Between the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: A Pre-history

Between the end of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, Amsterdam merchants ‘invented’ what would then become the future ‘form’ of the prison (but also, at the same time, of the manufacture, the proto-factory)—the ‘workhouse’—in order to punish and teach the poor to labour at the same time (Sellin 1944). ‘Penality’, in the English Bridewells as in Dutch seventeenth-century institutions, was at the very core of the constitution of a ‘capitalist’ mode of production; it was at the centre of the ‘making’ of a ‘disciplined’ ‘working class’. At the same time, however, this very project was at the service of a certain kind of rationality that would reform and transform all aspects of social life, morality, and work. In this sense, a certain way of thinking about imprisonment is an indicator of the historical change that was taking place in those centuries as coherent and as telling as the introduction of the factory, the market, and all the other accoutrements of capitalism.

Processes of migration and ‘modernization’ in connection with some form of ‘globalization’ date at least to the late Middle Ages (Wallerstein 1974). Migratory movements constituted in a sense the womb within which all types ofworking class originated. At first there were ‘people on the move’ from a rural to an urban environment. At the same time, however, such ‘move’ was indissolubly linked with ‘crime’ and ‘punishment’ from the very beginning. Marx was among the first to note this process. Writing about ‘enclosures of common land’ in fifteenth-century England that were at the very roots of a ‘primitive accumulation’ constitutive of a ‘capitalist mode of production’, Marx stated:

The proletariat created by the breaking up of the bands of feudal retainers and by the

forcible expropriation of the people from the soil, this ‘free’ proletariat could not possibly be absorbed by the nascent manufacturers as fast as it was thrown upon the world. On the other hand, these men, suddenly dragged from their wonted mode of life, could not as suddenly adapt themselves to the discipline of their new condition. They were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases from stress of circumstances. Hence at the end of the 15th century and during the whole of the 16th century throughout Western Europe a bloody legislation against vagabondage. The fathers of the present working class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as ‘voluntary’ criminals, and assumed that it depended on their own good will to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed. (Marx 1960 [1867]: 734)[1]

Those ‘dragged from their wonted mode of life’—the migrants—were labelled as ‘criminals’. Migrants are the ‘fathers [and mothers!] of the present working class’. This is not something that we are inclined to see during periods which are not characterized by huge mass migration, whereas they are somewhat obvious in periods like the current one. So, for instance, as I mentioned at the start of this chapter, when I moved from the just quoted passage by Marx in order to write my sections of The Prison and the Factory in the 1970s (Melossi and Pavarini 1977), I was unable to see that Marx was writing here also about migratory movements ‘internal’ to a country. His ‘vagrants’ were our contemporary ‘migrants’, as well as the American ‘hoboes’ of yesteryear (Anderson 1923). In this passage, Marx asserts that ‘legislation treated them as “voluntary” criminals, and assumed that it depended on their own good will to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed’. The processes that they have to undergo and that are brought down on them are considered as instances of the migrants’/vagrants’ lack of adaptation or even of their predisposition to bad behaviour. The largely ‘involuntary’ products of development are at once the culprits of their new status.

In the same way in which migrants and workers are twin modern concepts, so the destiny which was waiting for them at the end of their travel, after that ‘bloody legislation against vagabondage’, was the ‘factory form’, which doubled up as a penal factory—the ‘workhouse’—and which, ‘invented’ in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was both a form of relief for unemployed workers and a punishment for criminalized despondent workers (Melossi and Pavarini 1977: 16-33). Prisons—as the successors to workhouses[2]—were and remain symbolic ‘gateways’ through which ‘newcomers’ are ‘processed’ in order to be admitted into the social contract, that is to say into the ‘city’. In one of the central narratives of modernization, in fact—that most celebrated section of the Manifesto of the Communist Party—Marx portrays the trajectory of capitalism in history as one of destruction and rebuilding—‘all that is solid melts into air’ (Marx and Engels 1985 [1848]: 83; Berman 1982: 95). This ‘destructive nihilism’ (Berman 1982: 100) is embedded in the ordinary working of capitalism (Polanyi 1944).

In short, one of capitalism’s most characteristic markers is migration and its connected coupling with a condition of ‘anomie’ or ‘alienation’. At the same time, these human forces that have been somehow ‘liberated’ and set in motion by the movements of capitalism had to be transformed into controlled and disciplined production (Hirschman 1977: 14-20)—discipline being what the factory and the prison had in common—Foucault’s Marxian point of departure. The particular role historically played by ‘vagrancy’, and vagrancy laws, in the very constitution of modern penal law, becomes then clearer (Chambliss 1964). Vagrancy, which had been called the ‘chrysalis of every species of criminal’ at the end of the nineteenth century (Duncan 1996: 172), was, together with the ‘crime’ of refusing to work at given conditions, the original crime for which imprisonment, the modern form of punishment, was to be administered (Melossi and Pavarini 1977: 16-33).

  • [1] This passage by Marx was the main foundation of my sections in Melossi and Pavarini (1977:9-62).
  • [2] William Penn’s penal reform in 1681, part of the broader Quaker ‘holy experiment’ of Pennsylvania, was the clearest and most explicit link between the workhouses and the modern penitentiaries.Penn decreed that ‘all Prisons shall be workhouses for felons, Thiefs, vagrants, and Loose, abusive, andIdle persons, whereof one shall be in every county’ (Dumm 1987: 79).
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