London’s education system

The Education Act of 1870, providing public support for elementary education– an increasingly important device for socializing and controlling the working class–was an excellent example of this subtle process of domination, especially coming so soon after the ‘labour aristocracy’ achieved enfranchisement as a result of the 1867 Reform Act. But there was another important aspect in the struggles of the ‘labour aristocracy’ for a place in capitalist society. In order to gain acceptance, they had to prove to the rulers of that society that they were totally unlike the remainder of the working class who were variously described as dangerous, immoral, irresponsible or lazy. Indeed, this negation of the behavioural norms and values of the mass of the working class was a major reason why they strove to cultivate capitalist norms and values. As Thomas Wright, an artisan, wrote in 1873: “The artisan creed with regard to the labourers is that the latter are an inferior class and that they should be made to know and kept in their place.” As a result, the ‘labour aristocracy’s’ daily actions and their aspirations and consciousness were constantly focused on the drive to separate themselves from the remainder of the working class: resisting becoming one of the masses and possibly even crossing the fuzzy boundary separating them from the bottom of the middle stratum.

The remainder of the working class were expendable products created by the down-grading effects of capitalist productive relations and new forms of technology. Workers in this stratum of the labour force competed desperately for vacant jobs which required little or no training for pro[991 ficiency. Consequently, their wages were generally low, often below what was needed to buy even a meagre existence. Their working conditions were usually depressing and unhealthy. Some worked in sweated trades, at home or in small workshops; others at the machines of the new factories. A substantial number were casually employed by the day or hour often at the whim of a dock foreman. Seasonality of production and fluctuations in consumer demand caused their jobs to disappear and re-appear almost at random.

Clearly, they lacked even a modicum of social or economic security. What the middle stratum defined as ‘demoralized’ behaviour on the part of these workers was, more often than not, a rational response to their economic predicament. To paraphrase Zygmunt Bauman, they were fragmented–their traditional hierarchies and social bonds were shattered in their struggle for survival; they were alienated–deprived of any rights in society; and they were an amorphous, though not entirely homogeneous, mass–their minimal occupational differentiation meant that they could be moulded to suit the changing requirements of the economy. As a result they were generally disorganized politically. On the occasions when they did organize, however, they did so on a class basis. Their protests were often violent and usually opposed to the existing order, but the focus of their attacks was often irrational. They inspired fear and trepidation in the hearts of the rest of society, and consequently their protests were rapidly and sometimes violently, and [io4] equally irrationally, repressed by the authorities. Their unions had no integrated leadership elite. Their leaders came from the working class or the middle stratum.

They were charismatic and imposing, manipulating these ‘butterfly existence’ unions which usually disintegrated under an early defeat. [1051 “To sum up, therefore,” in the words of Zygmunt Bauman: “there were, among the population…two fundamentally different groups at this time: one was amorphous, while the other had occupational structure…. one was fragmented, the other firmly embedded in its occupational (and social) groups… one was alienated from society, while the other was strongly rooted in it; the one was totally antagonistic in attitude to that society, the other was eager for society to recognise the privileges it had already gained, and hoped for new ones.” With this general outline of the essential characteristics of the class struggle from the 1830’s to the 18 8 0’s, we may now proceed to examine how London‘s social and spatial structure responded to, and in turn affected, these class pressures.

April 11, 2018


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