Society in the middle part of the nineteenth century was changing rapidly. Industrialisation, with its attendant movement of population towards the urban environment, meant the lives of the ordinary people were becoming vastly different from the pre-Napoleonic Wars norm, and, while it created employment (of a basic, barely subsistence-level type) in manufacturing, it also destroyed employment in artisanal and craft-based environments. On top of that upheaval, in the mid-1840s, came bad harvests across much of Europe, creating a double whammy for the poor, whether rural or urban. At the same time, the middle classes were beginning to agitate for an extension of the suffrage and a lifting of the burden imposed by absolute monarchies. Into this mix of general discontent came the ‘Communist Manifesto’, published by Marx and Engels in early 1848, although to be fair it is unclear how rapidly it was disseminated (and the results of that dubious experiment are still being felt across the world).
Anyway, that discontent in the 1840s finally resulted in a spate of populist uprisings and revolutions, mostly in Europe, but also in South America and to a very limited extent, North America. A combination of the working poor, who felt that the technological changes brought about by industrialisation offered no prospect of improvement in their lives, while they saw others - higher up the social scale - enriching themselves, and the middle classes who were aggrieved that they were ruled by an elite which was increasingly out of touch with the lives of the general population, mixed with the siren song of nationalism and self-determination which was becoming louder all the time, particularly in the Habsburg Empire. After all, why would Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Poles, Serbs, Croats and a plethora of other nationalities (and I apologise to and mean no slight on those I have not specifically mentioned) all be ruled by one absolute monarch from Vienna? So revolutions broke out, and some, on the surface anyway, were initially successful. In France, for example, the constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe was overthrown and replaced with the Second Republic. In Denmark, the King was forced to accept a new constitution, establishing a bi-cameral legislature to replace absolute rule. Elsewhere, the results were mixed, and it is also worth noting that by 1852, the French Second Republic had morphed into Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire. Overall, there was a lot of discontent which erupted in 1848 - ‘the year of revolutions’ - but substantive change was limited. Ideas of nationalism and popular rule were implanted, though, which in subsequent decades did began to change the nature of political power in Europe.
That’s a very simple outline of the events of 1848; why look back at it now? Well, does anything strike a chord? A working section of society frustrated that it doesn’t appear to be benefitting from technological change? A middle class convinced that the ruling elite is ignoring it? A feeling in various levels of society that it is time to re-assert national identity in the face of the foreigner?
Isn’t that all remarkably like the cocktail of events that culminated in the vote by the UK to leave the EU and that of the American electorate to make Donald Trump their President? So, does the comparison hold?
Santayana said that those who don’t learn from history are compelled to repeat it, and Marx’s view was that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Well, there are certainly some characters in all this who look more suited to farce, although they may in the end be driving us to tragedy. We are right now still in the midst of the ‘populist’ revolution, with elections still to come in various European countries this year, so one has to be cautious of drawing conclusions. The results of the events of 1848, though, can clearly be seen as pretty mixed.
As I said above, France took only four years to progress from republic back to empire, but Denmark kept its reforms, as did, largely, the Netherlands and Belgium. In Italy, the initial revolution was put down, but its ideas persisted and eventually led to the Risorgimento, the overthrow of the Bourbon kingdom of Naples and Sicily and the unification of the country. The most interesting, because it really was the bureaucratic superstate with little genuine logic to it, was the Hapsburg Empire. There, there was some limited change - the serfs were freed in Hungary (which was presumably good for them) - but not a lot; the Hapsburg Empire morphed into the Dual Monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but that didn’t really impinge on people’s lives; and, out of that sprawling mess, eventually came Gavrilo Princip and his revolver pointed at Franz Ferdinand. I’m not sure what Santayana would be expecting now, but presumably Marx would be pointing at some of the ‘politicians’ who have emerged and giggling. Mmm…I don’t often agree with him.
But seriously, it does feel as though something has changed politically, but for good or ill is so far unclear. I’m no fan of the political side of the EU - because I think it is unnecessary - but I do see very strong positives economically and culturally for unity. Is it the re-incarnation of the old Hapsburg Empire? And if so, is it tragedy or farce? To quote another politician; Zhou en-Lai, when asked about the success of the French revolution said: “it’s too early to tell”. (And yes, I do know there are those who suggest he was talking about 1968, not 1789 - but that doesn’t resonate as well.) Well, that kind of sums up the dramatic changes of 2016.
While on political subjects, before we get back to normal next week, there is a serious issue raising its head in the UK. For three hundred-plus years, newspapers in the UK have been free of political control. In other words, subject to the laws of the land - principally around libel and public decency - they are free to publish whatever they like. If they infringe the laws, the courts are there to enforce them.
However, in the wake of the phone-hacking scandals - which saw the closure of the most egregiously guilty title and a number of sentences handed down, seeming to suggest that the law works and has teeth in this area - and the Leveson Enquiry, there is an attempt to muzzle that freedom through Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. One of the outcomes of the Enquiry was that there should be a new, stronger regulator to replace the previous Press Complaints Commission. The newspaper industry has produced an independent body - with independent members - to satisfy this requirement ( the Independent Press Standards Organisation).
However, that’s not good enough for some; a man called Max Mosley (son of Oswald, Labour MP and then leader of the British Union of Fascists; but let’s not vest the sins of the fathers on the children) is the major financier behind an organisation called Impress, which is formulated under Royal Charter. Section 40 - were it implemented, which is not yet the case - would require newspapers to sign up to regulation by Impress; if they did not, then the sanction would be that if they were named in a libel action over something they published, then even if they were proven correct and won the suit they would be liable for the costs of the their accuser. Legal costs in UK libel cases can reach stratospheric numbers, creating a real threat to the continued existence of a publication, even had it been exonerated by the court.
Normally, if you lose a case, you may have costs awarded against you. This is if you win……. Look at those who support this outrageous attack on free speech - Mr Mosley himself, who has a penchant for unconventional parties, film stars with a predilection for LA hookers, TV personalities with a fondness for chemical stimulation, (sadly) some of our elected MPs who don’t think you should know how they spend your money - and ask yourself: should the right to freedom of speech be compromised for all this?
And in case you were thinking this was a long way from everyday metals business, trade journals, just like local newspapers, have some litigious readers....