Occupy History

     As Occupy America fizzles out under the pepper spray, truncheons and boots of the police who Serve and Protect us, it’s worth looking into a previous occupy movement, which happened a mere 462 years ago.
     In the spring and summer of 1549, the English commons rebelled in at least 17 shires across the nation. “So sudden and so widespread were the revolts that there was uncertainty about how and where they began,” Susan Brigden wrote in “New Worlds, Lost Worlds, the Rule of the Tudors.”
     “The gentry, who by their pursuit of self-interest had abdicated their duty to the commons, seemed powerless to act, and ‘looked upon one another.’ … Somerset [lord protector of young Edward VI] now wrote with patrician horror of ‘a plague and a fury among the vilest and worst sort of men’, who had all ‘conceived a marvellous hate against gentlemen, and take them all as their enemies’.”
     Sound familiar? The vague but all-encompassing fury of the commoners resembles that of Occupy America, as does their even vaguer ideas of how to set things right.
     “To the mortification of the evangelical establishment there were revolts both in the name of the ‘commonwealth’, which the commons had appropriated for themselves, and against it by conservatives determined to halt and to reverse reform,” Brigden wrote.
     “The risings took many forms, as was likely ‘of people without head and rule’, and there was little cohesion in motive and organization between the different areas. Some cried ‘Pluck down enclosures and parks; some for the commons; others pretend religion’. Most of the riots were pacified easily enough …”
     But on a hill called the Mousehold, above Norwich, the rebels held out until the end of August. “The rebels summoned captive gentlemen before a popular tribunal, at the Tree of Reformation, crying either ‘a good man’, or ‘hang him’, but this vigilante justice was prevented and a certain decorum prevailed.”
     The Mousehold was cleared by “a bloody confrontation with the Earl of Warwick’s troops,” who strewed it with corpses.
     So ended the summer of Occupy England.
     So ended, with a lighter touch, but still with violence, the summer of Occupy America.
     I am not making light of the Occupy movement. It succeeded in making it impossible to avoid mention of the inequities built into our system. But that’s the only way it succeeded – that we mentioned, for a while, that our deck is stacked.
     If Occupy America had a unifying theme, it was that the rich are too lightly taxed, and that that’s unfair to the rest of us – that Congress has shirked its duty to the commons and allowed obscene compilations of wealth to accumulate among the members of Congress’ class, while millions are out of work.
     Those criticisms are certainly true. But let’s face it, the moment is over and nothing has changed.
     However, neither the end of the Occupy movement – which is attributable more to the coming of winter and to the movement’s intentional aimlessness than to official repression – nor the struggling economic recovery we will make, eventually, with the deck stacked even higher and tighter – neither of these things mean that the coming crisis has been, or can be, avoided.
     As historian Lawrence Stone wrote in 1965, in “The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641”: “There has probably never been a period of history when most people have not cheated in some measure in their tax returns. Sometimes, in some places, the discrepancy between assessment and reality is so great as to render the material utterly valueless. … In general the higher one rises in the social and economic scale, the lower the accuracy of the assessment; it is rare indeed for the rich and powerful to pay their full share.”
     Tax cheating is responsible in part for today’s economic crises in Italy and Greece, where tax cheating is the rule, not the exception. The centuries of poverty suffered by Latin America can be traced to the same dirty spring.
     It’s not called cheating among the rich and the “corporate people” in the United States, because it’s legal. It’s written into the tax code. But the effect is becoming the same.
     “In any case, to assume that the financial recovery of the aristocracy meant the end of the crisis in their affairs is to fall into a vulgar error,” Stone wrote. “The crisis was not purely economic, it was moral and social as well, and the methods adopted to solve the one merely exacerbated the other.”

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