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

By Marc W. Steinberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ELEVEN Class War: The Spinners' Strikes of 1830-1831

Utilitarian economists, skeletons of schoolmasters, Commissioners of Fact, gen
teel and used-up infidels, gabblers of many dog's-eared creeds, the poor you
will always have with you. Cultivate in them, while there is yet time, the utmost
graces of the fancies and affections to adorn their lives so much in need of or
nament; or, in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of
their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face to face, Reality will take a
wolfish turn and make an end of you.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

As factory production developed, the Ashton district emerged as an active arena of working-class formation. The growth of a muscular industrial infrastructure, the maturation of a propriety group of capitalists set on ordering a world in their own image, and the fostering of relatively insular class cultures and social spheres produced increasing friction between mill owners and their employees. In a previous series of fractious strikes, spinners and cotton lords developed mounting enmity. Class struggle was, in Thompson's terms, fomenting class consciousness.

This ever-closer engagement, as in the case of the silk weavers, brought matters to a head by the end of the decade. In both cases, the discourses of political economy significantly defined the ideological boundaries of these contests. In both cases, this struggle led to an articulation of rights partly through a labor theory of value. The increasingly bitter regional battles over piece rates, however, produced distinctive dialogic responses and repertoires of collective action. Where the silk weavers partly de-

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