In the popular imagination, informed as it is by Hogarth, Swift, Defoe and Fielding, the eighteenth-century underworld is a place of bawdy knockabout, rife with colourful eccentrics. But the artistic portrayals we have only hint at the dark reality. In this new edition of a classic collection of essays, renowned social historians from Britain and America examine the gangs of criminals who tore apart English society, while a criminal law of unexampled savagery struggled to maintain stability.
Douglas Hay deals with the legal system that maintained the propertied classes, and in another essay shows it in brutal action against poachers; John G. Rule and Cal Winslow tell of smugglers and wreckers, showing how these activities formed a natural part of the life of traditional communities. Together with Peter Linebaugh's piece on the riots against the surgeons at Tyburn, and E. P. Thompson's illuminating work on anonymous threatening letters, these essays form a powerful contribution to the study of social tensions at a transformative and vibrant stage in English history.
This new edition includes a new introduction by Winslow, Hay and Linebaugh, reflecting on the turning point in the social history of crime that the book represents.
Historical materialism at its strongest has always been defined by its supersession of the antithesis between Romanticism and Utilitarianism which News from Nowhere, for all its splendour, reiterates. Marx wrote in the Grundrisse: "It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to an original fullness as it is to believe that with this present emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and the romantic viewpoint and therefore the latter will accompany it as its legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end." This sense of the dialectical complementarity of Utilitarianism and Romanticism is what distinguishes classical Marxism from the many attempts by socialists at one time or another to construct an opposition to capitalism from either standpoint: denunciation of its irrationality or inhumanity alone. For each is capable of either progressive or reactionary "derivations" — Mill or Zola can be set against Carlyle or Barres, just as much as Shelley or Ruskin can be set against Ure or Spencer. There is no one "logic" of either tradition, each of which has proved capable of a rainbow of political metamorphoses. The duty of socialists today is not to pit one against the other yet again, but to set both intellectually in their changing historical settings and to prepare practically the conditions for the long-awaited blessing of their mutual end.
I thought Napoleon said it. But no, it's in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776), book IV, section vii, part 3 (about half way through). Here's what he says:
To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.
We might want to add news-mongers, phone hackers, cops on the take, MPs slurping up the lard at the trough, all the bankers and the other high net worth individuals.
But what was Adam Smith on about?
The social historian of life and labour in Victorian and Georgian Britain John G Rule has died at age 67. Rule was part of a group of young historians who worked under the famous historian E.P. Thompson at the University of Warwick in the 1960s. Among Rule's many prestigious academic achievements is his remarkable chapter on "Wrecking and Coastal Plunder" in Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England. His obituary in the Guardian describes his contribution to this collection as follows:
John's contribution to the seminal collection Albion's Fatal Tree (1975) restored to history those Cornish coastal communities which, during the 18th century, accepted the flotsam and jetsam of the sea as a natural bounty to which no laws of property attached; and he destroyed the romantic myth of the Cornish wreckers with their false lights.