A Nation of Shopkeepers


I thought Napoleon said it. But no, it's in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776), book IV, section vii, part 3 (about half way through). Here's what he says:

To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.

We might want to add news-mongers, phone hackers, cops on the take, MPs slurping up the lard at the trough, all the bankers and the other high net worth individuals.

But what was Adam Smith on about?

He was criticizing the Navigation Acts of 1651, which gave a monopoly of colonial produce to the shopkeepers of England. The maintenance of this monopoly was "perhaps the sole end and purpose of the dominion which Great Britain assumes over her colonies." The produce was the product of slavery, the slavery was at first Irish and poor English, then it became African. Hundreds of thousands for two centuries were consumed under the lash, the sun, and manacles of oppression for the shopkeepers of England who raised a nation of customers, far, far away from the cries of the enslaved. Yes, a "consumer" society "served" by shopkeepers, as it appeared. But behind every consumer is a producer (there's no getting away from it!) and the descendants of slaves followed the produce produced by their ancestors, and this was long before the Empire Windrush arrived in 1948 at Tilbury docks with the Jamaican veterans of World War II.

The story as a whole is well told by Eric Williams or C.L.R. James, both from Trinidad, and centered in London. Or, you can find it in Robin Blackburn's magnificent summary, The American Crucible: Slavery Emancipation and Human Rights. London is a world city, and has been for centuries, a commune in the Middle Ages, the first commune. Between 1620 and 1660 the shopkeepers totally got their way - Adam Smith said it. We called it the "bourgeois revolution" (take that, Napoleon!). A generation of scholarship on both sides of the Atlantic studied the municipal rebellions of the 1960s to help understand the riots of the 1760s. Didn't we sort that out? Weren't the politicians taught those lessons in school? Enclosure? Criminalization of custom? Moral economy? Slavery?

Evidently not.

In the eighteenth century they threw product to "customers", generally drugs (coffee, tea, sugar), and then in the 19th century brought in police to divide and rule (gender, religion, race, employed/unemployed, seniors/youth). A people composed of customers and a nation of shopkeepers sucked dry a world of slaves in far away lands. The chickens have come home to roost, as Malcolm X said at another teachable moment (when JFK was killed). Only now, the globalization is complete. This is why Darcus Howe speaks of Tottenham and Syria, Tottenham and Port au Prince. Actually the whole story has not half been told. This is what makes it an historic moment, as Darcus also said.

A second commune? An archipelago of communes?

Adam Smith himself feared such a thing: "The tribunes, when they had a mind to animate the people against the rich and the great, put them in mind of the ancient division of lands, and represented the law which restricted this sort of private property as the fundamental law of the republic." The fear of the commons caused imperial expansion, conquest, and colonization, as he argues under "Of the Motives for establishing new Colonies."

Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century and co-author of Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England, a new edition of which is published in September.