The light that failed

Peter Clarke

  • The Machinery Question and the Making of Political Economy 1815-1848 by Maxine Berg
    Cambridge, 379 pp, £16.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 521 22782 8
  • Masters, Unions and Men by Richard Price
    Cambridge, 355 pp, £18.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 521 22882 4
  • Work, Society and Politics by Patrick Joyce
    Harvester, 356 pp, £24.00, July 1980, ISBN 0 85527 680 0

There is sometimes rather a fine distinction between a paradox and a fallacy. It has often been remarked upon as a paradox that, in the great age of British expansion during the Industrial Revolution, the classical economists, especially Ricardo, should have taken such a dim view of the prospects for economic growth. But what if it can be demonstrated that this is a misreading of what Ricardo meant about the natural progression towards a stationary state? Such a revision is, in fact, one achievement of Maxine Berg’s exemplary study. By putting Ricardo’s contentions in context she offers a truly historical account of his thought, which shows that his model of ‘natural tendencies’ was a counterfactual or limiting case, intended precisely to identify the avenues of escape. One way out was via foreign trade. The other was via technical change.

Admittedly, what Ricardo had to say about machinery was not uniformly comforting. The stationary state was possible because of the tendency towards a declining rate of profit. The alternatives which Ricardo recommended were therefore means of preventing the rate of profit from falling. Machinery, like free trade, kept up profits – but at the expense of wages, which could be reduced along with the costs of labourers’ subsistence. On this showing, the popular hostility to technological innovation had much to be said for it. It was left to Nassau Senior in the 1830s to argue that the Ricardian proposition about lower wages also represented a hypothetical case, and that in practice the costs of change were borne out of profits and rent.

Such implications were highly germane to the way the machinery question was perceived. It was not enough to be for or against what Carlyle called ‘the huge demon of Mechanism’. It was also a question of who gained and who lost. To Harriet Martineau, vulgarising the lessons of political economy in 1832, the introduction of machinery was a simple issue: ‘It was a saving of labour; and as all saving of labour is a good thing, our machinery was a good thing.’ Perhaps she should have tried telling that to the handloom weavers. Nassau Senior did. The cause of their low earnings, he concluded, was ‘the disproportion between their numbers and the demand for their labour ... it follows that no measure can effectually raise their earnings except by getting rid of that disproportion.’ General considerations about labour mobility and prospects of new employment were irrelevant to their plight.

Those at the sharp end of this historical process naturally found fatalism least consoling. There was a Tory critique of political economy, represented by Black wood’s, which fumed at the official policy of allowing matters to take their course. ‘Machinery which renders labour more productive is not a good, but a mighty evil, if it diminish employment,’ Black wood’s argued. But it was, of course, the forces of popular radicalism, coming to a head in the Chartist movement, which voiced the keenest opposition. The alternative political economy of labour was articulated with notable cogency by Thomas Hodgskin: ‘The distress our people suffer, ‘he contended, ‘and the poverty we all complain of, is not caused by nature, but by some social institutions.’

Economic progress, in short, was bound up with particular social arrangements, and shaped by the relative power of different classes. It was the capitalist who used machinery to facilitate the division of labour. It was the proletarian, with only his labour to sell, who found himself thereby put in a new position. He became, as the economist J. B. Say put it, ‘a mere adjective, without individual capacity, independence or substantive importance, when separated from his fellow labourers; and obliged to accept whatever terms his employer thinks fit to impose’. Similarly, the engineer William Fairbairn saw that the division of labour in the factory meant that ‘the designing and direction of the work passed away from the hands of the workman into those of the master and his office assistants.’

Berg moves adroitly between the formal doctrines of the economists, the polemical writings of the period, and the evidence of popular attitudes, in making the machinery question unlock important themes in social and political as well as intellectual history. The question was hotly contested from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until the 1840s. It became less pressing thereafter as ‘the stability and prosperity of the mid-Victorian economy resolved the contradictory juxtaposition of industrialisation and economic depression.’ In her epilogue, therefore, the author takes J. S. Mill’s Principles of Political Economy and Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England as the culmination of the debate.

Mill brought his own ambivalence to bear upon the tradition of the classical economists, acknowledging the adverse impact of machinery upon the working class, at least during a transitional phase before its ultimate benefit came home. Engels, drawing together the conclusions of Owenite and Chartist thinkers, stated the main outcome of mechanisation as the creation of a unified working class, and, writing in 1844, claimed that ‘virtually the whole of the industrial proletariat supports the workers’ movement.’ Berg thus prepares the ground for her comment that it was not a big step for Marx then to take English radicalism and Engels to their limits, and concludes her book by quoting this passage from Marx: ‘Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky high.’

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