The making of the working class

August 10, 2015

 

I'm finally reading [in 2011] E. P. Thompson’s classic The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Query: why was England so impervious to social and political reform in the early 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution? Answer: in part because in the 1790s “the French Revolution consolidated Old Corruption by uniting landowners and manufacturers in a common panic [over the Revolution]; and the popular societies were too weak and too inexperienced to effect either revolution or reform on their own.” It’s like 1919 and the Red Scare in the United States, when the Russian revolution, by terrifying mainstream America, helped consolidate the power of business as against workers. —For several reasons, in the long run the existence of the Soviet Union was the best thing that could have happened to Western capitalism.

 

Reading further into the book, I just had a minor epiphany. (Sometimes something you’ve sort of known for a long time suddenly sinks in or you appreciate its implications with utmost clarity.) One of the most commonplace sociological facts about pre-industrial or transitioning-to-industrial or newly-industrial societies is that the labor force or even independent artisans do not have a “Protestant work-ethic,” a rigidly disciplined work-ethic appropriate to industrial capitalism. Employers and the like complain about the laziness, indolence, indiscipline, etc. of the lower classes and obsess over how to get them to follow mechanically the rhythm of the clock and the overseer. So you get the sheer physical brutality of the Industrial Revolution, the constant cumulative struggle on the part of employers to increase their minute control of the work-process and deprive workers of every shred of autonomy, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management, Henry Ford’s and others’ attempts to “socialize” workers into being good moral religious un-alcoholic dutiful citizens, and so forth. Wherever industrial capitalism is in its early stages, you see this Herculean effort—this war—to impose mechanical industrial rhythms on the workforce, through external coercion and more subtle “internal” means. I say it’s “Herculean” because, as Thompson points out, it’s like an attempt to refashion human nature. You have to stifle the desire for leisure, for social pursuits, for play and creativity—in a being that is virtually defined by its love of play. No wonder there’s so much resistance to it! Centuries-long resistance! And of course, luckily, the enterprise is never wholly successful. Human nature, contrary to Lenin’s and Taylor’s hopes, cannot be erased and redrawn. Even the nascent capitalist class, the one getting all the material benefits, needed psychological assistance to complete the transformation from semi-leisured medieval life to modern disciplined life; hence in early modern Europe you had the spread of Calvinism and its notion of the professional “calling”—and individualism, self-discipline, acquisitive values, etc. (See Max Weber and R. H. Tawney.) That is, the capitalist managed to convince himself he was accumulating wealth for the glory of God. But the working class too, a couple centuries later, needed some similar psychic mechanism to adjust itself to the new order, and so you had in England (and America?) during the Industrial Revolution the acceptance among workers of Methodism and other sects that preached the blessedness of poverty and hard labor, submission to authority, compensation in the hereafter, and the like.

 

After quoting some emotionally overwrought Methodist literature (ecstatic religious conversions, joyously self-abandoning abasement in God), Thompson says that

 

we may see here in its lurid figurative expression the psychic ordeal in which the character-structure of the rebellious pre-industrial laborer or artisan was violently recast into that of the submissive industrial worker. Here, indeed, is [Andrew] Ure’s ‘transforming power.’ It is a phenomenon, almost diabolic in its penetration into the very sources of human personality, directed towards the repression of emotional and spiritual energies. But ‘repression’ is a misleading word: these energies were not so much inhibited as displaced from expression in personal and in social life, and confiscated for the service of the Church. The box-like, blackening chapels stood in the industrial districts like great traps for the human psyche.... These Sabbath orgasms of feeling made more possible the single-minded weekday direction of these energies to the consummation of productive labor....

 

Thompson’s whole discussion is brilliant. You really see how Victorian England and Europe became the repressive, neurotic, hysterical place Freud encountered. It was all this religion, all this “methodical” morality to discipline the instincts and personality for the sake (indirectly, unconsciously) of accumulating profit. Religions of repression spread through the whole population. “Since joy was associated with sin and guilt, and pain (Christ’s wounds) with goodness and love, so every impulse became twisted into the reverse, and it became natural to suppose that man or child only found grace in God’s eyes when performing painful, laborious or self-denying tasks. To labor and to sorrow was to find pleasure, and masochism was ‘Love.’” In some of its early manifestations Methodism came close to worshiping death. But apparently it had softened and humanized itself a bit by the mid-19th century.

 

Why did the working classes submit to all this repressive religion? Partly because of continual, intensive indoctrination. From an early age—in the Sunday schools, etc. Also, there was the immersion in community that it offered. And in its social reality Methodism was by no means always as harsh as its intellectual expressions could be. Fourth, Thompson suggests that Methodist recruitment and revivals between 1790 and 1830 were the “psychic (and social) consequences of the counterrevolution” (by which he’s referring to the suppression of labor movements, the inability of the exploited poor to raise themselves out of misery). Methodism among the poor at this time was, perhaps, the “Chiliasm of despair.”

 

I need hardly point out that once Europe and America went from being industrializing to being mass-consuming, mature corporate-capitalist societies (with the “establishment-bureaucratization” of labor unions and their “self-policing” of workers, etc.), the character of mass indoctrination changed from emphasizing thrift, industry, morality, submission to authority, assimilation, and Americanization, to emphasizing relative leisure, consumerism, sexuality, and instant gratification. Then new psychic disorders arose. (Narcissism, schizoid patterns, the ache of “meaninglessness.”)

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NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright