[Update: I accidentally published my first draft of this.]
I’m reading that part of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class that’s about what happened before the industrial revolution. I’ve been struck by the food “riots” that were common until the 1840’s. I put “riots” in scare quotes because they were often (usually?) peaceful. Here, Thompson quotes John Wesley:
[The mob] had been in motion all day; but their business was only with the forestallers of the market, who had bought up all the corn far and near, to starve the poor, and load a Dutch ship, which lay at the quay; but the mob brought it all out into the market, and sold it for the owners at the common price. And this they did with all the calmness and composure imaginable, and without striking or hurting anyone. (p. 64)
Thompson gives another example:
In Honiton in 1766 lace-workers seized corn on the premises of the farmers, took it to market themselves, sold it, and returned the money and even the sacks back to the farmers. (p. 64)
Oddly similar to events in Madison, where most reports of the scene in the capital were of a surprisingly self-organizing, calm, and disciplined crowd.
What was the motivation for the bread riots? They were “legitimised by the assumptions of an older moral economy, which taught the immorality of any unfair method of forcing up the price of provisions by profiteering on the necessities of the people” (p. 65). Thompson also singles out the tradition of the free-born Englishman, which consisted of:
[…] a moral consensus in which authority at times shared, and of which at all times it was bound to take into account […] this question of the limits beyond which the Englishman was not prepared to be “pushed around,” and the limits beyond which authority did not dare to go, is crucial to an understanding of this period. The stance of the common Englishman was not so much democratic, in any positive sense, as anti-absolutist […] [The unwritten consensus stemming from the Glorious Revolution] might provide the propertied classes with a sanction for the most bloody code penalising offenders against property; but it provided no sanction for arbitrary authority. (pp. 79-80)
That resonates with me. I’m a comfortable white middle-class American. I have certain expectations that those with power will be… tactful. They won’t be absolutist (toward me). They won’t be arbitrary (toward me). They won’t nakedly use a crisis as an excuse to cut off their political enemies’ funding. They won’t be radical. Gov. Walker is radical in the same way that many Republicans have recently been, but their targets have been, well, poor people, brown people, people imprudent in their mortgage borrowing—people Not Much Like Me. Walker’s targets are (much more explicitly) teachers, middle-class workers, firefighters, policemen—people that are like me, not “others”.
That’s why I feel in my gut he’s gone too far. (My head thought all his sort had gone too far long ago.) That’s why I think many whitebread people like me feel he’s gone too far. We finally realize: there really is no social contract left that stops us from being next.