Memory and the Work of Forgetting: Telling Protest in the English Countryside
There is a tendency in protest studies to valorise and glorify all acts of social protest. In part, this is a function of protest scholars being so close to their archives, and that their material is a lived presence in their lives, that it is almost impossible to conceive of their foci as being anything other than heroic, acts of great social good. And, of course, many historical acts of social protest and their attendant practices can be so conceived: few would dispute the innate good writ in the objectives of Chartism, or in the exposure and defeat of deceitful marketing practices in an eighteenth-century food riot. But in many cases the resort to social protest – and here we shall make a distinction between political activism as understood in the twenty-first century as engaging in purposive acts to bring about cultural or political change and the broader concept of protest – was a reaction to a social dysfunction. Indeed, much protest was motivated not by a desire to effect social or economic change but to avoid it, what social movement theorists call defensive or conservative action. As Roger Wells noted in relation to food rioting, the practice was evidence of a breakdown in social relations, that other means of seeking redress – the tools of E. P. Thompson’s ‘moral economy’ – had failed and that poor consumers now needed to use direct action to right perceived wrongs and improve their lot.