The Golden Age of Riot


An excerpt from Riot.Strike.Riot.

("The [Bread] Riot Or half a loaf is better than no bread." From a "collection of wood prints ... used to illustrate stories that warned of involvement in crime and unvirtuous pastimes; indeed any pursuits that was not hard work or church going," via Bristol Radical History Group.) 

Among the many places one might commence the story, every one bedeviled by the impossibility of arriving at a true beginning, we might look to Bristol and King’s Lynn in 1347. It is too early, of course. These events are outliers on the scatterplot of events that have made their way into chronicles. Precursors at best. Perhaps better to start in the sixteenth century, where “food riots did not follow a hoary tradition: the earliest were like furry little mammals overshadowed by the great crashing dinosaurs of peasant and dynastic rebellions and enclosure battles.” Or E.P. Thompson’s eighteenth century, undisputed locus classicus. Charles Tilly, at his most capacious, proposes the brackets 1650–1850. John Bohstedt sees a three-century span in which “Our third century, from the 1740s to c.1820, was the golden age of food riots.” Thompson notes these are often identified as “insurrections” or “risings of the poor.” Others following Thompson caution against imposing overly rigid distinctions among types, choosing to recommend instead the approach of “moving away from the compartmentalization of protest. While division of protests into different ‘types’ — food, industrial, political, customary, and so on — may be neater, it obscures our understanding of the very linkages which overarched them.” 

The linkage is linkage itself: exchange as social synthesis. Marx remarks that “the simplest economic category, say e.g. exchange value, presupposes population, moreover a population producing in specific relations.” It is with this that “the bringing of the product to market ... could more precisely be regarded as the transformation of the product into a commodity. Only on the market is it a commodity.”

The rise of markets in the abstract sense is inevitably uneven across space and in time, and often hard to see. Nonetheless, the food riot rises with the market en route to becoming the paradigmatic form of social conflict. “As a growing mass of workers came to depend on markets for their food, England became increasingly vulnerable to harvest failure and to food riots,” Bohstedt notes. Tilly says about France, “We have noticed the durable rise of the food riot at the end of the seventeenth century, as the pressure on communities to surrender local grain reserves to the demands of the national market increased.” Richard Price, taking up Thompson’s framework: “Price riots and struggles over rationalized use of land were characteristic forms of this clash between the innovations of market forces and the assertion of a ‘moral economy’ of reciprocal obligations and responsibilities.”

The question of “moral economy” leans heavily on the significance of particular self-recognitions on the part of the antagonists. In this it is exemplary of much thought regarding riot, an explanatory device relying on intention and ratio as a bulwark against depoliticizing analyses, counterposing self-reflexity to mere reflex. It is Thompson at his most justificatory, when justification is not necessarily the task at hand. One historian counterposes a “pragmatic economy,” arguing, “If food riots and moral economy/paternalistic beliefs were as entrenched in defense of tradition as Thompson argued, those traditions and beliefs ought to have been manifest in the first national waves of riots in 1740, 1756–57 and 1766.” However, “It will be clear by now that the rioters of 1740 were more interested in seizing food than regulating markets.”

Seizing food and regulating markets are opposed only in the realm of ideology. As both sides seem to miss here, the moral sense of the crowd (should such a thing exist) is an instrument of pragmatic needs, not their contravention. The cause of the event lies elsewhere, in social transformation. Once the market is generalized and exchange becomes, in the terms of Alfred Sohn-Rethel, a “second, purely social nature” set next to the first nature of use — once reproduction itself is hemmed all around — price cannot but become a site of immediate antagonism.

But we should not lean too heavily on the magic of “price.” To insist on the distinction is to neglect that the zero of seizure is a price, too; it stands in relation to the total funds available to meet basic needs. Within the context of the market, direct expropriation finds itself on the same continuum of a redistributive struggle for survival as does demanding a lower cost of grain. Tilly makes this point himself about England, France, and the eventual United States:

During the period from 1650 to 1850, people most often either kept grain from leaving town by seizing the shipment or forced local food into the market at a price lower than the owner preferred. The authorities called those actions food riots, but in fact they consisted of ordinary people’s doing almost exactly what the authorities themselves commonly did in time of shortage — forbid grain from leaving town, commandeer local supplies, regulate the price.

Seizing food is market regulation, much as exporting food in the midst of dearth is market regulation.

The World Market

It is for this reason that we begin at the docks. In 1347, there are two notable riots in England, at the Hanseatic League ports of Bristol and King’s Lynn:

Once on board, the crowd, assuming royal power, unloaded the ships “against the will of the owners” and put the grain up for sale “at their own price.” The protestors also seized and sold other shipments of corn being brought into Lynn to be marketed and then “on their authority” sentenced the owners or carriers to the pillory, “without process of law.” Finally, the crowd was accused of arresting the mayor and other inhabitants and issuing quasi-royal proclamations.

This carnival assumption of power haunts the riot; more than four centuries later, the Gordon Riots will sign the breached wall of Newgate Prison, “His Majesty, King Mob.” After a point, command over price is not so easy to distinguish from sovereignty. But it is a different fact that is most telling here. In Bristol’s port the ships are bound for Gascony, those leaving from King’s Lynn for Bordeaux.

The world market is in formation, a project of merchants, militaries, banks. The events at Bristol and King’s Lynn follow shortly after England defaults on the massive loans from Florence with which it financed the invasion of France; both Gascony and Bordeaux are hinges of the Hundred Years’ War. The trading network of the Mediterranean propagates this volatility, the “great crash” of the 1340s (featuring the first banking collapse, taking down the Houses of Bardi and Peruzzi). Against this drama within the nascent world-system, the export riots of 1347 play but a minor role.†  Nonetheless they are woven into its tapestry, warp and weft.

The port, the entrepôt, even on a limited scale (for what is King’s Lynn compared to Venice in the High Middle Ages, or to seventeenth-century Amsterdam?) is as close as the made world will come to the intersection in theory of production and circulation. If it is the hurly-burly of the local market writ large, it is at the same time the condensation of all the abstractions of world space, commercial arrangements, portulans, admiralty law. It is the built landscape where the relation of the local and the global is on display. Outside the port, it is hard to reconcile the two, if one has not traveled much: the quotidian civic doings of the agora and the notional sublime of oceanic trade. It is the distance between the ledger book and adventure fiction. Franco Moretti observes,

Adventures make novels long because they make them wide; they are the great explorers of the fictional world: battlefields, oceans, castles, sewers, prairies, islands, slums, jungles, galaxies ... Margaret Cohen, from whom I have learned a lot on this, sees it as a trope of expansion: capitalism on the offensive, planetary, crossing the oceans. I think she is right, and would only add that the reason adventure works so well within this context is that it’s so good at imagining war.

From this perspective, the achievement of Robinson Crusoe is to synthesize ledger book and adventure — to discover among the truths that modernity will put on offer the unity of the two. As Marx has it, “so does private exchange create world trade, private independence creates complete dependence on the so-called world market.” Walter Raleigh’s aphorism precedes this: “All trade is world trade; all world trade is maritime trade.” A dialectic of merchant’s stall and world market then, the entanglement of the most local and farthest-flung phenomena. And along with this, the dialectic of riot and war, King’s Lynn and Calais, each at a far end of a shared skein.

It matters little, to return to an earlier theme, whether the rioters possess thoughts of world markets, distant conflicts, the tightening mesh of global space. They have a practical task that arises within these, from these, and takes part in them regardless. The participants cannot stop turning toward these things, which haunt every horizon. Thompson, discussing the overlooked planning and patience of the marketplace riot in all its local particularity, is drawn by the magnetic pull of export:

Moreover, they required more preparation and organization than is at first apparent; sometimes the “mob” controlled the marketplace for several days, waiting for prices to come down; sometimes actions were preceded by hand-written (and, in the 1790s, printed) handbills; sometimes the women controlled the marketplace, while parties of men intercepted grain on the roads, at the docks, on the rivers; very often the signal for action was given by a man or woman carrying a loaf aloft, decorated with black ribbon, and inscribed with some slogan.

Here, the common sense of riot’s history becomes a narration, in which the export riot is a sort of digression, a substory. It is finally of great significance in tracing the long historical arc of riot to understand that this has matters reversed. Let us consider the century of national riot waves. In 1740, the strong majority are “crowd action to stay transport of food.” They cluster around coasts and waterways: the mouths of the Thames and the Severn, King’s Lynn, along the Ouse and even the Union Canal. The more widespread riots of 1756–1757 see an increase both in explicit price-setting and attacks on dealers, but still tilt toward transport; they cluster again around waterways and toward the Midlands. Around 1795, Thompson’s “climactic year” for riot, underwritten by famine and channeled Jacobinism, riots are to be found everywhere below Northumberland; price-setting now equals transport. There is no shortage of either. By 1800–1801, it is riots one piled on the next, spreading throughout the Midlands and spanning the southern coast in a last peak before riot begins to decline in England. And not in England alone; the course is much the same in the North American colonies, where the exemplary rioters of 1709 through 1713 attacked ships, in one case snapping a rudder against the departure of a shipment of wheat; these events are intimately tied to emerging West Indian trade.

The pattern is perfectly clear. The export riot, the direct physical intervention into transport, is scarcely a divergence or improvisation within the trajectory of riot, but rather its baseline. It is there at the origin, an invention of emerging national and international markets, financing of the national purse, the commoditization of agriculture, and the corresponding destruction of communal self-sufficiency. From its earliest beginnings, the riot has been a quintessential circulation struggle. Even the most discrete and rustic seditions have shared this expansive context. After 1521, there began an even more dramatic and blood-dimmed expansion, the catastrophe of colonization, slavery, spice routes — what some historians will call“the first globalization,” the mercantilist era that integrates the world economy in the span between the voyages of Columbus and Da Gama at one end and the Industrial Revolution at the other. That this mercantilist era more or less matches the first age of riots is not a telling correlation, but the riot’s historical and theoretical basis.


† It is worth noting here that “world-system” is not intended to designate the entirety of the globe and then treat Western Europe as if it could play that role in analysis as it so often does in western imaginations. As Immanuel Wallerstein clarifies, “Putting in the hyphen was intended to underline that we are not talking about systems, economies, empires of the (whole) world, but about systems, economies, empires that are a world (but quite possibly, and indeed usually, not encompassing the entire globe).” Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction, Durham: Duke University Press, 2004, 16–17.
E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Vintage Books, 1966, 65. He goes on to footnote J. F. Sutton, The Date-Book of Nottingham, Nottingham, 1880 edn., p. 286: “A Nottingham action in September 1812 commenced with several women, sticking a half penny loaf on the top of a fishing rod, after having streaked it with red ochre, and tied around it a shred of black crape, emblematic ... of ‘bleeding famine decked in Sackecloth.’ ” The red and black flag begins in bread.

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