Saturday, August 28, 2010

Swinging from the Tyburn Tree: the violent creation of the working class and the resistance it spawned.

Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's fantastic book, "The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic" is one of my favorite books of all time. That book, when combined with Linebaugh's excellent "The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century", offer two first-class and complimentary views on the violent imposition of capitalism on the English population and the rest of the then emerging colonial world. Naturally, people resisted this reorganization in all manner of ways.

Linebaugh's book in particular offers the reader not just a view of life before capitalism, but it also reveals the bloody battle that took place over the imposition of capitalist relations, centering on the hangings at the Tyburn gallows. On these gallows those poor in London, dispossessed of their commons and resisting or locked out of the new capitalist work regime, faced the grim, bloody justice of emerging capitalism, determined as it was to bring the English poor to heel before the new mode one way or another. Performed in public, before large crowds and en masse, the hangings amounted to mass state terrorism on the population. A warning of the most extreme kind: conform or die.

Itself often a point of violent contention, with mobs known to riot and rescue the judged from time to time, the hangings routinely involved those charged with stealing food and other minor offenses. The commodity form was just emerging and it was to be respected! This in an era of the mass dislocation of the enclosures gives a hint of the grand scale of the terror. Those lucky enough to escape the hanging tree suffered transportation to Europe's "New World" in bondage under harsh terms of indentured servitude. Thus it is from the resisting English working class, initially, that the colonial State got much of its settler masses.

In the "Many-Headed Hydra" Linebaugh and Rediker take time to point out as well, using the coastal Atlantic's sea-going working class as the example, the effects of the likewise emerging system of white supremacy. Sailors, a motley multi-racial bunch, routinely defied the new racial regulations of the day, bringing a working class wreck across racial lines to colonial society's elites, rioting and resisting their way from port to port. At the same time, these heterogeneous working class formations' contentions with colonial capitalism's racial forms and privileges also spurred the State to further regiment and formalize them. And as the settler State increasingly turned to chattel slavery kidnapped from Africa, the threat that faced the ruling English white elite in colonial America was always a tri-racial alliance of the emerging white working class, African slaves and indigenous tribes. It was this burning fuse that whiteness was constructed to douse. And it is this division that lives with us to this day.

Thinking of these early rebels from the capitalist and racialized order is important, because it shows us not only an alternate history, but it also a hint of what we had and how we lost it. Relationships which perhaps seem normal enough to us now, like work or policing, seem quite the opposite when we look back and realize the sheer violence that the State was willing to use to impose and defend what were then new and generally unwelcome institutions for the extraction of profit and the preservation of power and privilege.

Returning now to the sailors, there was one particular kind of sailor that terrorized the elite like no other. For hundreds of years, but peaking perhaps in the early 18th century, pirates stirred the fearful imaginations of blue-blooded American aristocrats like none other save perhaps the slave insurrections of the South. Indeed, when the Amistad ship, famous for its mutiny and flight out of bondage, first appeared on the North Carolina horizon it was described in no uncertain terms as a pirate ship. The comparison was apt, not least of all because of the infamously defiant multi-racial characteristics of the sailor class and, in particular, the pirate hordes that plagued corporate shipping.

Pirates themselves defied not just the racial regulations of their time, but also the system of work under capitalism. Seizing and plundering, electing their own leaders, dividing up the loot in egalitarian ways and living in the moment all defined the pirate existence on the open sea. This stood in sharp contrast to a system increasingly regulated by the clock and the turning of gears inside the dank, repressive factory. Naturally, aside from the general miserable conditions of life under capitalism, the prime recruiter for the pirate population was in fact the specific nature of life as a sailor. Life on a navy ship or merchant vessel was factory-like to the extreme. Many sailors served against their will and for little or no pay. It's easy to see how in these conditions questions of race and division can quickly fade away.

It's interesting to note that on the slave ships that navigated the Middle Passage with their stolen cargo, it wasn't uncommon for nets to stretch out from the ship out over the sea for some distance beyond the deck. Captured slaves it seems, would not infrequently attempt suicide by jumping into the sea when they had the opportunity, denying in essence the capitalist the value of their captured labor. In contemporary times, I'm reminded of the nets deployed around the FoxConn factories in China, meant to contain and nullify the wave of suicides afflicting the company and its workforce. Before the nets, many of those attempting self-liberation from Capital's undead grip took flight from the FoxConn factory roof itself, ending up a bloody mash on the sidewalk below. Capitalism lets nothing go without a fight, not even your own body.

So, its in this spirit that I post below two links to recent Marcus Rediker lectures both on piracy. The first, titled, "Black Pirates: The Curious Early History of the Amistad Rebellion" focuses on the framework of piracy as a way of looking at the Amistad rebellion. The second, "The Real Pirates Of the Caribbean", was given in 2007 at the 2007 Bristol Radical History Week in the UK and goes over some of the history he uncovered while writing his book, "Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age". Check them out. They're both well worth your time.

Watch "The Real Pirates Of the Caribbean" at the Bristol Radical History Group's webpage. Note that Rediker's lecture begins at the Tyburn tree. Many pirates likewise met their end there.


chaparral said...

does he discuss the witch hunts at all?

from reading "caliban and the witch" i couldn't help but feel that the peasants of Europe were "colonized" in a way. conquered would perhaps be a better term. i wonder what kind of decolonizing we can do of ourselves (as european-americans). i feel that gender and sexuality plays a big role in this.

Phoenix Insurgent said...

Theodore Allen makes a similar argument in his two volume "The Invention of the White Race". His study is primarily of the Irish and other peoples in that area. Essentially he is saying that whiteness first colonized the English and then the Irish -- that white people themselves are the first colonized, I suppose, to paint with a broad brush.

Federici makes very complementary arguments to Linebaugh and Rediker (and vice versa). Linebaugh actually talks a lot about the "hewers of wood/drawers of water" sexual division of labor that capitalism imposed/exploited/expanded as it emerged. If I remember, he argues that this labor is now invisibilized and taken for granted. Primitive accumulation, as the Marxists say.

If I remember Federici's argument correctly, she's saying that these enclosures of the land and of labor were likewise paralleled by an enclosure of women's bodies (through terrorism, etc) in order to, among other things, turn women's bodies and labor into social factories for the production of future workers.

If you liked Federici I think you would like Linebaugh, too.

chaparral said...

their arguments may be complementary, but i'm curious how much linebaugh talks about the witch hunts. that would be quite an omission. the events are not separate.