Simon Sandall, ‘History lessons from below?’

[This is the eighth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Simon Sandall is a lecturer at the University of Winchester whose recent publications focus on custom, law, community and popular politics and popular protest in early modern England. His forthcoming book will be titled ‘Custom and Popular Memory in the Forest of Dean, c. 1550-1832’.]

Now, as much as at any time in the recent past, the study of labouring people and non-elites is crucial, not only in rescuing them from the ‘condescension of posterity’, but in forging a broader understanding of the historical context in which we enter the twenty-first century. As social services are being slashed, the terms of unemployment and disability benefits rendered untenable, sections of poorer communities pejoratively stereotyped in the name of austerity, the culpability of the super rich whitewashed, and Michael Gove’s attempts to hide any historical evidence to the contrary, this context is sorely needed.

Add to this the fact that a significant proportion of the British public draw their knowledge of the past from centre-right newspapers and other media, nuanced and critical histories ‘from below’ are clearly needed to restore balance to some of the more heated debates that pervade the current political climate. While the criteria of the Research Excellence Framework look to be developing an increased focus on wider dissemination of funded research, we should be thinking carefully about the nature of these studies and their impact. Gove’s current drive emphasises a simplified, top-down, political narrative which nods towards the benefits of British influence in the world, the development of stock trading, the banking industry, together with the associated rise of capitalism and industrialisation. As historians, our duty is surely to complicate these teleologies and work to emphasise the reality of contingency and agency, to advance our understanding of those in the lower echelons of societies past. At almost every one of these historical junctures, there have been passionately defended alternatives. A closer focus on the experiences of particular communities and broader histories from below reveals, also, that at each of these key transitional moments it has generally been the poor that have suffered to advance the interests of the rich and powerful.

The generalisations of sweeping, top-down, macro narratives are easily deployed in defence of the economic, political, and cultural values of late capitalism. Adam Smith posited naturally-balanced water levels as a model for the self-regulating, unfettered growth and circulation of capital and this idea has suffused modern consciousnesses ever since. An ideology which can claim roots in nature can imply that there is no alternative or, at the very least, that any alternative would be running counter to the forces of nature. It is this which underpins the claims that it would be dangerous to hold bankers to account and expect them to play their part in restoring our economy to a healthy position in which all can expect a reasonable standard of living. After all, who would we turn to if they decided to leave the country taking with them the mysteries of their trade?

A view of Captain Swing ‘from above’.

A view of Captain Swing ‘from above’.

It is essential, then, that mainstream histories should continue to analyse the experiences of those disenfranchised by the rise of bourgeois hegemony and industrialisation. While this elite became increasingly rich and powerful, what was the impact of associated processes of proletarianisation or the loss of commons and sanctification of private property? We should continue to explore the moral economies of crowd action and the motivations thousands of men and women drawn to the leadership of General Ludd and Captain Swing during the early nineteenth century. What were these people fighting to defend? Were they simply obstacles to the inevitable rise of a superior, beneficial, economic order? Or were they trying to protect more communitarian modes of production which, as they saw it, had sustained their ancestors for centuries past? In this context, the closure of social services, the squeeze on the NHS, attacks on benefit claimants, and immigration panics, all presented as inevitable austerity measures in the wake of the ‘credit crunch’, appear as further examples of the disenfranchisement of the poor in advancing the interests of an unaccountable capitalist elite. Do these historical processes represent the inevitable rise of a system which holds benefits for all, or the increasing concentration of resources into the hands of an oligarchic elite?

Of course, as E.P. Thompson himself noted, as historians of popular culture we are often likely to be confronted with values and prejudices which offend our contemporary sensibilities. The work of K.D.M. Snell, for example, cuts through the idealism of earlier Marxist historiographies to demonstrate the virulent xenophobia of many communities in pre-industrial Britain. This, in itself, serves as a valuable reminder that working class communities have often been riven by internal division and the ‘othering’ of outsiders. In this deeper historical context, do some of the more ‘ugly’ tensions in our society appear to have less to do with the advent of multi-culturalism and high immigration as some groups claim, and more to do with competition for resources within an increasingly disenfranchised group?

It would be foolish not to recognise the many beneficial aspects of modern political and economic systems, but does that mean that banking elites and stock-holding politicians should be beyond public account simply because we can visualise no alternative? The lessons of histories from below would suggest not and, as historians, it should be our duty to at least provide the material for a balanced argument that can challenge the simplified ideological slant of Gove’s educational ‘philosophy’.

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4 thoughts on “Simon Sandall, ‘History lessons from below?’

  1. Pingback: The future of ‘history from below’: an online symposium | the many-headed monster

  2. Thanks Simon for this cogent articulation of what I am sure many of us are feeling about the current political and educational agenda. I just wanted to pick up on the issue of ‘grand narratives’ here, and Gove’s attempts to push, as you put it, ‘a simplified, top-down, political narrative which nods towards the benefits of British influence in the world’.

    Instinctively I would agree with your view that we should seek ‘to complicate these teleologies’ and instead emphasise the contingency and agency involved in historical processes. But part of me also wonders if this is actually a major problem for those of us who like our history from below. We now operate in a largely post-Marxist age where the majority of academic historians are hostile to ‘grand narratives’ of any sort – and not without good reason. But it seems to me that this leaves ‘the left’ within the profession without a ‘big story’ to tell – the kind of compelling story that captivates television audiences and school children.

    As I say, my instinct would also be to stress the messiness of the past, but can a messy story provide effective political opposition to the neat narrative version of history currently being pushed to support the ideological agenda of Gove et al? Does ‘history from below’ need to tell a grand narrative to be politically potent? I’ve got some conflicting views on this myself, which I’ll save for now, but I’d be interested to hear what you – and others – think.

  3. Thank you Simon. I think the references you made to Swing and Ludd were very helpful to illustrate your point. This reminds me of when, a couple of years ago, the media asked historians of protest to comment on the summer riots in 2011. I felt that this was problematic because the historians found it difficult to transpose their research onto the present day, to explain the causes and grievances of the disenfranchised.* Class may remain the same, but the advanced capitalism of the present day and the dramatic growth in inequality over the last half of the 20th century has presented a slightly different contexts. What are your thoughts on how historians comment on current-day issues/events, such as those you list above? Should we be talking more or less? How could we present parallels in the past – notify society of continuity and change?

    * I’m not referring to the comments made by Prof Starkey on Newsnight (12 August 2011). He is a disgrace to our profession.

  4. Pingback: Brodie Waddell, ‘History from below: today and tomorrow’ | the many-headed monster

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