catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Mythology of the industrial revolution (1)

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Some people would probably prefer to have an elephant or Kim Beazley kneel on them rather than visit the dreaded H R Nicholls website to read all of my critique of trade union mythology. So I will dole it out in sections which will also permit discussion to be more focussed.

One of the reasons why the myths have been so persistent is that the Tories (anti-free trade conservatives) hated the factories and industrial development just as much as the radicals of the labour movement, partly because they equally misunderstood the principles of economic growth. Consequently both conservatives and radicals promulgated the same mythology regarding the industrial revolution.

To indicate the deeply entrenched antipathy of the gentry towards trade and paid employment of all kinds, it helps to recall the distinction in cricket between the paid professional “players” and the amateur “gentlemen”. The two groups had separate dressing rooms and often came onto the field of play through different gates until this residue of feudal class distinctions was officially abolished at the end of the 1962 season.

1. The brutality of the factory system

This is the idea that the industrial revolution and the factory system resulted in a period of brutal suffering for the labouring masses. For example Bertrand Russell wrote in The Impact of Science on Society “The industrial revolution caused unspeakable misery both in England and America. I do not think that any student of economic history can doubt that the average happiness in England in the early nineteenth century was lower than it had been a hundred years earlier; and this was due almost entirely to scientific technique”.

This contention does not relate directly to the issue of trade union powers and privileges but the almost universal assumption of the horrors of the industrial system ensures that most people start off on the wrong foot when they start to think about industrial relations and wage fixing.

Hutt’s first published paper in 1925 was an exposure of the fraudulent 1832 Sadler report that provided much of the false and misleading information that ended up in the standard histories of the factory system (Cole, the Hammonds, the Webbs). Like the more recent report on the so-called stolen generation, witnesses were carefully selected and the evidence was cherry-picked to produce a wildly inaccurate picture of the conditions in the cotton mills. Engels, (the sponsor and supporter of Karl Marx) wrote that the committee “was emphatically partisan, composed by strong enemies of the factory system for party ends…Sadler permitted himself to be betrayed by his noble enthusiasm into the most distorted and erroneous statements.”

Sadler’s work may be best described as a counter-attack by the Tories who were upset by their
defeat on tariff protection and wanted to attack trade, industry and the new factory system by hook or by crook. The anti-market beliefs engendered by this piece of work and others of the same ilk have underpinned the counterproductive policies demanded by both radicals and economically illiterate conservatives to the present day. Hutt’s paper is on line at this address:

The Sadler report was so biased that a second committee convened with evidence taken under oath and a better representation of medical men and other witnesses. The more balanced picture delivered by the second committee never attracted the attention of the historians. To illustrate the extent of the fraud, the first report made much of the existence of children with physical deformities and disabilities in the workforce of the cotton mills. Sponsors of reform even paid a disabled man to go on a tour to demonstrate the effect of working in the mills. His disabilities had nothing to do with factory work and he eventually offered to change sides and tell the truth but no mill owner was prepared to sponsor him.

The owners were not alert to the power of adverse publicity or the extent of ignorance about the real state of affairs and they thought that the claims of the reformers were so obviously bogus that reasonable people would not take them seriously. On the matter of children with deformities (which of course were common enough at the time) there was light work in the mills that could be performed by partially handicapped children, and permit them to make a useful contribution to the family income. Charles Dickens was even able to support himself at the age of 12, doing light indoor work while his parents were in prison for debt. Hutt reported that when children were banned from the factories they were replaced by Irish labourers at the same rate of pay.

A doctor noted that the conditions in the factories compared favourably with the great public (private) schools, rife with bullying and sadistic disciplinary practices, where the gentry sent their own children. Others pointed out that the domestic servants of the Tories who supported the reform worked longer hours than the millhands. Various of the Bronte girls, barred from factory work by their class and working as governesses, recorded bitter discontent in their letters at their hours and their pay compared with the situation of the girls in the mills.

Conditions improved for the masses as a result of the industrial revolution, although of course all boats did not rise at the same time or the same rate. The protracted Napoleonic wars caused a great deal of damage that would have slowed the rate of progress but that is rarely considered by critics of industrialisation. Hutt reported that progress occurred mostly by upward mobility to better paid work, rather than increasing wage rates for particular jobs.
Hence although there must have been some dilution of rising per capita outputs and incomes, because of population increases, it appears to be beyond doubt that the workers benefited absolutely…”Then, in the light of a rapidly growing ability to produce, the traditional living and working conditions of the wage-earning classes came to be regarded for the first time as deplorable.”

In other words for the first time in history the comparative disadvantage of the poor became a problem that had to be fixed up and it was not passively accepted as an inevitable part of the natural order of things. However the opposite spin was imparted by people who did not understand what was happening. The cure of the problem was misdiagnosed as the cause. In Hutt’s words:

This remarkable upward adjustment in standards and hopes, reflecting a new humanitarianism, could well be regarded as emergent capitalism’s outstanding attribute. So rapidly did the new (although partial) economic freedom cause people to change their judgments about what was tolerable that, in doing so, it caused the very forces which were currently eradicating condemned conditions to be blamed for the existence of those conditions.

This remarkable inversion of the truth calls for more extended treatment and some preliminary thoughts are offered in the Appendix “The Lion and the Ostrich”. Part of the explanation was the negative attitude of the landed gentry towards the new class of industrial entrepreneurs. The Tories hated the factories and industrial development just as much as the radicals of the labour movement and they equally misunderstood the principles of economic growth.

Consequently both conservatives and radicals promulgated the same mythology regarding the industrial revolution. The deeply entrenched antipathy of the gentry towards trade and paid employment of all kinds was shown in the case of professional and amateur cricketers.

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Written by Admin

June 18, 2006 at 2:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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