Peter Linebaugh's Blog

Police and the Wealth of Nations: Déjà Vu or Unfinished Business?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

By Peter Linebaugh
Originally posted on Counterpunch
July 3rd, 2020

My idea is to understand police violence and private property by taking a historical look at their relationship, and the year 1776, if not July 4, is a crucial part of it as we shall see. It might help us understand “looting” and “police reform.”[1] Is the 2020 George Floyd uprising a kind of déjà vu?

In the 1960s there was a wave of rioting, municipal rebellion, and challenges to property in the USA. In order to see that wave from a working-class point of view I went over to England to study riots and crime. In those days the theory was that the working-class could bring an end to capitalism, but historically before the working-class was “made,” it consisted of a mob of the poor given to crimes. The horrid ones against people – assault, rape, murder – were relatively few. The ones against property – highway robbery, burglary, shop-lifting, house-breaking, pocket-picking – tended to be new, i.e., from the 16th century at the birth of nation-state, or from the 18th century with high finance and imperialism. We made some discoveries and some progress, especially with ‘social crimes,’ like smuggling, poaching, wrecking, arson, coin-clipping, and machine-breaking which often had community or working-class support.

Despite major differences in basic outlook, you could compare our efforts in England to the Kerner Report in America (1968) which understood crime and riots in relationship to racism and the legacies of slavery. However, again like the Kerner Report, we shied away from studying systemic ruling-class crimes. As long as that evasion was maintained our understanding of the proletariat on either side of the Atlantic was kept separate: a race system here, a class system there. But the current turmoil has racial capitalism in its sights. Therefore, it is not one of déjà vu. History is not repeating itself. If anything, it’s moving right along … towards unfinished business.

As a matter of intellectual history the neo-liberalism of our day goes back to the liberalism of the 19th century which depended on that Bible of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations.

Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. It is the foundational text of homo economicus because it elucidates the relations among property, competition, self-interest, the market, and division of labor. The bourgeoisie bellows out “freedom” at every opportunity to disguise the unfreedom it relies on. Hence, its economics names its nomenclatura, “free” trade, the “free” market, the “freehold,” and “free” labor.

The Wealth of Nations was preceded by lectures that Smith delivered in Glasgow, Scotland, at some date between 1761 and 1763. At first a professor of logic, in 1752 he became Chair of Moral Philosophy. Indeed, his 1776 treatise grew out of those lectures of the previous decade. A student attending his lectures took notes, and in 1896 a hundred years after Smith’s death, they were published as Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue, and Arms, ed. Edwin Cannan (Oxford, 1896). These were the four subjects of law – justice, police, revenue, and arms. It is in these lectures that the theorist of capitalism first meditates on police. There is more here than intellectual history – how book ideas came out of the lecture-hall, because the actual, real wealth of nations depends on actual, real police. This is not a semantic game, though much of what Adam Smith writes is the opposite of the reality.

We can’t just take him at his word. The statues of slavers are coming down and it may not be long before they are joined by the statutes of capital – property as commodity and property as capital. The monuments to the slave power must depart the public square. Just as they fall to the ground as hypocritical monuments to slavery so we must take down certain words from their pompous pedestals where they act not as Truths but as Shibboleths.

For instance, “wealth” meant capital and capital depended on unpaid labor, especially (but not exclusively) of African slaves. Hence, the wealth also produced poverty. One might as well call the 1776 treatise “The Poverty of Nations.” Or, take the word “nations.” He did not mean the myriads of communities and languages of the Indian sub-continent or of sub-Saharan Africa and nor did he mean the 562 nations of indigenous people of north America. He meant a handful of commercial empires of Europe.

In his police lecture Smith says, “It is by far the best police to leave things to their natural course.” All summed up in the French shibboleth called laissez-faire, or leave well enough alone. No two words better sum up free market liberalism. That the effect of his phrase, “natural course,” is to naturalize police. But note too how one could substitute the word “policy” for “police” and not change the meaning. We do not approach police via nature but via history.

Smith had other students such as Adam Ferguson, William Robertson, and John Millar, who formed the brains of the Scottish Enlightenment, and who borrowed a theory of history freely from his lectures. John Millar explained what Smith was up to. He endeavored “to trace the gradual progress of jurisprudence, both public and private, from the rudest to the most refined ages, and to point out the effects of those arts which contribute to subsistence and the accumulation of property, in producing corresponding improvements or alterations in law and government.”

You see why the historical materialist has had a fondness for these bourgeois Scots and their project of describing the ideological superstructure (law and government) in alignment with the material base (technology and accumulation). Actually, they separate the realm of politics from the realm of economics. Base and superstructure were unified in prior regimes based on communal principles and commons in material life.

To understand the historical moment of commercial society when he delivered his lectures we must open the two eyes of history, time and place.

Opening the first eye then, to chronology. The era in which he lectured is generally treated as a world-wide contest between England and France for global hegemony. We need to pay closer attention to the resistance of the dispossessed, the colonized, the indigenous, and the enslaved because each brought different cultural, even spiritual, challenges to these Empires. What they have in common is antipathy to the concept of real estate: land is home, or it is common, or it is sacred. Certainly it is not bought and sold.

Adam Smith was speaking at a time of imperial crisis consisting of first, to name a few elements, the Jacobite uprising of the Scottish Highlanders in 1745 and the terrible battle of Culloden the year following. (See Peter Watkins great 1964 film called “Culloden” for how the English “refined” dealt with the Scottish “rude”.) Second, in Ireland the Whiteboy movement of dispossessed agrarian folks began in 1761. Its submerged, nocturnal resistance to land privatization continued in one form or another for a century and a half. Third, Smith lectured in the aftermath of Tacky’s revolt in England’s richest sugar colony of Jamaica when slaves armed themselves with the spirit of obeah and torched the plantations. Fourth, Smith lectured at the commencement of Pontiac’s War in the Ohio country or the pays d’en haut when a powerful pan-Indian movement led by Pontiac (Ottawa war chief) and inspired by the prophet, Neolin (Delaware religious leader), threatened the British settler-colonial regime. All these freedom struggles years before 1776!

These were centrifugal forces against the widening of the British empire which had centripetal repercussions in the imperial capital. In London the novelist, Henry Fielding, after studying Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, advocated secret, or private hanging as producing greater terror. The hanging tree had to go private, the public knee on the neck squeezing shut the breath, risked ‘mob’ resistance. Anyway, hanging wasn’t enough. With his blind half-brother, John Fielding, he began a steady, protracted assault on the landless, workless common people by introducing schemes of surveillance and armed policing, the Horse Patrol and the Bow Street Runners. In fact it was between 1761 and 1763 that John Fielding drafted “a Plan of Police.” The sustained efforts of the Fielding brothers led to the gradual political and polite acceptance of the French word, “police.”

Opening the second of history, to geography. Glasgow was a port city and the center of the tobacco commerce in the Atlantic world. Bankers founded a political economy club in the 1740s. Glasgow was related to the slave regimes in more ways than one. Glasgow’s iron works imported iron from Russia to fashion heavy, unbreakable hoes and spades for the slaves of the Chesapeake in Virginia and Maryland. In Glasgow Smith met David Hume in 1750 just as the philosopher was arguing against the authority of religion. Smith would write that philosophy was “the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm,” meaning he’d have nothing to do with religion or spirit, unlike the Jamaicans, the Irish, the native Americans, or indeed London plebeians. Political economy became his ‘natural religion.’

“Police is the second general division of jurisprudence,” Smith explains in his Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue, and Arms, and continues, “The name is French, and is originally derived from the Greek [polis]… which properly signified the policy of civil government, but now it only means the regulation of the inferior parts of government, viz., cleanliness, security, and cheapness or plenty. The two former, to wit, the proper method of carrying dirt from the streets, and the execution of justice, so far as it regards regulations for preventing crimes or the method of keeping a city guard, though useful, are too mean to be considered in a general discourse of this kind.”

Let’s examine this passage closely. To begin with we note that in the statement that police “properly signified the policy of civil government” Adam Smith is chosing words from the same lexical field: “police” and “policy” are interchangeable. One might say the same with “political economy” whose cognate is also the Greek word polis.

Next, Smith includes “cheapness and plenty”, or the prices of commodities, as basic to exchange. As it concerns food it is highly contentious and the grounding of a “moral economy” that only disappears, at least in law, in 1802 and under the direct influence of Adam Smith’s notion of police. Those who had sustained the moral economy were the common people such as housewives, artisans, milk-maids, lumpers, and the laboring poor. They had rioted until prices were reduced to a popular level. Perhaps they are the reason that Smith considers “cheapness and plenty” to belong to the inferior part of government.

“Carrying dirt” may mean two things. One concerns sewage; it was the work of night-soil men. It became a matter of public health, and perhaps was the problem that brought about public health to begin with. In the city human waste could not as easily be used to manure the agricultural field, the orchard, or the vegetable garden. “Carrying dirt” may also refer to the meat trade: once the cattle, the pigs, the fowl arrive in the city they are butchered, producing offal – blood, bones, and guts – or waste without resale value. How, where, and by whom is offal to be disposed? Zoonotic possibilities arise, and from that arises the movement of public health. Police management of urban animal trade is not new to the wild animal markets of Wuhan where the coronavirus seems to have started

Finally, why is the subject of police “too mean”? “The objects of police are the cheapness of commodities, public security and cleanliness, if the two last were not too minute for a lecture of this kind. Under this head we will consider the opulence of a state.” In his police lectures he will say “in every commercial nation the low people are exceedingly stupid.”

The whole manner of speaking is based on a bourgeois code of refinement with rules of its own. It is a rhetoric of decorum which acts as a filter which excludes talking shit about police or poop. The “mean” or the “minute” discourse of police would have to begin with padrollers, Pinkertons, railroad bulls, fuzz, the beak, cops, peelers, bobbies, the blue, pigs, the Man, the Heat, dogs, flat foot, dick, blue meanies, coppers, ‘officer’, and ACAB.

Meanwhile a young Scot, Patrick Colquhoun, having just returned from Virginia tobacco country, arrived in Glasgow in 1766. He prospered and becomes provost of the city and founder of its chamber of commerce. With Henry Dundas, another Scot, he moved to central government in London. Dundas became the architect of counter-revolution as Home Secretary and as Secretary of War leading the war against French and Haitian revolutions. (His statue atop a one hundred fifty foot plinth in Edinbugh may topple any day now.) Colquhoun acquired ‘interests’ in Jamaica. In London he surveilled pubs, suppressed the city’s silk textile workers, and then worked with and for the West India planters and the West India merchants. He mounted a sustained ideological and lobbying campaign on behalf of a ‘preventive police.’

In 1798 Colquhoun founded the London police, the first armed, government managed, uniformed police. Its key to success was the unification of wage-payment with armed force. The gangs of lumpers (longshoremen) were formed, invigilated, and paid at the marine police offices for unloading the ships from America and the West Indies. The lumpers’ customs were criminalized, and a bit of money doled out instead, concealing their unpaid labor. That relation – the wage relation – became the fulcrum of capitalism, argued Karl Marx, and the true source of the wealth of nations.

So if this is what he does not do, what is it that he does do? His argument can be summarized in this way:

In Paris there were many more regulations concerning police than in London, yet in London, a more populous city, there were only three or four murders a year. (This does not include public hangings, state murder for crimes of property.) The number of police however was not the cause. Feudal lords, like gang leaders with their own colors and means of intimidation, maintained retainers to keep their tenants in awe. When the retainers were dismissed they lived by plunder. French aristocrats had more servants who when turned out were “force to commit the most dreadful crimes.”

What is meant by “independence”? Smith explains. “Upon this principle, therefore, it is not so much the police that prevents the commission of crimes as the having as few persons as possible to live upon others. Nothing tends so much to corrupt mankind as dependency, while independency still increases the honesty of the people.”

“The establishment of commerce and manufactures, which brings about this independence, is the best police for preventing crimes. The common people have better wages in this way than in any other, and in consequence of this a general probity of manners takes place through the whole country. Nobody will be so mad as to expose himself upon the highway, when he can make better bread in an honest and industrious manner.” While these assertions are empirically doubtful at best what is important to note is, again, the lexical synonymity between “policy” or “politics” and “police”: brute force reigns throughout: the knee on the throat is never far.

Adam Smith’s ideas enter American history at two decisive moments. First, at the foundation of the USA when Alexander Hamilton introduced his Report on Manufactures (December 1791). This together with his Report on Public Credit with their financial and tariff structures lay the foundations of economic accumulation, the enclosure of commons, military expansion, industrial development, and slavery.

Second, Adam Smith’s ideas enter American history at the termination of Reconstruction. W.E.B. DuBois will write of the end of reconstruction, “Profit, income, uncontrolled power in My Business for My Property and for Me – this was the aim and method of the new monarchial dictatorship that displaced democracy in the United States in 1876.” Smith’s ideas influenced the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873 in New Orleans. That they also concerned butchers will be a matter, according to Smith, of police who will sweep the streets clean. These cases brought Adam Smith fully into the constitution again, laissez-faire constitutionalism, and prepared the way for the infamous Lochner (1905) era of the Supreme Court characterized by total absence of regulation of contract or property.

Commerce and manufactures become the great topics of Adam Smith’s subsequent work, and the basis of political economy. But it is not only that. They are not just topics of his writing, or words on the page. Commerce and manufactures change during his life-time beyond all preceding human history. The machine and steam power change manufactures. Banking and shipping change commerce. Thus, the factory and the empire become, to use his meaning, the best police.

At this point we reach the temporary limit of meaning because to follow Smith’s logic in order to abolish the police it would require the abolition of capitalism itself, the system of unpaid labor and the system of war and imperial aggression. Like it or not there is no other way to defund the police. This is our unfinished business.

Essential Reading

Alfred Cave, Prophets of the Great Spirit: Native American Revitalization Movements in Eastern North America (2006)

W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America (1935)

Douglas Hay et al, Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England (1975)

Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged (1991)

Karl Marx, Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production (1867)

Adam Smith, Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue, and Arms, ed. Edwin Cannan (Oxford, 1896)

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776)

E.P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act (1975)


1) I thank the Retort group to whom on 25 June I first outlined these notes, as well as generous suggestions from RK, JW, and DR.

Peter Linebaugh is a child of empire, schooled in London, Cattaraugus (NY), Washington, D.C., Bonn, and Karachi. He went to Swarthmore College during the civil rights days. He has taught at Harvard University and Attica Penitentiary, at New York University and the Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. He used to edit Zerowork and was a member of the Midnight Notes Collective. He coauthored Albion’s Fatal Tree, and is the author of The London Hanged, The Many-Headed Hydra (with Marcus Rediker), The Magna Carta Manifesto, and introductions to Verso’s selection of Thomas Paine’s writings and PM’s new edition of E.P. Thompson’s William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. He lives in the region of the Great Lakes and works at the University of Toledo in Ohio.

Back to Peter Linebaugh’s Author Page

Ned Ludd & Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811–12
The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day
Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance