Economics and ideas. Their influence on political institutions
THE MACHINE AGE
Towards the end of the eighteenth century there were then three powerful states in which the class with free bourgeois property, alone or, in England, in conjunction with a commercialised landed-class, ruled society.
It is well to bear in mind the economic stage that had been reached. A majority of the population still lived either wholly or in part on the land. All industry was on a relatively small scale with tools that were individually operated. Production for sale was widespread, but not universal as it is to-day. The supply of materials and the marketing of the product was largely in the hands of merchants and great trading companies. The merchant capitalists had a powerful hold over industry, but the genuine industrial capitalists were few and relatively unimportant.
The workers—the “common people”— were illiterate, inarticulate and unorganised. For the most part they accepted without question the lowly position and toil to which Providence for its higher purposes had consigned them, and they looked upon the affairs of government as the natural and rightful monopoly of “their betters,” the “gentlemen,” the “people of quality,” elegance and education.
But into the apparently stable, easy-going complacent world of eighteen-century England burst an economic tornado that was destined to sweep the whole “bag of tricks” into the museum of antiquities and to create a new civilisation. This power was that child of science and economic necessity—the industrial revolution.
As machine-production extended itself to an ever wider sphere of industry, the whole complexion of social relations was transformed. Of little significance hitherto, the class of capitalist factory-owners now waxed fat in wealth and importance. But at the opposite social pole there gathered an ever-swelling multitude of propertyless wage-earners, factory hands, machine-driven and disciplined, separated entirely from the soil and herded, amid unprecedented squalor, into dismal industrial towns scattered over the coalfields.
The slow, steady controllable methods of the age of hand-tools were replaced by the uncontrolled production of commodities en-masse, by a ceaseless effort to cheapen production and by a wild competitive scramble to sell. In an industrial anarchy without parallel the only regulation and order came through the blind balance of the market, through the inexorable operation of economic forces. “Economic law”—that made and unmade—became the “divine principle” of a new philosophy of social life. Its prophets were the “economists.” They endeavoured to convince the workers as they had succeeded in convincing themselves that the wealth of the rich and the destitution of the poor were due to the “natural,” “eternal” laws of wealth creation that could neither be avoided, controlled, nor—with safety—interfered with.
The bible of the new thought was the “Wealth of Nations,” by Adam Smith, one of the most practically effective books ever written. In it was put forward not alone the economic theory of unbridled competition, but its natural, ethical accompaniment, that the general happiness of society is best secured by the assiduous devotion of individuals to their own interests. In the turmoil of the economic scramble, unlimited wealth and power seemed open to the man of initiative, nerve, organising ability and—capital. Competition, emulation, struggle, were elevated to the dignity of moral principles. The duty of “getting on” was proclaimed. “Hard work” became a virtue par excellence—though not always practised by its preachers. The conviction that the individual is superior to, and can dominate the “fell clutch of circumstance,” gained a hold upon men’s minds.
The idea of “progress” as an accepted moral principle dates from this dawn period of industrialism. For the first time in history men could see society being transformed before their eyes—not the mere outward change of political forms or the disruption due to war, but a steady, unceasing progression in one constant direction. For the first time men in general could predict the certainty of development in the future. Men no longer worshipped the past—the “good old days”—they looked ahead, and let their imaginations play tricks. To stand still, to stagnate, became a moral evil—to move, to progress, a moral excellence.
Amongst the political adaptations to the economic needs of the new era the most outstanding were those resultant upon the doctrine of “laissez faire”—the freedom of production and trade from legislative interference, expressed in the “liberalism” of Cobden and the “Manchester School.” The old restrictive Navigation Acts and the Corn Laws were abolished and all fetters removed upon the perfect liberty to buy in the cheapest and sell in the dearest market. Upon the principle of “unfettered production” the fullest exploitation of the worker, regardless of life or health or age or sex, was justified, and it was nominally on the ground that they were “restraints upon trade” that the early trades unions were declared illegal in the Combination Acts of 1799-1800, and thus the attempts of the workers at organised resistance forcibly repressed by the State.
The politics of the “new age” were soon also violently complicated by the struggle of the new capitalists for political power. The necessity of the conflict sprang largely from the fact that the industrial revolution had transferred the mass of production and population to the north and west, areas hitherto thinly populated and economically of little importance. Large industrial towns, such as Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, were entirely without representation in Parliament. A further factor of importance, however, was that the new industrial conditions had produced a large, politically conscious body of lesser capitalists with an intense appreciation of the rights and privileges of property—their property, and intolerant of political control by the landlords and merchant princes.
The great reform struggle lasted some forty years and was bitterly contested by the ruling oligarchy. In the hope, encouraged by the bourgeois reformers that they stood to gain, large masses of the workers were drawn into the conflict which again and again reached open violence. At length, amid intense public excitement, the Reform Bill of 1832 was passed, which redistributed seats in accordance with existing economic facts and extended the franchise to some half-million large and smaller property owners. This was the final victory in England of free property over landed privilege—of the precious yellow metal over “precious” blue blood.
R. W. HOUSLEY.
(Socialist Standard, July 1925)