What Capitalism has done for the Worker

Speaking in Finsbury Park a few Sundays ago, a member of the Anti-Socialist Union boldly asserted that the position of the worker to-day was far better than it has been during the last 500 years. The worker was in a better social position and got a larger share of the wealth produced.

When asked to substantiate his statements by giving his authorities he, of course, failed to do so. As a matter of fact the contention that the working class are better off under modern capitalism than they have been during the past five centuries is disproved by history.

What was the position of the labouring population during the middle ages? In the twelfth century the manorial system prevailed throughout England. The manors, of which there were altogether over 9,000, were composed of several hundred acres of land. One part was held by the lord, a part was divided amongst the other inhabitants, while large tracts were held as common land. The villeins, who formed about 38 per cent. of the population, each held some 30 acres of arable land and a house in the village. Next came the cottars or borders, who formed 30 per cent. of the population, each holding from 5 to 10 acres and a cottage. Below these came the slaves, who formed only 9 per cent. of the population and disappeared entirely after the twelfth century to become cottars. In return for the cottage and land the cottars and villeins rendered so many days’ service to the lord, but were left with plenty of time to use at their own discretion. De Gribbins says in his “Industrial History of England,” “It was from this cottar class with plenty of time to spare that a distinct wage-earning class like our modern labourers arose who lived almost entirely by wages.” After a time the labour rent was found expensive and was finally commuted for a money payment. Professor Thorold Rogers tells us that a landless man at this time was considered “an outlaw, a thief, one registered in no manor.”

After the “Black Death”—the great plague of 1348 which swept away a large portion of the labouring population—there was an attempt by the lords to commute the money rent for the old labour rent, owing to the rise in wages. But this attempt failed and culminated in the Peasants’ Revolt. In consequence of the scarcity of labourers after the plague, wages began to rise. This brought into existence the Statute of Labourers, which sought to prohibit the labourer from receiving and the employer from paying, higher wages than had been paid prior to the plague. Both employer and employed were punished for infringing the law. But in spite of this Act wages rose 50, and even over 100, per cent., while the cost of the necessaries of life remained almost stationary, or even fell, until at the end of the fifteenth century an agricultural labourer could provision his family for a whole twelvemonth with fifteen weeks work, and an artizan with ten weeks.

Prior to the plague the landowner was also a capitalistic farmer, but owing to the rise in wages and the fall in profits, he gave up farming and let the land to the tenants to till. This gave rise to a large mimber of peasant farmers or yeomen, but these disappeared during the eighteenth century, giving way to the more economical methods of farming on a large scale and the great enclosures made by the landowners.

During the fifteenth century England had a monopoly of the wool trade, and was therefore able to command a very high price for this product. The landowners, being unable to profitably cultivate the soil, now took to sheep-farming. Large tracts of land were enclosed for this purpose. Hundreds of families whose forefathers had lived upon the land, and whose inherent right to the land had never been challenged, were now turned off. And, as Marx says, “these men, suddenly dragged from their wonted mode of life, could not as suddenly adapt themselves to the discipline of their new conditions. They were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases from stress of circumstances.” Acts of Parliament were then passed compelling the people to find employment at wages determined by law. An Act of Henry VIIL, 1530, says “Beggars old and unable to work receive a beggar’s licence. On the other hand, whipping and imprisonment for sturdy vagabonds. . . . For the second arrest for vagabondage the whipping is to be repeated with half an ear sliced off; but for the third relapse the offender is to be executed as a hardened criminal and a danger to the common weal.” As many as 7,000 were hanged for this offence during the reign of Henry VIII., and about 600 during the reign of Elizabeth.

Although wages had risen considerably until the end of the fifteenth contury, in spite of the Statute of Labourers, they began to fall again at the beginning of the sixteenth century. This was due chiefly to the depreciation in the value of the currency and the consequent rise in prices. The law relating to wages was still in force and the justices in Quarter Session never failed to use it in the interest of their class. The cost of living now rose enormously, while wages followed at a snail-like pace, and then never in proportion to the rise in the cost of the necessaries of life. By the eighteenth century wages had fallen so low that it was deemed necessary to supplement them from the Poor Law fund, and this dole from the parish often exceeded the amount paid in wages.

Speaking of the condition of the labouring population during the middle ages, i.e., up to the end of the fifteenth century, Professor Thorold Rogers says

“they ate wheaten bread, drank barley beer, and had plenty of cheap though perhaps coarse meat. Mutton and beef at a farthing a pound,—take what multiple you please for the increase in prices, and twelve is liberal one—were within the reach of far more people than they now are. The grinding, hopeless poverty under which existence may be just continued, but when nothing is won beyond bare existence, did not, I am convinced, characterise or even belong to mediaeval life.”

But a change had taken place in the condition of the workers by the end of the eighteenth century.

With the increase in the means of production came the increase in the poverty and misery of the mass of the people. The invention of the spinning jenny by Hargreaves, of the water frame by Arkwright, the mule by Compton, the power loom by Cartwright, and the steam engine by Watts increased the productive power of labour to an extent previously undreamed of. And see the “reward of genius” that fell to the lot of Compton : he died in 1827—in poverty ! But these inventions enabled the capitalists to heap up untold wealth by forcing the hand loom weavers—who were now reduced to a terrible state of poverty—into the mills in competition with their own children. De Gibbins says

“It was not until the wages of the workman had been reduced to a starvation level that they consented to their children and their wives being employed in the mills. But the manufacturers wanted labour by some means or other, and they got it. They got it from the workhouses. They sent for parish apprentices from all parts of England, and pretended to apprentice them to the new employments just introduced. The mill-owners systematically communicated with the overseers of the poor, who arranged a day for the inspection of pauper children. Those chosen by the manufacturers were then conveyed in waggons or canal boats to their destination, and from that moment were doomed to slavery. Sometimes regular traffickers would take the place of the manufacturer, and transfer a number of children to a factory district, and there keep them, generally in some dark celler, ’til they could hand them over to some mill-owner in want of hands, who would come and examine their height, strength, and bodily capacities, exactly as did the slave-dealers in the American markets. After that the children were simply at the mercy of their owners, nominally as apprentices, but in reality as mere slaves, who got no wages, and whom it was not worth while even to feed and clothe properly, because they were so cheap and their places could be so easily supplied. It was often arranged by parish authorities, in order to get rid of imbeciles, that one idiot should be taken with twenty other children. The fate of these unhappy idiots was even worse than that of the others. The secret of their final end has never been disclosed, but we can form some idea of their awful sufferings from the hardships of the other victims to capitalist greed and cruelty. Their treatment was most inhuman. The hours of their labour were only limited by exhaustion after many modes of torture had been unavailingly applied to enforce continued work. Children were often worked 16 hours a day, by day and by night. Even Sunday was used as a convenient time to clean the machinery.”

It was not until 1802 that the first Factory Act was passed prohibiting the employment of children for more than 12 hours a day, and when in 1817 an Act was passed reducing the hours of women, and of young persons between the age of 13 and 16, it was denounced by John Bright, “the people’s friend,” as “one of the worst measures ever passed in the shape of an act of legislation.”

Thus was capitalism built up, and it can not be shown that at any period during its reign have the workers enjoyed such a good social position, or secured such a large percentage of the wealth produced, as they did from 1350 until the close of the fifteenth century.


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