The London Hanged: Crime and civil society in the 18th century By Peter Linebaugh

Hang 'em high, sell 'em cheap
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The Independent Culture

They say the old tunes are still the best, and Bush's America seems hell-bent on returning to the "cruel and unusual punishment" of Britain's 18th-century Bloody Code. Since the Bush regime is widely regarded as the epitome of predatory capitalism, this book is peculiarly timely.

Peter Linebaugh begins with a play on the word "capital" which, he claims, is of profound significance, as there is an organic relationship between the death penalty and the development of capitalism. As he puts it, his book is about the relationship of the death of living labour (capital punishment) with the oppression of the living by dead labour (the punishment of capital and capitalism).

Many writers have drawn attention to the correlation of crime with social inequality but few go so far as to make entire historical episodes functions of a socio-economic system or modes of production. Linebaugh's Marxist project is supremely ambitious - and maybe it is too ambitious.

Linebaugh argues that the London hanged were not a deviant subsection of the "honest poor" but an organic part of it - one is tempted to use the inevitable Marxist terminology and call it a "vanguard". "If... the law indeed expresses ideals of justice which transcend the corruption of the rulers of society to break them, then the working class in prophetic wrath may turn the world upside down to justify its social crimes." The phrase "savage indignation" had already occurred to me when I came upon the following explicit reference to Swift. Arguing, with typical intellectual sophistication, that if the law is "nothing but" the interests of the ruling class, then the reaction of the poor as criminals is not morally superior (they'd rather it be in their own interests), Linebaugh writes that the working class's putative "debasement descends to resemble those monkey Yahoos who beshat themselves upon Gulliver".

Yet this is a volume where passion and reason work well together. The author has many gifts and talents as a historian. Theoretically inclined historians often work on a tenuous empirical base, while the filleters of archives on the other hand descend into mere number-crunching. Linebaugh has the perfect meld of empirical and theoretical perspectives. He is amazingly well read, intellectually sophisticated and dazzling in his command of the minutiae of weaving, shipbuilding, sailing, coalheaving and so on. His empirical studies ("Tyburnography") show that conscious or unconscious political dissidents suffered grievously under the 18th-century Bloody Code. About 14 per cent of those hanged at Tyburn were born in Ireland, more than a third had begun an apprenticeship, and the proletariat hanged in London was more international in composition than the working-class population of London in general. "Outsiders" in one sense or another - Irishmen, sailors, weavers - found it more difficult to adjust to the new time-based industrial disciplines of the 18th century and the destruction of customary rights.

Although Linebaugh's volume is impressive throughout and some sections are superb, it suffers from a number of faults. There is both hyperbole and inaccuracy. The author establishes that London had a population of 10-20,000 blacks and says this represented 6-7 per cent of the total. But the population of London in the years 1700-1800 rose from about 575,000 to 675,000 so that the true figure cannot be greater than 3 per cent.

There is a lot of discussion addressed to matters of purely academic debate which is likely to bewilder the ordinary reader - as for example on the alleged distinction between "social criminals" (ie primitive political rebels) and "criminal criminals". Linebaugh claims, with a few carefully selected examples, that globalisation has led to an increase in capital punishment. One might just as well argue that the British response to global capitalism has been to abandon the notion of punishment, as the recent pronouncements on burglary and mugging by the Lord Chief Justice and others suggest.

In any case, if the thesis is that there is a peculiarly close relationship of hanging with 18th-century society, why did capital punishment persist thereafter? And what was the peculiar change in capitalism that brought about the end of public hangings at Tyburn in 1783?

One of the difficulties with this volume is that Linebaugh is not a lucid writer. Like many academic authors, he states a clear proposition, then surrounds it with so many cavils, caveats, qualifications and partial retractions that it is often impossible to get at what he really means. The suspicion arises that this is an academic ploy so that, if challenged, the author can reply, with T S Eliot: "That is not what I meant at all." A more serious criticism is that Linebaugh fails to establish a "dialectical" process at work in the 18th century. Most conventional histories contrast the master criminal and escapologist Jack Sheppard with his one-time protector, the thieftaker Jonathan Wild. Linebaugh daringly juxtaposes Sheppard with conditions in a Derby textile factory. Clearly in the 18th century, as forms of property became more variegated and heterogeneous and work discipline tighter, more and more crimes were added to the statute book. So far, so good, but to extend this to the proposition that capitalism causes capital punishment is an intellectual bridge too far. Linebaugh fails in his Promethean intellectual ambitions but provides us with much new knowledge and wisdom, and even some entertainment, on the way.