England's Great Transformation: Law, Labor, and the Industrial Revolution

England's Great Transformation: Law, Labor, and the Industrial Revolution

by Marc W. Steinberg

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With England’s Great Transformation, Marc W. Steinberg throws a wrench into our understanding of the English Industrial Revolution, largely revising the thesis at heart of Karl Polanyi’s landmark The Great Transformation. The conventional wisdom has been that in the nineteenth century, England quickly moved toward a modern labor market where workers were free to shift from employer to employer in response to market signals. Expanding on recent historical research, Steinberg finds to the contrary that labor contracts, centered on insidious master-servant laws, allowed employers and legal institutions to work in tandem to keep employees in line.

Building his argument on three case studies—the Hanley pottery industry, Hull fisheries, and Redditch needlemakers—Steinberg employs both local and national analyses to emphasize the ways in which these master-servant laws allowed employers to use the criminal prosecutions of workers to maintain control of their labor force. Steinberg provides a fresh perspective on the dynamics of labor control and class power, integrating the complex pathways of Marxism, historical institutionalism, and feminism, and giving readers a subtle yet revelatory new understanding of workplace control and power during England’s Industrial Revolution.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226330013
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/04/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Marc W. Steinberg is professor of sociology at Smith College. He is the author of Fighting Words: Working-Class Formation, Collective Action and Discourse in Early Nineteenth-Century England. He lives in Massachusetts.

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England's Great Transformation: Law, Labor, And The Industrial Revolution

By Marc W. Steinberg

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-33001-3



Charles Taylor stood defiant in front of Hull (East Yorkshire) magistrate Thomas Travis. The twenty-year-old fishing apprentice, having already been directed once by the magistrate to serve his master, Brazillai Cook, and board his ship, had been brought back by his master for his persistent refusal. Taylor, who had a wife and child to support, insisted that Cook provide him with wages so that he could keep them out of the poorhouse. Travis urged Taylor, who by the terms of his indenture had no claim to wages, "to go to sea like a good lad." But the apprentice responded that "England was a free country, and he would not be treated like a slave." Although the magistrate applauded Taylor's decision to marry the mother of his child, and admonished the master to cease hitting his apprentice to compel his labor, he nonetheless would have none of what he perceived as the apprentice's clear obstinacy. His swift justice was forty days in prison.

Not long after Taylor had suffered his day in court to the east in Hanley, Staffordshire George Tittensor stood before the town's magistrates charged by Joseph Clementson, a prominent pottery manufacturer, with missing a day of work. Like Taylor, Tittensor too found himself before the bench for his second time. He, perhaps somewhat contritely, admitted his transgression and that his inability to engage in his work the following morning was due to his being drunk. He was found guilty and the court ordered that he return to work and that a total of 19 shillings 6 pence (perhaps a week's worth of wages) be deducted from his wages in the coming weeks.

Both Taylor and Tittensor likely were prosecuted under the Master and Servant Act of 1823, and under this and related statues the charges against them were criminal, not civil. Workers under a contract of service could be prosecuted for being absent from work, disobeying an employer's orders, not committing full effort to their jobs, leaving work without proper notice(which covered much strike activity), and a number of other "offenses." And Taylor's and Tittensor's experiences with the law were not rare or unusual. We will see in chapter 3 that working people in mid-Victorian England were about as or more likely to be prosecuted as criminals for such work issues as they were for breaches of local acts, vagrancy, and begging. As important, these laws were not relics of a feudal past to be supplanted by more "modern" forms of control: they were developed and consolidated during the Industrial Revolution in response to employers' demands.

This study focuses on the experiences of Taylor, Tittensor, and hundreds of other such workers to take a fresh look at capitalist development and labor control in the English Industrial Revolution. I examine the ways in which capitalists in a number of different industries and regions turned to the law as a staple of their control of the labor market and workplace. I pursue six related questions as to how and why these capitalists found in a series of statutes, termed master and servant law, an effective means of exerting this power. Why did pottery manufacturers, fishing trawler owners, and other employers adopt strategies of labor control that significantly depended on the law? In what ways did the specifics of the production processes in their industries set the conditions by which the law became a strategy of choice? What were the economic, political, and social circumstances in their locales that led them to see the law as an important tool for labor discipline? How did recourse to the law for workplace control become embedded in the routine governance and organization of the production process? To what extent did these capitalists' reliance on the law affect the ways in which they considered alternatives to the organization of the production and ultimately changes in the law itself? And to what degree and in what ways did these legal strategies of labor control affect the trajectory of these enterprises within their industries?

Such questions matter not only for the analysis industrial development, labor control, and class conflict in nineteenth-century England, but also for more encompassing concerns shared by historians and social scientists involving both capitalist development and power and exploitation in the workplace. An enduring metanarrative of the rise of Great Britain as the first industrial nation has deep roots stretching back into the nineteenth century, both in historiography and social theory. Marx's trenchant theorizing of the rise of modern capitalism, of course, depended heavily on his analyses of "England, the native land of large-scale industry," but so too for many other classical theorists of Western industrial society and modernity to which we still turn (1976, 390). As Rebecca Emigh observes, echoes of this historical template of an "inevitable and natural rise of English capitalism" in which the British case provides a path for development "through which all countries march" can still be found in scholarly debates on the transition to capitalism (2005, 356).

Marx's theorizing of the capitalist labor process depended heavily on his examination of the British case. Within his historical materialist perspective the two were intertwined in his pursuit of unmasking the exploitative core of capitalism. In Capital and other works Marx offered a picture of how capitalists, compelled by the ceaseless quest for capital accumulation, transformed the social relations in and of production for ever greater exploitation of their workers. This drive to wring more value out of workers' labor led capitalists down a long path of reorganizing the labor process to wrest control of work from the workers themselves. His panoramic vision started with the humble agricultural laborer and artisan and ended with the enchained factory worker. Marx's account of this process charted the successive strategies capitalists employed to exert complete domination in the workplace. Collecting workers in workshops for direct supervision, the lengthening of the work day, the imposition of piece rates, an increasing division of labor, and ultimately the use of machinery were part of a progression through which capitalists eventually subsumed workers under their control. In Great Britain's "dark satanic mills" Marx found the destination of this path; an organization of production in which workers had been stripped of all autonomy and agency, degraded into bearers of labor power in the complete service of capitalists.

One of Marx's abiding questions throughout these analyses was how capitalist control of the labor process was achieved and transformed. In answering this question the sociologist Michael Burawoy, in accord with many others, replies with a straightforward admonition: "we must go beyond Marx" (1985, 29). He does so by offering a theory of how distinct political apparatuses of production are combined with the labor process itself, creating historically contingent ways in which capitalists structure coercion and consent in the workplace. Burawoy's emphasis on how both production and state politics combine with the social relations in production points to an opening to the ways in which law structures the power dynamics of the workplace.

Casting a historian's eye over nineteenth-century England Richard Price also goes beyond Marx in analyzing how chains of authority in and outside the workplace converged to produce forms of control and resistance at work. Price argues that for most of the century workers maintained significant autonomy at the "frontiers of control" and that capitalists drew on both tradition and the law to exert control. His focus on the law in particular substantially reorients our vision of its role as a means through which capitalists wielded power in the production process.

Feminists also go beyond Marx by explaining how the social relations in and of production are organized through gender difference. Institutionalized practices of gender difference shaped divisions between household and workplace, constructions of skill and autonomy and the organization of authority in the workplace. Law was increasingly part of these practices in some industrial sectors in nineteenth-century Britain. It was layered on existing gender organization to define how women and children were "unfree agents" requiring state protection, and created dilemmas for adult male workers concerning their true "independence" both at work and in the polity.

Burawoy thus recognizes varying institutional structures through which coercion and controls are organized but does not wholly see the embeddedness of law within the production process. Price highlights the centrality of law on continuing struggles to exercise authority, but does not pursue systematically an institutional perspective on how and why some capitalists turned to the law. Feminists foreground the role of gender difference in constituting the labor force and workplace governance, though there is additional ground to cover on how the law variably contributed to these processes. All complement one another in the efforts to go beyond Marx but, as I argue below, we should go somewhat further.

The "further" that I offer involves several theoretical and analytical steps. The first is a reading of Marx's theory that recognizes the materiality of the law. By this I mean that the law is not just part of a "superstructure" that provides ideological legitimation for an economic "base": it is a set of social practices that plays an important constitutive role in the organization of the social relations in and of production. "Capitalism," Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer remark, "is not just an economy, it is a regulated set of social forms of life" (1985, 188). The argument I pursue in this book is that the contests over the "social forms" of the workplace in nineteenth-century Britain could be shaped as much by legal practice as they were by the division of labor or the use of machinery.

Among the legal factors examined here, particular consideration is given to the labor contract. The labor contract organizes power in both directions in labor relations, that is, outward in the labor market and inward into the workplace. Because of this potential to coordinate power in both directions, it was and is a critical legal site for the struggle over labor subjugation and autonomy. Moreover, as we will see in the historical analyses to come, thelabor contract through master and servant law provided capitalists the opportunity to reinforce their authority in the workplace with their control of or access to local political and legal institutions.

Thus, my second step is to develop a more concerted institutional analysis of class power and the ways its organization and distribution in space and place beyond the point of production impact struggles over control in the workplace itself. Concurring with Jeffrey Haydu (1988, 1998, 2008) I argue that we need to map the institutional configurations of power and authority in workplace locales to understand the ways in which political and economic institutions could be tied together to organize judicial authority. These configurations made the law a viable, reliable, and sometimes preferable option for capitalist exertion of control of the workplace. In order to understand the workings of the law not merely or largely as the overlaying of "state" authority on local practice, I focus on local institutional configurations of power that provided opportunities for such legal practices. As George Steinmetz (1993), Bob Jessop (2008), and many geographers maintain, what we often view in shorthand terms as the working of the state is given form and content through the micropolitics of local practices. And as sociolegal scholars have for many years taken for granted, legal practice does not emerge fully formed from law on the books. The nineteenth-century parliamentary statutes and common law governing labor relations lived in the local courts.

A third step is to combine insights from historical materialism and historical institutionalism in an analytic framework. The former provides analytic tools for interrogating the processes of capitalist exploitation, while the latter emphasizes the ways in which historical configurations of institutions provide the social and political structures through which power and resources are routinely mobilized. Some members of the latter camp have offered their institutional perspective as alternatives to the former. However, I see important affinities that can add to class analyses of the historical structuring of the labor process. Both centrally concern how durable social structures construct and maintain asymmetries of power. In doing so both focus on chains of historical processes. For the purposes of this study historical institutionalism offers a key set of conceptual insights. I will draw on them to analyze the reliance of some capitalists on the law for labor control. The first is an attention to how actors make pragmatic choices within institutional constraints at critical conjunctures, as well as the lasting consequences of these choices. The second is to examine how such choices become embedded in specific institutional orders, and thus become accepted and often beneficial paths for ongoing action, but perhaps also create an inertial drag on change. The case studies present three specific contexts in which employers in each of the industries turned to the law and made it an accepted practice for labor control. They highlight particular configurations of the production process, the social relations in them, the shape of labor markets, and the local organization of power, among several factors. As I argue in the following chapters, it is the combination of these perspectives that offers fuller insights into how and why some capitalists in Victorian England turned to the law.

Exactly how and why some capitalists turned to the law in constructing labor control regimes will be examined in the three case studies of Hanley, Hull, and Redditch. In three quite distinct towns and industries groups of employers relied in part on the law for labor market and workplace discipline. In each case we will examine how a conjuncture of the dilemmas of labor control and opportunities for routine deployment led to its pragmatic adoption as a solution. These studies highlight how the configuration of power in local political and legal institutions, in addition to the "law on the books," provided the openings for such strategies. These conjunctures of needs and opportunities varied significantly across England: in many parts of the industrial and agricultural theaters, law was only a bit player in the everyday drama of autonomy and control. The case studies give us specific though incomplete answers to the questions I have raised above. They are not nor can they be definitive for even the English case. As I discuss in their preface the analyses do not rely on a well-structured comparative-historical methodology, but frankly rather on a carpe diem opportunism to gain some purchase on the past. In the end, following Burawoy, they are an invitation to "go beyond."

In the last section of the book, having joined historical institutionalism and historical materialism to sharpen the analysis of labor control, I turn to the former to revise an important institutionalist analysis of the Industrial Revolution. Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation has received significant renewed attention, both by critics of neoliberal globalization and the academics who study movements against it, for his analysis of the institutional embeddedness of economy within society. More particularly they draw on Polanyi's analysis of the "double movement" in nineteenth-century England when the market was disembedded from its societal moorings, creating a laissez-faire "market society," only to be re-embedded in response to a general societal countermovement against the destruction of unrestrained markets.

I revisit this narrative of the double movement in order to pose a reinterpretation. Drawing on examinations of labor law and juridical institutions from earlier in the volume, I argue that labor remained embedded in a legal system structured to serve capitalists' interests. Indeed, to the extent that there was attenuation between political and economic institutions, it was ultimately accomplished at the hands of labor unions and their allies. Deeply skeptical of the role of the courts in the governance of labor relations, working-class leaders sought to remove their affairs from juridical oversight. Given the institutional constraints these leaders faced, the result was to opt for a liberal model of labor relations in which government was kept at arms' length from their relations and conflicts with capital. My revised narrative, therefore, presents the continued embeddedness of labor relations under common and statutory law favorable to capitalists until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when working-class leaders pursued legislative reform more clearly separating labor relations from state intervention.


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Table of Contents

Part I
1. Introduction
2. The Labor Process and Beyond
3. Law, Institutions, and Labor Control: Theory and History
Part II: Introduction to the Case Studies
4. Hanley and the Pottery Industry
5. Hull and the Fishing Trade
6. Redditch, Commercial Agriculture, Needle Manufacturing and Small-Town Justice
Part III
7. Retelling The Great Transformation
8. Conclusion

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