Capitalism and its Discontents


The Industrial Revolution is considered to be the most important event in economic history (De Vries, 1994, p.249). Starting in 1760 and ending around 1840, the Industrial Revolution focused on new methods and organisations for producing goods. This involved the transition from hand production to the use of machine tools and mechanised factories helped dramatically increase the production of goods (Stearns, 2020, pp. 1-17). Factory organisation to production lines had prompted massive growth in British cities, meaning the number of workers in major industries grew dramatically. The population of London increased by 50% between 1750 and 1800 (Wrigley, 1985, p. 693) and Liverpool's population increased by 82% between 1750 and 1800 (Wrigley, 1985, p. 694). As a result of the increase of the urban population in England, British pig iron production drastically increased, 700,000 tonnes were produced in 1830; thirty years later it had more than quintupled to almost four million tonnes. Raw cotton imports rose six-fold in the twenty years after 1830 and the average productivity of the British worker had more than doubled (Stearns, 2020, p. 37). Due to this increase in production a new class of people rose to prominence, the Bourgeoisie or the business owning class grew by a factor of seven between the years 1688 and 1867, with their wealth rising throughout the industrial revolution, eventually equalling the gentry by 1867 (Allen, 2018, p. 25). Rising output boosted industrial profits and allowed for some modest increases in the standard of living for the working class, however wealth inequality would continue to grow (Stearns, 2020, p. 37).


The notable increase of wealth inequality between the working class and the business owners led some philosophers to produce radical theories on how to make society more equal. Most notable of these thinkers were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx and Engels would publish The Communist Manifesto in 1848 which theorised that there was a class struggle between the proletariat (the working class) and the Bourgeoisie (business owners). Marx and Engels believed that capitalism was unstable and that there was a contradiction between the development of productive forces and the ownership of the means of production. The only way for the proletariat to free themselves and create a new society was revolution. This included seizing the means of production and having a greater political power in order to bring about a more equal society. This will be different from other revolutions as the proletariat have no form of appropriating property, they will destroy private property and the class system will disappear (Lormier, 1998, pp. 6-10). Later Marx would publish his most influential work Das Kaptial in 1868. Like The Communist Manifesto, Das Kapital argues that capitalism is inherently unstable and that workers do not own the product of their labour and are exploited by factory owners as if they were machines. Das Kapital is Marx's attempt at producing a scholarly analysis of the formation, inner workings and eventual collapse of capitalism (Wheeler, 2017).

Figure 1: Karl Marx and Frederich Engels.


Marx and Engels were not the creators of the concept of socialism. Marx and Engels were greatly inspired by what they called 'Utopian Socialists,' despite the term 'Utopian' was used as a way for them to criticise these thinkers as they do not form a natural class (Paden, 2002, p. 67). They did however see them as the forerunners of scientific socialism and were inspired by their dynamic vision of society based on class struggle (Picon, 2003, p. 10). Utopian Socialists were progressives that criticised the bourgeois order, however they wrote too early in the modern period to understand the role of the proletariat and could only criticise and emerging bourgeois society (Paden, 2002, pp. 67-68). They did not give prominence to the role of political activity, but focused instead devised plans to make society more co-operative, production more efficient and distribution more fair (Cole, 1962, pp. 4-5). One of the most prominent of these thinkers in Great Britain was Robert Owen. Robert Owen was a Welsh textile manufacturer, philanthropist and social reformer. He was a founder of Utopian Socialism as a concept as well as the co-operative movement. Engels would condemn Owen's view of socialism as utopian, however he conceded that every successful social movement in Great Britain was due to the ideas of Robert Owen (Harrison, 1971, p. 1).


Owen was considered by Marx and Engels to be the 'father of English socialism' (Pūras, 2014, p. 59). Despite his position as a rich, mill owning industrialist, Owen was involved in many pioneering theoretical and practical concepts, these included: poor relief, trade unionism, education, co-operatives and feminism (Pūras, 2014, p. 59). Owen emphasised his belief in the fact that humans should be considered products of their social environment, social problems arose because individuals had been exposed to conditions, such as poverty, formed their characters in a certain way, and to alleviate social problems would therefore require an improvement to their social environment (Rogers, 2018, p. 269). Owen wanted to implement a 'System for the Prevention of Crime, and the Formation of Human Character,’ which would provide employment and education for individuals to help address the moral shortcomings created by the environment of industrialised society (Owen, 1991, pp. 82-84). Owen was at the forefront of revolutionary social ideas in order to improve the lives of the working class. This is evident in his co-operative ownership of the mill in New Lanark, Scotland and on his eventual travels to the United States to start co-operative societies. With Marx and Engels' criticism in mind, were these ventures doomed to fail due to the paternal nature of which he was viewing the working class?

Figure 2: Portrait of Robert Owen.


Robert Owen formed a partnership in 1799 to buy his wife's father's mill in New Lanark, a village 25 miles away from Glasgow (New Lanark Visitor Centre, n.d.). Owen used his ownership of the mill to implement his beliefs on how his workers should be treated, he emphasised improved factory conditions, especially for the children working in the mill, popular education, citizenship, planning and co-operation (Donnachie, 2004, p. 146). Owen also reduced the working day to 10 and a half hours from the standard 14, this also included meal breaks and sought to maintain employment during periods of reduced demand (Robertson, 1971, p. 149) (Harrison, 1969, pp.154-155). In 1814 Owen broadened the scope of his 'social experiment,' by focusing on childcare, education, healthcare and co-operative shopping (O'Hagan, 2008, pp.366). American economist and historian of economic thought, Robert Heilbroner suggested that New Lanark "shone like a beacon among the widespread squalor of the industrial revolution" (Heilbroner, 2000, p. 17). The mill at New Lanark was also appears to have been very profitable. Using Owen's own figures his total profits can be calculated to exceed £80,000 in the 16 year period he was associated with the mill (Robertson, 1971, pp. 146-147).


Due to Owen's emphasis on improving the living conditions and lives of the workers and this greatly juxtaposing what life was like working in other mills and factories, it is easy to view New Lanark as highly "idealised" (Siméon, 2017, p. 6). One of the most questionable practises in New Lanark were the methods Owen used to maintain discipline among his workers. Owen would record the discipline of the workers publicly through the use of a coloured wooden board that would publicly record the conduct of the worker for the previous day (Rogers, 2018, p. 271). Historian Ian Donnachie argues that Owen's use of these small parts of disciplinary power were part of a sophisticated system of managerial control (Donnachie, 2005, p. 82). Donnachie also believes that Owen's emphasis on education was not to improve the life prospects of the children in the mills. It was to give them enough education to be effective workers in his mill, but not enough education to pose a threat to the existing order of society (Donnachie, 2005, p. 170). English economist G.D.H Cole believed that it "is the idea that unifies all his varied activities. Whether he is pleading for a Factory Act to protect the helpless servants of the new machines, or for a universal system of liberating education, or for Trade Unions, or for his own scheme of Co-operative communities, the dominant idea in his mind is the need for the social control of the new productive power" (Cole, 1930, p. 5). Despite these criticisms the mill at New Lanark was still very productive under Owen's leadership with much of the changes he made to the workers lives giving them better life quality (Morris, 2018, p. 115). Overall it is hard to categorise Owen's work at New Lanark mill as a failure, because he succeeded in giving a better quality of life to his workers and the aforementioned profits he made over his ownership of the mill highlight that his practises could also be successful in a capitalist world.


Figure 3: Illustration of New Lanark Mill.


Owen would sell his shares in New Lanark mill and pursue the purchase of the New Harmony settlement in Indiana in 1825. Owen wanted to establish a model community where education and social equality would flourish (Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites). This would however prove to be a complete failure with Owen dissolving the community in 1829 due to constant disagreements amongst the citizens. The allure of the New World had called to Owen as he wanted to create his vision of a perfect society (Davis, O'Hagan, 2014, p. 58). Owen had originally planned for education to be the base upon the success of the community would be founded, however the enthusiasm adopted by the indigenous people for education was low and they preferred to work in the fields rather than sit in a classroom (Davis, O'Hagan, 2014, pp. 59-60). Unlike New Lanark, New Harmony where there was an abundance of skilled workers and craftsmen were attracted to the formation of a collaborative society. New Harmony lacked this material and symbolic idea. It instead lent itself a more agricultural way of life (Davis, O'Hagan, 2014, p. 59). Unlike at New Lanark, the citizens of New Harmony were not obligated to carry out Owen's plans. His workers in the mill lived in the fear of unemployment forcing them to participate in Owen's schemes. Those who came to New Harmony were poor labourers deprived of work in the midst of an agricultural recession so were then forced into crime, something Owen had not foreseen (Costello, 2021). Fellow at the World Affairs Institute Joshua Muravchik attributes the failure at New Harmony to be Owen's attempt to replace the "individual selfish system" with a "united social system," as this system is incompatible with human nature (Muravchik, 2002, pp. 31-60).


In conclusion, Robert Owen's attempts at creating a collaborative society were not entirely doomed to fail. Within the confines of capitalism in Victorian England, his New Lanark mill successfully implemented policies of co-operative living. Owen successfully implemented programs that helped reduce the working day, gave them free healthcare and children improved working conditions and education. Although it can be argued that because of his role as the owner of the mill, the workers were obliged to participate in his schemes. Compared to the rest of the Victorian working class, their quality of life was greater. Owen was championed by Marx and Engels as the 'father of English socialism.' However, Owen's attempt at creating a co-operative society in the United States appeared to be doomed to fail. Owen had assumed that like his Scottish workers, the Americans would be keen to be educated and embrace technological advancement. What he instead found was a desire for agricultural lifestyle, many of the labourers were also deprived of work and had no obligation to participate in Owen's desires for education. Owen returned to the United Kingdom in 1828 with the settlement of New Harmony being a complete failure.


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