Behind Bars

Prisons are an odd thing in modern democracy; in some ways the pillar of our justice system, a testament to a way of doing things that means we can endeavour to transform criminals into productive members of society and a way of punishment that allows us to hold the moral high ground over serious criminals to whom we do not do the whole ‘eye for an eye’ thing. But on the other hand it is, when you think about it, a somewhat barbaric practice; to take a fellow human being, another person born free and equal, and to take away not only their freedom for the immediate future, but in some respects their equality for as long as their criminal record lasts. If crime is a contentious issue, then ideas concerning punishment are even more controversial.

The idea of imprisonment was invented less as a tool of justice and more one of political convenience; whilst an opposing warlord is locked up, he can’t orchestrate a war or rebellion (as I have found out whilst playing Crusader Kings II). Indeed, throughout medieval times, common criminals were never punished by imprisonment; they were either fined, had body parts (usually hands) removed, or were executed (usually by hanging; the chopping block was for noblemen right up until the guillotine, which was a great social leveller when it came to execution). Locking someone up meant they needed feeding and housing, which was only really worth the cost for noblemen who one could ransom. It was also considered somewhat dishonourable to kill noblemen in most cases, even more so the higher rank they were; indeed, there was much outrage when Oliver Cromwell ordered King Charles I executed despite the fact that he had been convicted of treason and was highly unpopular (as well as, by all accounts, something of an arsehole).

Quite a good way of tracking the history of imprisonment as a punishment is to study the history of the Bastille in Paris; a fortress built in the 1300s, it was first declared a state prison in 1417. Originally, it held whichever landed gentry and noblemen had pissed of King Louis the Whicheverwasinpoweratthetime, but over time this role changed, and the commoners started to find their way in too. This was fuelled by the fact that people often got very angry at seeing certain types of often petty criminals, many of whom were barely out of childhood, getting strung up on a gibbet, and riots were generally things to be avoided. Particular bones of contention concerned those who had Things To Say about the French monarchy and government (especially once the state tried to censor the material spewing from the newly invented printing press), and people whose religious alignment disagreed with whoever was in power, but would certainly agree with large sectors of the mob. To try and placate the populace, therefore, the Bastille began to take on more  prisoners who the ruling classes felt would cause… a disturbance were they to be publicly hanged. Increasingly, the Bastille began to be used as a place to hide away those who had spoken out against or in some way fought against the state (whose death would really infuriate the mob), and the prison increasingly became a bone of resentment, a symbol of the stranglehold those in power had over their subjects. As such, it was a natural target for rioters when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, and Bastille Day (14th of July) is still a national holiday in France.

The chaos following the French revolution and the social upheaval of the next few centuries did change the balance of power and the role of imprisonment within society; it was the punishment of choice for many crimes, the old days of hacking a thief’s hand off gone, and execution was now the reserve of the kind of people who the public felt deserved it. However, right up until the Second World War, the justice system was brutal in a lot of countries; dungeons were generally small, packed with poorly-fed prisoners and infested with disease or rats, and many countries still operated forced labour camps and penal colonies. There were two reasons for this; firstly, prisoners were still expensive to maintain and were not seen as worth expending any great effort for, so any way the state could get some use out of them was seen as all well and good. The other reason concerned the role that prison had to play. Imprisonment was in those days (as today) to prevent criminals from committing more crimes, to punish them for the crimes they had committed and to scare others into not performing the scare crimes; but what wouldn’t come along until much later was the idea of rehabilitation. Our modern justice system is such that almost every criminal, regardless of their crime, will return to the outside world one day, and we can all agree that it would be preferable for everyone if, upon said return, they didn’t commit any more crimes. Trouble is, prison does not do that role any favours; by simply throwing someone in a grotty cell for several years, all you are likely to build in them is resentment against you and the system, and since human beings are remarkably stubborn people, this is likely to lead to re-offending. We have also come to realise that prison on its own is frequently ineffective as a deterrent for serial criminals, who are generally less sorrowful about committing their crimes as they are about getting caught. Once released, they are most likely to just go right on with their old life, the life that was exciting and (in some cases) profitable to them before the law caught up with them. And then, of course, there’s the problem posed by a criminal record, making people far less able to find work and often forcing them back to crime just to keep their head above water. This has given rise to the fourth role played by the modern prison and justice system; that of rehabilitation.

I am no legal expert, nor have I ever spent time in prison, so I am undoubtedly underqualified to talk at length about how comfortable prisons ‘should’ be, the correct way to treat prisoners, how to correctly implement the role of rehabilitation, etc. But I think we can all accept that the role of the justice system nowadays is, primarily, to reduce the amount of crime in this world, and unfortunately, bars and guards ain’t gonna cut it on their own. And we must also remember that, whatever they may have done, prisoners are people too. They still have rights, they still deserve at least some respect; many are victims of circumstance as much as anything else. And in any case, there’s a reason that we don’t hang prisoners any more; because our moral code must be stronger than that of a murderer, because we must show at least a modicum of love to those who would give us none, because we must be better, nobler people than they.

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Connections

History is a funny old business; an endless mix of overlapping threads, intermingling stories and repeating patterns that makes fascinating study for anyone who knows where to look. However, the part of it that I enjoy most involves taking the longitudinal view on things, linking two seemingly innocuous, or at least totally unrelated, events and following the trail of breadcrumbs that allow the two to connect. Things get even more interesting when the relationship is causal, so today I am going to follow the trail of one of my favourite little stories; how a single storm was, in the long run, responsible for the Industrial revolution. Especially surprising given that the storm in question occurred in 1064.

This particular storm occurred in the English Channel, and doubtless blew many ships off course, including one that had left from the English port of Bosham (opposite the Isle of Wight). Records don’t say why the ship was making its journey, but what was definitely significant was its passenger; Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and possibly the most powerful person in the country after King Edward the Confessor. He landed (although that might be overstating the dignity and intention of the process) at Ponthieu, in northern France, and was captured by the local count, who subsequently turned him over to his liege when he, with his famed temper, heard of his visitor: the liege in question was Duke William of Normandy, or ‘William the Bastard’ as he was also known (he was the illegitimate son of the old duke and a tanner). Harold’s next move was (apparently) to accompany his captor to a battle just up the road in Brittany. He then tried to negotiate his freedom, which William accepted, on the condition that he swear an oath to him that, were the childless King Edward to die, he would support William’s claim to the throne (England at the time operated a sort of elective monarchy, where prospective candidates were chosen by a council of nobles known as the Witengamot). According to the Bayeux tapestry, Harold took this oath and left France; but two years later King Edward fell into a coma. With his last moment of consciousness before what was surely an unpleasant death, he apparently gestured to Harold, standing by his bedside. This was taken by Harold, and the Witengamot, as a sign of appointing a successor, and Harold accepted the throne. This understandably infuriated William, who considered this a violation of his oath, and subsequently invaded England. His timing of this coincided with another distant cousin, Harald Hardrada of Norway, deciding to push his claim to the throne, and in the resulting chaos William came to the fore. He became William the Conqueror, and the Normans controlled England for the next several hundred years.

One of the things that the Norman’s brought with them was a newfound view on religion; England was already Christian, but their respective Church’s views on certain subjects differed slightly. One such subject was serfdom, a form of slavery that was very popular among the feudal lords of the time. Serfs were basically slaves, in that they could be bought or sold as commodities; they were legally bound to the land they worked, and were thus traded and owned by the feudal lords who owned the land. In some countries, it was not unusual for one’s lord to change overnight after a drunken card game; Leo Tolstoy lost most of his land in just such an incident, but that’s another story. It was not a good existence for a serf, completely devoid of any form of freedom, but for a feudal lord it was great; cheap, guaranteed labour and thus income from one’s land, and no real risks concerned. However the Norman church’s interpretation of Christianity was morally opposed to the idea, and began to trade serfs for free peasants as a form of agricultural labour. A free peasant was not tied to the land but rented it from his liege, along with the right to use various pieces of land & equipment; the feudal lord still had income, but if he wanted goods from his land he had to pay for it from his peasants, and there were limits on the control he had over them. If a peasant so wished, he could pack up and move to London or wherever, or to join a ship; whatever he wanted in his quest to make his fortune. The vast majority were never faced with this choice as a reasonable idea, but the principle was important- a later Norman king, Henry I, also reorganised the legal system and introduced the role of sheriff, producing a society based around something almost resembling justice.

[It is worth noting that the very last serfs were not freed until the reign of Queen Elizabeth in the 1500s, and that subsequent British generations during the 18th century had absolutely no problem with trading in black slaves, but they justified that partly by never actually seeing the slaves and partly by taking the view that the black people weren’t proper humans anyway. We can be disgusting creatures]

A third Norman king further enhanced this concept of justice, even if completely by accident. King John was the younger brother of inexplicable national hero King Richard I, aka Richard the Lionheart or Couer-de-Lion (seriously, the dude was a Frenchman who visited England twice, both to raise money for his military campaigns, and later levied the largest ransom in history on his people when he had to be released by the Holy Roman Emperor- how he came to national prominence I will never know), and John was unpopular. He levied heavy taxes on his people to pay for costly and invariably unsuccessful military campaigns, and whilst various incarnations of Robin Hood have made him seem a lot more malevolent than he probably was, he was not a good King. He was also harsh to his people, and successfully pissed off peasant and noble alike; eventually the Norman Barons presented John with an ultimatum to limit his power, and restore some of theirs. However, the wording of the document also granted some basic and fundamental rights to the common people as well; this document was known as the Magna Carta; one of the most important legal documents in history, and arguably the cornerstone in the temple of western democracy.

The long-term ramifacations of this were huge; numerous wars were fought over the power it gave the nobility in the coming centuries, and Henry II (9 years old when he took over from father John) was eventually forced to call the first parliament; which, crucially, featured both barons (the noblemen, in what would soon become the House of Lords) and burghers (administrative leaders and representatives of the cities & commoners, in the House of Commons). The Black Death (which wiped out most of the peasant population and thus raised the value of the few who were left) greatly increased the value and importance of peasants across Europe for purely economic reasons for a few years, but over the next few centuries multiple generations of kings in several countries would slowly return things to the old ways, with them on top and their nobles kept subservient. In countries such as France, a nobleman got himself power, rank, influence and wealth by getting into bed with the king (in the cases of some ambitious noblewomen, quite literally); but in England the existence of a Parliament meant that no matter how much the king’s power increased through the reign of Plantagenets, Tudors and Stuarts, the gentry had some form of national power and community- and that the people were, to some nominal degree, represented as well. This in turn meant that it became not uncommon for the nobility and high-ranking (or at least rich) ordinary people to come into contact, and created a very fluid class system. Whilst in France a middle class businessman was looked on with disdain by the lords, in Britain he would be far more likely to be offered a peerage; nowadays the practice is considered undemocratic, but this was the cutting edge of societal advancement several hundred years ago. It was this ‘lower’ class of gentry, comprising the likes of John Hampden and Oliver Cromwell, who would precipitate the English Civil War as King Charles I tried to rule without Parliament altogether (as opposed to his predecessors  who merely chose to not listen to them a lot of the time); when the monarchy was restored (after several years of bloodshed and puritan brutality at the hands of Cromwell’s New Model Army, and a seemingly paradoxical few decades spent with Cromwell governing with only a token parliament, when he used them at all), parliament was the political force in Britain. When James II once again tried his dad’s tactic of proclaiming himself god-sent ruler whom all should respect unquestioningly, Parliament’s response was to invite the Dutch King William of Orange over to replace James and become William III, which he duly did. Throughout the reign of the remaining Stuarts and the Hanoverian monarchs (George I to Queen Victoria), the power of the monarch became steadily more and more ceremonial as the two key political factions of the day, the Whigs (later to become the Liberal, and subsequently Liberal Democrat, Party) and the Tories (as today’s Conservative Party is still known) slugged it out for control of Parliament, the newly created role of ‘First Lord of the Treasury’ (or Prime Minister- the job wasn’t regularly selected from among the commons for another century or so) and, eventually, the country. This brought political stability, and it brought about the foundations of modern democracy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; what does this have to do with the Industrial Revolution? Well, we can partly blame the political and financial stability at the time, enabling corporations and big business to operate simply and effectively among ambitious individuals wishing to exploit potential; but I think that the key reason it occurred has to do with those ambitious people themselves. In Eastern Europe & Russia, in particular, there were two classes of people; nobility who were simply content to scheme and enjoy their power, and the masses of illiterate serfs. In most of Western Europe, there was a growing middle class, but the monarchy and nobility were united in keeping them under their thumb and preventing them from making any serious impact on the world. The French got a bloodthirsty revolution and political chaos as an added bonus, whilst the Russians waited for another century to finally get sufficiently pissed of at the Czar to precipitate a communist revolution. In Britain, however, there were no serfs, and corporations were built from the middle classes. These people’s primary concerns wasn’t rank or long-running feuds, disagreements over land or who was sleeping with the king; they wanted to make money, and would do so by every means at their disposal. This was an environment ripe for entrepreneurism, for an idea worth thousands to take the world by storm, and they did so with relish. The likes of Arkwright, Stephenson and Watt came from the middle classes and were backed by middle class industry, and the rest of Britain came along for the ride as Britain’s coincidentally vast coal resources were put to good use in powering the change. Per capita income, population and living standards all soared, and despite the horrors that an age of unregulated industry certainly wrought on its populace, it was this period of unprecedented change that was the vital step in the formation of the world as we know it today. And to think that all this can be traced, through centuries of political change, to the genes of uselessness that would later become King John crossing the channel after one unfortunate shipwreck…

And apologies, this post ended up being a lot longer than I intended it to be

Leaning Right

The political spectrum (yes, politics again) has, for over 200 years now, been the standard model for representing political views, adopted by both the media and laymen alike. It’s not hard to see why; the concept of judging every political view or party by a measure of left-ness and right-ness makes it very simple to understand and easily all-encompassing, allowing various groups to be easily compared to one another without a lot of complicated analysis and wordy explanations. The idea comes from the French revolution towards the end of the 18th century; in the revolutionary parliament, factions among political figures were incredibly divisive and the source of open conflict, so much like home & away fans at a football match they attempted to separate themselves. Those sitting to the left of the parliamentary president were the revolutionaries, the radicals, the secular and the republican, those who had driven the waves of chaotic change that characterised the revolutionary period. However, as the revolution went on, another set of views formed running counter to the revolutionary ideas of the left-sitters, and who quickly found their way into an equally tight-knit group on the right hand side of the hall; those who supported the principles of the monarchy, the prominence of the church in French society and politics, and the concepts of hierarchy and rank. It goes without saying, of course, that those populating the right-wing, as it would become known were mainly those who would benefit from these principles; the rich, the upper class (well, what little of it that hadn’t been killed off) and the high-standing.

And, according to the Big Book of Political Cliche’s, right wing=bad. Right wing means uber-capitalist, aristocratic, a semi-tyrannical overseer extorting money from the poor, innocent, repressed working classes and supportive of stealing from the poor to give to the rich. The right is where racists are to be found, old-fashioned bigots out of touch with the real world, those who think slavery was an excellent business model, and the neo-Nazis (I realise I may be pushing the envelope on what the stereotype actually is, but you get my point).

However, when one analyses the concept of right-wingedness (far more interesting than the left, which is all the same philosophy with varying degrees of mental instability), we begin to find a disparity, something that hints that our method of classification itself may be somewhat out of change and in need of a rethink. Right wing is considered to incorporate both a socio-economic position (pro-capitalist, laissez-faire and ‘get the poor working’ in very broad terms) and a social equality one (racism, sexism, discrimination etc.) akin to Nazism, and nowadays the two simply do not align themselves with the same demographic any more.

I mean, consider it purely from the ‘who votes for them’ angle. In Britain, the (nowadays fairly nominally) right-leaning Conservative party finds it power base in the country’s richer areas, such as the Home Counties, and among the rich & successful capitalists, since their quality of life can be put down to the capitalist model that Conservatism is so supportive of (and their benefits from taxation are relatively small compared to the help it provides the poorer demographics with). However, far-right parties and political groups such as the British National Party (BNP) and English Defence League (EDL) tend to seek support from right at the opposite end of the social ladder, seeking support from the young, working-class, white skinhead male sphere of existence. Both of them draw support from a predominantly white power base, but beyond that there is little connection.

This is not something solely prevalent today; the Nazi party are often held up as the epitomy of right-wing for their vehemently racist ‘far-right’ policies, but we often seem to forget that ‘Nazi’ is just a corruption of ‘Natso’, short for ‘National Socialist German Workers Party’. The party’s very title indicates that one of their key areas of support was for ‘the German Workers’, making a similar appeal as the communists of the time. Although their main support was eventually found in the middle  and lower-middle classes (the upper end of the social ladder considering Hitler a poor upstart who would never make anything of himself, demonstrating exactly how out of touch they were with the real world), the Nazi economic policy that put Germany through an astonishing economic turnaround between 1933 (when the Nazis took power) and 1939 was closely centred around the socialist ‘public works & state-controlled business’ model that Franklin D. Roosevelt had recently adopted to lead the USA out of The Great Depression. Many socialists and communists would doubtless have approved, if any of them hadn’t been locked up, beaten up or on their way to forced labour camps. In terms of socio-economic policy then, the Natso’s were clearly less ‘National’ and more ‘Socialist’.

We are, then, presented with this strange disparity between the economic-policy based ‘right’ and the racism-centric ‘far right’. The two were originally linked by the concepts of nationalism and traditionalism; from the earliest days of the political spectrum the right wing have always been very much supportive of a return ‘to the old ways’, of thinking nostalgically of the past (usually because there was less left-wingedness in it) and that the modern world is getting steadily worse in the name of ‘progress’. One feature identified in this vein is that of immigration, of foreign-born workers entering the country and ‘stealing our jobs’ (et cetera), in their view devaluing the worthiness of their own country. This has made the idea of nationalism and extreme patriotism a stereotypically right wing trait, and the associated view that ‘my country is better than yours’. This basic sense of the superiority of various races is the key rhetoric of ‘Social Darwinism’, a concept pioneered by the Nazis (among others) that suggests that Charles Darwin’s ‘Survival of the Fittest’ principle should be applied to the various races of humanity too, and that the ‘better’ races have a right of superiority over the ‘lesser’ ones (traditionally ethnic minorities in the west, such as middle eastern and black), and this too is a feature of many far-right viewpoints.

But the field has changed since those ideas were pioneered; the modern world that we live in is for one thing a lot easier to traverse than before, meaning that those rich enough to afford it can easily see the whole globe in all its glorious diversity and wonder for themselves, and our increasingly diverse western society has seen a significant number of ‘minorities’ enter the top echelons of society. It is also true that using cheap, hard working labour from immigrants rather than from workers with trade unions makes good economic (if often not moral) sense for large corporations, meaning that the ‘rich capitalist’ demographic who are so supportive of conservative economic policy are no longer the kind of people who worry about those ‘stealing our jobs’. This viewpoint has turned to the opposite end of the social spectrum, the kind of people who can genuinely see their jobs being done by ‘foreigners’ and get jealous and resentful about it; it is these people who form the support bas for right-wing populists and think the EDL know what they’re talking about, and in many ways that is more worrying. The rich having dangerous, extreme views is a serious danger, but there are comparatively few of them and democracy entails just one vote each. The number of young, angry, working class white men is far larger, and it is this demographic that won the BNP a seat in the House of Commons at the last election. Will this view get more or less prevalent as time goes on? I would like to think the latter, but maybe we’ll just have to wait and see…