A city’s place in the world

Review of Cotton Panic!

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Last week the launch of the Greater Manchester Internationalisation Strategy took place in Albert Square, under the gothic architecture of Manchester Town Hall. Developed with the aim of becoming a so-called ‘global player’ and ‘a top global city by 2035’ the strategy failed to acknowledge and reflect upon the long entanglements between Manchester and the world. The vision, proposed in the strategy, of the city’s place ‘out there’, seems narrow and fixated on economics, investment flows and trade relations. The main concerns being ‘attractiveness to international investors’, acting as ‘a key international gateway to the UK‘ and aiming to ensure ‘quality and ease of access and interconnectivity.‘

Across Deansgate from Albert Square, the historic, 1878 Campsfield Market is an apt Victorian setting for Jane Horrocks’ Cotton Panic! being run as part of the Manchester International Festival. This part theatrical, part musical experience is a powerful retort to the notion that people and the cities they live in trade without thinking about the human costs that underpin globalised capitalism. With the looming spectre of Brexit and the recent launch of this outward facing but flawed municipal strategy Cotton Panic! is a timely and important contribution to assessing Manchester’s contemporary place in the world.

Horrocks production uses the venue’s decaying atmosphere, clogs, mill worker singsongs, the blues of Delta slaves, live projection and an electronic-industrial score to put together an impressive 70 minutes of immersive experience for the audience. Across a series of almost hallucinatory scenes the suffering of Lancashire women and men during the American civil war and the struggle to end slavery thousands of miles away from the plantations of the American South is elucidated in a powerful narrative. As the experience progresses Cotton Panic! extends a compelling idea of Manchester’s place in the world, one of struggle and solidarity with the oppressed.

From 1861–65 the Cotton Famine, caused by the blockade of southern American ports was supported by the courage and morals of working class people in the city. With workers refusing cotton grown at the hands of slaves over 50 percent of spindles and looms lay idle. Such solidarity cost the workers dear. The Cotton Famine led to incredible suffering across Northern textile towns, especially in Cottonopolis, which the audience is told grows from 80,000 in 1801 to over 460,000 by 1861. Through exploring this suffering both in Lancashire and across the Atlantic Cotton Panic! draws on a stark but important connection, noted by Marx between the slavery of the plantations and the wage-slavery of the Lancashire mills.

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Across the city, relief efforts were organised by and for the starving workers. Cotton Panic! makes a wry comment on the clothes, food and money sent from the Lord Mayor of London. Historical lithographs, the memes of the day, show what we might now know as food banks, offering the basics for survival for many thousands of households. But we also hear from a tragic voice of how whole families starved away in hollows and holes throughout the dreadful living conditions described so well by Engels amongst others. At the same time others in the city were profiting from weapon sales to both sides or supporting the Confederacy.

The powerful, and costly, political stance against slavery is communicated to the audience through a focus on the pivotal New Years Eve meeting in 1862 at the Free Trade Hall. We hear and experience as the assembled workers, spilling out of this most famous venue, urge on Abraham Lincoln and those fighting the southern slave states;

“We honour your Free States as a particularly happy abode for the working millions, where industry is honoured. One thing alone has, in the past, lessened our sympathy with your country and our confidence in it, we mean the ascendency of politicians who not merely maintained negro slavery but desired to extend and root it more firmly. Since we have discerned, however, that the victory of the Free States in the war which has so sorely distressed us as well as afflicted you, will strike off the fetters of the slave, you have attracted our warm and earnest sympathy”

By May 1865 the American Civil War ended with the defeat of the Confederacy (if not the system of terror and racialised capitalism for African-Americans). The workers in Lancashire went back to the looms, having helped change the course of history. The audience hears the words of Abraham Lincoln as he proclaims appreciation and admiration for those mill workers:

“I cannot but regard your decisive utterances on the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom… Whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exists between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.”

Manchester’s historic relations to the world have been contradictory and cannot be condensed down to the heroic acts of the mill workers brought to life in Cotton Panic!. As the historian Sven Beckett makes clear in his study, Empire of Cotton the economy that underpinned the city’s expansion and rise to global prominence was built on:

“Slavery, the expropriation of indigenous peoples, imperial expansion, armed trade and the assertion of sovereignty over people and land” (xv).

Manchester was literally built on the blood, sweat and tears of slavery. Our built environment has no less a violent past than port cities such as Bristol or Liverpool. And this history is not so long ago. Well into the 20th century, as Jonathan Robbins describes in his detailed book, the Oldham spinners and ‘Manchester Men’ of the British Cotton Growers Association (BCGA) were pushing cultivation through (and sometimes against) the British imperial machinery. He describes fears of:

“a new kind of slavery as the BCGA and other corporations gained land concessions and reduced free farmers to wage labourers, as happened in the French and Belgium Congo” (104).

In other instances forced labour in colonial governed spaces such as Northern Nigeria was quietly ignored by the BCGA through local supply agreements with the region’s Emirs, in order to secure new supplies in a growing race across the globe. The actions of the BCGA places the long history of cotton, Manchester and the world, even now within living memory for some in the city, into sharp focus in relation to how we think about our future relations.

Out of such world spanning relations and the globalised networks of cotton and other manufactured goods an internationalist outlook took root in the city. The political economist Jerome Hodos draws our attention to the ‘municipal foreign policy’ operating out from this dynamic engine of capitalism. The ideology of free trade dominated the political scene in the city and is still understood as the Manchester School in the discipline of economics. Understood as the underlying logic of globalisation this ideology has subsumed almost every space into the global economy. These historical traditions of internationalism, both of the Lancashire mill workers in Cotton Panic! and the Manchester Liberals, prompt us to consider how the city should relate and contribute to the world today.

As Manchester undergoes an expansion not seen since its industrial heydey the city is forging new economic connections to global pension and equity funds, Chinese state-owned construction companies, American vulture funds, and most notably through a close partnership between the Council and the authoritarian police state run by the Abu Dhabi ruling family. If the strategy marks the re-emergence of the region on the world stage, after its post-industrial malaise that spanned decades, then Cotton Panic! powerfully asks if the city’s internationalism should incorporate more than the concerns of trade and investment.

For instance, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International sent a letter to Manchester City Council in regards to the close relations with Abu Dhabi in order to take, “simple and initial steps” to support the victims of torture in the United Arab Emirates. There has been particular public concern and focus in the ongoing imprisonment of human rights lawyer, Ahmed Mansoor. Whilst there has been no official municipal response actions have included a letter signed by several local politicians, including Labour MP’s Rebecca Long Bailey and Angela Raynor. How can the leadership of Manchester City Council talk about respect for human rights and remain silent about the authoritarian police state it is close partners and friends with? The silence is deafening.

In another developing trade relationship, which I have previously written about, the growing economic relations between China and the city are causing some alarm. These are particularly important in relation to the ongoing unrest and repression in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (known by independence campaigners as East Turkestan). China’s One Road, One Belt initiative seeks to connect the old Silk Road from Xinjiang to the Atlantic Ocean through massive infrastructure projects and pacification of the Uighur people. Investment into the city is part of this wave of transformation but there has been little debate amongst public figures about the extent of these relations. In an interview with ITV’s Daniel Hewitt, the former Chief Executive of Manchester City Council three times refused to express any concern for human rights in China, emphasising his concern was only with the people of Manchester in these new trade relations. Such attitudes from municipal leadership seems out of step, with both the history of the city as told in Cotton Panic! and the progressive values shared by many of the workers and residents of the region today. A cry of hyopocrisy is called out by some campaigners who see a Labour run council happy to put investment before principles.

Cotton Panic! finishes with a montage of contemporary injustices and the struggles that now span the world in what would be both novel and familiar ways for the Lancashire workers of the 1860’s. From Bangladeshi textile mills to Black Lives Matter, through to the harsh austerity under Tory rule Horrocks wants the audience to think beyond history and into the present. While some of those gathered in Campsfield Market last night might feel this leap forward unneeded and to some extend brash, given the renewed global aspirations of Manchester the scene seemed opportune in asking about the city’s place in the world. In Manchester this means more than remembering such extraordinary courage and concern but also trying to live up to the ideals and internationalism that were impressively reinterpreted at Campsfield last night and getting to grips with our blood soaked history. The new internationalisation strategy, designed to guide Manchester’s future with the world notes that:

“Our hunger to connect and trade with international markets has driven the transformation of our economy over the past two hundred years.”

The city’s modern day municipal and business leaders would do well to remember that the people of this region have always cared about more than markets and economy. Do we really want our future city being built through a partnership with what Amnesty International call the most brutal police state in the Middle East? Cotton Panic! shows one of the most celebrated moments in this history but also forces us consider the city’s place and actions in the world today. Sadly, the leadership remains silent when it matters most.

Written by

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow | Geographer into global urban studies + infrastructure | Urban Institute, University of Sheffield

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