The Many-Headed Hydra
by Michael Dean Benton
Politics and Culture
Review of Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).
Like many important things in our lives these days I have had to repeatedly revisit and reconsider Linebaugh’s and Rediker’s history of the beginnings of the British Transatlantic empire and the resistances that arose in response to the ordering processes of early global capitalism. The first time I read Many-Headed Hydra I was researching the origins of global capitalism and the various resistances to its rise. The second visit to this history was in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks upon the WTC towers in New York City. I used their history as a background to wrestle with the uses and abuses of the term “terror” in the media and politics. The third reading was completed in order to judge the suitability of the book for use in my undergraduate course “Terror in Contemporary Culture.” It is through these three different readings that Many-Headed Hydra’s importance to contemporary issues will be examined. (In this review I will be examining some of the broader issues surrounding the authors’ history and its usefulness to scholars and teachers. ...
One of the current obsessions of contemporary academia is the debate about the conception of globalization as a new process that has no alternatives-in other words, you either jump on board or get left behind. Manfred Steger states that this is the rhetoric of neoliberal globalists “who believe in the creation of a single, global market in goods, services, and capital. They suggest that all peoples and states are equally subject to the logic of globalization, which is in the long run beneficial and inevitable, and that societies have no choice but to adapt to this world-shaping force” (12). Among the advocates of a purely beneficial global capitalism this “irresistible” process “is frequently expressed in quasi-religious language that bestows almost divine wisdom upon the market.” This can be seen in the economic concerns surrounding the current political rhetoric of The War on Terror, or, in the pages of new age technology worshippers, such as, Wired, and in the market propaganda of pundits like Thomas Friedman.
In opposition to this contemporary narrative of an ahistorical conception of globalization as a totally new phenomenon, Many-Headed Hydra provides a framework for reconsidering globalization, or better yet, global capitalism, as an ongoing, historical process. Linebaugh and Rediker provide a historical mapping of the various ordering processes used to consolidate and control the economic flows of the burgeoning British Transatlantic Empire. In this history from below they reconstruct the stories of those who were impressed, enslaved, and conquered in order to provide this new empire with a continuous flow of fresh bodies to serve as the “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” A key part of this book is its examination of early modern labor history and the methods used to enforce compliance. The authors’ achievement in this regard has been recognized through the awarding of “The International Labor History Award” for The Many-Headed Hydra.
The colonizing of vast geographical areas and the enclosed taming of once wild common areas relied upon the forced labor of indentured servants, conscripted sailors and increasingly on the brutal slave trade. It is here that the ordering processes of global capitalism are given birth to while paradoxically these same ordering processes create the resistances that will plague the rise of the Atlantic Empire(s). In order to accurately map these various resistances, Linebaugh and Rediker move past the “severity of history that has long been the captive of the nation-state” as an “unquestioned framework of analysis” (6-7). This is carried-out through two interweaving historical narratives. The first narrative is that of the Atlantic ruling classes as they seek to consolidate their control of this new Empire and create legitimizing myths to justify their acts of “terror” used to pacify resistant populations-both at home and abroad. The second narrative, which is more important to the authors, is the alliances formed amongst multi-ethnic workers in response to the brutal conditions of this new empire.
These resistances are the main theme of Many-Headed Hydra. Linebaugh and Rediker explore the various resistances to these global colonizing forces through the metaphors of “terror” that the dominant society used to demonize alternative lifestyles. Prominent amongst these was the image of the multi-headed Hydra that the mythic Hercules had to destroy as one of his heroic labors. The mythical Hydra would sprout two heads in the place of every head that was lopped off by Hercules. In a final desperate move Hercules used a torch to sear the severed necks in order to prevent new heads from sprouting. It was the legitimizing myths of political theorists, like Francis Bacon, that supported the representation of marginalized peoples as monstrous forces that threatened the ordered progression of society. In Bacon’s 1622 book An Advertisement Touching An Holy War he outlines a social theory that viewed the new unruly combinations of workers, sailors, commoners, and slaves as “monstrous and used the myth of the many-headed hydra to develop his theory of monstrosity, a subtly, thinly veiled policy of terror and genocide” (40). Social ordering movements such as these sought to eradicate the resistive hydra-like uprisings wherever they appeared, but like the mythical monster the repressive efforts only resulted in the multiplication of revolts.
The reality though was that the ruling classes were using “terror” to create social “boundaries” to create division amongst the workers. An example of this was when after the St. Patrick’s Day Rebellion (1741) in New York the authorities sought to eliminate the threat of workers’ solidarity through an attack on the “prevailing multiracial practices and bonds of proletarian life in Atlantic New York. First they went after the taverns and other settings where “cabals” of poor whites and blacks could be formed and subversive plans disseminated. Next they self-consciously recomposed the proletariat of New York to make it more difficult for workers along the waterfront to find among themselves source of unity. And finally, they endeavored to teach racial lessons to New York’s people of European descent, promoting a white identity … ” (207). This organized “terror” was the “mechanism of the labor market” that was used to control those who labored as indentured servants and captured slaves (35, 60).
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