The appeal to history in the justification of capitalism has always required a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, we are obliged to accept that capitalist modernization thoroughly transformed the world to the unambiguous benefit of humanity. On the other hand, we must concede that in this transformative process nothing much happened. There were no revolutionary moments, no deep social conflicts, no painful dislocations. There was no ‘century of revolution’ in England, and neither the Civil War nor 1688 had anything at all to do—either as cause or effect—with changes in social property relations. If, in the following century and/or in the one after that, there was something like an ‘industrial revolution’—and a growing number of historians would deny that the process of industrialization was anything like a ‘revolution’—it really discommoded no one in any fundamental way and simply improved the living standards of the working poor. Whatever evils have attended ‘modernization’ in the twentieth century, the original process of transformation (which never really happened) was on the whole benign (as it ought to be in the newly emergent capitalisms today, were it not for their tainted ancestry in Communism). In fact, had not the collapse of Communism given the concept of ‘capitalism’ a new ideological currency, it might have been more suitable to keep denying its existence altogether, as distinct from, say, ‘the modern world’ or ‘industrial society’.
At nearly every step in the construction of these ideological defences, E.P. Thompson stands in the way. His most celebrated and influential work, The Making of the English Working Class, is not only an effort to rescue the labouring poor, their culture and historical agency, ‘from the enormous condescension of posterity’, but also a vivid demonstration, in the daily experience of working people, of the structural transformations and dislocations that produced industrial capitalism, its modes of expropriation and exploitation manifested in changing patterns of work, leisure and communal solidarity, together with the cultural and political responses engendered by them. His writings on the law, custom and social relations of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England have tracked the consolidation and contestation of a market economy, the changes in concepts of property and the organization of labour, which have constituted the rise of capitalism. Within the detailed specificities of social history, he has traced in bold relief the outlines of the capitalist mode of production and the great
No one has more effectively conveyed the sheer otherness of capitalism, the specificity of its systemic logic, the irrationality of its principles from the vantage point of working people, the difficulty of implanting its economic practices, values and market rationality, its idea of property, its conception of time and the regime of labour discipline. Thompson’s unique skill in distancing us from the assumptions of capitalism and revealing its structure in the daily transactions of social life is particularly evident in his recently published collection of essays, Customs in Common.footnote1 This profoundly important volume brings together some of his already classic essays on eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English history, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’ and ‘Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’, with some new thoughts on the ‘moral economy’ and a reply to critics, extensively revised versions of earlier studies in ‘The Patricians and the Plebs’ and ‘Rough Music’, together with new ones on ‘Custom, Law and Common Right’ and ‘The Sale of Wives’, and an introduction which links them in a common thesis on ‘Custom and Culture’. Each of these essays takes up and develops Thompson’s familiar themes: the ‘decoding’ of popular customs, their opposition to market principles and ruling ideologies; the paradox of the eighteenth century, ‘a rebellious traditional culture’ in which custom (real or invented) became a vehicle of resistance; the conflict between law and common rights; the challenge to the triumphalist historians of the agricultural revolution; and together, these studies advance his life-long project of giving a voice to the labouring multitude. But there is more to this volume than the ‘history from below’ which has inspired a whole generation of social and labour historians. There is here, again, a powerful demonstration of the ‘great transformation’ at work, the capitalist mode of production coming to fruition.
The eighteenth century provides a particularly significant testing ground. There was a time when the period between 1688 and the last decades of the eighteenth century was treated as a quiet and generally uninteresting interlude in English history, sandwiched between two revolutionary moments, the Glorious and the Industrial Revolutions (with, of course, a disconcerting interruption by the American War of Independence). More recently, while these two epochal boundaries have tended to lose their revolutionary status, the period in between has become a major historiographical battleground. Was this simply an era of prosperity and consumerism for a ‘polite and commercial people’?footnote2 Was it England’s ancien régime, the golden age of Anglicanism, royalism and deference?footnote3 Or was it a moment of consolidation
The question of England’s prosperity and the extent to which it filtered down to the labouring poor is only part of the issue, and not the one that primarily concerns Thompson in this volume, though he has in the past addressed himself to the ‘standard of living’ debate surrounding the history of English ‘industrialization’. The optimists of eighteenth-century historiography, preoccupied with England’s indisputable commercial prosperity in the period after 1688, have no doubt tended to downplay the extent of both urban and rural poverty; but the issue between them and Edward Thompson cannot be resolved by the measurement of gdp or per-capita income. Nor, for all the moral urgency of Thompson’s arguments, is it simply a matter of differing ethical judgments. At bottom, the debate has to do with whether the history of eighteenth-century England represents a confrontation not just between classes but between different principles of social order, between the ascendant principles of capitalism and popular resistance to them.
Yet the issues at stake have been obscured by a tendency on the part of one side in the debate to be thoroughly enclosed within the assumptions of the capitalist order and to find the contestation of those assumptions, even their historical specificity, literally unthinkable. This makes it especially difficult to deal with arguments like those of Edward Thompson, which more than others require a capacity to stand outside the premisses of capitalism, to see them from an anthropological distance, not as the natural order of things but as the practices and values of a specific time and place.
So, for example, criticism of Thompson’s work typically runs something like this: he sees class conflict and protest everywhere, he is too ready to see rebellion and not ready enough to see deference and collaboration. The labouring poor were often conservative—patriotic, royalist, religious. Plebeian experience was more varied than Thompson allows, and English society less bipolar. Now it may be that Thompson is too inclined to favour the rebellious side of plebeian culture at the expense of its other manifestations. But this is something his critics are often ill-placed to judge. To recognize contestation and resistance—especially in a society where relations of power were masked by ‘rituals of paternalism and deference’, and where opposition to new definitions of property and the rationality of the market was couched in the conservative language of custom—presupposes an appreciation that there is something to contest.