As governments step up internal repression under the guise of the ‘war on terror’, it is appropriate that Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged has been reprinted. Hanging in 18th century London, like lethal injection in 21st century Texas, was never only punishment. State terror was and is an active part of a dynamic system of antagonistic social relations.
Linebaugh’s book ‘explores the relationship between the organised death of living labour (capital punishment) and the oppression of the living by dead labour (the punishment of capital)’. The other side of 18th century London’s enormous wealth was its labouring population earning below subsistence levels.
London’s criminalised population was no separate underclass; criminalisation was a sign of the expropriation and exploitation of the majority. This majority was diverse – Linebaugh compares it to ‘a popular drink of the time, called “All Nations”: the dregs of all the different spirits sold in a dram shop were put together in a single vessel’. Some workers were former slaves; some had fought British imperialism in Ireland. All had traditions of common ownership and alternative moral economies with which to oppose the intensification of capitalist social relations. With capital and other punishments, workers were forcibly reminded of the prerogatives of property. But property itself was constantly changing, shifting from customary payments to a predominantly waged economy.
Hangings at Tyburn for taking silk, sugar, rum, etc. told the labourers such perquisites were no longer theirs. Some of the London Hanged may have repented under Wesleyan pressure; many others died drunk, disorderly, angry, eloquent or trying to escape. Some were freed by the mob. Foucault’s age of ‘the great confinement’ was also an age of escape, and plebeian heroes like thief and serial escapist Jack Sheppard figured in popular plays and ballads. The wealthy lived in fear of the lawless commons outside London, where highwaymen waited for them. Although factory discipline was eventually imposed on London’s rebellious population, it was a long and a bloody fight.
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