Understanding the Industrial Revolution

By Charles More | Go to book overview

Chapter 7

Industrialisation and living standards

From the 1840s or earlier, contemporary commentators had drawn attention to the deleterious effects of industrialisation, such as the ill-health and poor housing endured by many workers. This theme was taken up by historians and became a long-running debate between two schools of thought: one, characterised as the pessimistic, consisting of those who agreed with the contemporary analysis and thought that industrialisation was negative, or only weakly positive, for living standards; the other, the optimistic, consisting of those who thought the opposite.

The origin of many pessimistic views lay with Marx, who believed that workers were not paid the full value of their labour. He blamed this on the extraction of profit, or in his terminology surplus value, by capitalists. Since he believed that it was labour, rather than capital, which produced the surplus, it followed that workers were cheated of their due. Non-Marxian economics, of course, sees profit as the return to capital, which is a factor of production, for its contribution to output. Marx did not actually say that workers would be worse off under capitalism, although he often implied it, but he believed that capitalism worked in part by cheapening labour power, or in other words reducing the value of human capital, through the subdivision of labour, a view discussed in Chapter 3. So far as this converted skilled workers into unskilled workers, it would reduce wages and therefore ‘immiserate’ - another Marxian word - the workforce; furthermore work itself would become more and more tedious and hateful.

Marx did not influence all those historians who were pessimistic about the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Much British historiography has been influenced by the works of J.L. and Barbara Hammond, whose early twentieth-century brand of progressive liberalism influenced their negative views of the Industrial Revolution period. In contrast, another non-Marxist pessimist was Arthur Bryant, a purveyor of nostalgia whose volumes on English history still fill the shelves of second-hand bookshops and older middleclass households. His condemnation of industrialisation stemmed from a yearning for an imagined rural past and a dislike of capitalism which had quasi-fascist origins. But Marx’s views have probably exerted some influence on most academic pessimists even if they have not themselves been Marxist.

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Understanding the Industrial Revolution
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Figures vi
  • Tables vii
  • Preface viii
  • The Scope of the Industrial Revolution 1
  • Models of the Industrial Revolution 9
  • Capital Accumulation 29
  • Labour Supply 51
  • Demand 70
  • Inventors and Entrepreneurs 95
  • Market Size and Integration 113
  • Industrialisation and Living Standards 138
  • Conclusion 158
  • Index 182
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