Tag Archives: Manchester

The Condition of the Working Class in England

engels condition of the working class017(1)In the words of my partner, a corker. It left me with a number of impressions.

The most overpowering is just rage and sadness at how the industrial revolution decimated lives. Half of children dead by the age of 5, average life expectancy from 45 to 50, the malnutrition, cold, damp, misshapen bodies, impotency and infertility, lost limbs, lost lives.

‘The English working men call this ‘social murder’, and accuse our whole society of perpetrating this crime perpetually. Are they wrong? (38)

No. They are not wrong, and Engels’s goal with this work is to prove it. He writes:

I have now to prove that society in England daily and hourly commits what the working-men’s organs, with perfect correctness, characterize as social murder, that it has placed the workers under conditions in which they can neither retain health nor live long; that it undermines the vital force of these workers gradually, little by little, and so hurries them to the grave before their time. I have further to prove that society knows how injurious such conditions are to the health and the life of the workers, and yet does nothing to improve these conditions (107).

The second is just how much this must have contributed to Marx’s thinking in writing Capital, I read it and throughout the empirical and social research I found so many echoes (but they must be considered previews really) of Marx’s more theoretical work making sense of it, bringing its insights into order and revealing a deeper structural functioning. Editor and author of the introduction Dave McLellan notes that it was one of Engels’s articles on this political economy of the factories which first awoke Marx’s interest in economics when he received it as editor of the radical German journal to which Engels was submitting it. I can’t help but think that these two works should be more tightly linked, particularly for those like myself who are nervy of theory too removed from concrete fact. I like to think now, of this being the first volume of their work throughout the volumes of Capital, the understanding of raw suffering and misery, the initial grasping of the roles played by competition (given an entire chapter which proposes that capitalism consists of a never-ending movement between crisis and prosperity and this requires a reserve army of workers) and constantly improving technology, that drove them to fully theorise these things much more elaborately and certainly at far remove from the actual conditions described here. Some of them are revisited in Capital itself, but I found this to be far more persuasive, both why a bigger theory of capitalism was so desperately needed, and to dig into the way it has functioned to impact worker’s lives and how they have struggled against it (which Capital never gets to…).

Third, the character of Engels himself. In the opening dedication ‘To the Working Classes of Great Britain’, he writes

‘I forsook the company and the dinner parties, the port wine and champagne of the middle classes, and devoted my leisure hours almost exclusively to the intercourse with plain Working Men(9)

I can think of no more hilarious opening, and McLellen does right in pointing out (as Engels points out himself in his 1885 preface), how young Engels was: only 24 when he researched and wrote this between 1843-45 while working at his father’s thread factory in Manchester. How imbued he was with the idealism of the Young Hegelians and the even more radical politics of Hess and Marx. He remains in many ways a man of his time and class, with many a cringe-worthy sentence on the nature of the Irish and the stupidity of the working man, and the most amazing failure to see any revolutionary potential in the thousands of women and child workers. He sees instead a fundamentally unnatural system where women work and men actually take care of the home (OMG! the horror!).

Can anyone imagine a more insane state of things?…this condition, which unsexes the man and takes from the woman all womanliness…(155)

On the working classes? He confuses arrests with criminality for example, completely failing to recognise the use of police and prison to dominate and contain. It is hard imagining him treating any factory as an intellectual equal. For the Irish, he does note that it is primarily as an exploited country and as immigrants that they are used to force wages and demands down. But there is a brutal judgment of their humanity running through everything:

In short, the Irish have discovered the minimum of the necessities of life, and are making the English workers acquainted with it. Filth and drunkeness, too, they have brought with them (103)

Fourth, the key observations of the city and its form that he makes. On Manchester:

The town itself is peculiarly built, so that a person may live in it for years, and go in and out daily without coming into contact with a working-people’s quarter or even with workers, that is, so long as he confines himself to his business or to pleasure walks. This arises chiefly from the fact, that by unconscious tacit agreement, as well as with outspoken conscious determination, the working-people’s quarters are sharply separated from the sections of the city reserved for the middle class; or, if this does not succeed, they are concealed with the cloak of charity (57)

He looks at the full layout of the city, with each class inhabiting its sections, and large thoroughfares separating them, lined with shops and activity and closing off from view the inner courts and closes:

The finest part of this arrangement is this, that the members of the money aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the laboring districts to their place of business, without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left. …they suffice to conceal from the eyes of the wealthy men and women of strong stomachs and weak nerves the misery and grime which form the complement to their wealth (58).

The descriptions of thousands of people crammed into tiny closes with pigs and no sewage facilities or drainage or running water are heart breaking.

If anyone wishes to see in how little a space a human being can move, how little air–and such air!–he can breathe, how little of civilization he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither (65)

He diagrams the closes and courts, the new rows being thrown up shoddily by speculative builders and the methods and materials they use. He also sees them, like Lefebvre long after him, as the birthplaces of struggle:

The great cities are the birthplaces of labour movements; in them the workers first began to reflect upon their own condition, and to struggle against it; in them the opposition between proletariat and bourgeoisie first made itself manifest; from them proceeded the Trade Unions, Chartism, and Socialism. The great cities have transformed the diseases of the social body, which appears in chronic form in the country, into an acute one, and so made manifest its real nature and the means of curing it. Without the great cities and their forcing influence upon the popular intelligence, the working class would be far less advanced than it is. Moreover, they have destroyed the last remnants of the patriarchal relation between working men and employers…(133)

And finally, the accounts of struggle to recover humanity through theft, arson, murder by despairing individuals, and the struggle to organise into unions and associations, to win political change through chartism. There is so much to admire here, even though Engels own theoretical belief in the inevitability of defeat is at war with the hopefulness inspired by worker struggle:

The history of these Unions is a long series of defeats of the working men, interrupted by a few isolated victories. All these efforts naturally cannot alter the economic law according to which wages are determined by the relation between supply and demand in the labour market. Hence the Unions remain powerless against all great forces which influence this relation (224)

He describes long strikes and gun battles. The ‘Rebecca’ disturbances in Wales, in which agricultural workers donned women’s clothing and black face to conduct their rebellion. he prophesied revolution coming at any minute.

He was wrong of course, at least about the imminence of revolution. It reminds me of reading Angela Davis writing in the 60s, that firm belief that change is around the corner. Writing his preface 40 years later, I found it fascinating to discover that that part of his explanation for this failure is the rise of England as the manufacturing hub of a globalised world, exporting to all of Europe and creating a demand for its goods as far away as Africa. This caused the manufacturers to make a compact with workers (my word), raising wages and improving conditions so as not to interrupt production and wildly rising profits with growing markets whose demand outstripped supply. The beginnings of a newly reorganising chains of production and a growing globalisation.

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Bourgeois Utopias

utopiasRobert Fishman (1989)

Cited in everything really, finally got around to reading this and it was both better and worse than I was expecting. It takes the origins of the suburbs back further than I realised, to Georgian London. But first the main thesis on the suburb:

Its power derived ultimately from the capacity of suburban design to express a complex and compelling vision of the modern family freed from the corruption of the city, restored to harmony with natured, endowed with wealth and independence yet protected by a close-knit, stable community…Where other modern utopias have been collectivist, suburbia has built its vision of community on the primacy of private property and the individual family. Suburbia has founded its hopes for community stability on the shifting sands of land speculation and based its reconciliation of man and nature on teh capacity to exclude the urban world of work which is the ultimate source of its wealth’ [x].

Here it is suburbia and suburban spaces as bourgeois utopias, but what I found most fascinating were its earlier religious origins in Clapham, and on class fears in Manchester.

Originally, settlements on the urban fringe were, as the original definition of suburb meant until the mid-18th century, ‘a place of inferior, debased, and especially licentious habits of life’ [6]. Pretty awesome. The wealthy lived in the centre of town, and the bourgeois merchants and artisans lived where they worked — often above their shops, warehouses or workshops, with their employees living above them in the garrets. It is hard to imagine now, especially the ways in which the very rich and desperately poor lived immediately next to each other. One of the key insights of this book for me was the following:

English society was still something of a caste society in the sense that social distance was so marked that the privileged felt no need to protect themselves further from the poor by physical distance. That the richest bankers in London lived literally surrounded by poor families did not in the least diminish the bankers’ status. One might even say that in a caste society the rich need the constant and close presence of the poor to remind them of their privileges’ [32].

It is so interesting to remember that this relentless desire to segregate by race and class so clear in today’s society is a new thing, and taking this further, is partly driven by the fear and social unease emerging from revolution and ideas of equality — and the need to be protected from the poor.

It is also driven by changing ideals of the family, a move to the nuclear family, more intense care and love lavished on children more likely to survive and as enjoined by evangelical religion. Or so said the ‘Clapham Sect’ led by the Thornton family and preacher William Wilberforce, and joined by their fellow religionists in building homes facing Clapham Common. This created the ideal of ‘houses in a park’ as opposed to the aristocratic rows and crescents of say Bath, and developed by architect John Nash in his design for Park Village alongside Regent’s Park.

It is Manchester, however, that suburbia really took form as merchants abandoned the city for homes and communities in the outskirts, fundamentally changing the urban structure, however piecemeal. Fishman writes:

The older urban form involved the frequent and intimate contact of the middle and working classes. This closeness was precisely what the Manchester bourgeoisie had come to fear. they sought the most complete separation possible while maintaining the all-important contact with the information sources at the core’ [82].

Thus Manchester comes to be described as the town where the distance is greatest between rich and poor — and this by the time Engels is describing it in 1848. Here it is more clearly about both fears and ideals — and what I like about Fishman is that he never forgets it is also always about money: ‘The rush to suburbanize could never have occurred without a structure of land speculation and building that permitted and encouraged it’ [84].

Because of the money involved, some insurance against the hazards of speculation were required, and one of these appeared to have been homogeneity, a way of preserving land from ‘less desirable neighbors or uses’ [86].

It’s interesting how he compares these examples to the US and to France. France, of course, never experienced such flight of the wealthy to the suburbs because during this period Haussmann transformed Paris to build grand new boulevards and rid it of its poor, making the city a haven for the middle classes as the country was for England. the US of course, took it up wholesale, with Olmstead learning from Nash and the designers of Manchester’s neighbourhoods.

But it is interesting that Fishman never applies the insight of class separation to the US, consistently writing about all ‘Americans’ having access to the suburbs through government financing when in fact it was only white Americans. Thus there is whole dynamic around race fear that he is missing in his description of L.A., even though he cites Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth Jackson, published two years earlier.

Still, this one of the earlier books on the subject, and does a good job of describing some of the more interesting cultural components forming the pull of the suburbs.

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