Printer-friendly versionSend by email

"Docile Numbers and Stubborn Bodies: Population and the Problem of Multitude"

Ron Broglio
Arizona State University


1.        Edmund Burke’s brief comment in Reflections on the Revolution in France about the “swinish multitude” trampling on learning unleashed a swarm of cultural responses. In his swinish multitude comment, he makes clear the distinction implicit elsewhere in Reflections. Burke attempted to keep separate “the deferential subjects, instinctively loyal, and the [learned] argumentative citizens”; the later being the “tiny political nation needed to—could be permitted to—shoulder the daunting demands of citizenship” (Herzog 511). However, his comments created an uproar from the underclass. This essay is concerned with the problem of figuring the multitude and how the multitude figures in politics during the Romantic period. In particular, it is worth noting how in the age of political economy swine and populous masses are subsumed and resist biopolitical ends.

2.        Perhaps most striking among the cultural responses are James Gillray’s 1795 illustrations: the apocalyptic pigs and the starving swine. In the apocalyptic pigs image Presage of the Millennium, William Pitt rides a white Hanoverian horse and wields famine and destruction on a herd of pigs and politicians, the “souls of Multitude.” The textual commentary at the foot of the image is adapted from the Book of Revelations:

And e’er the Last days began, I looked & beheld a White Horse, & and his name was Death, & Hell followed after him... And I saw under him the Souls of the Multitude, those who were destroy’d for maintaining the word of Truth, & for the Testimony. (Gillray Presage)
Kissing Pitt’s backside is George, Prince of Wales, while emerging from the horse’s tail are horned and winged figures, the Secretary of State for War and Edmund Burke. Whig leader Charles Henry Fox, who holds a plea for Peace with France, is trampled along with various parliamentary allies and a sea of swine (Fitzwilliam).

3.        Later in the same year, Gillray illustrates the Substitutes for Bread which calls attention to the poor harvests of 1794 and 1795 and the famine that followed. The laboring poor amass in the streets and outside the window of a landowner’s house. They hold signs including “Petitions from Starving Swine” and seem poised to rush upon the wealthy who inside and in luxurious attire consume roast beef, poultry, and gold coins in the shape of fish as their opulent “substitutes” for bread. On the wall of the gentleman’s house hangs a notice “Proclamation for a General Fast, in order to avert the impending Famine” besides which hangs a separate note of acceptable substitutes for bread including venison, roast beef, champaign, etc. (Gillray Substitutes). So, during this grain crisis, the elite turn to a range of food which signifies their place apart from the crowd. Pork is not on the list of items to be eaten but the swinish masses clearly feel eaten into as they call out to be noticed. In Gillray’s illustrations, the swinish multitude works as a figure for masses that cannot be contained nor controlled by institutional authority.

4.        Gillray joins together the human masses as “swinish multitude” with a noted characteristic of swine—stubbornness. As the traditional Sussex folk verse of the period says:

And you can pook
And you can shove
But a Sussex pig
He won't be druv.
The final line appears on Sussex Rye pig mugs of the late 1800s. The head of the clay pig comes off and the mug is stood on its tail. The decanter is traditionally filled with beer. Around the neck of the clay pig is often embossed “He won't be druv” (Legge 9). So accumulates the signification of the masses—a swinish, beer drinking, intoxicated, stubborn multitude. The unmovable nature of pigs were used in a number of political forums, even prior to Burke. As Dr. Johnson notes (in Boswell’s The life of Samuel Johnson): “The peers have but to oppose a candidate, to ensure him success. It is said, the only way to make a pig go forward is to pull him back by the tail. These people must be treated like pigs” (cited in Herzog 507).

5.        One might add to the accumulation several 1790s tracts: the socialist utopics of Edmund Spence’s Pig’s Meat and Daniel Issac Eaton’s Politics for the People; or A Salmagundy for Swine (Gallop, Gigante 110-111). Likewise, Eaton’s Hog’s Wash is populated with swinish contributors such as Brother Grunter, Porkulus, A Liberty Pig, and The Learned Pig, among others (Herzog 513). Robert Southey’s political pig of 1799 is another example:

Is he [the pig] obstinate?
We must not, Jacob, be deceived by words,
By sophist sounds. A democratic beast
He knows that his unmerciful drivers seek
Their profit and not his. (“The Pig: a Colloquial Poem” qtd in Herzog 525)
And if Gillray can invoke the Book of Revelations for his apocalyptic pigs, then the other pig of the New Testament worth noting is the herd of swine into which Christ cast demons which had possessed a man. From the point of view of the wealthy who dine on lavish “Substitutes for Bread,” the swinish multitude of mankind indeed seemed possessed with a force beyond their comprehension. These cultural and intertextual references for the swinish multitude seem to multiply much like the innumerable voices, bodies, and demands they are meant to represent.

6.        Gillray’s Substitutes for Bread is occasioned by the food crisis of 1794 and 1795. In the wake of the crisis, a number of agricultural, governmental, and charity institutions developed a new discourse of population for describing the disaffected masses. The gambit for these institutions was that by understanding population—numbers of people, their distribution, their ages, and their occupations—they could create policies to control and appease the crowd of distressed poor and working class peoples. As Foucault notes with his term “biopower,” the politics of population serves as a narrow space through which the multitude of life is contained. The political forces manipulating biopower, forces Foucault terms “biopolitics,” did not spring fully formed into being. According to Foucault, this ability to regulate life begins in the late eighteenth century. The early years of creating a population from the masses saw many complex problems of how to manage human and animal bodies. While population provides an ordering of life, the “swinish multitude” serves as a figure for life in excess of population. The goal of this essay is to sketch some of the lines of biopolitical construction and resistance early in the Romantic period by beginning with Foucault’s 1976 lecture on biopower and then placing it in relation to a mosaic of period texts.

7.        Foucault’s March 17, 1976 lecture published in Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976 provides the touchstone for understanding biopower. Biopower is the biological which becomes tended and controlled by State (Foucault, Society 240). The political rationale and the legal and rhetorical justification for such control are termed biopolitics. Foucault explains “Biopolitics deals with the population, with the population as political problem, as a problem that is at once scientific and political, as a biological problem and as power's problem" (Foucault, Society 245). While regulating the citizens as a mass is a general concern of government throughout the ages, Foucault claims that the eighteenth century saw a rise in technologies for regulating the life of citizens. Such regulation was not the age-old negative modality of regulating death: the right of a State to take the life of a citizen who violates its laws and the right of the State to send citizens to war. This new power included

mechanisms with a certain number of functions that are very different from the functions of disciplinary mechanisms. The mechanisms introduced by biopolitics include forecasts, statistical estimates, and overall measures. . . . [they] intervene at the level at which these general phenomena are determined, to intervene at the level of their generality. (Foucault, Society 246)
At the turn of the nineteenth century a number of mechanical, information, and economic technologies align to "maintain an average, establish a sort of homeostasis" for the population of bodies (Foucault, Society 246). The State co-opts and fosters these technologies toward a greater control of the population. It is not that the State has control of these technologies. Rather a critical number of biopolitical technologies emerge—such as cartography, surveys, and statistics. Under the banner of rising nationalism and under fear of the French—from French Revolution to Napoleon—the State corrals and co-opts these techniques, technologies, rhetorics, and ultimately powers.

8.        The poor harvest and lack of grain in 1795 figures as an event and rupture that reveals the way biopower began to get a hold of bodies in the British Isles. Rather than a singular narrative, I’ll provide instances within this event. These instances form a mosaic of power relations within Britain and a figure of resistance, what Foucault calls “homo oeconomicus.” As Cary Wolfe explains:

In opposition to what Foucault calls homo juridicus (or homo legalis)—the subject of law, rights, and sovereignty—we find in this new subject, homo oeconomicus, “an essentially and unconditionally irreducible element against any possible government,” a “zone that is definitively inaccessible to any government action,” “an atom of freedom in the face of all the conditions, undertakings, legislation, and prohibitions of a possible government.” “The subject of interest,” Foucault writes, thus “constantly overflows the subject of right. He is therefore irreducible to the subject of right. He is not absorbed by him. He overflows him, surrounds him, and is the permanent condition of him functioning.” Homo oeconomicus thus founds a new domain of “irrational rationality” that is of a fundamentally different order from sovereignty and the juridical subject. “Economic rationality,” Foucault writes, “is not only surrounded by, but founded on the unknowability of, the totality of the process” and homo oeconomicus thus says to the sovereign “you cannot because you do not know, and you do not know because you cannot know.” But such a creature, of course—and for that very reason—poses a threat to power. And this threat is what will in time give rise to the regime of governmentality and its exercise of biopower.  [1]  (Cary Wolf Before the Law)
I will briefly trace this homo oeconomicus as a mass or stubborn bodies against the docility of manipulating numbers. In other words, modes of quantification—counting bodies and counting them as citizens of the State subject to its control—become the means of rhetorical and material control of peoples. In contrast, homo oeconomicus uses qualitative differences between peoples as a way of evading quantification and counting. Homo oeconomicus leverages a biopower—the biological capacities and resistances of bodies—as that which has yet to be co-opted by the biopolitical.

9.        Scarcity in 1795 set in motion a number of biopolitical debates as to if and how the government should intervene in the problem of hunger. King George’s October 1795 speech on the high price of goods motivated the November 3 parliamentary debate on the laws regarding Assize of Bread and other governmental means of conserving grain and curbing costs. Pitt and with him Fox were cautious of any intervention in markets; however, they did advocate for the laboring poor who had been brought to a degraded state. Samuel Whitbread advanced a bill to set minimum wages for the poor but despite repeated attempts, the bill failed. Edmund Burke replied to Whitbred first in parliament then in Thoughts and Details on Scarcity published posthumously in 1800. The treatise is a mixture of political conservatism and agrarian observations; the political elements are mainly at the outset of the book and read like a political treatise while the agricultural details are in fragments at the end of the work and read something akin to a report to the Board of Agriculture.

10.        Contrary to Whitbread, Burke does not believe in setting a minimum wage but rather believes that the market of supply and demand should set the labor prices. More astonishingly and contrary to Adam Smith, Burke believes “in the case of the farmer and the labourer, their interests are always the same, and it is absolutely impossible that their free contracts can be onerous to either party” (10). While Burke doubts that workers are worse off in 1795 than in the past, his remedy for any low costs of labor and high prices for food is charity rather than government intervention. As David Collings explains: “The duties of public office and of private charity that Burke tries to separate had long since been blended in the tradition, which regarded the church or the state as the agent of collective charity and which therefore build an element of communitas into its public institutions. By attempting to strip away this element [the poor laws], Burke violates his cardinal principle, the maintenance of long usages” (88). Burke as advocate of custom becomes Burke advocate of the free market.

11.        Yet, oddly, agrarian parts of Burke’s Thoughts and Details Written on Scarcity are not always on the side of the market. He delineates for pages the poor quantity of the year’s wheat, oats, barley, beans, clover, rye, hay and grasses. He then extrapolates from this to the costs and quality of meat, noting “When the food of the animal is scarce, his flesh must be dear” (39). This is in contrast to his political claim early in the book that it is in the best interest of farmer and worker that “the labourer is well fed, and otherwise found with such necessaries of animal life, according to its habitudes, as may keep the body in full force, and the mind gay and cheerful” (10). One might combine Burke’s two observations: when the food of the human animal is scarce, his flesh must be dear. It is the very dearness of their flesh to which the multitude gives voice in pressing against hunger. Burke praises the laboring man as an “instrumentum vocale” or full throated voice but then seems deft to the cries (10).

12.        Not long after Burke’s 1795 speech, his health began to fail. Nevertheless Sir John Sinclair, President of the Board of Agriculture and author of Statistical Account of Scotland, leaned on Burke to write a chapter on wages and food for the report to the Board. Sinclair was rapidly compiling agricultural statistics and reports. In his July address to the Board of Agriculture, Sinclair announced that every county of Britain had an agricultural survey in print or soon to be in print. From these, “the public would see to what a pitch of perfection agricultural knowledge was likely to be brought, by the accumulation of so many valuable materials” (Annual Register 1795, 97). From surveys the Board hoped that methods in “improved” agriculture would spread; indeed “there is no duty more incumbent on a board of agriculture than that of recommending such measures as are most likely to provide a sufficient quantity of food for the people” (Annual Register 1795, 98).

13.        To press Sinclair’s case, the ailing Burke was visited in May of 1796 by the notable agricultural improver, Arthur Young, then Secretary of the Board. Young reported back that Burke would be unable to fulfill the requested chapter on wages and food: “His conversation was remarkably desultory, a broken mixture of agricultural observation, French madness, price of provisions, the death of his son, the absurdity of regulating labour, the mischief of our Poor-laws, and the difficulty of cottagers keeping cows” (Betham-Edwards xlv). Indeed, much of Thoughts and Details Written on Scarcity carries this same “broken mixture.” Yet the mixture is revealing. Agriculture does not stand on its own but is part of a larger political and labor ecology. How and what people eat is dependent upon a mixture of agricultural observation, “French madness,” prices of provisions, labor regulations, poor laws, and a cottager’s cows. Burke’s only fault here is not keeping these various categories from spilling out one into another and so too haphazardly showing the effects of one upon the other.

14.        Burke’s unwritten chapter—partly visible in Thoughts and Details Written on Scarcity—shows how administrative tools were deployed toward developing a biopolitics of Britain. Sinclair’s other administrative works serve as good examples. In accord with a number of agricultural treatises and surveys of the period, Sinclair created and managed the ambitious twenty-one volume Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-1799). His use of the word "statistical" was rather novel at the time and called for his explanation:

Many people were at first surprised at my using the words "statistical" and "statistics", as it was supposed that some in our own language might have expressed the same meaning. But in the course of a very extensive tour through the northern parts of Europe, which I happened to take in 1786, I found that in Germany they were engaged in a species of political enquiry to which they had given the name "statistics," and though I apply a different meaning to that word—for by "statistical" is meant in Germany an inquiry for the purposes of ascertaining the political strength of a country or questions respecting matters of state—whereas the idea I annex to the term is an inquiry into the state of a country, for the purpose of ascertaining the quantum of happiness enjoyed by its inhabitants, and the means of its future improvement; but as I thought that a new word might attract more public attention, I resolved on adopting it, and I hope it is now completely naturalised and incorporated with our language. (Sinclair 20:xiii)
Sinclair relied primarily on roughly 900 local parish ministers to conduct the survey with some help from hired agents. The survey included 160 questions covering geography, population, agriculture and industry. While ostensibly seeking "the quantum of happiness enjoyed by its inhabitants," the survey actually recorded normative behavior of the population and laid the groundwork by which Sinclair and others would argue for improvements. Furthermore, it made significant inroads in representing Scotland to the rest of Great Britain and through quantification categorized and normalized Scottish life.

15.        While conducting the survey, in 1793 Sinclair was instrumental in establishing The Board of Agriculture (officially chartered as the Board or Society for the Encouragement of Agriculture and Internal Improvement). With a number of individuals and local societies advocating improvement of agriculture and livestock, it was simply a matter of time before matters were centralized and nationalized in a Board of Agriculture. According to the biography of Sinclair by his son, Rev. John Sinclair, the idea of forming a national board first occurred through Sinclair's discussion of the Corn Bill in 1791 entitled "An Address to the Landed Interest on the Corn Bill." Sinclair had "been deeply impressed by the fact, that while we were alleged to be dependent on foreign countries for food, their existed in England alone twelve millions of acres almost in a state of nature; and that many statesmen were looking helplessly for subsistence to other countries, while they overlooked the abundant capabilities of their own” (Rev. Sinclair 2:46). According to the biography, Prime Minister Pitt was impressed with this information which would prove "important to the safety and independence of the kingdom" (Rev. Sinclair 2:46). From his 1791 Society for the Improvement of British Wool to the Statistical Account to the Board of Agriculture, Sinclair is fundamentally interested in what Michel Foucault would call biopolitics.

16.        One could add the cartographic survey of the nation and the census to the list of biopolitical machinery. Both are underway at the turn of the century, and over the coming decades these inscriptions become refined instruments for representing a population. It is from such work that later John Snow will be able to create his famous epidemiological map of the cholera epidemic and trace a particular outbreak to the Broad Street water pump. For agriculture, maps of low laying swamps and bogs reveal places that will over the course of the century see drainage and “improvement” toward greater enclosure as well as expanded tillage. Additionally, Sinclair’s study can be placed in the lineage of what the seventeenth-century author William Petty termed “political arithmetic.” Perry is the “progenitor of quantitative study of ‘power’” who considered quantitative data as a means of revealing new sets of relationships at the national level. Even with the incomplete quantitative studies of his period he attempted to estimate the wealth potential of territory and compare English wealth potential against that of other nations (Innes 119-20). Closer to Sinclair’s own time and region, Andrew Wight published Present State of Husbandry in Scotland in 1778 and James Anderson Account of the Present State of the Hebrides in 1785 (Innes 147-48). More ambitious is the Scotsman George Chalmers Estimate of the Comparative Strength of Great Britain, during the present and four preceding reigns which was “the first work successfully to pull together a picture of national wealth and power using chiefly central sources” (Innes 149). All of these were efforts post 1745 to accord the productivity of Scotland with that of Great Britain as a whole and reveal Scotland as a significant contributor to the wealth of the nation.

17.        In cartography and the census everyone counts, which is to say every one is folded into quantity indifferent to difference in kind. Every one is interpellated as citizen within the nation and folded within a common system of evaluation. As Althusser lays out in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”: “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects” (173). Ideology happens concretely and we are folded into it by concrete circumstances, by the accepted practices and rituals of a culture: “you and I are always already subjects, and as such constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition, which guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects” (172). Finding oneself on a map or being counted as part of a population of a locale means being a subject given over to the representation of the map, survey, or census. As Steven Daniels explains, “Maps were not merely illustrations of the changing economic and political landscape of Britain; they were instruments of its planning, production, and regulation. They helped to coordinate Britain, in people’s minds as well as on the ground, as a national network of localities and regions” (61).

18.        The power of the census and cartography is evident in the Settlement Act and subsequent settlement laws. These serve as an example of biopolitics at work. The laws prevent moving from one parish to another without gainful employment. The settlement laws were passed to prevent vagrants from drawing charity from parishes of which they are not native; however, they also had an effect on field workers and day laborers. When workers were in demand, authorities overlooked the law so as to bring in more hands to tend to the fields and with more workers followed a lowering of wages; only when there was little work did the authorities prevent movement into their parish. By binding the laboring poor to a particular locale, by preventing freedom of movement, the law prevented the laborer from selling on the free market his one commodity, himself as labor. In Wealth of Nations Adam Smith takes to task this prohibition:

The obstruction which corporation laws give to the free circulation of labour is common, I believe, to every part of Europe. That which is given to it by the poor law is, so far as I know, peculiar to England. It consists in the difficulty which a poor man finds in obtaining a settlement, or even in being allowed to exercise his industry in any parish but that which he belongs. . . . The difficulty of obtaining settlements obstructs even that of common labour. (107)
Parish boundaries, citizenship, and economic pricing of labor are accepted practices and rituals in culture. These biopolitical apparatus move from textual inscriptions on paper to interpellation of bodies in which the laborers are “always already subjects.”

19.        Thomas Malthus’s sheer quantification of bodies in his Essay on the Principle of Population provides an exemplary instance of quantification of bodies. Malthus’s fundamental formula raises great anxiety: a human population grows exponentially while agriculture grows arithmetically. Such a quantification of bodies in dire circumstances serves as a justification for the expansion of biopolitics in a range of areas including but not limited to enclosure, agriculture, animal husbandry, and the clearances in Scotland (McLane 109-111). In terms of bodies made “always already subjects,” throughout Principle of Population Malthus makes individuals responsible for their place in society. It is only by their industry that they contribute to the body politic. In a particularly shocking passage, the orphan without parents to care for him and unable to provide for himself “is, comparably speaking, of no value to society, as others will immediately supply its place” (Malthus quoted in Collings 169). Note here the use of the words “comparably” and “others.” Every person is placed in equal quantitative relation to the next and comparable to the next. Each person counts equally and must supply his or her “value” to society.

20.        In Monstrous Society, David Collings points to a curious moment in the 1803 edition of Malthus’s essay and not appearing in subsequent editions. Here Malthus employs the figure of the harvest table but with an inversion of the figure’s normal use. Traditionally, the harvest table—both in custom and in texts about the event—is a moment when the cornucopia of earth’s bounty is on display. The landowner sits with his laborers to share a feast from the harvest. The harvest table is employed in a number of labor class poems and is perhaps best known in Robert Bloomfield’s Farmer’s Boy:

Yet Plenty reigns, and from her boundless hoard,
Though not one jelly trembles on the board,
Supplies the feast with all that sense can crave;
With all that made our great forefathers brave (44)
Bloomfield goes on to lament the loss of this custom as landowners sit at a separate table and eat “refined” rather than wholesome foods of their forefathers.

21.        Malthus employs the table differently:

A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he do not work upon the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favor. (quoted in Collings 164)
Malthus continues by explaining that “harmony” of the feast is placed off balance and scarcity ensues. Eventually, “The guests learn too late their error, in counteracting those strict orders to all intruders, issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that all her guests should have plenty, and knowing that she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full” (quoted in Collings 164). For Malthus, no longer is the landowner and community responsible for who attends the feast; instead, “the great mistress” Nature dictates the limit in numbers. Indeed, the table becomes about counting rather than surplus, excess, bounty and a joyous mass of humanity. In short Malthus inverts the festival of the feast. Now each individual must bring something to the table in order to gain admission. Taken alongside other texts laid out above, Malthus constructs a biopolitical individual who is responsible to the state but to whom the state bears no responsibility should the individual not meet a requisite productivity.

22.        A pause here is in order to consider the implications of these diverse biopolitical inscriptions. As already noted, these works are not always a coordinated effort. They may draw one from another—as, for example, Malthus in each of his progressively copious editions of Principle of Population adds more and more data taken from surveys and census reports—but the works are not centralized. Nor is the government the sole or even main force initiating the quantification. Over the nineteenth century, the government will increasingly take control of methods for gathering data as well as providing government imprimatur for published reports.

23.        The general drift of these works is to place all citizens within a restricted economy. The general, or unrestricted economy, of heterogeneous place, personhood, and food is narrowed. In a restricted economy all bodies within the cartographic borders of the state fall under the rubrics of citizenship and the census. All bodies count quantitatively. Later, there is room for some qualitative and quantitative differentiation—comparing populations from different regions or by livelihood, gender, wealth, ethnicity, etc. However any differentiation is subordinated to or falls “below” the categories determined by the matrix of quantification. Quantified sets of information determine in advance the status of the bodies. So, one is or is not a citizen. From there, one is from a region, of a particular gender, a particular trade, a particular race and religion, etc.. There is no room for qualitative differentiation, no space by which the matrix allows at the outset for a heterogeneity or general economy in which, for example, one is a fieldworker by day, a weaver in the evenings and a maker of homemade cheese to be sold at market. In other words, identity fits within a matrix of information.

24.        Food is a way in which that the biopower of the masses, the swinish multitude, resist quantification. In food fights, the masses demand a heterogeneity of eating habits that does not fit within prescribed homogeneity of citizenship and ideal distributions of food. This resistance and demand can be illustrated through the substitute for bread debates of which Gillray’s illustration discussed above is one example. Potatoes and potato bread are perhaps the most famous substitutes advocated by agriculturalists. Catherine Gallahger has provided an exemplary overview of the potato versus wheat debates in England. As for potato bread, this too is a complex subject. The ratio and contents of bread had undergone a variety of regulation for some time as in the Act for the Making of Bread, 1763, in which the size, weight, and cost of white and wheat breads are regulated as well as labeled. Introducing potato bread complicated the bread category. The wetness of potatoes varied as did the texture and cooking rate.

25.        Shifting to potato bread was not a simple task. “Whimsical Expenses of Economy” in Gentlemen’s Magazine of 1795 parodies the situation. The speaker tells a Mr. Urban that he has decided to abide by “the number of substitutes for flour which have been suggested by the ingenious Sir John Sinclair, president of the board of agriculture” (Cakeling 135). He then relates a long story of purchasing potatoes, ordering a home oven, and purchasing fuel for the fire followed by his wifes various trial recipes for potato bread with some very soggy, some burnt, others half done until “we had reduced 20lbs of potatoes to 2, and had made excellent starch of it, though we could not make bread. We had consumed half the stock of potatoes that was to serve us all winter, without getting a single loaf that was eatable” (137). The narrator tells Mr. Urban “Never did a poor man pay so dear in order to save money and it is all owing to the cry that you and others have set up about scarcity, that I am fairly driven out of my own house, and am the laughing-stock of all my neighbours” (135). While potato bread makes sense economically as a mode of distributing food, it meets resistance in practical application—where the materiality of the food items meets preparation, tastes, and digestibility.

26.        Even amid scarcity and a fifty percent increase in wheat prices during the blight of the 1795 harvest and 1800, laborers demanded fine wheaten bread. As E. P. Thompson explains “laborers accustomed to wheaten bread actually could not work—suffered from weakness, indigestion, or nausea—if forced to change to rougher mixtures” (191). Thompson uses this among other food riot examples to explain the “delicate tissue of social norms which regulate life” which he characterizes as the moral economy of the crowd. In an excellent study of shifts from fine wheat bread to coarser cereal grains, Roger Wells details resistance from working-class consumers and even the millers who knew such shifts in food stuffs would not be palatable and would go undersold—indeed at times even risking riots (Wells 202-03, 209). In brief, the swinish multitude could demand fine wheaten bread over more course and indigestible substitutes because it was perceived as a right or a custom which linked the citizens within the community.

27.        Other food resistances reveal how the restricted economy of a homogeneous diet for the nation runs afoul of the heterogeneity of stomachs and kitchens. Consider oats. They are an acceptable food in Scotland and a number of writers correlate the hardiness of the Scots to their eating oats. More negatively said, the oats considered for animals is attributed as digestible to Scots because of their more animal constitution. J. L and Barbara Hammond give a more comprehensive overview of the ecology and economy of eating oats. They explain that with a diet of bread and tea, laborers in Southern England had “too delicate a digestion to assimilate the courser cereals, and that there was, apart from climate and tradition, a very important difference between the labourer in the north and the labourer in the south” (Hammond 122-123). There is a heterogeneity in climate, geography and tradition and as the Hammonds note, there is also the problem of access to milk: “Now oatmeal eaten with milk is a very different food from oatmeal taken alone, and it is clear from a study of the budgets that if oatmeal was to be acclimatized in the south, it was essential to increase the consumption of milk. But the great difference in consumption represented not a difference of demand, but of supply” (Hammond 123). In brief, enclosure had fenced in (or fenced out) commons by which the laborer would be able to keep a cow. Large dairies in the south sent much of their supply to Bath and London. There are even complaints that the hogs had more access to milk for fattening than did the worker. So, just as eating potato breads is not a satisfactory equivalent to wheaten breads, eating oats is not equal for all laborers. People repeatedly present qualitative differences in that which is digestible. Theirs is a protest of culture and of the stomach—a resistance even at the most biological levels.

28.        But eat one must. Just as the worker’s power to sell his labor is restricted by the Settlement Act, enclosure restricted food production. Loss of common pasture lands means forfeiting a cow which would provide milk, cheese, and butter without a need to purchase these goods at market. As the Hammonds explain:

The loss of his cow and his produce and his common and traditional rights was rendered particularly serious to the labourer by the general growth of prices. For enclosure which had produced the agrarian proletariat, had raised the cost of living for him. The accepted opinion that under enclosure England became immensely more productive tends to obscure the truth that the agricultural labourer suffered in his character of consumer, as well as in his character of producer, when the small farms and the commons disappeared. (Hammond 106)
In short: the laborer must buy items. He does not possess the work of his brow nor the capacities for sustenance that a garden and cow supply. He cannot buy wholesale from a local farmer as the increasingly large farms sell only to middlemen. The laborer is forced onto a particular capitalist market configured in a restricted way. Roger Wells summarizes the dynamics of the “improved agriculture”:
heavy capital investment underpinned marked rises in agricultural productivity while increased market orientation of profit-maximising farmers came to dominate most rural communities economically. . . . Farmers’ demand for labour therefore became paramount and the main source of agrarian labour’s exposure to free-market forces. Workers’ dependency on the market for employment was paralleled by their dependency on it as consumers, for food, fuel, clothing and housing. (211)
Such an economy restricts what constitutes economic activity as opposed to a general economy by which the laborer with cow and commons supplements his livelihood.

29.        In Annals of Agriculture Arthur Young sympathizes with laborers who have been stripped of the commons: “The poor in these parishes may say, and with truth, all I know is that I had a cow and the Act of Parliament has taken it from me” (Young 42-43). And as with cows so too with a number of cottage industries which promote a self-reliance outside the restricted economy of labor exchanged for wages. In place of work at home, the laborer must work for another and make wages that can then be sold for goods at market. In sum, the laborer is forced into a national monetary economy.

30.        This shift from a general economy to a restricted economy is illustrated by George Willis’s report printed in Arthur Young’s Annals of Agriculture:

The cottager who commands milk, has within himself, a daily supply of a nutrition’s aliment for the purpose of his family, while another who has not these advantages out of his poor pittance, purchases at the village shop, this black compound of trash and inequity [tea], at the same time he empties his purse, he brings home to his miserable wife and family, a gradual and corrosive poison. (560)
The role of cows as companion species to humans is a long history even to the present. Willis’s report illustrates the cow as a biopolitical animal claimed by the laborer on one side and the Act of Parliament on the other. At work here is a question of who can make claim to the animal’s productivity and how such productivity is to be channeled within a cultural (and eventually a monetary) economy.

31.        With some brevity I will mark out two more examples of production and labor shifting from a general economy to a restricted economy: beer and gleaning. While John Barrell has commented on the political role of the ale house as depicted in the paintings of George Moreland, William Cobbett’s occasional hobbyhorse of beer is also worth noting. Cobbett decorates his entries of Rural Rides with a report of the size, quantity, and the quality of beer he tastes while working up a thirst traveling across the countryside and giving speeches. He gives report of the joyous company he meets in ale houses. Most distinctly, he notes when a landowner entertains him with beer rather than foreign wine and comments on the loss of making beer. Cobbett notes that with the rise in taxes for the wheat and barley, beer making is no longer a common cottage industry. The tax money for military barracks, he comments, “came out of the people’s labour; and when you hear Mr. Ellman tell the Committee of 1821, that forty-five years ago every main in his parish brewed his own beer, and that now not one man in that same parish does it. . . [you] might be able to estimate the effects of what has produced the barrack ” (Cobbett 161). For Cobbett, taxes redistributed productivity to nonworking thieves, naves, and nobles, but more to the point here, beer was no longer a local, inexpensive, home skill. It was a commodity bought on the market.

32.        Cobbett also laments the loss of gleaning where workers—often women and children—gather or glean wheat that was not bundled in the harvest and so claimed by the landowner. Cobbett comments: “I saw several wheat stubbles from 40 rods to 10 rods. I asked one man how much wheat he had from about 10 rods. He said more than two bushels. Here is bread for three weeks or more, perhaps; and a winter’s straw for the pig besides” (Cobbett 35). Capel Lofft—known for his patronage of Robert Bloomfield—also advocated gleaning as a traditional and common right. Yet as the price of grain rose during years of scarcity, the landowners pushed harder against the tradition and prosecuted gleaners for the wheat they labored to gather (Hammond 105, Archer 30). With wheat as with milk and beer, all labor and objects become commodities within a restricted economy. The prohibition against laborers and their families gleaning from their labors was seen to work against the biblical adage “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn” (Deuteronomy 25:4). As Thompson summarizes the dilemma, “The breakthrough of the new political economy of the free market was also the breakdown of the old moral economy of provision” (258).

33.        As I hope these pieces of a mosaic illustrate, bodies resist quantification where biopower of the body cannot be subsumed by population, statistics, and homogenization of the biopolitical apparatus of capture. Either workers are given wheaten bread or they and their stomachs will not work. Either a family has a cow and milk or they will not eat oats. Either beer is accessible to laborers or the alehouse becomes a meeting ground for political discontent. Either the workers are granted the right to glean wheat or their families will be hard pressed to survive the winter. The heterogeneous demands of bodies weigh not only by quantification but also by a massification—a mass in excess of capture, a mass that pushes, resists and weighs (Nancy 198). Like the possessed demon swine of the New Testament, the swinish multitude resist control.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays. London: New Left Books, 1972. 121–76. Print.

Archer, John E. Social Unrest and Popular Protest in England, 1780-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

Barrell, John. The Dark Side of Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting 1730-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. Print.

Betham-Edwards, Matilda. “Biographical Sketch.” Arthur Young’s Travels in France during the Years 1787, 1788, 1789. Ed. Matilda Betham-Edwards. London: George Bell and Sons, 1909. Web. 2012-3-26.

Bloomfield, Robert. The Farmer’s Boy. London: Vernor and Hood, Poultry, 1800. Print.

Burke, Edmund. Thoughts and Details on Scarcity. London: Rivington, 1800. Print.

Cakeling, Christopher. “Whimsical Expenses of Economy” Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature of the Year 1795. Section “Miscellaneous Essays” 134-138. London: Burton for Dodsley’s Annual Register, 1800. Print.

Cobbett, William. Rural Rides: In the Counties of Surrey, Kent, Sussex, Hants, Berks, Oxford, Bucks, Wilts, Somerset, Gloucester, Hereford, Salop, Worcester, Stafford, Leicester, Hertford, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridge, Huntington, Nottingham, Lincoln, York, Lancaster, Durham, and Northumberland During the years 1821 to 1832. Vol. 1. London: Ves and Turner, 1885. Print.

Collings, David. Monstrous Society: Reciprocity, Discipline, and the Political Uncanny, c. 1780-1848. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell Univesity Press, 2009. Print.

Daniels Stephen. “Re-visioning Britain: Mapping and Landscape Painting, 1750–1820.” Glorious Nature: British Landscape Painting 1750–1850. Ed. Katharine Baetjer and Michael Rosenthal. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1993. Print.

Fitzwilliam Museum, Web. 2012-3-26.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1979. New York: Picador, 2010. Print.

---. Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976. New York: Picador, 2003. Print.

Gallagher, Catharine, and Stephen Greenblatt. Practicing New Historicism: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Print.

Gallop, G. I. Pig’s Meat: The Selected Writings of Thomas Spence, Radical and Pioneer Land Reformer. Nottingham: Spokesman, 1987. Print.

Gigante, Denise. Taste: a Literary History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Print.

Gillray, James. Presage of the Millennium. 1795. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.

---. Substitutes for Bread. 1795. British Library, London, UK.

Hammond, J. L., and Barbara Hammond. The Village Labourer. Vol.1. London: The British Publisher’s Guild, 1948. Print.

Herzog, Don. Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. Print.

Innes, Joanna. Inferior Politics: Social Problems and Social Policies in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Legge, W. Heneage. “Sussex Pottery.” The Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist, New Series Volume 9, Jan. 1903: 1-9. Web. 2012-3-26.

McLane, Maureen N. Romanticism and the Human Sciences: Poetry, Population, and the Discourse of the Species. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Birth to Presence. Stanford, CA, Stanford UP, 1994. Print.

Sinclair, Reverend John. Memoirs of the Life and Works of the Late Right Honorable Sir John Sinclair, Bart. 2 Volumes, Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons; London: T. Cadell, 1837. Print.

Sinclair, Sir John. Statistical Account of Scotland. 1791-1799, 22 Volumes. University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow, 1999. Web. 2012-3-26.

Smith, Adam. Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Forgotten Books, 2008. Web. 2012-3-26.

“Substance of Sir John Sinclair’s Address to the Board of Agriculture,” Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature of the Year 1795. Section “Useful Projects” 96-100. London: Burton for Dodsley’s Annual Register, 1800. Print.

Thompson, E. P. Customs in Common. London: Merlin Press, 1991.

Wells, Roger. “The Moral Economy of the English Countryside.” Moral Economy and Popular Protest: Crowds, Conflict and Authority. Eds. Adrian Randall and Andrew Charlesworth. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. 209-272. Print.

---. Wretched Faces: Famine in Wartime England 1793-1801. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Print.

Willis, Reverend George. “On Cows for Cottagers.” Annals of Agriculture and Other Useful Arts, ed. Arthur Young. Vol. 40. Bury: J. Rackham, 1803. Print.

Wolfe, Cary. Before the Law. Chicago: Chicago University Press, forthcoming 2012.

Young, Arthur. An Inquiry into the Propriety of Applying Wastes to the Better Maintenance and Support of the Poor. Bury: J. Rackham, 1801. Print.


[1] Wolfe’s quotations of Foucault are from The Birth of Biopolitics, 271, Ibid., 274, ibid., 282, 283. BACK

About this Page


Published @ RC

April 2013