Thoughts on Thompson

A long time ago, as a hopeful undergrad, I bought a copy of each of Eric Hobsbawm’s “Age of” books. As a young, white, middle-class man, something about the taxonomic certainty of the titles appealed, embodying as they did a sort of imperial drive to categorise. Dividing up European history into four ages – of Revolution, Empire, Capital and Extremes – manifested some sort of rational mastery over history, with each event neatly slotted into its alloted place in that past. Perhaps the titles were all I needed. They sat on my shelf for nearly a decade before I eventually got rid of them when moving house, unread.

But now, approaching the mid-point of E. P. Thompson’s landmark The Making of the English Working Class, I am haunted again by the attractive simplicity of the notion of an “Age of Revoutions”. For one thing, as a 20th century historian trying to find a jumping-off point from which to dive into the very deep historiography of the long 19th century, a few simple categories might serve as a decent anchor point.

For another, there’s a certain kind of 19th century historian who seems be obsessed with revolutions. The American Revolution. The French Revolution. The Revolutions of 1848. The Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions. Even, lately, the Settler Revolution.  And that doesn’t even include earlier ones like the Military Revolution, or later ones like the Russian, Chinese, Cuban, or Iranian revolutions.

I’ve been trying to think through what historians mean when they say ‘revolution’. There are a few obvious distinctions to be drawn here, if only between the late-eighteenth and nineteenth century liberal revolutions, the twentieth century communist and nationalist revolutions, and what one might term conceptual revolutions like the agrarian, industrial and settler revolutions.

The American and French revolutions are important for a number of reasons, but Anglophone historians seem to care about them because of their relationship to the Enlightenment and the effects they had on English Liberalism. I don’t know much about the long 18th century, but they seemed to catapult the question of individual rights to the centre of most debates about nationalism, economics and government, and hold them there for a protracted period that saw the institution of collectivities like citizenship, universal sufferage and trade unionism.

But historians seem to love the word ‘revolution’ for the images it conjures up, chief amongst them the notions of sudden transformation and a clean break with the past. A revolution is a traumatic rupture, a shucking off, a paroxysm or shudder that discards and renews. In historical (or historiographical) terms, it’s a watershed across which practise and vocabulary cannot travel. It’s the moment of synthesis in a Hegelian or Marxist dialectic. It is, in short, a linguistic and conceptual product of the period itself, which can illuminate sources, but also brings with it a lot of baggage.

One irony, of course, is that none of the conceptual revolutions were anything like this. They were often traumatic, and they transformed, but there was never a moment of clean rupture. Many of the ‘old ways’ of work survived the apparent clean sweep of the Industrial Revolution. Thompson points out that apprenticeships, a concept given realised through the pre-industrial guild system, were governed by an Elizabethan statute from 1563. The concept still survives in Australia as a category of learning worker and an object of government intervention. The majority of pre-industrial workers worked in the household, and the practise continued into the 19th century and beyond. Small businesses and ‘flexible working arrangements’ continue the practise. Just as Foucault argues about Governmentalities, work is a contingent assemblage full of contradictions and tensions. The Revolution will not be a Tabula Rasa. Reallly it’s more of a palimpsest.

I began reading Thompson in the hope that he’d reveal something to me about what I’ve been thinking of as the “Leaving of the Household“, but instead he’s revealed something more important – that such a moment doesn’t exist in any meaningful historical sense. I’d gone to him (led by Illich and Komlosy) hoping that the end of what Marx called the Feudal Relations of Production would reveal a moment of rupture, before which everyone subsisted on peasant farms and commons, and after which everyone lived ‘on the market’. But of course, the past has always been more complex than that. Artisans, craftsmen and tradespeople lived ‘on the market’ for a long time before industrial capitalism came along, and its impacts on their ways of living and working were different ot its impacts on the people who started out farmers and became unskilled urban labourers. the past is always more complex than simple concepts like Modes of Production and Revolutions make it out to be.

Reading Thompson has me interested in reading Hobsbawm again – but only to establish a 1960s baseline to read against. Thompson has little to say about colonialism (beyond cursory mentions of Transportation), and nothing to say about race or chattel slavery. Hobsbawm apparently places the two major revolutions in the context of colonialism and empire, which is a start.

What I’m ultimately interested in is establishing a context for my first chapter, which is about what Foucault might call the “Birth” of work (as opposed to its origin). The more I read, the more I realise that the birth of work as a technology of power is constitutively entangled with the slow development of Liberalism into what Miller and Rose call “Advanced Liberalism” and we now think of as “Neoliberalism”.

So many debates about work, from the earliest Jacobin strikes to current thinking about the gig economy, are couched in liberal terms, chief among them the question of the appropriateness of interventions into the lives of others. Thompson identifies weavers in the early 19th century in England whose greatest grievance was that their sense of control over their daily lives had been curtailed by the surveillance and discipline of the factory system. Libertarian advocates of the gig economy argue that microentrepreneurialism is the greatest gift of the free market because it reduces your dependence on others. Independence and freedom are the same thing in (neo)liberalism.

Another surprising revelation (for a 20th century historian) is the hostility of the nascent English state to workers. Foucault argues that the state is an effect of governance, not its source, and this is very evident in Thompson. The capacity of the state to simply repress strikes and riots is staggering to my sensibilities, but considering the restriction of suffrage to landowners and the nobility, it really shouldn’t have been. Universal suffrage seems to have been an afterthought or an inconvenience when it was included in the methods of liberal government. Given the insistence of civic republicanism that “the peopel” are the ultimate source of democratic power, this is surprising to me. Living in a state where arbitration is built into government, it was hard to convince me that the liberal state was not at its inception a benevolent institution. Reading Thompson, it seems that the earliest liberal freedoms were freedom from empathy.

Reading EPT I am struck by the need to quickly build a sense of the late 18th and early 19th century that ties several threads together – ‘revolutions’, colonialism, and slavery for a start. All three were implicated in establishing the earliest boundaries of what we now think of as ‘work’ because all three set out the limits and boundaries of what it was legitimate for one person to ask of another, and laid out the different penalties for attempting to push these boundaries. As always, these constraints and penalties were far from evenly distributed. This is perhaps another way to get at what I wrote a few months ago: work orders lives.

If I’m going to follow this skein of thought, I’m going to need to do a lot more reading about the 19th century. Reading Thompson, I’m intrigued by the tensions at the heart of English liberalism that play out in the warp and weft of English imperialism. To properly understand the birth of work, I’m going to need to understand more about the ways in which the struggles between individual freedom and social uplift in the metropole and the existence of chattel slavery and colonial disposession in the periphery were entangled.









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