Thursday, October 30, 2008

Economic and Social Importance of the Eight-Hour Movement

by the Sandwichman

The serialization on EconoSpeak of the analytical portion of George Gunton's 1889 pamphlet, "The Economic and Social Importance of the Eight-Hour Movement," is now complete. Below the jump is a point-form summary of the argument with each point linked to an expanded excerpt from the pamphlet.

Also categorized under the economic and social importance of the eight-hour movement label are:

1. A post on the place of this eight-hour theory in American labor history and it's aptness to the depression.

2. Another post relating the theory to the present credit crisis.

3. Some thoughts on the treatment of eight-hour theory in economics textbook lore and

4. a brief annotated bibliography.

I conceive of the composite of these posts as a kind of serialized hypertext and will be reviewing and adding further links to related material on, for example, Sydney Chapman's "Hours of Labour," Ira Steward's 1865 pamphlet, "A Reduction of Hours, An Increase in Wages" and Charles Wentworth Dilke's 1821 pamphlet, "The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties Deduced from Principles of Political Economy in A Letter to Lord John Russell." I will also be serializing point-form summaries of Dilke's pamphlet and Chapman's article.

My guiding hypothesis is that the common thread that runs through all these documents -- about the centrality of reduction of working time to social progress -- has been excised alike from trade unionist thought, neo-classical economics and traditional Marxism. It's too much to be a coincidence. It's too vast to be a covert conspiracy. It may be more usefully thought of as the elephant in the room that we silently agree not to speak about. Why? Because the "civilization" we know is dying and it is very difficult for us to name that death. Denial.

  • There is nothing new or novel in the proposition for a general reduction of the hours of labor. [more…]

  • The opposition of the employing class to this measure has not risen so much from an aversion to improving the laborer's condition as from a misconception of their economic relation to the community, and especially to the laboring classes.... For nearly a century the colleges have taught, and the employing classes have believed, that an increase of wages always means a decrease of profits-that their income moves inversely with that of the laborer's, or, in the language of the economic instructors, that "profits rise as wages fall, and fall as wages rise. [more…]

  • That the labor movement is a natural phase of modern society is too obvious for any careful observer of social phenomena and student of economic history to question. [more…]

  • The end and object of production is consumption. Nothing but the desire for a commodity and a willingness to give an equivalent for it will cause it to be produced. [more…]

  • Capital is not an original but an auxiliary force in production. Capital being merely an implement in the hands of man he will only use it when he can obtain his end better with than without it. [more…]

  • Capital can yield increasing returns – i.e., become a cheaper productive force than labor – only when it can produce on an extensive scale. Since the laboring classes constitute seven or eight-tenths of the community, it is upon increasing their consumption-which means raising the social life and wages of the laborer-that the market for capitalistic productions finally depends. [more…]

  • While no proposition for industrial reform can produce any real improvement in the laborer's condition which does not promote the advance of real wages, even that can only be economic and wise when it takes place without permanently increasing prices or reducing profits. [more…]

  • The price of labor (wages), like that of everything else subject to the conditions of exchange, constantly tends toward the cost of its production. [more…]

  • The general rate of wages, in any given class, group or industry, is determined by the standard of living of the most expensive families furnishing the necessary part of the supply of labor in that country, class, group or industry. [more…]

  • The standard of living in any community is always high or low, according as the social life of the masses is simple or complex; that is to say, as the number of the habitual daily wants of the people is large or small. [more…]

  • The wants of mankind are everywhere simple or complex according to the quality of the habits and Customs of the society in which he moves. Habit not only governs our social wants, but it exercises an important influence over our physical wants also. [more…]

  • Frequent contact with enjoyable conditions creates desire for them, and by repeated satisfaction the desire grows into a taste, and tastes into absolute wants, which ultimately become a part of the habits and fixed character, or second nature. [more…]

  • The first condition for social opportunity which consists of frequent contact with an increasing variety of social influences is LEISURE. So long as one's time is all occupied in the mere getting of a living, the chance for social influences to operate upon him, which creates new desires, is impossible. [more…]

  • The adoption of an eight-hour system would tend to increase wages in two ways: first, by reducing enforced idleness; second, by creating new wants, and raising the standard of living. [more…]

  • Whatever tends to raise wages through increasing the aggregate consumption of wealth, necessarily tends to reduce the cost of production and lower prices. [more…]

  • By the increased aggregate production, the laborer can get more wealth through his higher wages, the general consumer can obtain more through lower prices, and the manufacturer while receiving a smaller per cent. of the total products actually obtains a greater quantity of wealth through the larger productions and extended business. [more…]

  • We are therefore warranted in saying that the economic effects of a general reduction of the hours of labor would be to raise the standard of living and increase real wages; promote the concentration of capital; and the use of improved machinery; will cheapen production, lower prices, and while diminishing the rate, will increase the aggregate amounts of profits. Obviously, therefore, it would tend to improve the economic and social condition of the laborer and the consumer without injuring that of any other class.


    Myrtle Blackwood said...

    Reduced working hours will "promote the concentration of capital"?

    I presume this occurs through increased aggregate production-consumption?

    I would tend to think that this is likely to be only one possible outcome of reduced working hours. More time off from prodigious, obsessive production allows for opportunities for other types of 'value's to form in individuals and groups. A different set of political values, for instance? Leading to an increasing obhorrence toward the 'concentration of capital' and ever-escalating production and consumption within society?

    It's interesting to observe that, in Australia at least, the actual number of aggregate hours worked per capita in the year has declined over the past few decades.

    Sandwichman said...


    I don't subscribe to some key elements of Gunton's argument and that is one of them. Steward foresaw the elimination of the wages system and of class society through the path of higher wages. The worker and the capitalist would be one, presumably through co-operative ownership.

    Gunton, by contrast, projected a perpetual capitalism of perpetual growth with the concentration of industry into monopolies and trusts. His magazine ended up being subsidized by Standard Oil.