The English aristocracy have long been a part of the country’s very DNA, and now form something unique to London. They’re half ruling classes, half attraction. They’ve won both games: they rent their houses out to be seen by the public as relics of a bygone age, all the while still wielding the same power they always have done.
They had to separate themselves from workers who had to learn to fend for themselves according to the behavioural rules of this new institution. “Pre-industrial experience, tradition, wisdom and morality,” in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, “provided no adequate guide for the kind of behaviour which the capitalist economy required.” Poverty and hardship were necessary evils associated with the creation of wealth at this state of labour intensive capitalism. This was the basis of the impoverishment of the bulk of the working class, not the malicious intent of capitalists. Besides facilitating a growing rate of capital accumulation–the lifeblood of ‘progress’–it socialized workers to accept the ‘rules of the game’ because it made the nature of the economic gain incentive system, especially the threat to survival aspect of it, and the power and control which capitalists could exert over their existence, real to workers in their everyday lives. The obverse of this separation and impoverishment process was the creation of a place for the capitalists as indisputable and indispensible leaders of the production process. This was the capitalists’ only way of gaining control over the productive capabilities of society. As [70o] Maurice Dobb has argued: “A role was created for a new type of capitalist…as captain of industry, organizer and planner of the operations of the production-unit, embodiment of an authoritarian discipline over a labour army, which, robbed of its economic citizenship, had to be coerced to the fulfillment of its onerous duties in another’s service by the whip alternatively of hunger and of the master’s overseer.” Clearly, the split between the capitalist and working classes and the impoverishment of the working class were integrally meshed into the struggle surrounding the rise to power of the capitalist class. Consequently, it is not surprising that the semi-patriarchal relationship between master and journeymen, both parties having similar tastes and ideals, was replaced within a few generations by complete social separation between the employer and his employees.
Henry Mayhew’s description of the working class in 1851, from a dominant class point of view, as “a large body of people of whom the public has less knowledge than the most distant tribes of the earth,” was no idle chatter; it was a statement of fact. State subsidization of the working class also had to be curtailed to achieve the mobility and socialization of labour necessary for the [721 smoothi functioning of a competitive labour market. Under the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, each parish was responsible for the welfare of those who could not fend for themselves. In 1795, the Speenhamland Law had essentially pegged the level of poor relief to the cost of living and paid relief in aid of wages which fell below a certain minimum level. This legislation was contrary to the capitalist class interest, as it too hampered the smooth functioning of the labour market and had to be revoked. Workers had to learn to take care of themselves by hard work and thrift.
Sponging a living off the State negated the norms of the market in labour and placed a heavy burden on local rates. It had to be stopped, irrespective of the hardship which might, and did, result. This argument was succinctly stated by The Economist in 1848: “Suffering and evil are nature’s admonitions; they cannot be got rid of; and the impatient attempts of benevolence to banish them from the world by legislation before benevolence has learnt their object and their end, have always been productive of more evil than good.” This task was essentially accomplished by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. It abolished the ‘right to live’ principle which characterized previous poor Laws. Outdoor relief (i.e., relief in aid of wages) was abolished. Workers could only receive relief if they were unemployed, and doing so meant exposing themselves to the extremely severe discipline of the sexually segregated workhouses, which were consciously designed to make their existence ‘less eligible’ than that of the least prosperous outside workers–surely an impossible task! One result of the Act was to teach the working class the hard way that the state operated in the interests of the dominant class, not in the ‘national interest’ or for the ‘commoH good.’ The radical activist James ‘Bronterre’ O’Brien put it this [77T way, in 1836: “Previously to the passage of the Reform Bill, the middle orders were supposed to have some community of feeling with the labourers. That delusion has passed away….
It vanished with the enactment of the Starvation Law (Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834). No working man will ever again expect justice, morals or mercy at the hands of a profit-mongering legislature.” The new Poor Law combined with the Enclosures Acts, the rural population explosion and the ruin of village handicrafts which caused extensive rural over-population pressuring workers to migrate to the towns, and with capital intensive technological developments, led to the formation and perpetuation of what 1791 Karl Marx called a ‘reserve army’ of unemployed or underemployed workers. This ‘reserve army’ performed two essential functions in this adolescent phase of capitalism: firstly, of depressing urban wages to or below subsistence level, thereby facilitating a high rate of capital accumulation; and secondly, of tightening the employers’ control over the labour force, thereby ensuring the foundation of capital accumulation. In fact, Gareth Stedman Jones has convincingly argued that employers in London often adopted a deliberate policy of casualizing (i.e., increasing the reserve of underemployed labour) as a means of increasing the power of their [811 control over their workers.
But we have seen that production at this state in the development of capitalism in London also required skilled workers. This requirement was the basis of the fourth major struggle which occurred within the working class itself but was supported by employers as it served their purposes as well. ,The productive relations of London’s economy stratified the working class into two broad groups according to the nature of the workers’ jobs and the remuneration and security (or lack of these) which was part and parcel of such employment. This division was fundamentally a function of the skill required of workers in the execution of their tasks, and was based on the importance and scarcity of skilled labour in the economy. Thus, the working class was essentially split into skilled workers and the remainder –semi-skilled or unskilled, casually employed or unemployed. The upper stratum consisted of two kinds of skilled workers: one was the dying breed of artisans and craftsmen whose origin lay in the guild system; the other was a growing group of skilled factory workers born out of the requirements of the new industrial technology. Together they comprised [831 what was known as the ‘labour aristocracy.’ “Because of its higher wages and potentially higher living standards, this stratum in fact constituted the aristocracy sui generis of the working class. The use of this metaphorical term is justified in part by the fact that both objectively and subjectively the relationship of this stratum to the remainder of the working class was in many respects reminiscent of the relations of the real aristocracy to the remainder of the English upper and middle classes.” For reasons which are outlined below, these workers aspired to separate themselves from the rest of the working class and to secure for themselves a lower-middle-stratum existence: to become, in the words of Ray Challinor, “junior partners in British Capitalism Limited.” [851 The skilled craftsmen laboured at trades which had existed since the Industrial Revolution to produce goods mainly for the consumption of wealthy members of society. They were gradually declining in size and importance within the economy: their continued existence in the upper levels of the working class was perpetually threatened by the possibility of new machine technologies making their skills redundant. Consequently, they fought to maintain their already established privileged [871 position within the working class.
They did so by banding together in trade clubs which sought to regulate the number of workers permitted to practise each trade, thereby reducing the supply of skilled craftsmen and keeping wages high and to control production techniques in an attempt to ward off the incursion of new technologies. They had never been a part of the industrial working class and struggled to maintain their independence. They developed numerous mutual aid societies, such as friendly societies, co-operatives and building societies, in order to maintain a secure existence for themselves and their families. These organizations and trade unions were highly organized but without a leadership elite: leadership roles were mutually shared. Their rearguard struggle to maintain their position in society seldom led to demands for revolutionary change. For them, a secure existence rested on accepting the behavioural requirements of capitalist institutions–thrift, temperance and social stability would assure their status.
The second sector of the ‘labour aristocracy’ consisted of skilled factory workers who were part of the growing industrial working class. These ‘mechanics’ as they were often called performed essential functions during this stage of relatively primitive industrial technology, such as 1901 keeping the machines running. They too organized unions along craft, as opposed to class, lines; but their struggle was to gain a secure place [911 for themselves as responsible workers in a capitalist society. In so doing they emulated their craft-based counterparts in the ‘labour aristocracy’ by forming similar societies and cultivating acceptable social values. However, their unions were bureaucratic with organizational structures similar to those of the factories where they worked.
They made few demands for revolutionary changes in society: in fact, in their everyday behaviour, they aspired to be ‘more capitalist than the capitalists themselves.’ So much so that in 1870 Thomas Cooper, an old Chartist leader, [921 lamented the ‘capitalization’ of the working class: “My sorrowful impressions were confirmed…you will hear welldressed working men talking, as they walk with their hands in their pockets, of ‘co-ops’ and their shares in them, or in building societies. And you will see others, like idiots, leading small greyhound dogs.” Though their unions did produce a capable leadership elite, recruited from their ranks, these leaders believed in negotiation, not insurrection, and often used their high status within the union as a springboard to [931 politics and an improved existence. Both segments of the ‘labour aristocracy’ were regularly employed under adequate working conditions and received relatively high wages. they comprised 941Together between 10% and 20% Together they comprised between 10% and 20% of the labour force. Their trade unions were stratified along occupational lines and this lack of unity added to their politically conservative posture.
As Engels [951 put it: “They form an aristocracy among the working class; they have succeeded in enforcing for themsleves a relatively comfortable position, and they accept it as final.” The societies which they established–for support in case of illness or unemployment, to buy food cheaply and to build homes for themselves–went a long way towards securing their existence and diluting demands for change. In fact, capitalists tended to support these developments in subtle ways as they saw in them a means of maintaining social stability by controlling [961 the organized, politically mature sector of the working class.