'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, October 13, 2008

From the Archives: The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century 

Every now and then, we encounter books that transform the way that we perceive history and human experience. The London Hanged is one of them. Written by Professor Peter Linebaugh, and published in 1991, it presents a fascinating portrayal of class conflict in England in the 18th Century. It is also one of the most exciting, idiosyncratic books in terms of its language and storytelling method that I have stumbled across in quite some time.

Linebaugh selects a provocative entry into the subject: the public hangings at Tyburn in London, hangings that, according to Linebaugh, exposed the relationship between the concepts of crime, primitive accumulation by the emerging merchant classes and perpetual class conflict. During this period, civil society as we know it today, with strictly defined property rights, protected by professional police and the judiciary, and facilitated by technological advances motivated by the need to create a disciplined workforce compensated through wages, came into existence.

Accordingly, there is a profound social context to the hangings, as they involved the creation of a system of justice by which individuals who transgressed the commercial values of the new order were charged, convicted and publicly hung in front of large crowds as an example to others. At the heart of the struggle was the unwillingness of the English working class to accept the loss of what was then commonly known as custom, or, alternatively, perquisities.

Neither term is easy to define, but they involve at least two notions. First, the accepted practice that a worker, based upon the residue of feudal social relations, shared in the materials used in production. The merchant possessed a limited right of ownership, subject to the right of the worker to take for his own use waste or even a small percentage of the total amount. Accordingly, it was implicitly acknowledged that the merchant and the worker had a shared ownership, even if the merchant's was by far the greater one. Such a right in the workplace was often critical to the survival of the workers and their families, as, alarmingly described by Linebaugh, most English workers in this period could not subsist on what they were paid.

Linebaugh addresses this aspect of the meaning of these terms in extraordinary detail, providing us with a fascinating glimpse of the trades practiced in London at the time, explaining, for example, how tobacco was transported from the Tidewaters of Virginia to London and the specialization of labor that it engendered. Tobacco ignited a remorseless conflict between workers and merchants over the extent and nature of the perquisites associated with it, as everyone involved in the transport of the valuable commodity took the opportunity to help themselves to a share of the crop, even customs officers. Other instances of this conflict include the rags associated with silk production, the cabbage related to the fitting of clothes by tailors and the chips taken from the yard by dock workers.

Second, the terms also involved a certain amount of control by workers over the means by which they performed their tasks, and the nascent capitalists of England perpetually complained about their idleness and the need to impose discipline upon them. Hence, the factory workhouse, the textile mill and the notorious brutalities inflicted upon sailors. Indeed, while sailing in the 18th Century is now often retrospectively romanticized, Linebaugh quotes a colleague to the effect that sailing prefigured the creation of an industrial, factory proletariat. He cites Professor Rediker to the effect that sailing resulted in the first collective laborer, based upon a sophisticated specialization of tasks and the use of an international work force.

Of course, the ultimate goal was not the elimination of an abstract evil like idleness, but the submission of workers to a wage system whereby they would be closely monitored, supervised and compensated based upon a quantification of a portion of the value of what they produced. Workers, quite predictably, resisted it, and Linebaugh explains how the hangings at Tyburn, with their emphasis upon property crimes, such as theft, embezzlement and larceny, should be properly understood as one of the measures of the harshness of this conflict. In fact, these property crimes were more and more rigidly defined and enforced as a means of destroying the system of perquisites that workers so zealously asserted.

Linebaugh is especially good when he places these trends in the context of the emergence of London as the center of a global economic system, ravenously searching the world for more commodities and more workers to fuel the transformation of England from a mercantile society to a capitalist one. His descriptions of the involvement of black and Irish peoples in this struggle are especially compelling. On the other side, it was a struggle personified in Patrick Colquhoun, a man who implemented the concept of the urban police as a necessity for protecting the public against what he perceived as the immoralities and predations of the working class in the 1790s, during struggles with silk and dock workers. As described by Linebaugh: Thus, he knew the meaning of the 'division of labor' in both senses--namely, as commerce (the social division of labor) and as fractionalization (the specialization of tasks).

Colquhoun and those who saw the future like him prevailed, imposing a division of labor in both aspects, but, and this is an essential point, they never succeeded in destroying the willingness of people to resist, a resistance that continues to this very day. Linebaugh presents us with a social history that speaks strongly to us in the present, defiantly refusing to accept the end of history, rebelliously rejecting Thatcher's dictum that there is no alternative to the present neoliberal order.

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