Excerpt, Peter Linebaugh's Blog

Excerpt: The City and the Commons: A Story for Our Time

By Peter Linebaugh
First of the Month
December 2nd, 2023

The essay posted below is the one that brought Peter Linebaugh’s Stop, Thief! home to your editor (who morphed into a “New York City man” many years ago). Linebaugh’s case for “commonizing” the city seemed fresh and audacious, though he almost lost me when he invoked the panopticon. (Bentham? Again?) But Linebaugh wasn’t content to reheat Foucault’s leftovers.

He told how Bentham’s actual plan to realize his prison-vision was blocked in 1803. An African American woman, Catherine Despard, soon-to-be widow of the incarcerated Irish revolutionary, Edward Despard (whose story Linebaugh wrote up later in Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Closure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, and of Kate and Ned Despard), helped muster a movement against the new enclosure. She found allies among locals who’d long used the fields that Bentham had scoped out for his model-panopticon as cricket grounds, which, in turn, gave Linebaugh license to link sport and class struggle, with an assist from C.L.R. James:

“[Cricket] was created by the yeoman farmer, the gamekeeper, the potter, the tinker, the Nottinghamshire coal-miner, the Yorkshire factory hand. These artisans made it, men of hand and eye.” James describes the game in the terms of Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads. The cricketer maintains human beauty and dignity against the “savage torpor” of urban, uniform occupation.

Linebaugh finished his essay with his most daring stretch. He pointed out that two weeks after Ned Despard was sentenced to be “hanged, beheaded, disemboweled and quartered,” the aristo who devised Despard’s punishment — Edward Law (“Lord Ellenborough”) — introduced “the bill in parliament that made abortion for the first time in statute law a capital offence…

The attempt was made to enclose not just the land of England, its handicrafts, its transport, its mind, but the womb as well.” 

Linebaugh wasn’t jiving about trying to write history “for our time.”

The municipal occupations and the urban encampments of 2011 provide the starting point for these reflections on the city and the commons, and for a story.[1]

Taksim Square, Tahrir Square, Syntagma Square, Puerto del Sol, Zuccotti Park, Oscar Grant Plaza, St. Paul’s Cathedral: historically, the city grew around these places expanding concentrically. They came alive again as gathering places whose primary purpose was to spark discussion locally and globally.[2] They were a commons inasmuch as internal relations were not those of commodity exchange, an anti-hierarchical ethos, or “horizontalism,” prevailed, and basic human needs such as security, food, waste disposal, health, knowl­edge, and entertainment were self-organized.

These campaigns took place amid an international conversation about the commons initiated by the Zapatistas of Mexico after the repeal of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, providing for common lands in the village, the ejido. The South American discussion combined constitutional discourse with the commoning practices of indigenous peoples. The Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded in 2009 to Elinor Ostrom for “her analysis of economic govern­ance, especially the commons.” It is significant that the award went to a woman precisely because the commons historically was the domain where women enjoyed some parity with men, as Jeannette Neeson showed in her study Commoners. [3]

The paradox of Occupy was the conscious human attempt to common the privatized heart of the city when the evidence of history apparently would deem this to be an impossibility, indeed a contradiction. In an important article published in 1950, the influential archaeologist and pre-historian V. Gordon Childe, described a new economic stage in social evolution beginning about five thousand years ago, the city, or “the urban revolution” as he called it, or the creation of the city.[4] It contrasted with the Paleolithic and Neolithic stages (corresponding somewhat with the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century stages of “savagery” and ‘barbarism”). Whether characterized by roving bands of hunters and gatherers or by small villages subsisting by the domestication of plants and animals, neither privatization nor enclosure of property prevailed in either of these earlier stages. Instead, society depended on cooperative labor, common resources, and communal distribution. Or what we may call “the commons.”

Court, Fort, and Port

Thus, the city and the commons appear to be opposite. The city is a place where food is consumed, the country commons is a place of its production. The city-state precedes the nation-state but not the commons.

Originally surrounded by walls, the city expressed antagonism with the countryside. John Horne Tooke, the imprisoned radical and etymologist of the 1790s, believed that the word “town” derived from Anglo-Saxon meaning inclosed, encompassed, or shut in.[5] In contrast we have tended to see the commons without enclosures and in open relation with land, forest, mountain, rivers, and seas. The city is the location of markets, the destination of caravans, the terminus of ships, the home of specialized craftspeople, so commerce and the city are intertwined. The city fu1filled several functions: of fortification against servile rebellion and foreign invasion, of law and sovereignty, and of trade and commerce. As a fort, as a court, and as a port, the city has embod­ied in all of these functions the principle of enclosure.

We can’t think of the city except in terms of class. Traditionally, its popu­lation was divided in three, the patricians, the plebeians, and the proletariat. When the peasants demanded the return of their commons, they went to the city as they did to London during the great Peasants’ Revolt (1381). They freed prisoners and destroyed written evidence of the expropriation of commons.

Freedom to the capitalist meant freedom from the restrictions on commerce, markets, and production that characterized the medieval city. Freedom also meant freedom of movement. This entailed a contradiction, however. The principle of movement was opposed by the principle of enclosure. Capitalists “sought to demolish the old structures” including the circumambient walls. The vector between town and country was the wheeled vehicle and the road, or the in the case of colony and metropolis, the sea-lanes and the ship. In the countryside the road became the scene of robberies, memorialized in the name of the “highwayman.” Highway robbery became synonymous with profiteering. Hermes was god of both thievery and trade. The street becomes the thoroughfare. The meaning of “traffic” changed from commodity exchange to vehicular motion on the roadways linking forever speed, avarice, and conges­tion. By the 1790s directional orientation on the streets was determined: on the right for France and its colonies, on the left in Britain and its colonies.[6]

Just as some walls come down; others go up. The great age of confine­ment begins–the hospital, the factory, the barracoon, the prison, the ship, insane asylum, old age home, the creche, the school, barracks-become sealed capsules where the commanding principle (as Bentham termed it) prevailed.[7] The urban theatre of power joined the urban spectacle of commodities with the result that the city became a matrix of pain-the stocks, whipping posts, the gallows, the gibbet, the lock-ups, houses of correction, workhouses, and dungeons provided focal points of public gathering. At the junction point between the city and the county stood the gallows, called Tyburn, where thousands perished.

In England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland a vast process of enclosure was taking place. We are familiar with this as it concerned land: Acts of Parliament in England and Wales, clearances in the Scottish Highlands, Penal Laws in Ireland. We are less familiar with the enclosure in the factory, the prison, and urban infrastructures. The walls which once defended the city from enemies coming from the countryside now were interiorized to enclose urban wealth from the creation of commons in the city by workers who had lost their commons in the country.

Childe contrasted the “urban revolution” with the Neolithic revolution preceding it and what he called (following the wisdom of the time) the “indus­trial revolution.” If the wheel, the plough, and the sailboat were the techno­logical signature of the urban revolution, then the steam engine, or the heat engine, of the late eighteenth century transformed all three and made possi­ble a “great transformation” in the human relation to the earth and to each other.[8] This took place first in England.

Two hundred years ago London was the largest city in the world, and commanded it. As the center of world banking it transferred wealth from country to city, from colony to metropolis. Its shipping was greatest, hundreds of vessels arrived from around the world every year; its population was numer­ous, divided between the squares of the West End and the slums of the East End. It was the headquarters of government, church, army, and navy.

Three great walls summarize London at the time. First, Thomas Dancer redesigned Newgate prison after it was destroyed in the Gordon riots of 1780. Second, he cooperated with John Soane, the architect of the Bank of England. By 1796 they had demolished neighboring residences and built a high defensive screen wall, sealing off the hoards of gold, silver, cash, and paper records of the national debt. An 1803 London guidebook, compared it to “the enclosure of a gaol, an immense pile of wall, almost bullet-proof.”[9] Third, the wall of the West India docks and the London Docks, were “inclosed and surrounded by a strong brick or stone Wall not less than 30 feet high…  and immediately without the Wall, there shall be a Ditch of the width of 12 feet … to be always kept filled with water 6 feet deep, and no House or Building shall be erected within 100 yards of the outside of the Wall.” Law, money, commodity: the walled prison, bank, and port.

The military planners of the defense of London in 1801 no longer relied on the wall. Fortification of London as a whole was too expensive. Instead, in the words of George Hanger, “every enclosed field is a natural fortifica­tion: the ditch is the fossé, the bank the parapet, and the hedge on top of it a natural abbatis.” “I mean to contend every inch of ground with them for miles, through these inclosed natural fortresses.” He believed the enemy will attack from the common or common-field.[10]

The street was part of the urban commons. It was not only the place of traffic, or the movement of commodities. It joined producer and consumer, and it joined the producers of various components in separated workshops. It was the site of sport, of theater, of carnival, of song. The cries of London street sellers provided a permanent part of the sounds of the city. By vener­able urban custom the puppeteer could set up his Punch-and-Judy show in the middle of the street. The street was erotic, the streetwalker a synonym for the sex worker. Along with the street was the evolution of the sidewalk or “pavement.” Wheeled and foot traffic were demarcated corresponding to a division between “economy” and “society” or between economic produc­tion and social reproduction.

The ancient antagonism between town and country is parallel to the more recent antagonism between colony and imperial metropolis. The city has attracted the young and energetic of the countryside, just as the metropolis has been the destination of the poor from the colonized parts of the world, the wretched of the earth in Fanon’s phrase. The city of the global North brings together people from the global South-Asia, America, and Africa-where forms of commoning have persisted into the twenty-first century. Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “Just as it [capitalism] has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.”

Ireland & Haiti, Edward & Catherine

Ireland was the oldest colony of England. Haiti was the richest colony of France. France and England were engaged in a long, and world war, part of an old conflict and, more important to us, a war of ideas, a war between liberté, égalité and fraternité on the one hand and Church, King, and Property on the other. Each colony revolted. Haiti against France in August 1791, Ireland forming a revolutionary organization in October of the same year, and finally goaded into revolt against England in 1798. The periphery thus threatened the center. The commons had a geopolitical dynamic.

Edward Marcus Despard, and his wife, Catherine, an African American woman, embodied these challenges. He was born in Ireland in 1750. He sailed for Jamaica in 1765 and he remained in the Caribbean or Central America until 1790. He returned to British Isles and was to spend the next dozen years, perhaps the most revolutionary of human history, in London prisons (apart from Shrewsbury)–King’s Bench, Coldbath Fields, the Tower, Tothill Fields, Newgate, and Horsemonger Lane.

He was an active revolutionary for an independent republican Ireland, and she was a woman with roots in the struggle against slavery. They had valuable experience in forms of the commons which they brought to England at a crucial time when the rate of dispossession from common lands and common rights was extremely high. Despard was imprisoned as a revolutionary in March 1798 and he suffered a traitor’s death five years later. He was charged with conspir­ing to lead an urban insurrection by attacking Windsor Castle (the court), the Bank of England (the port), and the Tower of London (the fort). The insur­rectionary project thus aimed at the threefold essence of the city by besieg­ing three of its most monumental buildings. It aimed to take these over rather than to abolish their principles of war, money; and law; and therefore it did not threaten that “urban revolution.” Yet the commons did pose such a threat.

Even with the noose around his neck, as it was on February 21, 1803, Despard sought to change the course of history. He spoke as “a friend to truth, to liberty; and to justice.” As a friend to “the poor and oppressed” he antici­pated the triumph of the “principles of freedom, of humanity; and of justice” against the principles of falsehood, tyranny, and delusion. He suffered death for endeavoring to procure health, happiness, and freedom for the human race.

The gallows speech became oneof the great sites of human eloquence. The United Irishmen could turn defeat into condemnation of the oppressor. He did not turn the tables alone. Catherine helped him with his rhetorical triads. We find similar triads in Thomas Spence (his followers met in 1801 as the “Real Friends to Truth, Justice, and Human Happiness”) and in Frederick Engels criticizing the utopian socialists (“socialism is the expression of abso­lute truth, reason, and justice”).

His judge hanged him for espousing “the wild and Leveling principle of Universal Equality.” Edward Law or Lord Ellenborough on behalf of land­ lords, stock-jobbers, and capitalists summed up the danger of the revolution­ary commons. This is the key point about the Despard conspiracy. It is ambiv­alent, on the one side it is an insurrectionary attempt to take the city, on the other hand, it is “wild,” that is, linked with “savagery” and ‘barbarism,” it is “leveling,” that is, it is connected to the Levellers and Diggers of the seven­teenth-century English revolution, it is part of the universal upsurge begin­ning in France and continuing in Haiti.

The year 1803 was a historic moment, or “spot in time,” with an Hegelian, a Marxist, and a Thompsonian meaning. Moved by the struggle against slavery in Haiti, Hegel came to understand universal history of freedom in the dialec­tics of the master-slave.[11] Engels was fond of the “utopian” socialists of the time (Saint Simon and Robert Owen) faulting them only for living before the industrial proletariat matured to develop the “science” of socialism.[12] Thompson showed that, driven by the prohibition of trade unions and the persecution of political reformers, the working-class movement in England formed a political underground which enabled it to survive but destroyed an opportunity to connect with the ideas of the romantic poets. Hegel gave us dialectics, Engels gave us historical materialism, and Thompson the working class. Hegel leads us to the slaves, the utopian socialists lead us to the indige­nous peoples, and Thompson leads us to the underground.

“A Red Round Globe Hot Burning”

Knowledge of the commons grows with expansion of imperialism. A single term, “the commons,” expresses, first, that which the working-class lost when subsistence resources were taken away and, second, the idealized visions of liberté, égalité and fraternité. Winstanley, for instance, who in 1650 said that the earth is a common treasury for all, or Rousseau whose Discourse on Inequality (1755) made the commons the starting point of the human story. While the romantic poets inflated the notion of the commons they disengaged it from material practice.

The English romantic poets arose precisely at the moment of maximum antagonism between commons and privatization. What was nature to them? “[The common] is one of the bridges from Jacobinism and utopian communism to nature,” wrote B.P. Thompson in 1969 although Thompson did not linger on this bridge in his subsequent work.[13] Yet this is the bridge we must cross. The most influential writer of the time, Thomas Paine, was familiar with both river and pasturage commons in his town, Thetford, and with the commons of the Iroquois during the War of Independence. He wrote, “the earth in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race …that the system of landed property, by its inseparable connection with cultivation, and with what is called civi­lized life, has absorbed the property of all those whom it dispossessed, without providing, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss.”

Here is Coleridge in 1795 combining ideas of politics, natural resources, human labor, and justice:

… each heart
Self-governed, the vast Family of Love
Rais’d from the common earth by common toil, Enjoy the equal produce …

And here is Wordsworth cautious,

… something there was holden up to view
Of a republic, where all stood thus far
Upon common ground, that they were brothers all.
(The Prelude, lines 226-31, 1805)

His poetry attacked manufactories and workhouses, prisons and soup kitchens. His story of the abandoned woman as Wordsworth’s main plot for his poetry of the 1790s hits the nail on the head, for in the commons woman’s place could be on a par with men. His 1802 preface to Lyrical Ballads was a manifesto, to use “the real language of men” and to choose subjects from “1ow and rustic life.” William Blake put it simply: “the Whole Business of Man Is The Arts & All Things Common,” and then prayed on it, “Give us the Bread that is our due & Right, by taking away Money, or a Price, or Tax upon what is Common to all in thy Kingdom.”[14] Thus “the commons” was in the air, and so was its opposite, enclosure. For Blake enclosure leads to death and to ecocide:

They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up,
And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red round globe hot burning
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased.[15]

The Manifold of the Commons

From the standpoint of stadial history (such as V. Gordon Childe exempli­fied), the commons is a vestige of savagery or a relic of barbarism. From the standpoint of capitalist development, the commons is the waste from manu­factures or the by-products of handicrafts. In short, the commons are either leftovers or holdouts deserving at best a heritage niche. The manifold of the commons means to bring together the resistances to enclosures no matter their geographic provenance or their economic function.[16] It opposes Blake’s “red round globe hot burning.”

William Blake was inspired by the “thirty towns.” They were based upon Guarani practices of common land in South America and by Christian ideas of all things in common. The common land was called God’s property or tupam­-baé. Montesquieu praised them; Voltaire mocked them; William Robertson wrote, “The produce of their fields, together with the fruits of their industry of every species, was deposited in common storehouses, from which each individual received everything necessary for the supply of his wants.”[17]

America was the seed bed of European models of utopia since 1516 when Thomas More published Utopia. Here there is neither private property nor rich and poor.[18] America in this sense replaced the Golden Age that had persisted from antiquity. The Golden Age was an aristocratic vision, Utopia was a bour­geois vision. Shakespeare drew upon both in his treatment of American colo­nization in The Tempest (1609), “All things in common Nature should produce without sweat or endeavor.”

“The dish with one spoon” is a rhetorical figure of the Haudenosaunee expressing the unity of the five nations of the Iroquois confederacy with the commons of the Great Lakes. The same region produced, the warrior leader, Tecumseh, who also struggled for confederation in the name of the “commons.” In 1789 the indigenous people of Connecticut lamented, “the times are turned upside down… They had no contention about their lands, for they lay in common; and they had but one large dish, and could all eat together in peace and love.”[19] It is a lament heard over and over again in this decade from the romantic Lyrical Ballads to the prisons of London.

All the Atlantic mountains, to paraphrase Blake, had begun to shake with the Tupac Amaru revolt in the Andes of 1780. At the cerro ricco in Potosi, the source of the world’s silver and the universal equivalent of all commodi­ties, the murderous mita deformation of cooperative labor prevailed.[20] Direct appropriation was criminalized. The 1780 revolt has been likened to “a great Civil War” whose drama, mobilization, and consequences rank with those of the Haitian revolution of 1791-1803. In Haiti Moreau described a “kind of republic” in the estuary of the Artibonite River where property was not inher­ited by their offspring but returned to the community. The slaves defended customary rights to common provision grounds of potatoes and manioc. Polverel, one of the French commissioners, issued a proclamation in August 1793 saying that the plantation belonged “in common” to the “universality” of the “warriors” and eligible “cultivators.”[21]

Despite the land transfers following the conquests by Cromwell and William III, commoning retained its existence in Ireland. Despard grew up with it. Typical to the eighteenth century was the rundale-and-clachan pattern of settlement in the west and in the uplands of Ireland. Tenants holding part­nership leases and inhabiting housing clusters regulated communal grazing (buaile or “booley”) in the uplands, turbary rights in the bogland, and foreshore rights (cearta tra, or seaweed rights) by the strand. The strips of communal infield were rotated annually (rundale) to ensure ecological egalitarianism of all types of soil–deep, shallow, sandy, dry. This form of commoning, therefore, was a response to commercial expansion in the lowlands, and should be seen as part of “modernism” rather than as a vestige from a mythic past.[22] Despard’s counterparts in Ireland opposed rampant privatization, including Thomas Reynolds and Robert Emmet, who were to suffer hanging later in 1803. Russell considered the “thirty towns” as ”beyond compare the best, the happiest, that ever has been instituted.” Anything short of “Celtic commu­nism,” according to James Connolly, “is only national recreancy” or cowardly faithlessness. In Scotland 1792 was called “the year of the sheep” when the Cheviot sheep w.as brought to the highlands and the first wave of clearances began. The Highland clearances destroyed the tenants who drew lots for strips in runrig agriculture and the cotters who lost their common of grazing, kail-yard, and potato patch. Eviction, burning, riot, and exile was the result.[23]

In 1793 the Governor-General of Bengal, Charles Cornwallis, proclaimed the Permanent Settlement which installed a regime of private property.[24] The same man at the same time started the fight on his estate against Mary Houghton, the gleaner’s queen. Notwithstanding several thousand years of human history to the contrary, the English court declared that gleaning was not a common right. The attack on English agrarian customs was deep, vicious, and widespread. The Charters of Liberty had protected some of them since the Middle Ages; Magna Carta acknowledged the widow’s “estovers in the common” (fuel) while its companion, the Charter of the Forest, protected pannage (pig’s food). The lexicon of the agrarian commons (turbary, piscary, herbage, etc.) is obscure, forgotten, local, or arcane. Much commoning is durable to the extent it is invisible.

By enclosure we include the complete separation of the worker from the means of production–this was most obvious in the case of land (the commons)–it also obtained in the many trades and crafts of London, indeed it was prerequisite to mechanization. The shoemaker kept some of the leather he worked with (“clicking”). The tailor kept cloth remnants he called “cabbage.” The weavers kept their “fents” and “thrums” after the cloth was cut from the loom. Servants expected “vails” and would strike if they were not forthcom­ing. Sailors treasured their “adventures.” Wet coopers felt entitled to “waxers.” The ship-builders and sawyers took their “chips.” The dockers (or longshore­ men) were called “lumpers,” and worked with sailors, watermen, lighter­-men, coopers, warehousemen, porters, and when the containers of the cargo broke or the cargo spilled they took as custom their “spillings,” “sweepings,” or “scrapings.” The cook licked his own fingers.[25]

Alexander von Humboldt, the aristocratic savant, journeyed to America, 1799-1804. “The gentle character of the Guanches was the fashionable topic, as we in our times, land the Arcadian innocence of the inhabitants of Otaheite.” The mutiny on the Bounty arose from the crew’s opposition to the division between Captain Bligh’s “oeconomy,” his money economy and their customs of the sea.[26] In Tahiti this division opened into a cruel gulf between the two civilizations. “To the Europeans theft was a violation of legal ownership…. To the Tahitians it was a skillful affirmation of communal resources.”[27]

To sum up. The loss of commons included a manifold of practices from the country, from the ‘barbarian” and “semi-barbarian” nations (Marx), from customary trade practices, and urban “criminality.” Where or how could these practices be compared? How might the various commons become subject to synthesis? Paradoxically one such place was prison.

The Prison Encuentro

France and England were the empires locked in war. George Lefebvre tells us that the existence of the French peasantry depended on collective rights: access to common land for pasture, access to woodlands for fuel and build­ing materials, and the right of gleaning after the harvest.[28] The encroachment upon these common customs led to the uprisings of the summer of 1789. Jules Michelet counted thirty prisons in Paris in the eighteenth century. The Bastille had walls thirty feet thick and more than a hundred feet high. Under Louis XVI its interior garden was enclosed against the prisoners and the windows walled up.[29]The enclosure of the commons and the storming of the Bastille started the revolution. William Hazlitt, the English radical, likened the liberation of the Bastille to the jubilee; Thomas Paine called it “the high altar and castle of despotism” producing only doubt and despair; John Thelwall spoke of its “bars, iron doors, and caves forlorn” in his first sonnet from prison.[30]

In The State of Prisons (1776) John Howard exposed the hunger, cold, damp, vermin, noise, irreligion, profanity, and corruption of prisons. He advised no fees, early rising, uniforms, soap and cold water, prayers, Bible reading, solitary nighttime cellu!ar confinement, frequent inspection, constant day-time work, and classification in order to prevent communication. The goal was repent ance, or penance, hence “the penitentiary.” His solution helped to destroy the inmate order or the prisoner’s forms of self-governance where a vibrant polit­ical culture could flourish. In Newgate, feminists, millenarians, vegetarians, antinomians, prophets, poets, philosophers, historians, healers, and doctors gathered, “guests of His Majesty.”

Lord George Gordon was at the center of the “London’s notorious prison republic.” He “divided his substance with those who had no money…He clothed the naked, and fed the hungry,” his secretary wrote, and described the prisoners.“They were composed of all ranks .. the jew and the Gentile, the legislator and the laboring mechanic, the officer and the soldier, all shared alike: liberty and equality were enjoyed in their full extent, as far as Newgate would allow.”[31] James Ridgway was imprisoned 1793-1797in Newgate, From his cell poured forth a stream of works on the French Revolution, tyranny, war with France, peace, the rights of women, America, religious freedom, slavery, army-navy reform, Ireland, as well as some novels and several plays.”[32] Dr. James Parkinson, the republican, democrat, and leveler, wrote his Remarks on Scurvy (1797) while in the Tower.[33]Coldbath Fields was opened in 1794, one of the “reformed” penitentiaries, soon nicknamed the Bastille or simply the “Steel.” Coleridge wrote,

As he went through Coldbath Fields he saw
……A solitary cell;
And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint
……For improving his prisons in Hell.

Up the Chimney and the Hollow Quill

Thomas Spence and Gracchus Babeuf were the leading communists of the 1790s in England and France respectively. Babeuf was an insurrectionist and journalist, Spence a propagandist by song, graffiti, coin, and drink. They participated in revolutionary movement, they espoused the universalism of commu­nism, and they had actual experience of the commons.

Francis Place, still active in the L.C.S. and with the committee support­ing the prisoners, describes how writings were smuggled into Coldbath Fields prison. They were rolled up and stuck into a quill, and the quill was inserted into a joint of roast meat close to the bone to avoid overheating.[34] One imag­ines Catherine Despard crossing the several miles from the patrician squares of upper Berkeley Street to the narrow winding streets and alleys of plebeian Clerkenwell in order to deliver dinner, and Spence’s plan.

Spence brings together the practicalities of customary rights of the commons with the idealities of universal equality. He drew on several tradi­tions, the Garden of Eden, Jubilee, the Golden Age, utopian, Christian, Jewish, American Indian, millenarian, Dissenting. All of these ideas were experienced in a context of the commons of the sea (his mother was from the Orkney Islands) and of the land (the Newcastle Town Moor not yet enclosed).

He first enunciated his plan that the land should revert to parish owner­ship to the Newcastle Philosophical Society in 1775. He moved to London, joined the London Corresponding Society, and over the course of the next decade developed his schemes, how to put his plan into operation, revolutionary insurrection, general strike, equality for women, and “rich confiscations,” His most enduring song was “The Jubilee Hymn,” sung to the tune of “God Save the Queen,” the actual jubilee arising as a compromise some five thou­sand years earlier between the Neolithic and the Urban “stages.”

Arriving in London he countermarked the coin of the realm. It was a period of severe shortage in small copper coinage, so tradesman issued their own tokens. Spence soon began to do so too.[35] The pennies and halfpen­nies displayed radical mottoes ringed around the coin’s edge: “If rents I once consent to pay My Liberty is past away,” or “Man over Man He Made Not Lord.” On one side of a penny entitled “Before the Revolution” is the image of a chained skeletal prisoner in a stone dungeon gnawing on a bone while on its obverse side, titled ”After the Revolution,” is a man happily feasting at table while three figures gaily dance beneath a leafy tree.

He sold a drink called “salop,” a concoction made from powder ground from the root-tubers of the early-purple orchid and then infused in warm milk, honey, and spices. This orchid is “one of the few orchids that fairly be called common.” Also called dogstones, goosey ganders, kettle cases, etc. (orchis means testicles), it became popular as an aphrodisiac.[36] Did Spence venture out into the earth’s commons to gather his own orchidaceous samples, or did he acquire his supplies from one of the knowing herb women of the London streets and markets?

Thomas Spence was also committed to the “Steel” but not before Despard was removed to another new penitentiary, Shrewsbury, where Spence was removed too only after Despard had left. The revolutionary soldier and the English communist crossed paths in institutions designed to suppress revo­lution, the commons, and talk! If ideas of communism reached Despard in a hollow quill, ideas of anti-imperialism did so from the chimney, for that is where Arthur O’Connor’s book was hidden in Coldbath Fields. It is a classic of the literature of national liberation.

Arthur O’Connor (1763-1852) was a member of the Directory of the United Irishmen. He was a wealthy landowner. He negotiated with France in 1795 and 1796. He believed “there were 200,000 men in London so wretched that in rising in the morning they were not sure to find dinner in the day.”[37] He was arrested and imprisoned in Dublin Castle where in six months he wrote The State of Ireland, which was distributed in February 1798. He was arrested in England en route to France along with other United Irishmen and charged with treason. Interrogated by the Privy Council, including the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, and the Lord Chancellor he was sent to Coldbath Fields prison. “Of all the furies I ever met,” he wrote later, “the wife of the gaoler was the greatest. Yet his book became part of the clandestine prison library hidden up a chimney, as the Attorney General revealed in Parliamentary debate.

Addressing England, O’Connor wrote, “O Ignorance! Thou guardian of bastilles! Thou parent of famine! Thou creator of slaves, and supporter of despots, thou author of every mischief and every ill! How long must we bear thy accursed dominion?” The Irish people were “worse housed, worse clad, worse fed” of any people in Europe. “Your corn, your cattle, your butter, your leather, your yarn,” all the produce of the land is exported. He praised Irish hospitality, the absolute axiom of the commons. He opposed mechanization, monopoly, high grain prices, and primogeniture. He castigated British impe­rialism not only for its crimes in Ireland but “in every quarter of the globe, pillaging, starving, and slaughtering the unoffending inhabitants of the East Indies; lashing the wretches they have doomed to slavery in the West Indies.” As his modern editor writes, “The only logical antidote to the pathologies of the state of Ireland was a democratic, socially egalitarian republic.”[38] Arthur O’Connor himself wrote “Redress means restoration of plunder and resto­ ration of rights.”

Sir Francis Burdett, M.P., accompanied Catherine on her visits to Despard. Once he left three guineas for the “mutineers.” A good third of the British fleet mutinied the previous year over arrears of pay, forced labor, bloody disci­pline, and systemic cheating. A hundred ships raised the red flags of defiance. Among their demands was to have sixteen ounces to the pound. Thirty-six mutineers were hanged, including Richard Parker, president of the fleet. The United Irishmen were prominent among the agitators below decks including the Belfast man, Valentine Joyce.[39] Thirty-three of the mutineers were still imprisoned in Coldbath Fields by the time Despard arrived. The prison and the ship were conduits in the manifold of the commons where experiences in Ireland, the Caribbean, and Britain could be compared.

Entrepreneurs of Enclosure: A Gang of Four

The open fields were enclosed. Factories began to enclose handicrafts. Markets were replaced by shops. The penitentiary replaced outdoor punishments. Even the gallows on Tyburn Road was closed and reopened inside Newgate prison. Sexuality was repressed. The mind-forged manacles locked shut but not without help from the mind manaclers who forge ruling ideas still.

Bentham, Young, Colquhoun, and Malthus triumphed in the battle of ideas. Bentham was a founder of utilitarianism, Arthur Young was an agron­omist, a development specialist, Colquhoun was a founder of police, and Malthus a founder of population studies. The ideas of the utilitarian, the agron­omist, the demographer, and the police man reflected dominant historical trends, and erected social and intellectual structures which have persisted into the twenty-first century. They were not only men of the study; they were men of affairs, and appealed to practical, commanding men who paid them. Arthur Young was the advocate of land privatization; the earth became a capitalist asset. Thomas Malthus sought to show that famine, war, and pestilence balanced a fecund population. Patrick Colquhoun was the magistrate and government intelligence agent who organized the criminalization of London custom. Jeremy Bentham contrived the architectural enclosure of the urban populations with his “panopticon.”

They were international. Malthus became the professor at the College of the East India Company. Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the panopticon originated from a trip to Russia. Colquhoun’s formative years were passed in Virginia and later he advised the West India interest and had a stake in Jamaican plantations. Arthur Young’s first survey of agriculture was the result of a tour in Ireland. They are global thinkers of counter-revolution against liberté, égalité and fraternité.

They present their policies as “law.” The law of property with Bentham, the law of police with Colquhoun, the laws of political economy with Young, the laws of nature in Malthus. Bentham will have institutions for orphans and “wayward” women. Malthus will recommend the postponement of marriage. Colquhoun inveighed against brothel and ale-house. Arthur Young takes the ground from under the feet of the women whose pig-keeping, chicken minding, and vegetable patch depended on common right. They are concerned with the reproduction of the working class.

Arthur Young toured Norfolk in 1803 and published the results in 1804. He visited approximately seventy-nine parishes which suffered enclosure and precisely describes the common rights lost.[40] The number of enclosure acts more than doubled from 1789 when thirty-three were passed to the middle of the 1790s (seventy-seven) and then almost doubled again by the year 1801 with a hundred and twenty-two enclosure acts. In 1801 Parliament passed the General Enclosure Act (41 George III, c. 109). Perhaps three million acres were enclosed between 1800 and 1815.[41] In 1800 Young published The Question of Scarcity in which he advocated a potato and rice diet as the solution to the bread crisis. He taught the poor religious obedience because otherwise they would become “the rancorous children of the rights of man.”[42]

Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, and a second edition appeared in 1803. Malthus argued that “self-love [is] the main-spring of the great machine” (i.e., human beings) and that “all cannot share alike the bounties of nature.” Patrick Colquhoun in The Police of the Metropolis (1800) advocated a “General Police Machine” and enforced the view that not all could share in the bounties of commerce.[43] “Light horsemen” robbed at night, “heavy horsemen” in the day, conveying away the goods in secret pockets, narrow pouches, and bell-bottom pants. This coffee or sugar could then be bartered for rent, drink, food, clothing at the innumerable old iron shops, grocers, publicans, brothel keepers, chandlers, and other receiv­ers. “For this species of traffic, there are multitudes of open doors in every Street,” wrote Colquhoun. Dockland communities were a hydra, and the hydra was the commons.[44]

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), published in 1802 Panopticon versus New South Wales; or, The Panopticon Penitentiary System and the Penal Colonization System Compared. He proposed it as an institution of discipline for schools, factories, poorhouses, hospitals, asylums, barracks, orphanages, and prisons. He called it “a mill for grinding rogues honest, and idle men industrious.” In fact the treadmill was recently installed in Coldbath Fields prison. Bentham likened the panopticon to the ghosts of a haunted house. This gothic epitome of enclosure referred not only to loss of land but to fundamental change in rela­tion to planet earth unparalleled since the Urban Revolution of five thousand years previous. The incessant accumulation of “industrial” subjects required their enclosure from the cradle to the grave. To be ruled the population of civil society had to be confined and to be confined it had to be brought under complete surveillance.

Cricket and Catherine Curtail the Closures

The panopticon was defeated by a combination of forces. Mrs. Despard was part of it as she lobbied Parliament, penned letters to the newspapers, peti­tioned the Home Secretary, worked with the wives of the other prisoners, visited Edward, and challenged the governor of the “Steel.” The cricketers and commoners of Westminster also opposed it. As a boy, Jeremy Bentham boarded at the Westminster School between 1755 and 1760. He wrote his former headmaster for help in building a panopticon on Tothill Fields. As a boy Sir Francis Burdett, Catherine’s colleague, also boarded at this school until he was expelled in 1786 fo.r refusing to submit to the headmaster and inform against the fellow boys who had smashed windows in their boarding house.[45]

The land was “in the state of Waste which might be subject to the rights of common.” The parishioners of St. Margaret’s and St. James’s enjoyed common of pasture. The Gentleman’s Magazine said “it was in no neighborhood.” It was a cricket ground from “time immemorial” for the boys of Westminster School. Bentham appealed to the Westminster scholars offering to find them a new pitch so that he could build his prison. ‘Whatever benefit they reap from the use of that dreary and ill-looking expanse, in the way of sport and exercise, is subject to the perpetual intrusion of mean dangerous and unwelcome company of all sorts.”[46] One of Spence’s political halfpennies from the mid-189os depicted a “Westminster scholar” wearing academic robes and a scholarly bonnet on one side and on the obverse a “Bridewell boy” wearing trousers or sans-culottes.

A Parliamentary Select Committee on Public Walks and Places of Exercise heard testimony in 1833. “I have witnessed dissatisfaction at being expelled from field to field, and being deprived of all play places.” Hundreds used to play cricket every summer night in the fields in the back of the British Museum. Popular recreation was undergoing profound repression by evan­gelicals, landlords, and industrialists. Pugilism, pedestrianism, football, and dancing also suffered.[47] C.L.R. James writes of cricket, “It was created by the yeoman farmer, the gamekeeper, the potter, the tinker, the Nottinghamshire coal-miner, the Yorkshire factory hand. These artisans made it, men of hand and eye.”[48] James describes the game in the terms of Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads. The cricketer maintains human beauty and dignity against the “savage torpor” of urban, uniform occupation.

Burdett and Bentham fought over Tothill Fields. Burdett and Catherine prevailed against the panopticon. As a viable historical event, rather than a philosophical concept, the panopticon was defeated by June 1803 when prime minister Addington informed Bentham that he was unwilling to finance it.[49] In 1810 Dean of Westminster and former head of the school “paid a man with a horse and plough to drive a furrow around ten acres and the following year gates and rails were erected.”[50]]At some indeterminate date following, the ‘Westminster scholars” began to refer to the former commoners as “Sci’s,” short for Volscis, the people whose conquest in 304 B.C.E., they learned in Latin classes, initiated the expansion of Rome.

When dispossession met the opposition of commoners we get evidence of the composition of a class of servants, craftsmen, slaves, parents, labor­ers, and sailors. Their experience had included revolution whose violence had scarred many of them and whose dreams had inspired a significant few. It was the confluence of practical commoning “from below” with Enlightenment hopes “from on high” that led to the origins of the romantic movement and the communist movement.

The Despard Moment

We do not need to see the “moment” as that of the Peace of Amiens when Britain and France ceased fire for a year. We do not see it either as the removal of government to Washington, DC, and the expansion of the slave regime through the Louisiana Purchase. We do not see it even as the moment of victory against slavery and the triumph of the ”.Army of the Incas” (as Dessalines called his army) in Haitian independence. It included these plus the romantic’s discovery of nature.

What did “nature” mean in 1802? Taking from farmer and sailor knowledge of the clouds, taking from the miner and the navy knowledge of the underground, taking from the peasant knowledge of the land, taking from the indigenous knowledge of plants, the moment of 1802-3 saw a vast change in the social relations of human knowledge.[51] From the clouds in the sky to the strata underground to the life-forms between earth and the heavens, the “world” was undergoing transformation in human understanding.[52]Ballooning aeronauts saw the earth as a giant organism. They gave us the bird’s-eye view, or the supra-terranean perspective, just as the coal miners gave us the subterra­nean view. “Geology” as a word to describe the subterranean science came into existence in 1795. In 1801 “Strata” Smith published the first map of the under­ world of England and Wales. He was inspired as a child by the fossils he found after the ditching and hedging of his village fields upon their enclosure in 1787.[53]

Ivan Illich finds that “life, as a substantive notion, makes its appearance around 1801.”[54] Reacting against mechanistic classification, Lamarck coined the term ‘biology” that year. “Life” is talked about as property. Homo economi­cus was born as a life form, and labor-power as a machine. The month before Despard suffered, Giovanni Aldini, a professor of anatomy from Bologna, attempted to revive the body of a murderer, Thomas Forster, by the applica­tion of electrical charges after he had been hanged at Newgate. A fortnight after Despard was sentenced to be hanged, beheaded, disembowelled, and quartered, the man devising this punitive butchery, Edward Law (“Lord Ellenborough”), introduced the bill in Parliament that made abortion for the first time in statute law a capital offense. The attempt was made to enclose not just the land of England, its handicrafts, its transport, its mind, but the womb as well.

As Despard took his last breath in February 1803 and Toussaint Louverture perished a month later, other tribunes of the revolutionary moment fell silent. Volney went to work for Napoleon; Thomas Paine set sail in September·1802 to an unwelcome in America; in 1801 Thelwall left the hustings of the open field and opened a school of elocution.

Since the city, in the sense of law, force, and commodity, has abolished the countryside commons and the “bourgeois” nations destroyed the “barbar­ian” ones, the commoners of the world can no longer retire to the forest or run to the hills. Unprecedented as the task may historically be, the city itself must be commonized.

May-June 2013

“The City and the Commons: A Story for Our Time” was originally published in Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance (2014, PM Press).


1 I thank the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte ReinaSofia in Madrid and the GradCam in Dublin for occasions in May 2013 to discuss the ideas in this essay. particularly Ana de Mendes and Patrick Bresnihan:

2 This is a leading theme of David Graeber’s account of Occupy Wall. See The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013).

3 Elinor Ostom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); and M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure, and Social Change in England, 1700-1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

4 V. Gordon Childe; “The Urban Revolution,” The Town Planning Review 21, no. 1 (April 1950): 3-17. Childe coined the term earlier in his book ManMakes Himself (London: Watts & Co., 1936).

5 John Horne Tooke, Diversionsof Purley, 2 vols. (London: J. Johnson’s: 1786-1805).

6 George Gould, Righthandedness and Lefthandedness (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1908). The USA went right.

7 Anthony Vidler, ”The Scenes of the Street: Transformations in Ideal and Reality, 1750-1871,” in Stanford Anerrson, ed., On Streets (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1978), 58. See also, Bentham, Panopticon Postscript(1791), Bowring, vol. 4, 86.

8 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957).

9 James Malcolm, Londinium Redivivum (London: Nichols, 1803), 436, as quoted in Daniel M. Abramson, Building the Bank of England: Money, Architecture, Society, 1694-1942 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 125, 130.

10 George Hanger, Reflections on the Menaced Invasion and the Means of Protecting the Capital (London: J. Stockdale, 1804) 107-19.

11 Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), 60.

12 Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific with the Essay on “The Mark,” Edward Aveling (New York: International Publishers, 1994), 36, 43.

13 E. P. Thompson, “Disenchantment or Default? A Lay Sermon,” Conor Cruise O’Brien and William Dean Vanech, Power &- Consciousness (New York: New York University Press, 1969), 150.

14 Laocoon and marginalia on Thornton’s “Lord’s Prayer.”

15 Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793).

16 George Caffentzis, “The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse,” in In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism (Oakland: PM Press, 2013) 11-57.

17 William Robertson, The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles the Fifth (1769), book 6.

18 Thomas More, Utopia, translated by Raphe Robynson (1551), (Everyman’s Library: London, 1910), p. 53.

19 Henry Quaquaquid and Robert Ashpo, Petition to the Connecticut State Assemby (May 1789).  See also, Iain Boal et al., eds., West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California (Oakland: PM Press, 2012).

20 June Nash, We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us: Dependency and Exploitation in Bolivian Tin Mines (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), xxxiii. See also Michael Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980) Steve Stern, “The Age of Andean Insurrection, 1742-1782: A Reappraisal,” in Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).

21 Laurent Dubois; Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 20, 48′, 162, 230.

22 F.H.A. Aalen, Kevin Whelan, and Matthew Sout, eds., Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape, 2nd ed. (Cork: Cork University Press, 20n), 86-91.

23 John Prebble, The Highland Clearances (London: Secker and Warburg, 1963).

24 The literature is vast, but see E.P. Thompson, “Custom, Law; and Common Right,” in Customs in Common (London: Merlin, 1991) and Bob Bushaway, By Rite: Custom, Ceremony and Community in England, 1700-1880 (London: Breviary Stuff, 2011).

25 Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2003).

26 Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America (1805), 121-22 and Greg Dening, Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power, and Theatre on the Bounty (Cambridge University Press, 1992).

27 Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder; How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (New York: Pantheon, 2098), 16-17. In Tahiti, the exchange between a stone age and an iron age culture, not to put too fine a point of it, was: One nail = one fuck.

28 Georges Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution, trans. R.R. Palmer (1967), 140-41. Lefebvre says that the nearly universal use of the sickle, as opposed to the scythe, left the stubble generously high for the gleaners.

29 Jules Michelet, History of the French Revolution, translated by C. Cocks (London: H.G. Bohn, 1847), 66.

30 William Hazlitt, “The French Revolution” John Thelwall, PoemsWritten in the Tower and Newgate (1795).

31 Dr Robert Watson was the secretary to Gordon and wrote his biography in Douglas Hay, “The Laws of God and the Laws of Man: Lord George Gordon and the Death Penalty,” in R.W. Malcomson and John Rule, eds., Protest and Survival: Essays for E.P. Thompson (London: Merlin Press, 1993).

32 Ralph A. Manogue, “The Plight of James Ridgway, London Bookseller and Publisher, and the Newgate Radicals, 792-J.797,” Wordsworth Circle 27 (1996): 158-66.

33 A.D. Morris, James Parkinson: His Life and Times (Boston: Birkhauser, 1989). “If the popula­tion exceeded the means of support, the fault lay not in nature, but in the ability of politi­cians to discover some latent defect in the laws respecting the division and appropriation of property.”

34 The Autobiography of Francis Place, edited by Mary H. Thompson.

35 R. H. Thompson “The Dies of Thomas Spence,” The British Numismatic Journal 38 (1969-1970): 126-67.

36 Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996), 444.

37 Clifford Conner, Arthur O’Connor: The Most Important Irish Revolutionary You May Never Have Heard Of (New York: iUniverse, 2009), 115.

38 Arthur O’Connor, The State of Ireland, James Livesey, (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1998), 22.

39 James Dugan, The Great Mutiny (London: Deutsch, 1966).

40 [Arthur Young], General View of the Agriculture of the County of Norfolk (1804).

41 E. Mingay, Parliaentary Enclosure in England: An Introduction to Its Causes, Incidence, and Impact1750-1850 (London: Longman, 1997), 22.

42 John Gazley, The Life of Arthur Young (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1973), He proposed that children at the age of four be taught how to plait straw.

43 Leon Radzinowicz, A History of English Criminal Law and its Administration from 1750, vol. 3, The Reform of the Police, 310.

44 Patrick Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Commerce and Police of the River Thames (1800), 195.

45 Frederic H. Forshall, Westminster School: Past and Presmt (London: Wyman, 1884), 284-85.

46 ibid., 199.

47 W. Malcolmson, Popular Recreation in English Society 1700-185o (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 11o-11. See also John and Barbara Hammond, Age of Chartists 1832-1854 (London: Longmans, 1930), 114, 118.

48 C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary (London: Hutchinson, 1963), 159-16o; and The Future in the Present (Westport, CT:’Lawrence Hill, 1977), 221.

49 Janet Semple, Bentham’s Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 3, 16.

50 Communication from Elizabeth Wells, archivist, Westminster School, April 24, 2013.

51 Londa Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).

52 Luke Howard, On the Modification of Clouds (London: Taylor, 18o3).

53 Simon Winchester, The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modem Geology (New fork: HarperCollins, 2001).

54 In the Mirror of the Past: Lectures and Addresses, 19’78-1990 (New York: Marlon Boyars, 1992), 227. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Systeme des animaux sans vertibres (Paris: Deterville, 1801).

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