of his aunt, whilst Wickham could marry her sister after an elopement while it was absolutely out of the question to tolerate his suit of Darcy's sister. We get the feeling things have changed over time but again, it's narrow; confined to the privileged classes and its bastards, hangers-on, and orphans.

Now the Luddites . . . there's something else altogether, and something far bigger and more important than which independently wealthy person was allowed to marry which other independently wealthy person (seriously, in Austen, the worst that was going to happen to those women if they didn't score rich husbands was moving to a small cottage or living with cousins - we only get glimpses of those less fortunate, who risk the real poverty that the vast majority of Austen's contemporaries risked). Most of what I know of Luddites is through one single explanation of a single concept that has stuck in my brain - the 'Luddite Fallacy'. That's the idea that increased mechanization or increased production efficiency would mean lower rates of employment. It is a fallacy, the thinking goes, because increases in production efficiency won't lead to the loss of jobs; instead of getting rid of employees, industrial concerns will use ever more employees to produce ever more stuff.

And here we are, nearly two hundred years after mechanization: we can consider the 'Luddite Fallacy' fallacious (sounds dirty!), because if there's one thing we produce a lot of, it's stuff. Far too much stuff. The production of ever more stuff has not abated. We're drowning in stuff and the oceans we once thought infinite are choking with stuff and all of that stuff is produced by a staggering number of people working. That's another story.

Fine - but I think the 'Luddite Fallacy' is one of those half-truths that are worse than a lie. Think of England, poor, fucked up England, where all of my industrial contacts are trying to pull the plug because it's a mess. We see people having jobs, yes - but incredibly crap, incredibly tenuous unskilled jobs in parts of the service sector that are the first to feel the pain when consumers start to worry. We see the benefit of stuff in their professional lives, that great surfeit of stuff with which we're polluting the world: it provides the Inselaffen jobs by having them sell it, not manufacture it. And then we see the Luddite Fallacy isn't a fallacy, but a half-arsed equivocation by the people who use the term.

Sure, English people are employed (though dramatically less so these days), but one kind of employment is not another, and there's nothing more replaceable or sackable than your standard service worker. What would happen if all the sweatshops servicing retailers like the Gap somehow managed to find out where each other was, and hold a co-ordinated strike? Fucking chaos - and they'd get what they wanted. But what would happen if all the salespeople at the Gap went on strike? A bunch of salespeople would get fired and replaced by a bunch of 18 year olds who want staff discounts. Maybe for a couple of days the shirts wouldn't be as nicely folded. Oh noes.

So the question for me: was the mechanization process that began two hundred years ago the beginning of the slow castration of the unprivileged classes in Britain? One part of my brain says no, of course not, the mechanization process turned the unprivileged classes into the working class, and the working class became a political force, and functioned as such until its balls were cut off in the 1970's. Another part of my brain says yes, of course, because mechanization ended the need for artisanal, skilled labourers, which meant you could send the machines to a country full of desperate people who you could bully into dropping tariffs and environmental/labour standards. Of course you'd be a fool not to. But the upshot is I don't know which part of my brain is right, or if neither is right.

And I want to, I want to know far more about how all this happened, and why the country of my mothers - my country, I suppose, though I'm a second-class citizen - is such a shithole now. All of which brings me back to Shirley - I need to know how a thoughtful, gentle and dreadfully conventional woman (as the Life has shown Brontë to be) wrote about the Luddites - how she presented them to her huge fan base down south - how she reconciled the misery of the working class in the West Riding with her need for political and religious continuity. And once it gets personal enough for me, I'm wading into the Luddites.

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