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The Wisdom of the Market

Updated: Feb 23

The ineluctable, irresistible,

Omnipotent, omniscient

Wisdom of the market;

The impersonal workings

Of market forces and their impulse;

Not people, you understand,

Gambling on stocks and shares and people’s lives,

But the forces and wisdom of the market.

And the wisdom of the market

Demands that no-one should interfere

With the forces and wisdom of the market,

Or as Jacob Rees-Mogg,

Minister for the 18th century, put it:

‘You don’t make the poor richer by making the rich poorer’

(Which is just what my dear old Grannie Butler

Used to say, sitting in her little sitting-room,

In her cold, damp cottage with a well for water).

But, in fact, there was a very different wisdom

In the hills and valleys here in the 18th century:

Not the wisdom of the market at all,

But the wisdom of the moral economy:

Food prices would be determined not by the market,

But by the direct action of labourers,

And by the consequent response of justices of the peace,

Who would settle upon a just price, a fair price:

Not a price determined by supply and demand,

Or scarcity, be it natural, or artificial and contrived.

And that is why labourers would march in unison,

On mills, markets, granaries and warehouses,

To settle upon a moral price for bags of flour,

Bushels of wheat and loaves of bread:

A small pocket of localised morality

In an 18th century economy

Based upon the immorality

Of what was euphemistically

Entitled, ‘The Slave Trade’

Or, ‘The Triangular Trade’.

But today, so that the poor do not become richer,

We have the wisdom of the markets.

And food banks.

And cuts to universal credit.

And a gig economy.

And charity.

And that horrible word, ‘philanthropy’.

And heat or eat.

And begging in the streets.

And Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’,

Reaching out from his ‘Wealth of Nations’,

Written in 1776 but still a bible for the likes of Rees-Mogg,

An ‘invisible hand’ that will guide the wisdom of the market.

A chimera.

A conceit.

A deceit.

A metaphor.

A mere figure of speech.

An invisible hand, indeed.

And that, my friends, is the wisdom of the market.

An illusion.

But …

That invisible hand does reach out to stuff the pockets of the rich.

And that’s why the rich like the wisdom of the market.

And that’s why we should remember the moral economy.

For that’s proper wisdom.

Not the gaslight of deceitful rhetoric.

A Retrospective on the 1766 Food Riots

The Stroud-water Food Riots


Gilbert White, August 1st 1786:

‘The poor begin to glean wheat. The country looks very rich, being finely diversified with crops of corn of various sorts, and colours.’

John Keats, To Autumn – 1819:

‘Who hath not seen thee oft amid they store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook… ‘

Chapter the First:

Bread of Heaven, the Staff of Life,

A biblical motif of justice

For the miller who grinds so small –

And should thee not eat thy bread,

‘By the sweat of thy brow’?

Chapter the Second:

Thus, the Stroudwater food riots of the 18th and early 19th century

Have a provenance ground in Time Immemorial,

Hence the banner:

‘We might as well be hanged as starved’,

When poor harvests, high food prices,

Dealers, middlemen, speculators, and ‘corn-jobbers’,

All conspired to exploit shortages for private profit,

As local labourers, shepherds, spinners, weavers, smiths and so on,

Observed the transport of local grain to far-off markets

(Such as Lechlade, bound for London),

With a perturbed sense of injustice.

Chapter the Third:

So horns were blown, banners raised, flags waved,

Crowds gathered with their chosen ‘regulators’,

Gathering in lanes, fields and inns,

No malice aforethought,

But a spontaneous reaction after arguments over prices,

Hunger, want, profit and justice –

A crowd swelling

To determine prices at market,

In the city of Gloucester, the towns of Stroud and Cirencester,

Calling at village, hamlet, granary,

mill, baker’s, huckster’s, factor’s, and warehouse,

Taking stocks of food such as corn, flour, bread, bacon, cheese, butter,

Paying a ‘fair’ price, for redistribution,

Sometimes destroying the flour of speculators,

As at a mill at Painswick;

Crowds, regulating themselves,

Sometimes a thousand strong,

As on the march from Stroud to Cirencester,

Across the fields of Rodborough and Minchinhampton,

Gathering supporters from Thrupp, Brimscombe, Chalford,

Eastcombe, Bisley, Oakridge, Frampton Mansell,

Sapperton and Coates,

Sub-dividing into smaller groups to comb the valley bottoms,

An algorithm of determination,

Whilst others listened to the tattoo of horses,

Observing the troops moving in detachment,

Lines of Stroud Scarlet moving with officers’ orders,

And there, the sheriff with his javelin men:

‘On Friday last a Mobb was rais’d in these parts by the blowing of Horns &c consisting entirely of the lowest of the people such as weavers, mecanicks, labourers, prentices and boys, &c’,

‘They proceeded to a gristmill near the town … cutting open Baggs of Flower and giving & carrying it away and destroying corn &c’,

But in the main, Sheriff Dalloway said, they ‘behaved with great regularity and decency where they were not opposed and violence where they were; but pilferd very little, which to prevent, they will not now suffer women and boys to go with them.’

Chapter the Fourth:

The crowd,

Observing a fall in prices,

As landlords and gentry responded to the crowds,

By suggesting to their tenant farmers,

that corn should be sent straight to market,

The gentry,

Watching ringleaders claim that they were in fact maintaining the law

Rather than breaking it:

‘Many that are under sentence of death thought they were doing a meritorious act at the very moment they were forfeiting their lives’,

As bread and corn were intercepted not just on road and in lane,

Stopping cart or heavy waggon,

But also on canal,

Inland navigations,

And the River Severn,

When barges laden with corn would be boarded.

Chapter the Fifth:

I used to walk around Ruscombe, near Stroud,

When I popped out from school at lunchtime,

And there in the lane is Baker’s Cottage –

In 1766, Hester and Jane Pitt pushed Mary Cooke off her horse,

And made off with a good baker’s dozen of 16 loaves.

And, here in Bread Street, today, 23rd February 2022,

Just by the old stone stile in a gap in the drystone wall,

Dividing lane and field,

As part of the Terminalia Festival,

On the subject of boundaries and wisdom,

I stopped to read all the above

To Radical Stroud.

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