Monday, 1 August 2011
The London Hanged: Crime And Civil Society In The Eighteenth Century
Rather it evidently served the most sinister purpose—for a prvileged ruling class—of forcing the poor population of London to accept the criminalization of customary rights and the new forms of private property. Necessity drove the city's poor into inevitable conflict with the changing property laws, such that all the working-class men and women of London had good reason to fear the example of Tyburn's Triple Tree.
Reviewed by Trevor Bark, in Capital and Class, No. 92, Summer 2007.
Coming as it does at a time of international and domestic conflict and disputes over law – over competing definitions of ‘justice ‘ and ‘right’ – the reprinting by Verso of this exemplary work of historical materialism in the British Marxist Historian tradition is most welcome. Peter Linebaugh, a student and comrade of E.P. Thompson, has revisited here the political and economic transformations that were necessary to change feudalism into capitalism, which were not simply a question of regime or law and enforcement substitution, since these alterations happened on a piecemeal basis over centuries. The main story in the ‘history from below’ approach is the protest and resistance that the proto working class was engaged in during its struggles for survival.The book begins with an exploration of ‘the relationship between the organised death of living labour (capital punishment) and the oppression of the living by dead labour (the punishment of capital)’. This is not merely a sartorial literary flourish: it describes state terror at crucial times of economic change. A hanging at Tyburn in 18th century London was never only punishment, just as lethal injection in the 21st century USA is an active part of the war between classes.
The life histories of the 1,142 men and women who were hanged on the gallows at Tyburn form the basis of this book. A handful were selected to be hung every 6 weeks – a legal massacre - because they had been found guilty of breaking the ‘death statutes’ written by the ruling and propertied classes. Their lives and class experience are portrayed here through the exploration of the wage form, working practices, and the new international division of labour.
It portrays the interrelations between different peoples; Afro-Americans, Irish, Jewish and other - whose class consciousness was informed by slavery and imperialism (e.g. by the plantations in the West Indies) and who were active in resistance in London and beyond. London’s black population alone was approximately 6/7% of the general population in 1780. Britain’s empire was formed by its predominant maritime operations, and the empire and capitalism grew through super-exploitation, as sailors came from all over the world and helped to form London into the world’s leading cosmopolitan city. This in turn formed its nemesis, the proletariat.
Highwaymen formed a part of this class composition; and these former artisans driven into highway robbery by hard times provide an example of a major theoretical innovation famously provided by Thompson et al (1975), and that is the ‘social crime’ thesis. Here we see these former butchers using knowledge from their trade - the provisioning routes into London, often across commons - which would be the location where they relieved merchants and gentlemen farmers of their money.
A further crucial point is that the social protest aspect of this kind of action is sometimes blurred, with the activity being regarded as straight-forward crime, since others apart from the rich maybe involved, such as passengers and coach drivers. However, Thompson et al (1975) responded to this when they argued that there is not ‘nice social crime here and nasty crime over there’. A focus on legality merely leads to a cul-de-sac. Instead it is the social relations in action that are important as they develop, and therefore social crime is always ‘becoming’. Instead, it is possible to speculate that contemporary carjacking is analogous to highway robbery.
The sources Linebaugh uses bring his subjects alive, and this is instructive for the present period. Gangsta rap uses images of the state’s power to punish with prison and execution, just as the 18th century picaresque proletariat celebrated drink, glorious robberies and robbers, and cursed the police.
Albion’s Fatal Tree (E.P. Thompson et al, 1975, now out of print, regrettably) recorded how those criminalised could not be separated from the other ordinary men and women who formed the working masses as a whole, so that they were not marginal to the class experience of dramatic economic change. The imposition of the wage form was enabled through the enclosure of land and the ending of customary appropriation by the masses, which ended people’s ability to rely on the land for subsistence. The criminalisation of custom on the land was accomplished by a redefinition of crime in the workplace, as the new capitalism sought to end a feudal tradition of artisans’ and others’ rights to a proportion of their labour. Old social relations were displaced and new ones introduced; and descriptions included in ‘The London Hanged’ are of watchmaking, shoemaking, hatting, tailoring and service.
Quakers were once thought odd for insisting on a fixed price at market and the ‘non-negotiable price’ gradually became normalised. Shops too, gradually replaced markets, although throughout the 19th century informal marketing was still the norm in at least London as Costermongers (fruit and vegetable sellers) traded through its streets. London’s extensive dockyards and their labourers are examined in detail in the book; the class struggle over the wage form here lasted for decades, and was not decisively won until 1801, when the final right to customary appropriation of chips – ‘spare’ wood used as furniture, energy, housing, and for sale - was finally replaced by a wage allowance. Wages previously might be paid six-monthly, if they were paid at all.
The criminalised population was not different - in fact it was the general population, and the criminalisation represented expropriation and exploitation by the ruling class. The technical recomposition of the work process through fortification, Benthams’ ‘panopticon’, new laws, new policing practices; and, ultimately, by the criminal sanction all disciplined the proto working class to the factory.
The means by which it protested included the Gordon riots - ‘for the first time an international proletariat directly attacked the imperial ruling class at its major institutions’ (P. 330) - and other disturbances. Many other methods were used too, and Linebaugh cogently argues that theft is essential to understanding class conflict and Empire, in the sense of Negri’s use of the word, as a strategy that recouped unpaid wages, compensated for minimal pay, protested against mistreatment and re-established some dignity.
The British Marxist Historians work as a whole, of which ‘The London Hanged’ is a part, enables readers to develop an historical understanding of the way the informal economy was built. History has not only happened; it is also a recurring tragedy and a possible future. Vast areas of the globe have never experienced full employment; instead, semi-proletarianisation is the historical norm alongside other informal economic practices, and an observation of the planet’s slums currently only confirm this.
For activists this book is instructive because it remembers the social conditions that led to class consciousness supporting welfare organisation, a central feature of 19th century class formation, which maybe applicable in contemporary times. The growing trend for capital punishment around the world started during the capitalist crisis of the mid-1970s; and capital means, at the very least, discipline and punishment for the lost souls and others yet to depart.
Thompson, E. P. et al, Albion’s Fatal Tree, Allen Lane, 1975.
Negri, A. and Hardt, M., Empire, 2000.