Posts Tagged ‘15th century england’

Occupy, the Tea Party, and The Rebellion of “Ignorant” Foxes

January 6, 2012 2 comments

Although generally called ignorant and uncultured, the Lollards were simultaneously portrayed by the Church as sly foxes seducing members of society and then devouring them.

To understand the significance of the Occupy and Tea Party movements to anti-statism, look at their predecessor movement, the Lollards of the 14th and 15th Century England. This movement, which arose in England during the period leading to the Great Reformation, imposed its will on the state and the church in a fashion similar to the way our own Occupy and Tea party movements are making their power felt in politics today.

The Lollards were a dissident sect within Catholicism who argued there was an “invisible” church as well as a visible one. The visible church was the Catholic hierarchy, the invisible church, however, was composed of the entire body of believers. According to the Wikipedia, the movement attacked the authority of the church and its priests. They insisted lay persons could as well perform the religious functions as well as any priest.

According to the Wikipedia: “A Lollard blacksmith in Lincolnshire declared that he could make ‘as good a sacrament between “… ii yrons as the prest doth upon his auter (altar)'”

Lollard, Lollardi or Loller was the popular derogatory nickname given to those without an academic background, educated if at all only in English, who were reputed to follow the teachings of John Wycliffe in particular, and were certainly considerably energized by the translation of the Bible into the English language. By the mid-15th century the term lollard had come to mean a heretic in general. The alternative, “Wycliffite”, is generally accepted to be a more neutral term covering those of similar opinions, but having an academic background.

The term is said to have been coined by the Anglo-Irish cleric, Henry Crumpe, but its origin is uncertain. The Oxford English Dictionary has no doubt:

  1. from “M[iddle] [Dutch] lollaerd, lit. ‘mumbler, mutterer’, f[rom] lollen to mutter, mumble”.
  2. Three other possibilities for the derivation of Lollard have been suggested:
    1. the Latin name lolium (Common Vetch or tares, as a noxious weed mingled with the good Catholic wheat);
    2. after the Franciscan, Lolhard, who converted to the Waldensian way, becoming eminent as a preacher in Guienne. That part of France was then under English domination, influencing lay English piety. He was burned at Cologne in the 1370s;
    3. the Middle English loller (akin to modern, albeit semi-archaic, verb loll), “a lazy vagabond, an idler, a fraudulent beggar”; but this word is not recorded in this sense before 1582. It is recorded as an alternative spelling of Lollard.

The Dutch derivation is the most likely. It appears to be a derisive expression applied to various people perceived as heretics — first the Franciscans and later the followers of Wycliffe. Originally the word was a colloquial name for a group of the harmless buriers of the dead during the Black Death, in the 14th century, known as Alexians, Alexian Brothers or Cellites. These were known colloquially as lollebroeders (Middle Dutch), ‘mumbling brothers’, or “Lollhorden”, from Old German: lollon, meaning “to sing softly,” from their chants for the dead. The modern Dutch word is lullen, meaning to babble, to talk nonsense.

Church propaganda of the time portrayed the lollardy as unscrupulous foxes who were out to seduce the Churches vulnerable members:

Lollards were represented as foxes dressed as monks or priests preaching to a flock of geese on misericords. These representations alluded to the story of the preaching fox found in popular Medieval literature such as The History of Reynard the Fox and The Shifts of Raynardine (the son of Raynard). The fox lured the geese closer and closer with its words until it was able to snatch a victim to devour. The moral of this story was that foolish people are seduced by false doctrines.

Does this characterization sound familiar? How often have you heard someone from the Tea Party characterized as ignorant, or someone from the Occupy characterized as filthy, uneducated and lacking both useful work skills and a job? Lollardy was a pejorative term applied to the crude folk who imagined they could replace the elites with their own self-activity. Like the Occupy and the Tea Party, the lollards were “uneducated” common folk, who had the nerve to confront elites in the church and the state.

In an 1885 introduction to Fortescue’s “The Governance of England”, Charles Plummer wrote:

“Henry IV came to the throne as the representative of the ‘possessioned’ classes–to use a contemporary expression. The crude socialism of the Lollards, as the barons saw, and as the Churchmen were careful to point out, threatened the foundations not merely of the Church, but of all property.”

(Fucking anarchists and socialists screwing things up even in the Fifteenth Century.)

The Lollards movement is interesting in itself, but Plummer’s commentary is just as interesting. Plummer points out the anti-clerical and anti-property character of the lollards, but he also points out how the dissent expressed in the lollard movement effected the monarchy. The crown, as the general representative of property, was under duress for the whole of Henry IV’s reign, by the commons. Henry IV was dependent on Parliament to raise the taxes necessary to defend property interests, “against foreign and domestic enemies.” It was this dependence on the Parliament, that Plummer cites as one of the chief sources of trouble during Henry IV’s reign.

Says Plummer:

“But the causes of his weakness are plain enough. He was weak through his want of title, weak through the promises by which he had bound himself to those whose aid had enabled him to win the crown, weak most of all through his want of money.”

Henry IV’s own want of money was not merely his own, but a general monetary crisis perhaps traceable to political causes as Plummer argued:

“This scarcity of money was due partly to the general want of confidence in the stability of the government which succeded the brief enthusiasm in Henry’s favour, and which led people to hoard their gold and silver, so that not only was none forthcoming to meet the demands of the government, but capital, which ought to have been employed productively, was withdrawn from circulation, thus causing for the time a general diminution of the resources of the country.”

Fortesque argued, the crown needed its own independent source of income and standing that was not dependent on the periodic challenges of economic and political events. I think it is fair to state from Fortescue’s time  to today the over-riding impulse of the state has been to acquire an independent existence from society as representative of the interest of property within society.

And, I think it is no accident that Adam Smith’s masterwork of economics is not titled, “The Wealth of Individuals”, but “The Wealth of Nations”. The subject of contemplation for economists has never been “the economy” as we might imagine — it is the state and how to manage the economic activity of society on behalf of the state. Seeking its own independent existence as a form of property has always been the aim of the state and this has led it into conflict with society.

I think it is necessary to clear up the standing misinterpretation, widespread among anti-statists, that the state is either neutral, or at worst, a representative of some particular property interest in society. Fortescue’s argument demonstrates the state is, and has always been, a distinct interest in society — in particular a distinct property interest hostile to other property interests in society. It is a player in the economy, and by no means, just a corrupt refereee among economic players in the great game.

For Marxists who might object to this argument, I offer none other than Marx himself, who deliberately characterized the capitalist as only the personification of the relation between capital and wage labor. The popular caricature of the lone Koch Brother type capitalist lording it over his private empire of dependent wage slaves is not necessary to the relationship, and, moreover, is not even an accurate model of Marx’s theory but a crass vulgarization.

First, as Marx himself clearly stated, the worker is entirely capable of acting as her own capitalist, and has not the slightest need for the capitalist to accomplish this disgusting task. Second, he and Engels noted by the late 1800s the personification itself was being socialized through the emergence of  joint-stock companies and cartelization. Finally, Engels argued it was inevitable the state would become the national capitalist.

The ultimate exploiter of labor power is not Mr. Moneybags, but Barack Obama; which is to say, the modern executive branch of the state, whose lineage is directly traceable to the crown, not the much praised and condemned private entrepreneur. Properly understood, the state is not corrupted by property interests in society, it is both the general form of these property interests within society and an interest its own right.

This is the background to the Occupy and Tea Party movements, a general social discontent with this independent and unaccountable social power among all classes and strata within society. The fascist state is an unaccountable social power made all the more so by the modern money system, which frees the state from any dependence on taxes and debt, and, which has allowed it to become entirely “self-financing”, so to speak. With the capacity to print money into existence, the state achieved a degree of independence hitherto unequaled in the history of the state. It has acquired the monetary and practical means to commit the nation to war on any pretext whatsoever; it has expressed absolute hostility to every form of property that it cannot make subordinate to its own interest as property. Most of all, it has become the largest and most ruthless exploiter of labor power in the annals of history — actually converting other national capitals into mere means of its own self-expansion.

The absolutism of the fascist state, its totalitarian character, has brought the category of state to its most perfect expression: it is, at once, both the perfection of the state and the perfection of capitalist relations in one social body. Against this absolutist power is arrayed nothing more than a rebellion of the ignorant — those who are so uneducated and uncultured only they can see through the silly mystifications of fascist state ideologues.