Saturday, September 01, 2007

Peter Linebaugh - The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century

Loath as I am to quote favourably anything from the odious Daily Mail, when reviewing Peter Linebaugh’s monumental work, they got it absolutely spot on - describing it as “A remarkable book… this is history as it should be written”.

Linebaugh’s starting point is to argue that you cannot understand the history of London without understanding property relations within that society. And you cannot understand property relations and the development of capitalism without understanding the struggles that took place between those who had property, and those who had little or none. In this he consciously echoes the famous lines of the Communist Manifesto, whose authors wrote that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

Following on from this argument, the author examines how punishment and indeed crime changed to reflect the changes taking place in society itself. The ultimate in punishment is death and Linebaugh’s work examines society through the often detailed records that accompany the judicial murder of London’s criminals by hanging at Tyburn Hill.

Those with even a cursory knowledge of crime and punishment will recollect that capital punishment in the early eighteenth century was often for what we would consider the most minor of crimes – the stealing of a handkerchief for instance. What this book argues is that the public spectacle of capital punishment had a more complex purpose – to shock and cow the public into the acceptance of new forms of property relations and the destruction of old forms.

Perhaps the genius of Linebaugh’s book is to combine this understanding of the rise of capitalist society with the voices of those who where hung. Their explanations of why they committed the crimes, their contempt for a society whose only interest in their lives was the brief life history before their condemnation, and their belief in a more just way of living.

The way our modern world is shaped by the struggles of the past is brought out in fascinating detail. The network of national banks arose as a response by rich farmers unable to return home from the markets in London and Bristol because of the overwhelming numbers of highwaymen. But those highwaymen themselves were often those whose traditional livelihoods in the countryside had been destroyed by new practises that centralised farming and destroyed the small butchers and traders, replacing them with larger businesses.

Time and again, through Linebaugh’s detailed examinations of the lives of butchers and highwaymen, prostitutes, Irish immigrants, former slaves and shipbuilders we discover a willingness to hold onto the few “rights” they had, the customs and practices of decades, in the face of a brutal and rapidly changing world. Sometimes this exploded into anger as with the burning of Newgate prison. For too long this event was described as an anti-Catholic plot by a drunken mob, yet in relating was a huge mass movement that targeted and destroyed symbols of oppression, such as the prison, as well as the houses and homes of those establishment figures who had condemned so many to it.

We learn of the first “general” dock strikes in Shadwell where the strikers raised the Red Flag for the first time in history and on a smaller, but no less important scale, we read time and again how the crowds gathering to watch a hanging often tried to intervene, sometimes with great success.

Towards the end of the book, Peter Linebaugh describes a world where capitalism is almost triumphant. Through his examinations of day-to-day custom and practice in the Deptford shipbuilding yards, we see how establishment figures are grappling with the very nature of exploitation through work. How they measure, quantify and calculate surplus value. We see the first attempts to deskill a workforce, to introduce piece work and to “rationalise” industry through the introduction of technology.

Shipbuilders, in all their different tasks, had for centuries taken “chips” home. These were the excess cuttings from the colossal amounts of wood required to build the ships needed for Britain to further its imperialist ambitions abroad. For the capitalist, these “chips” represented waste, inefficiency and outdated methods. For the workers on the other hand “chips” were the difference between starvation and life, in an industry where payment was often 15 months behind schedule.

The attempts by the establishment to stop this tradition – first through legislation, then with violent punishment and then to the aborted attempt to use technology to make sure that the waste was minimised are countered by the struggles of the dockyard workers themselves – from the smuggling of bits of wood under clothing to strikes and machine-wrecking.

These stories are mirrored throughout this wonderful work in the stories of the men and women who struggled against the consequences of a rising capitalism, to try and ensure that their space within the new society was their own.

In his afterword to the second edition, Linebaugh makes an obvious point – we continue to live in a world where countries around the globe, and in particular the world’s major capitalist power still use capital punishment to cow and batter their oppressed peoples. The struggle for justice and freedom cannot be successful, until that is no longer the case.

Through their struggles, the men and women of eighteenth century London ensured that hanging was no longer seen as a safe option for the London establishment, and brought forth a new (if still oppressive) form of justice – it is a battle that will have to be won again and again today.

No comments: