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Thompson Lecture

Thompson Lecture

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Published by princepeterak

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: princepeterak on Jul 29, 2012
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The substance of Thompson's socialist humanism lay in his conviction that capitalist society offers athoroughly inhuman form of political community and that this was mirrored rather than overcome inactually existing `socialist' states. Not surprisingly, the historian Thompson was tempted to look backwardto an earlier era - mainly the eighteenth century - for images of human community prior to itsdisintegration in modernity.I tentatively put forward the proposition that there were three separate phases in his formulation of theproblem. I recognise that these phases overlapped chronologically and sometimes even co-existed withinthe same texts. I am not claiming any watertight divide between them; indeed the daring of Thompson wasto affirm them all as one. They still seem to me, however, to represent distinct moments in his formulationof ideal political community.In the first phase Thompson sought to recapture the moral community of eighteenth century plebeianmovements committed to upholding traditional use rights against modern laws of private property. In thesecond phase Thompson defended the ideality of the rule of law as an unqualified human good and itsnecessity as an inhibition on power. In the third phase he embraced antinomianism and the community of love against law. The journey took him from customary right to the rule of law and finally to theantinomian rejection of law. Each phase was an attempt to grasp law through history. What they had incommon was an image of human community asserting itself in the face of the `exterminism' andinhumanity of modern society.2) Moral Community And Customary RightIn the first phase of his exploration, Thompson linked the idea of moral community to the upholding of traditional use rights against modern laws of private property. It is a theme which pervaded much of hishistorical writing. Thus in
The Making of the English Working Class
Thompson wrote that eighteeenthcentury food riots were `a last desperate effort of the people to reimpose the older moral economy asagainst the economy of the free market ... a last desperate attempt to enforce the old paternalisticconsumer-protection' (
). The theme was pursued in `
Peculiarities of the English
' where he wrote that `thecommon people adhered to a deeply felt "moral economy" in which the very notion of an "economicprice" for corn ... was an outrage to their culture' (
).Thompson read popular struggle in the eighteenth century as `a movement of resistance to theannunciation of economic man'. In
Whigs and Hunters
he characterised the infamous Black Act as theculmination of a struggle through which the customary economy of forest-dwellers was destroyed andreplaced by a market-oriented regime based on capitalist property rights. During the eighteenth century, hewrote, `one legal decision after another signalled that the lawyers had become converted to notions of absolute property ownership and that ... the law abhorred the messy complexities of coincident use-rights'(
). The dominant motif of his essay on
 Eighteenth Century English Society
continued in this vein:capitalist logic and `non-economic customary behaviour are in active and conscious conflict, asin resistance to new patterns of consumption ... time-discipline ... technical innovation or workrationalization which threaten to disrupt customary usage ... Hence we can read eighteenthcentury social history as a succession of confrontations between an innovative market economyand the customary moral economy of the plebs' (
)In these texts Thompson sought to recapture the spirit of protest which attended upon loss of commonrights and detachment of property right from usage; to bring into question the employment of law as aninstrument of agrarian capitalism: `If it is pretended that the law was impartial, deriving its rules from itsown self-extrapolating logic, then we must reply that this pretence was a class fraud' (
)The idea of `custom' was crucial to the argument. It lay, Thompson argued, `at the interface between lawand agrarian practice', deriving originally from praxis and eventually obtaining the force of law.Thompson likened it to Bourdieu's concept of `habitus': `a lived environment comprised of practices,inherited expectations, rules which both determined limits to usages and disclosed possibilities, norms andsanctions both of law and neighbourhood pressures' (
). The concept of `custom' was Thompson'smediation between law at one extreme and practice at the other. The framework of custom was itself oneof conflict between classes striving to maximise their advantages as they disputed over common right; butit was the introduction of modern property right which qualitatively transformed the situation by making
the poor `strangers in their own land' (
). The displacement of custom by law was at once theexpropriation of power from the poor.To be sure, Thompson added all manner of qualifications to his thesis. He acknowledged that appeal to thepast was sometimes no more than a cloth in which new rights were dressed. `All reformers before Paine',he wrote, `commenced with the "corruption of the constitution", the constitution in question beingimaginary versions of the Revolution of 1688 or even of old Saxon law' (
). He distinguished between theform and content of plebeian culture: `this is a conservative culture in its forms; these appeal to customand seek to reinforce traditional usage... But the content of this culture cannot so easily be described asconservative' (
). He warned against `sentimentalising this customary pre-enclosure consciousness, whichwas the vector of its own kind of narrowness, brutality and superstition' (
). And he cautioned that `weshall not ever return to pre-capitalist human nature, yet a reminder of its alternative needs, expectationsand codes may renew our sense of our nature's range of possibilities' (
). He succeeded in bringing to lifethe contestability of capitalism as a moral order.Despite these and other qualifications, it still seems to me (in part on the basis of Thompson's ownevidence) that Thompson was over-simplifying when he reduced these eighteenth century struggles to aconflict between traditional use rights and legally enforced private property rights. Plebeian rebellioncrossed class lines and many of its participants were advocates of private property rights.To take one example, popular struggles against game laws were supported by a cross-class alliance of peasants, labourers, craftspeople, small gentry, capitalist tenant farmers and merchants. This broadalliance arose from the class character of the poaching laws, which held that in order to hunt game, onehad to be a freeholder earning a minimum of 100 pounds a year; a condition which excluded all but thelarge landowners. `Middling men' were among the foremost in protest against these laws. Doug Hayfurther points out that, as the commercial exploitation of game by innkeepers, poulterers and victuallersbecame more viable, so too their resentment against the game laws which prohibited selling of game joined up with the resentment of tenant farmers (
). Game was important because it represented landagainst commerce:Game laws were the only enforceable remnant of the mass of statutes which once fixed statusamong Englishmen... Game could not be legally bought and sold because it was meant tosymbolize prerogatives, to show that its owner held power and prestige in landed society. (
)The game laws were themselves an expression of a traditional property right. The landed gentry were lessconcerned with setting in motion capitalist productive forces than with the appropriation of a finishedproduct. As Christopher Hill put it, `Landlords sought prestige through conspicuous investment ...buildings, parks, paintings. But such investment ... stimulated the economy far less than a plannedprogramme of investment in the capital goods sector' (
).The very form of the game laws - first established in 1389 - was archaic. They established the hunting of game as a privilege of the landed gentry and excluded wealth unconnected with land; the basis of lawenforcement was the manor where the lord had the power to appoint a gamekeeper who combined thepublic function of enforcing law and the private function of serving the landowner; direct links betweenthe landowners and the judiciary showed little evidence of separation of powers; even the public hangingof miscreants was a military ceremony which displayed the coercive power of the sovereign over thepeople. Should not eighteenth century game laws - and the Black Act in particular - be re-read as a last-ditch enactment of customary law in opposition to growing popular demands for a modern rule of law?It is remarkable how deeply the idea of `primitive rebellion' against the introduction of laws representingcapitalist private property took root in Thompson's writing in spite of the contradictory elements whichran through his text. I would suggest that behind Thompson's resistance to historical refutation on thispoint, there lay a romanticism which for all his qualifications presented pre-capitalist property relations asmore `human' than what followed and which refused to recognize that popular resistance could bethoroughly modern. The argument is in need of more historical development, but it seems to me that themore traditional Marxist view of plebeian protests during the development of capitalist - that theyrepresented a modernizing drive to overcome traditional fetters as much as a traditionalist drive to retaincustomary rights - offers a more persuasive interpretive framework. Beneath this historical debate,however, the underlying issue must be Thompson's own flight from modernity.
3) Moral Community And The Rule Of LawIn the 1970s and '80s Edward Thompson polemicized widely against the threat posed to civil liberties anddemocratic rights by modern government. In his own imagery, the branches of the `liberty tree' were beinglopped off one by one and the `free-born Englishman' was in danger of becoming a chattel to the state.Thompson identified the main `muggers of the constitution' not as `criminals, terrorists and subversives'but as the state itself (
).In the context of this drift to authoritarian statism, Thompson thought it essential for Marxism (includinghis own) to put its own house in order and especially to abandon its proclivity to dismiss all law as aninstrument or camouflage for class rule. If human rights were merely an illusion obscuring the harshrealities of wage slavery, then the only significance of their loss would be to clarify the class struggle. If all states were inherently authoritarian and if all inhibitions on their power were but `masks or disguises ortricks to provide it with ideological legitimation', then the movement from one state form to another wouldmake no essential difference. This `Marxist' rhetoric, Thompson argued, was in fact an exercise in cynicalreason, dulling the `nerve of outrage' and inducing its own passivity. In the twentieth century `even themost exalted thinker' ought to be able to note the difference between a state based on the rule of law andone based on the exercise of arbitrary, extra-legal authority. (
)Thompson ridiculed the theoretical premises of this neo-Marxist critique of law and the state: itsessentialism which substituted `a platonic notion of the true, ideal capitalist state' for actual capitaliststates (
); its functionalism which defined the idea of rights exclusively in terms of the reproduction of class domination; its reductionism which turned rights into no more than a confirmation of existingproperty relations. Rights, he argued, should rather be seen as a
 form of mediation
: their function being toimpose `effective inhibitions on power' and defend the citizen from `power's all-inclusive claims' (
). If law is to be effective as a form of legitimation, then the rulers must to some degree live up to or besubjected to its universal and egalitarian standards.Thompson warned against the identification of law with the state. This could take two forms: eitheridealising the state in all its aspects as a public good (as was common in both Stalinism and SocialDemocracy), or denigrating the state in all its aspects as an alien power (common within the New Left).Thompson argued that a distinction needs to be drawn between the democratic aspects of the state, whichhe identified with its legal and representative institutions, and the anti-democratic aspects, which heidentified with its bureaucratic institutions. Despotism, he argued in the language of classical liberalism, isthe subordination of the state as a whole to the bureaucracy; liberty is the subordination of bureaucracy toparliament and the law.Thompson here embraces the classical liberal conviction that the rule of law marks the dividing linebetween liberty and despotism. He argued that this doctrine had, however, been corrupted by modernthought which put in its place the positivistic dogma that there is an unconditional obligation to obeywhatever the state dictates. The modern corruption of the rule of law, though often put forward in thename of liberalism, abandoned the heart and soul of the classical liberal conception: its `bloody-minded'distrust of the state. A doctrine which started its life as a bulwark against the state was turned bymodernity into a support for the state - a travesty of its former self.Thompson's political purpose was to rally behind the defence of the rule of law against its corruption bythe modern state (
). Though born as the child of history - out of the work of 16th and 17th century juristssupported by the practical struggles of men such as Hampden and Lilburne, passed down as an oftenviolated legacy to 18th century rulers, adopted by the emergent bourgeoisie in the 19th century after directrepression failed to stem the tide of working class resistance, and now threatened by authoritariangovernment - the rule of law appears nonetheless as a timeless ideal which a socialist future based onegalitarian productive relations would still require. Any belief to the contrary, Thompson asserted, is autopian projection without historical warrant.The message was equivocal: there could be no modern society without law and no just modern societywithout the rule of law; yet modernity itself - with its vast administrative imperatives and narrow dividinglines between welfare state and police state - threatened ever to corrupt this classical ideal. Dig yourditches deep and firm up your fences, was Thompson's advice.

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