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

This is a large and important book, and as rumbustious as the characters who fill its pages. Its subject is the lives and deaths of men and women brought to hang at Tyburn. Its context, however, is nothing less than eighteenth-century imperialism and emergent capitalism. Their processes involved a bitter struggle between propertied and proletarians, a struggle in which the London hanged, Linebaugh claims, must be seen as frontline casualties. According to his argument, capital punishment and the accumulation and defence of capital were inextricably linked.

In its themes and tone, the study offers a striking contrast to Paul Langford's A Polite and Commercial People, the first volume of the New Oxford History of England. In the latter book, a dominant theme is the manners, moral, sensibility, and consumer habits of an emerging middle class. Linebaugh's heroes are neither middle class, nor by almost any definition polite, and they are commerce's victims (though this word is eschewed by Linebaugh) as distinct from its beneficiaries. Yet though the London hanged and England's polite and commercial people apparently occupied a different material and moral universe, it is one of Linebaugh's essential points that they stood in a symbiotic relationship. The consumer products which helped to define middle-class politesse were wrought by an emerging proletariat, increasingly obliged to resort to desperate, sometimes violent, strategies for survival. Silk was a telling example. The epitome of consumer luxury, its production was accompanied by strife and blood shed from the plains of Bengal (which increasingly supplied the raw product) to the workshops of Spitalfieds. London's weavers strove, not without some successess, to defend customary work practices and perks against the attempts of masters to "rationalize" their industry. Their resort to sabotage and the intimidation of the employers' spies brought many of them to the gallows in what Linebaugh describes as a "staged massacre" organized by the "ruling class" (p.279).

From this brief summary of the book's theme, even the least attentive reader would by now have recognized that Linebaugh's analysis is an unabashedly Marxist one. In his account, the typical terminological anachronisms of its species--class struggle, working class, ruling class, bourgeoise, and so on -- are supported by some creative neologisms. They include "excarceration" (the counter-theme of incarceration, and defined as "the activity of freedom" typified by the celebrated exploits of the Jack Sheppard, the jail-breaker); "thanatocracy" (a government that ruled by resort to the death penalty); and "Tyburnography" (the sociology of the London hanged). Other rhetorical devices include a sarcastic deployment of truisms, intended presumably to remind a bourgeois readership of labour's valuable function. One example must suffice: "Shoemakers provided a useful service to all who walked and needed protection from the grit and muck in their way" (p.231).

The patronizing tone grates, as does Linebaugh's dismissive attitude toward much of the recent work in the field of crime and society. Identifying the initial inspiration for his own research as Edward Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, he chides scholars for betraying Thompson's intellectual example through their "conceptual timidity and ... narrow rejection of historical imagination." Current scholarship, Linebaugh complains, treats crime as a "police problem" and has "had the effect of denaturing men and women who fell foul to law" (p. xviii). Even the Marxist-inspired notion of the law as an instrument of class hegemony (an approach fruitfully pursued by Douglas Hay and Edward Thompson himself) is deemed by Linebaugh as unduly limiting because it shifts emphasis away from the working-class to the issue of state power.

Despite its rebarbative quality, however, Linebaugh's book deserves to be taken seriously. His insistence that the history of the London hanged is a crucial dimension of the working-class experience is convincingly endorsed in a series of vignettes of the "picaresque proletariat." Its subjects are revealed moving from legitimate occupation to crime -- and sometimes back again, if they can evade the law--in ways that confute any notion of a permanent criminal class. Thanks in large part to Linebaugh's earlier work, his general point has already been assimilated by historians in the field (see, for example, John Beattie, Crime and the Courts in England, 1660-1800). What Linebaugh achieves here, through his vivid and moving accounts, is to rescue his subjects from the dead hand of historical abstraction. His portraits include sailors, prostitutes, turbulent weavers, radical tailors, and proto-revolutionary dock-workers, many of whom were born outside London, outside England even, and who were part of the demographic drift to the imperial metropolis. The principal source is the "Ordinary of Newgate" and his biographical accounts of condemned men and women. Because these accounts are refracted through homily, historians have tended to spurn them as unreliable; but Linebaugh convincingly demonstrates their utility.

In a general sense, Linebaugh's linkage of capital punishment with the tribulations of an emerging proletariat constitutes a powerful argument, even after allowing for the absence of a comparable study of provincial executions. More debatable (though in a positive way) is his determination to calibrate every shift in eighteenth-century penology exclusively with the requirements of advancing industrial capitalism. The decline of public execution itself, according to Linebaugh, was a corollary of the triumph of the modern wage-laboursystem. system. Changes in patterns of punishment that cannot be readily fitted to the Marxist mould -- Such as the opportunity that transportation provided as an alternative to the death penalty -- are downplayed in his account. Even more contestable are some eccentric attributions of motive to those engaged in capital crime. Highwaymen, according to Linebaugh, did what they did because they yearned to be independent artisans. This example, in fact, betrays a petit-bourgeois sensibility that resonates through the work despite its studiously Marxist orrientation. Linebaugh's outlook has more in common with Margaret Thatcher's than he (and she) might care to acknowledge.
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Author:Sainsbury, John
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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