Book Reviews

Fighting back

The London Hanged by Peter Linebaugh. Verso, Second Edition, 2006. £11.99
This is a detailed history of the rise of capitalism in eighteenth-century London. During this period you really could be hanged for stealing a loaf of bread. But public hangings were not simply a punishment for a crime committed; they were a form of state terror used by the ruling class to force the poor of London to accept the criminalization of their customary rights and accept new forms of private property under the wages system.

In the resulting class war thousands of London poor met their fate on the gallows at Tyburn. Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin were famous at this time as heroes of the London poor, as men who would rob from the rich to give to the poor. Even today the exploits of the highway robber Dick Turpin are well-known in Britain. But Sheppard, thief and gaol-breaker, became notorious around the world. Over a century later the Australian press were making comparisons between Ned Kelly and Sheppard. In America, Frank and Jesse James wrote letters to newspapers signed Jack Sheppard. Sheppard, Turpin and many others were eventually caught and hanged. However, their legacy remained a problem for the ruling class. For as Linebaugh writes, their exploits became an essential part of the oppositional culture of working class London, a serious obstacle to the formation of a tractable, obedient labour force. Therefore, it was not enough to hang them the values they espoused or represented had to be challenged

But the working class fought back, culminating in the little-known Gordon Riots of June 1780. In this insurrection, Parliament and the Bank of England were attacked, the houses of judges and major employers destroyed. Newgate prison was attacked, its prisoners released and the building completely destroyed (this was only nine years before the storming of the Bastille in revolutionary France). Between 400 and 500 people were killed. Yet by the end of the eighteenth-century the social relations of wage labour and capital were predominant. To avoid confrontation, public hangings ceased but they continued within the relative safety (for the hangman!) of prison walls. There is however one remaining vestige of this violent period: the Punch and Judy show. Brought to London’s Drury Lane in 1790 by the Italian puppeteer Giovanni Piccinni, the show expresses the emotions of a class riven with unresolvable contradictions. In the murderous rage of Punch we see the frustrations of a class at war. Punch is arrested and sent to the gallows but refuses to comply. The hangman puts his own head in the noose to teach Punch how to do it, and Punch hangs the hangman. A magnificent and important book.


Pushing the Envelope
Inventing Disease and Pushing Pills by Jürg Blech. Routledge £19.99.

Most of us are probably familiar with the idea of companies creating a market and a demand for their products: advertising toys to kids would be an obvious example. How this kind of thing is put into effect will naturally vary according to the industry in which a particular company operates. A pharmaceutical concern, for instance, may need to convince people not just that their product will cure a particular disease but that they quite probably suffer from this disease in the first place and so need curing. This is the kind of thing that Jürg Blech chronicles in this informative book.

Thus diseases are invented, people are given unnecessary check-ups, and good health is turned into a virtually unattainable state. Normal life processes, such as hair loss, are argued to be medical problems, and slight symptoms like irritable bowel syndrome are sold as serious disorders. Disease awareness campaigns are set up to publicise a ‘disease’ which people may be unaware they are suffering from. Almost everyone can be categorised as unwell in some way if the criteria for health are redefined at will. The companies that make the medicines have doctors on their side, of course — doctors whose research they finance. Drugs and medicines can do a great deal of harm: undesirable side-effects are the fourth most common cause of death, after heart disease, cancer and strokes.

As a specific example, the amount of testosterone in men usually decreases after their fortieth birthday, though not necessarily by a significant degree. But of course this last point hasn’t stopped the identification of (among other names) ‘testosterone deficiency syndrome’. Fortunately this can be remedied by rubbing a gel into your stomach or shoulders every morning. In the words of a spokesperson for one company who make such a gel, ‘Androtrop gel will only be successful if demand for it is created.’ Selling a disease and its ‘cure’ is little different from selling cereals or the latest fashion,

In his final chapter, Blech notes that disease and poverty are related. Richer smokers live longer than poorer smokers, for instance. A Swedish study indicated that, when workers are sacked, they produce more stress hormones, which is likely to lead to the constriction of blood vessels. But those who market a disease have no time for such ideas: a person is ill because they are not taking the right medicine rather than because of the pressures of their lives. While we cannot argue that socialism will be a society without illness, we can certainly suggest that it will be a society without artificially-created illness — whether resulting from the stresses of capitalism or the bogus disease-marketing of the pharmaceutical companies.


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