In a recent post I discuss six policies that spurred the Industrial Revolution in England – opening up immigration, weakening the guilds, investing in infrastructure, privatizing agricultural land, forcing a move to new energy sources, and policies for bringing capital to the new, capital-intensive technologies – and suggest that these policies have their analogues today as we face what history may view as another industrial revolution.
But that is only one part of the story of the Industrial Revolution. Another part is not always very pretty, but might also be instructive.
Class Division in the New Economy
The rise of the capitalist class during the Industrial Revolution is well known, with a select few, the barons of industry, be it steel, rail, or textiles, catapulting to a level of wealth rarely known before. But less considered is the other tail of the distribution, the downward spiral of what today might be termed the middle class.
The story of the steel-driver John Henry’s race with the steam hammer is a type for the plight of English laborers overrun by the Industrial Revolution. Labor was caught in the sea-change of new technologies and economic organization.
Hand work could not compete with the machines, no matter how great the workers’ skill and determination. A whole generation of hand laborers kept up a desperate struggle, but with an inevitable end. The same occurred for the small farmers, who were squeezed out by the consolidation of farms that had been initiated by the policy of privatizing enclosures. Some gave up their land and drifted away to the towns to keep up the struggle a little longer as hand-loom weavers, but then became part of the factory labor class, just as others gave up their looms and devoted themselves entirely to farming for a while, but eventually sold their land and dropped into the class of agricultural laborers.
The result was the same in either case: Household manufacture gave way to that of the factory and the small farms were consolidated. For the many who did both farming and hand work, their work, subsistence farms and homes were all lost.The farmers who lost access to the commons due to the policy of enclosures frequently failed to find alternative employment near home and became paupers and vagabonds.
Just as the factory system disenfranchised and commoditized the industrial workers, the farm workers became separated from the land. Three classes emerged in agriculture: the landlords, the tenant farmers, and the farm laborers. The landlord class was a comparatively small group, a few thousand, of nobility and gentry who owned by far the majority of agricultural land. Another class, the yeomen who owned and cultivated their own small farms, disappeared entirely, descending into the class of laborers.
Obviously, the Industrial Revolution ultimately increased prosperity, but for a time it made a wide swath of the populace worse off. The period of transition from the domestic to the factory system of industry and from the older to the new agriculture was one of almost unrelieved misery for those who could not integrate into the new economy, whether due to lack of capital or lack of physical or mental adaptability.
New Routes to Job Creation
While the hand-loom weavers kept up a hopeless struggle in the attics and cellars of the factory towns, their wages sinking lower and lower until the whole generation finally died out, and while the small farmers bowed to the competition with the larger producers, the plight of the farmers and hand laborers descended with a vengeance on their children. Many landed in parish poorhouses, and it didn’t take long before the factories discovered this fresh new source of labor. They began taking the poorhouse children as “apprentices”, signing indentures with their stewards, agreeing to give their wards room and board – and the promise of training – and then put them to work.
Children as young as seven years old worked in the cotton spinning factories. The children began work while extremely young and worked the same hours as the grown men and women. They could do many jobs in the factories just as well, and in some cases, such as when working with spindles and fine thread, even better than adults. They were remotely situated in apprentice houses built near the factories, the burdens of unrelieved labor and the harshness of their masters unnoticed by the community. The actual working hours in the factories in the earlier part of the 19th century were a technology-assisted twelve to fourteen hours a day; gas lights illuminated the factories and steam power worked without tiring. When the factory was running at full capacity the children were employed in two shifts, one in the day and another in the night. It was said that “their beds never got cold,” one shift climbing into bed as the other got out. There was no effort to provide them with any training, nor education, nor time for recreation.
While the conditions were harsh in the factories, things could be worse. Here is an account of child labor in the mines. It is so heart-wrenching that it might be dismissed as sensationalism were it not based on the findings of an 1842 report of a Royal Commission charged with investigating the conditions of child labor in the mines:
Children began their life in the coal mines at five, six, or seven years of age. Girls and women worked like boys and men, they were less than half clothed, and worked alongside of men who were stark naked. There were from twelve to fourteen working hours in the twenty-four, and these were often at night. Little girls of six or eight years of age made ten to twelve trips a day up steep ladders to the surface, carrying half a hundred weight of coal in wooden buckets on their backs at each journey. Young women appeared before the commissioners, when summoned from their work, dressed merely in a pair of trousers, dripping wet from the water of the mine, and already weary with the labor of a day scarcely more than begun. A common form of labor consisted of drawing on hands and knees over the inequalities of a passageway not more than two feet or twenty-eight inches high a car or tub filled with three or four hundred weight of coal, attached by a chain and hook to a leather band around the waist.
(Also see Lord Shaftesbury’s speech to parliament).
The job creators, with the prosperity of England no doubt foremost in their minds, lobbied against the hand of regulation and labor reform. Their points were three-fold:
First, that abolishing child labor would harm those who promoted job creation and productivity. Manufacturers opposed the child labor laws as an unjust interference with their business, an unnecessary and burdensome obstacle to their success, and a threat of ruin to the class who provided employment to so many laborers and created the productive engine that was the source of commerce for the country.
Second, that if child labor were restricted England would be placed at a competitive disadvantage. This would not only affect the capitalist class, but affect the size of the pie to be distributed, and thus ultimately trickle down to affect the working class itself.
Third, that at a more fundamental level government regulation should be broadly cast aside because it was detrimental to competition and essential freedoms: freedom of labor, freedom of capital, and freedom of contract. If the employer and the employee were both satisfied with the conditions of their labor, why should the government interfere? How this related to children who had been indentured by their stewards is unclear.
There was, however, opposition slowly grinding out successes in one industry after another over the course of the decades, though the most oppressive industry, that of mining, being literally underground and hence less visible, was only addressed toward the tail end of the reform.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Cry of the Children, published in 1842, is an influential example of the outpouring of sympathy for the plight of child labor, but the most persuasive argument for reducing the hours of children did not come from sympathy as much as from economic practicality worthy of laissez faire. Work in such a stifling and harsh environment stunted the children’s growth and led to disease and degenerative conditions. Therefore, some in the capitalist class were won over, or at least muted in their opposition because they deemed it advisable to reduce the harsh labor conditions for the “physical preservation of the race”.
The Revolutions of 1848
There are different possibilities available at any historical moment; the socioeconomic sphere can adjust to change in any number of ways. In the face of the social tumult brought on by the industrial revolution, the course taken in Europe differed from that of England. In England awareness and change came about gradually through the force of government reforms. In Europe the epiphany occurred with the revolutions of 1848. As did the events in the England, these revolutions reflect some of the stresses and some of the glimmers of political and social activity we are seeing today.
The 1848 revolutions were the culmination of a number of stresses, some similar to those felt in England, which had been building over the course of decades. There were social costs incurred as the small farms and guilds of the artisans were replaced with larger, impersonal agricultural and industrial plants. There had been a decline in the standard of living compared to that of the previous generation. The problems reached a crescendo in the years immediately preceding the 1848 revolutions because of the interrelated crises of years of poor harvests, a credit crunch brought on in part by the need to borrow in the face of the resulting high food prices, and an economic downturn precipitated by, among other things, a banking crisis. These all combined to lead to lower income and high unemployment.
The revolutions of 1848 spread by force of ideology, spurred on by new modes of communication that, ironically, were facilitated by the concentration of the masses due to the factory system. The revolutionary events began in January 1848 in Palermo, the provincial capital of Sicily. Uprisings were a regular occurrence there and in southern Italy in general, but this time they found more success and quickly spread from there to the Italian mainland. From there they moved on to Paris, where there were street demonstrations and clashes between demonstrators and police, with the demonstrators erecting barricades throughout the city. By March demonstrations and clashes between the demonstrators and police spread to Munich, Vienna and Budapest, and then to Milan and Berlin.
In most all cases the confrontations led to constitutional changes, dissolution of monarchies, and boarder political representation for the masses. But these changes ended up being short-lived; within a few years a counterrevolutionary wave washed many of these gains away. However, the 1848 revolutions represented the first time that there was such a broad outpouring of popular support, with the masses, mostly participating in non-violent protests, spanning many countries, religious groups and classes.
This post originally appeared at Rick Bookstaber’s Blog and is reproduced with permission.
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