Wednesday, April 17, 2013

See you in Nuku'alofa next Monday night

Riots, Idleness and Land Reform: the ideas of EP Thompson, and what they might mean in Tonga
A seminar by Dr Scott Hamilton, to be held on the 7 pm, 22nd of April, at the ‘Atenisi Institute’s Lalo Masi Building, and followed by refreshments.
Edward Palmer Thompson was one of the most versatile and passionate intellectuals of the twentieth century. Thompson became famous in 1963, at the age of thirty-nine, when he published his massive and meticulous book The Making of the English Class, which tried to tell the story of the world’s first Industrial Revolution from the point of view of artisans, factory workers, and peasants, rather than the statesmen and industrialists who dominated the work of more conventional historians. Thompson showed the human cost of the Industrial Revolution and the establishment of capitalism in England. He sympathised with the peasants who were driven off their lands, and forced into the cities to toil for a pittance in factories. He cheered the men and women who organised trade unions and similar associations to fight for a better deal from factory owners.
Thompson’s approach to history can be explained partly by his politics. A lifelong socialist, he was as happy marching against nuclear weapons or standing on the picket line with a group of striking workers as he was working in academic archives or delivering a seminar. As well as academic books and essays, Thompson produced hundreds of articles about important political issues.
EP Thompson’s academic writing focuses mostly on England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but its themes of social conflict and modernisation give it a relevance that extends far beyond his homeland. His books have for decades been popular in nations like India and Korea, and this month a conference in Australia marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Making of the English Working Class.
Thompson was always interested in comparing the histories of different nations. During a visit to Auckland to deliver several lectures in 1987, he announced that he was keen to learn about the history of the South Pacific, and about the ways both Polynesian and local palangi peoples organised their societies and used land. Sadly, Thompson’s declining health and early death in 1993 prevented him from realising this ambition.
If EP Thompson were able to visit the Kingdom of Tonga in 2013, what would he make of the place? What lessons might he have to offer Tonga, and what might Tonga be able to teach him? In this seminar Scott Hamilton will suggest a couple of possible answers to these questions.  
Hamilton will argue that Thompson would have been fascinated by Tonga, because of the unusual historical path the country has taken. In the nineteenth century Taufa’ahau managed to unify and modernise Tonga without embracing capitalism. Even today the basis of the domestic Tongan economy remains small, semi-subsistence farming, and non-capitalist practices involving gift-giving and the distribution of wealth through family networks remain extremely important.
Hamilton will suggest that EP Thompson’s great essay ‘Time, Work-discipline and Industrial Capitalism’ can help Tongans to understand the clash between their traditional ways of life and the demands of the capitalist sector of their economy. Thompson’s essay describes how factory owners and other employers regulate the time of their workers, so that they labour for a certain number of hours a day, and a certain number of days a week, and how workers in the West have gradually internalised this regulation, and come to regard it as natural. In nations like Tonga, where the people can still live off the land, and thus do not have to sell their labour to survive, capitalism struggles to force workers into its patterns. Frustrated employers and foreign ‘experts’ on economic ‘development’ complain about the ‘idleness’ of the native people, and call for them to be disciplined, or separated from their land. But Thompson shows that rejection of the nine to five rhythms of the capitalist economy does not equal laziness. For thousands of years, humans laboured according to different, looser rhythms, as they brought in harvests or hunted game. Their work was guided by the seasons, not by the clock.
Thompson grew up in a strongly Methodist family – his father was famous for his work as a Methodist missionary in India – but was sometimes critical of the faith. In a famous and controversial passage in The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson rails against John Wesley for turning the poor of England away from a political solution to their problems. Thompson complains that, instead of encouraging the poor to campaign for better wages and the vote, Wesley  convinced them to blame their own supposed sinfulness for their miserable state. Instead of marching for justice and confronting England’s rich and powerful, the Methodist poor congregated in chapels. Tongan’s Free Wesleyan Church has sometimes been criticised for its links with the state, and for its alleged political conservatism. Are EP Thompson’s complaints against the English Methodists relevant to Tonga?
One of EP Thompson’s best-known essays discussed the riots which occasionally disturbed eighteenth century England. In ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd’ Thompson argues that a riot can tell us much about the fundamental beliefs of a society. In eighteenth century England an unspoken contract between the poor and the powerful usually ensured social stability. When this contract was broken, though, the poor could loot and burn with a ferocity that shocked the powerful. Can we use Thompson’s celebrated study of civil disorder to understand the causes of the riot which hit Nuku’alofa nearly seven years ago?
Hamilton will suggest that Thompson could learn from Tonga, as well as offer the country lessons. Despite his sympathy for the often illiterate peasants and workers of eighteenth and nineteenth century England, Thompson seldom used oral history in his work. He considered old texts much more reliable than oral traditions about old events, because stories can change so easily as they pass from one tongue to another. Hamilton will suggest that Thompson might change his mind about oral history, if he could consider the work of scholars like Sione Latukefu, Niel Gunson, and Wendy Pond, who have discovered important truths in the songs and oral traditions of Tonga.
Scott Hamilton is the author of The Crisis of Theory: EP Thompson and the British New Left, which was published by Manchester University Press in hardback in 2011 and in a paperback edition last year. 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

what of free speech etc??

2:23 pm  
Anonymous down with he church said...

the invisible sky pixie and the ritual imbibing of his son the Jesus zombies blood and flesh...

it's not a religion it's a blood cult

3:00 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Good luck for the lecture. I was studying 18th C lit and was recommended Thompson book, and found it fascinating. But I was busy with other stuff and didn't get to finish it but I think it is a very important and interesting and entertaining work.

People were sent to Australia in chains simply for forming study groups, let alone riots.

It isn't that religion is all bad. There will always be some kind of religion and some kind of "capitalism", here I disagree a bit. I think that young Tongans need to study economics and accountancy as much as any other subject. I studied accountancy at one stage and found it very interesting and useful.

But the overemphasis on the "work ethic" and also a competitive rather than a cooperative-competitive (non-antagonistic)approach is something to keep alive. If we work, we work to live, not live to work.

To some extent, also, the economic crisis world wide is a crisis of falling profits. That is, society, organized properly, without profit drives, CAN exist. There is more than enough for everyone. The problems stem in a large part to enormous and sometimes senseless or blind overproduction.

The "dark" view, poisoned by erroneous ideas of "overpopulation" and doomsday madness about climate leading to catastrophe is largely propaganda to demoralize the working people. All that stuff is a myth.

The power of people working together is enormous. Tonga has possibly more potential than NZ which is exhausted in many ways.

Thompson was overall insightful. He would see that oral history in Australia, Maoritanga and the Pacific has much to teach us all.

12:58 am  
Anonymous Josephine Latu-Sanft said...

I really wish I could have attended this seminar, unfortunately I am no longer in Tonga!! Sounds fascinating. Would you be able to share your paper or notes from the session? Hope someone recorded it.

3:10 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks for your interest Josephine. The talk seemed to go well, and an Aussie bloke who works in the Ministry of Health but has an interest in moviemaking filmed it. I'll post some of the text of the talk on this blog soon, but do feel free to e mail me up here at

3:34 pm  

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