E.P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: the Origins of the Black Act — October 29, 2017

E.P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: the Origins of the Black Act

Men in knight attire with their dogs. Maybe they're law enforcement?
This is another magic trick by the author of the magisterial Making of the English Working Class. The book plays itself out to the reader as a little historical mystery: why did the English government care enough about the theft of deer to make it, in the early decades of the 1700s, a crime punishable by death?

The book opens with explorations of individual cases in minute detail, and in the hands of a lesser author this might be exhaustingly tedious. To his credit, Thompson is both too good an author to let this happen, and aware enough of what ordinary readers are like to understand that we might feel that way. The cases are dealt with briskly and dramatically; Thompson is an excellent storyteller. The stories are mined for as much ore as they’ll offer up, because the data on the Black Act are apparently sparse: early-18th-century England was heavily censored, seemingly in part as a way to enforce stability after the Hanoverian succession. So few people wanted to come out and say that the Black Act was impossibly Draconian.

The Act wanted to label those accused of ‘blacking’ (i.e., dressing up in disguise, painting their faces black, and hiding off in the woods at night) members of what we today would call ‘gangs’ or ‘terrorist cells’. If they were tarred as a group, and their actions were perceived as a criminal conspiracy, it was easier to throw the book at them. In this way the parallels to the modern ‘terrorist’ label are fairly striking. The “blacks” did, in fact, act as small groups in many cases: attacking a landlord’s house at night, firing into his windows, and stealing deer as a group. But they don’t seem to have been a widespread movement with any actual leadership, apart from a perhaps mythical figure named “King John”. Instead, they were sporadically organized deer thieves across a couple counties in England.

So why, again, were Walpole and others so concerned to suppress the blacks up to the point of sentencing them to death? In the second half of Whigs and Hunters, Thompson throws back the curtain on the era and on the story of the blacks. In his description, the first decades of the 1700s in England sound a lot like the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union: rapacious capitalists had rushed in and were siphoning off public funds into their private bank accounts. Georgian England, in particular, was in the middle of the enclosure movement, whereby land that had been owned in common since before the memory of man was now given over to the highest bidder. In the grand arc of history, maybe this was better in the long run, but in the meantime it was depriving peasants of their livelihoods.

On that score, Thompson’s book begins with a detailed exploration of what forests are used for. Again, just as in Making of the English Working Class, he pulls off this feat of being as richly detailed as necessary, while never taking his eye off the larger story. Today a forest seems like, basically, a nice place to spend a few contemplative hours where the air is nice. To early-18th-century England, it was a source of food in the form of deer, a source of heat in the form of wood, and the scene on which community life played out. Now, under George I, all this was being torn from beneath the people who’d lived there for centuries, all so that Walpole and his cronies could get wealthy at the public trough.

It’s Thompson’s great magic trick to acknowledge the scantiness of the data on the specific case of the blacks, while embedding that case within a broader history of the 1700s by which the blacks suddenly make perfect sense.

His peroration — which Jeet Heer mentioned thusly:

— is what led me to read this book. It’s a plea to recognize that the law isn’t, as a certain strain of Marxists would say, a mere fig leaf over ruling-class interest. While Walpole and others may have profited off the common wealth, and while they may have crafted laws that punished the lower classes, it’s important to note that they felt the need to do this through the vehicle of the law. Their power was not unbounded: there’s a difference between the unlimited power of the totalitarian and the limited power of a ruler within a society of laws. Thompson’s defense of the rule of law is timeless, beautiful, and in the context of the larger work, rather surprising.

E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class — October 19, 2017

E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class

A (presumably British) working man, photographed from the nose down, the image tinged red. The working man is carrying a lunch pail or something similar, and he wears a soiled apron.

This is really an extraordinary book, quite unlike anything I’ve read before. Normally my problem with books written by British historians — here I’m thinking of Hobsbawm and Gellner, both of whose books I recommend without hesitation — is that they meander seemingly at random around the topic. I’m probably wrong about this, and the problem is probably that they optimistically assume I know more than I do. In any case, usually when I read them I imagine an old, doddering, amiable professor standing at the front of the lecture hall, back turned to his class as he stares with some puzzlement at the blackboard silently for a few minutes, until eventually his disorganized eyebrows perk up and he declares loudly to the class, “Yes! Yes, we shall discuss the Napoleonic Wars” in a course about the Blitz.

Thompson’s book has some of that, but it is thoroughly under his control. Whenever he encounters an interesting historical bend in the road, he stops, lays the groundwork, examines that bend, and always returns promptly to the path he was on. The Making of the English Working Class is a monumental work of ornately carved detail and breathtaking scope all at once. It took me a good month to read it, and I’m so glad I did.

I learned a lot. First was probably this outline of the path Thompson planned to draw:

I do not see class as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships. … class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.

This helps explain a subsequent observation:

Popular movements in London have often lacked the coherence and stamina which results from the involvement of an entire community in common occupational and social tensions.

That is, it’s much easier to form a class and set it against its antagonists when, for instance, you’re in Sheffield and your neighbors all specialize, as you do, in manufacturing cutlery, than when you’re in a heterogeneous metropolis like London.

But let’s start much earlier, before the Industrial Revolution was even a glimmer in James Hargreaves’s eye. Thompson begins coalescing the threads that eventually became the British working class at least a century earlier, with John Wesley’s creation of the Methodist church. The strictly organized hierarchy of the Methodist church, says Thompson, taught workers a thing or two about organizing groups of people, which they put to good use in the later labor movement. (Thompson mentions “Halévy’s famous thesis that Methodism prevented revolution in England in the 1790s.” I know not of this thesis, though looking in here for the word “Jacobinism” gives an intriguing taste.)

Mid-1700s radicalism centers on a British notion of the “free-born Englishman”, which I gather I’m supposed to know about, because I’m supposed to know about the English 17th century. Turns out I don’t know about the English 17th century, though I’m working on it. What I infer from reading Thompson is that English rhetoric of the 17th century sounds a lot like American rhetoric today: that anyone who wants to invent a new right had best pretend that he’s not inventing this right, but merely recovering it from the ancient rights of his ancestors.

And then the French Revolution came, and with it a new justification for the rights of man — embodied, on the English side of the Channel, in Thomas Paine, and specifically in his Rights Of Man. Thompson says that The Rights Of Man was a very big deal, “establish[ing] a new framework within which Radicalism was confined for nearly 100 years, as clear and as well defined as the constitutionalism which it replaced.”

It’s of course well known that radicalism on the Continent scared the dickens out of the English ruling class; if this isn’t well known to you, Corey Robin’s Reactionary Mind is a good treatment of the topic. I was not aware, though (clearly having forgotten my Robin), that Paine himself was so central to the formation of an entire way of thinking. I know as much about Paine as the next American schoolboy: I learned a sentence or two about him, then picked up another from the Hamilton soundtrack. Burke, and then Rights of Man, go on the queue.

Reading a book about the coming of the Industrial Revolution in Britain from the corrupted perspective of an early-21st-century American, steeped as I am in far too much classical economic dogma, I’m tempted to ask: despite the dislocations and the vile urban poverty, isn’t this better for everyone? After all, if filthy 19th-century London was so bad, then why did people choose to leave their villages for it? Certainly the villages must have been even worse, no? This observation, or something like it, must be in Glaeser. And it’s by no means an academic question: how you perceive the London slums will affect how you perceive, say, the favelas, or the Bangladesh factory collapse. I confess that the Glaeser approach to these problems has infected me.

Thompson’s response makes me feel stupid. Yes, the rural areas were even worse than London, but only because the rural areas were emptying out as people moved to the metropolis. That is, there came a point when enough people had emptied out the villages that there was no home to return to. This is a classic collective-action problem: maybe those who’d moved to London would have preferred to have moved back to the country, but by this point their collective behaviors had made that impossible. In general, it seems to be the case that “consider collective action” is a catch-all, completely correct, answer to most naïve libertarian economics.

We’re all so sullied by libertarian economics — well, I can’t speak for you, but I speak for myself — that we tend to view most economic dislocation through the eyes of this degraded libertarian calculus. Glaeser, for instance, repeatedly advocates helping poor people, not poor places. Were it up to Glaeser, I imagine we’d abandon Detroit, and that we would have abandoned New Orleans after Katrina. The humane response to Glaeser seems almost painfully innocent: places have meaning. A city isn’t just a collection of economic transactions bound together by a shopping district; it’s where generations of people lay down roots. The corrupt libertarian ideology seems to treat preservation of the basic social structure of a place as a needless sidebar to economic maximization. When I read Ruskin, I perceived him as hopelessly naïve, standing as he was on the other side of that chasm. On the contrary, it is I who was naïve; Ruskin was watching the destruction of the land and of his society, whereas I’m standing at a vantage point from which all the destruction has been smoothed away.

This historical empathy lets us view the Luddites more sympathetically:

the conventional picture of the Luddism of these years as a blind opposition to machinery as such becomes less and less tenable. What was at issue was the “freedom” of the capitalist to destroy the customs of the trade, whether by new machinery, by the factory-system, or by unrestricted competition, beating-down wages, undercutting his rivals, and undermining standards of craftsmanship.

In many ways Thompson’s book is a fleshing-out of Karl Polanyi. The story arc of Polanyi’s book is that every society which has undergone capitalist economic transformation has tried to do something to arrest that change. The point isn’t to stop economic liberalization, but rather to slow it down so that the social structure can keep up. Economics is an important sphere of human life, but it’s not the only such sphere. A good bit of Thompson’s book is expanding on this idea down to fine (and finely rendered) detail in the English context.

Thompson’s style in delivering this detail is to quote exhaustively from primary sources: from the pamphlets of proselytizers like Cobbett and from the petitions of angry assembled workingmen. The result is just overpoweringly persuasive. And then scattered throughout are his absolutely ice-cold daggers into the libertarian orthodoxy, as here when he demolishes the idea that libertarian “freedom” was a natural outcome of the market’s magical powers:

In the weavers’ history we have a paradigm case of the operation of a repressive and exploitive system upon a section of workers without trade union defences. Government not only intervened actively against their political organisations and trade unions; it also inflicted upon the weavers the negative dogma of the freedom of capital as intransigently as it was to do upon the victims of the Irish famine.

The Making of the English Working Class is what happens when a man’s moral outrage is channeled into icy, careful intellectual vengeance — for instance, this:

Finally, it is suggested, with tedious repetition, that the slums, the stinking rivers, the spoliation of nature, and the architectural horrors may all be forgiven because all happened so fast, so haphazardly, under intense population pressure, without premeditation and without prior experience. “It was ignorance rather than avarice that was often the cause of misery.” [citing Hartwell — SRSL] As a matter of fact, it was demonstrably both; and it is by no means evident that the one is a more amiable characteristic than the other. The argument is valid only up to a point — to the point in most great towns, in the 1830s or 1840s, when doctors and sanitary reformers, Benthamites and Chartists, fought repeated battles for improvement against the inertia of property-owners and the demagoguey of “cheap government” rate-payers. By this time the working people were virtually segregated in their stinking enclaves, and the middle-classes demonstrated their real opinions of the industrial towns by getting as far out of them as equestrian transport made convenient.

This same deeply moral man observes that “one writer [Salaman — SRSL] has surveyed the issue [of child labor] with that air of boredom appropriate to the capacious conscience of the Nuclear Age.”

Thompson’s book is an exquisite antidote to the bloodless economic morality that we’ve all become accustomed to. He takes his time mapping out an 18th- and early-19th-century English world that lies so far on the other side of an economic chasm that we’re mostly unaware that it was ever possible:

The classic exploitive relationship of the Industrial Revolution is depersonalised, in the sense that no lingering obligations of mutuality—of paternalism or deference, or of the interests of “the Trade”—are admitted. There is no whisper of the “just” price, or of a wage justified in relation to social or moral sanctions, as opposed to the operation of free market forces.

He takes enough time painting his portrait of pre-Industrial Revolution English life that it becomes just possible to feel historical empathy — to place ourselves in the shoes of those living in an economic and social system vastly different from our own. That historical empathy alone makes this book worth the price of admission.

To get from that side of the industrial chasm to this one, we had to cross over a point where people were fully aware of what they were destroying, and what they were to gain from the destruction. The very soul of man had to be reshaped, so that he viewed himself as an appendage of the machine:

“Our intention,” said one Assistant Commissioner, “is to make the workhouses as like prisons as possible”; and another, “our object … is to establish therein a discipline so severe and repulsive as to make them a terror to the poor and prevent them from entering”.

We left behind a world that operated at a humane tempo rather than a mechanical one:

A whole pattern of family and community life had grown up around the loom-shops; work did not prevent conversation or singing.

Questions about the benefits of economic “liberalization” do still nag at me, though, as when Thompson writes:

Between 1806 and 1817 the number of gig mills in Yorkshire was said to have increased from 5 to 72; the number of shears worked by machinery from 100 to 1,462; and out of 3,378 shearmen no less than 1,170 were out of work while 1,445 were only partly employed.

Their labour was replaced by that of unskilled men and juveniles.

(internal footnote omitted) What were the unskilled men doing before the Industrial Revolution began? Perhaps he answers this question somewhere within this magisterial volume, but I couldn’t find it. Even if the answer is “they were living on poor relief”, that doesn’t undermine Thompson’s (and Polanyi’s) thesis: there were real victims of the Industrial Revolution, and it will not do to hand-wave that an omelet requires breaking some eggs.

The arc of Thompson’s story runs from the intellectual foundations in Methodist 18th-century England, all the way through the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832. Along the way, the story drives relentlessly toward the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which is seemingly a pivotal moment in the English labor movement. Perhaps it’s similar to the Pullman strike? I’m afraid I know about as much about American labor history as about English labor history.

Thompson’s book is an astonishing entrée into the history. He places the reader’s mind and heart into that era; it must set the table perfectly for subsequent readings about the time — many of which I’ve queued up. I’d urge you to read it, both as important history and as the work of a historian in absolute control of his art.