Wednesday, July 30, 2008


by the Sandwichman

I intend to write more about Ira Steward's eight-hours theory when my move to the house on the hill is complete. Meanwhile, I had suggested some readings by and on Steward in response to a comment by YouNotSneaky and I'm moving those up to this blog post. YNS pointed out a good overview of Hours of Work in U.S. History by Robert Whaples in the EH.Net Encylopedia.

Ira Steward poses a challenge of isolating and reconstructing the usable kernel of his argument. He wrote propaganda. George Gunton, his 'disciple', also wrote propaganda. That was fair enough considering that most of the reputable political economists of the day essentially wrote propaganda from the employers' side.

I would recommend reading Steward with some context. A good place to start is Dorothy W. Douglas's "Ira Steward on consumption and unemployment" in the Journal of Political Economy, August 1932. Henry Mussey's 1927 essay, "Eight-hour theory in the American Federation of Labor" (in Economic Essays, edited by Jacob Hollander) is sympathetic but critical. Reading Mussey's essay in juxtaposition to Douglas's is instructive because they fall on opposite sides of the stock market crash and start of the depression. Different "consensuses" are evidently in play.

Steward's tract, "A reduction of hours an increase of wages" is available through Google Books and also through the Internet Archive in John R. Commons' Documentary History of American Industrial Society. George Gunton produced a more systematic exposition of Steward's theory in his 1889 pamphlet, "The economic and social importance of the eight-hour movement", which can be found in the anthology, Wages, hours and strikes: L
labor panaceas in the 20th century, (edted by Leon Stein and Phillip Taft).

A couple of more contemporary discussions of Steward are Lawrence Glickman's "Workers of the world, consume" in International labor and working class history Fall, 1997, and David Roediger's "Ira Steward and the anti-slavery origins of the American eight-hour theory, Labour History, 1986.

A couple of points I would like to make about Steward, Gunton and their interpretors. First, Steward's theory appeared without a frame or, more accurately, outside of and in opposition to the frame of classical political economy and its wages-fund theory. There are loose ends in it that I suggest could be resolved within a Keynesian frame. Keynes himself alluded to the possibility of such a reconciliation in his war time remarks on the reduction of working time as the "ultimate solution" to unemployment. Second, no one has ever re-evaluated Steward's theory in the light of Chapman's theory of the hours of labor. I strongly believe that a reconciliation of Steward, Chapman and Keynes (throwing in Luigi Pasinetti for good measure) is feasible and would be extremely invigorating for heterodox economic thought.

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