A blog for May Day

Health difficulties are a certain reminder of the truth of the saying “health is better than wealth”.

If there are connections between historical studies and contemporary events, the role of wealth in society is certainly a constant.

As a browser of YouTube rather than TV stations, I get many viewing prompts. One that popped up recently was a Financial Times piece about wealthy oligarchs’ international investments. Its inspiration was evidently the current war in Ukraine. Commentators on the video saw the subject as having more universal, or global, applications.

Perhaps it is unusual, but when people dwell on such subjects, I get the mental association of a common social phenomenon in the first half of the nineteenth century; namely, the wealthy landowning family member who went on a “world tour”, which usually meant a year travelling those parts of Europe or Asia that they had read about in classical literature. There were no travellers’ cheques in those days. Travel was facilitated by their personal credit being considered good by one or more banks in any country to which they travelled. So, banks were networked internationally, “even then”. It is really quite remarkable when you think about it.

An associated mental picture relates to genealogy. Every human on earth has an equally long genealogy because otherwise they would not exist. Thus, the only aristocracy in history is the aristocracy of wealth. A successful pop star is more of an aristocrat than you or I because they have more money. The exact same was true of the lord of the manor. It is as simple as that. Property is wealth, yet wealth exists on paper for as long as accounting has existed. So is the history of the world also the history of accounting?! Investments are made or altered by brokers as often as you or I touch a keyboard or click an internet link. The world of money, or politics, thus goes around in its orbit with a different gravitational pull than either the planet or, excepting the realm of the law, our own social existence.

“So what?”, one might say with good reason. But how this aspect of the political world is written about, either contemporarily or historically, is rather fascinating, isn’t it? I mean: how can it be well encapsulated in print, if indeed it can?

The Financial Times piece seemed a bit sensational to me because to tell a journalistic story one has to make it seem relevant to the current day’s news. The fact that its subject was the UK made me think momentarily of UK historians that I read in the past, including Eric Hobsbawm, who dwelt on the theme of international investments. Notwithstanding the accolades their general scholarship received, however, did they, or could they, have anything of consequence to say on the subject? Not really, in part because I don’t think it is possible for anyone to really encapsulate such a subject which has such legally private dynamics & yet very broad social consequences.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that I sometimes think that the best way to analyse societies, historically or otherwise, is sociological studies. When historians venture into that territory, it can perhaps have some interesting results. In the past, it was historians of labour politics that were most inclined to consider this approach. Instead of focusing, for instance, on newspaper reports of May Day marches and their main protagonists (which would have been my approach), they adopted a Marxist approach to sociological studies to frame their analyses.

I was never a fan of Hobsbawm’s books, but one I’ve always meant to check out but have yet to pick up was his history called “Bandits”. What an idea! Historians write about societies governed by laws. How then does one conceptualise the history of outlaws?!

That very idea has connotations for the first book I wrote: a history of a secret society. Political rebels can be mythologised, not least in that very versatile or eleastic genre known as the folk song. I saw myself as attempting to deal with the lived reality and personalities of historical protagonists but, in doing so, I focused on key figures. But what of the more marginal ones? An example that comes to mind is a man who became an informer to receive a reduced prison sentence. He was able to give seemingly accurate information about some of the figures I was writing about. Yet a police biographical report on the same figure indicated that, prior to being sworn into a political revolutionary underground, he had served five years in prison for robbery (serious robbery too, not the Charles Dickens, petty’ “you’ve got to pick a pocket or two”, variety). In short, he was a bandit. Why did such a man become an associate of these political rebels with seemingly fascinating mindsets, exhibited in drawing room (or public house, as the case may be) debates? Were they, if seen in a sociological perspective, all far more given to banditry than I had deduced (“badges? we don’t care for no stinking badges!”), so that the lines between a revolutionary underground and a criminal underground were blurred for reasons other than politics or the law? Perhaps so, in which case my mental picture of the subject could perhaps have been coloured with a different hue.

So, there’s a new resolution for me for this May Day (bank holiday) period: to start, time allowing, in the near future, to read more sociological than political narratives of history, for either a good change of pace or a prompt to reconsider my attitudes. Old as it may be, perhaps Hobsbawm’s study of “Bandits” may be a fun place to start…

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