Fighting Words: Working-Class Formation, Collective Action, and Discourse in Early Nineteenth-Century England

By Marc W. Steinberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TEN The Vitriol of Conflict

Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial... the relations between master and man were all fact, and everything between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn't state in figures, or show to be purchasable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

One of the fiercest actions striking factory workers took to deter persistent blacklegs was vitriol throwing. A splash of acid in the eyes was a sure corrective to crossing the picket line and a powerful deterrent for others with similar inclinations. As a tactic it was rare, but on the discursive level vitriol slinging was a commonplace of conflict. By the spring of 1830, in the Ashton-Stalybridge district fighting words were defiantly in the air.

We saw in the case of the Spitalfields weavers that discourses of contention were both, determined by and determinative of processes of class formation and collective action. Systems of economic, political, and social relations in which the weavers were ensconced provided the backdrop for experiences that begged for a compelling interpretation. The cultural processes of creating such meanings of trade relations, citizenship, domestic order, and community life often pitted the weavers against manufacturers, politicians, and political economists, as they contested within a dominant discursive formation to create an intelligible and moral vision of their world. Circumstances begged interpretation, but the weavers could not create this intelligibility just as they pleased. Struggling both

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