Tuesday, August 12, 2014

SCIOD 6: A Trick! Of the Clumsiest Description!

Peter Ewart acted as conduit for another cultural transmission, this one political-economic rather than mechanical. If Grimshaw's mill hadn't burnt down, it is likely that Edmund Cartwright would have profited significantly from the enterprise and there would have been no occasion for the petition to parliament on his behalf. By the early 1830s, workers' anxiety about being displaced by new machines or by downturns in trade was channeled into proposals for reducing the hours of work rather than into frenzies of machine breaking. Cotton spinning was almost entirely industrialized and weaving was well on its way. The growing population of factory hands was approaching parity with that of the rapidly declining handloom weavers.

In April 1833, the governing Whigs in the U.K. appointed a Royal Commission on the employment of children in factories to head off legislation for a ten-hour day supported by a coalition of Tories and Radicals in Parliament. At the end of November, the Society for the Promotion of National Regeneration met in Prince's Tavern in Manchester and issued a manifesto calling for an eight-hour day. Such calls for shorter hours of work were denounced in the supplementary Royal Commission report of Edward Carleton Tufnell, assistant examiner, as "schemes for the advancement of wages":
They [the factory workers] see that the fixed expences [sic] of the establishment remaining the same, and a smaller quantity being produced, the prices of the cotton goods would probably rise. A rise of prices they have usually found to cause an increase of wages, and therefore they conclude that a rise of prices caused by. the Ten Hour Bill will do so: thus committing the blunder of confounding a rise caused by increased demand with a rise caused by increased difficulty of production… They go on to argue, that, in consequence of less being produced, new mills will be erected to supply the deficiency; that this will cause a demand for fresh hands; and thus the workmen out of employ will be engaged, and prevented from beating down wages by their present competition for employment. So the Ten Hour Bill is to cause all to be in work for ten hours instead of twelve, and wages are to be the same for the former time as the latter. 
Tufnell went on to write the influential anti-trade union tract, Character, Object and Effects of Trades' Unions, which repeated and amplified the allegations of a nefarious ulterior design whose logic was based on fallacious opinions. The source for Tufnell's claims undoubtedly came from Peter Ewart's testimony before the Royal Commission – not from the factory workers themselves – and specifically from Ewart's answer to Tufnell's question, "What do you suppose to be the chief motive for the operatives here advocating the Ten-Hour Bill?":
Many of them expect to receive the same wages for ten hours as they now receive for twelve. The mule-spinners earning high-wages appear to be almost the only class of workpeople in this quarter who are in favour of a ten-hour bill. Many of that class have been thrown out of employment in consequence of their combinations to keep up nominal high wages. Their earnings are greatly encroached upon by the contributions they are compelled to make for the support of those who are unemployed, and they imagine that if the hours of work are to be limited to ten, new mills must be built to supply the diminished quantity of yarn, and that the unemployed hands which they now have to support will then be employed in these new-erected mills. This expectation is obviously fallacious, as the cost of yarn and cloth produced would be so much increased by the same expence [sic] of fixed capital falling on a smaller quantity that the demand cannot be expected to continue, especially as we have to meet the competition of foreigners who are working longer hours, and at much lower charges.
In Character, Object and Effects of Trades' Unions, Tufnell rendered Ewart's tale in the following manner:
The Union calculated, that had the Ten-hour Bill passed, and all the present factories worked one-sixth less time, one-sixth more mills would have been built to supply the deficient production. The effect of this, as they fancied, would have been to cause a fresh demand for workmen; and hence, those out of employ would have been prevented from draining the pockets of those now in work, which would render their wages really as well as nominally high. Here we have the secret source of nine-tenths of the clamour for the Ten-hour Factory Bill, and we assert, with the most unlimited confidence in the accuracy of our statement, that the advocacy of that Bill amongst the workmen, was neither more nor less than a trick to raise wages -- a trick, too, of the clumsiest description; since it is quite plain, that no legislative enactment, whether of ten or any other number of hours could possibly save it from signal failure.
Peter Ewart's speculation about what the workers' motives remained uncorroborated by any evidence from workers themselves. Nevertheless, it was elevated by Tufnell from a supposition (What do you suppose to be the chief motive…") to a fact, asserted "with the most unlimited confidence in the accuracy of our statement."

Ewart's supposition can best be understood as a rote recitation of the inverted form of our old friend, the wages-fund doctrine, "formed from the facts of a perfectly exceptional time," as James Bonar described it, "and on the strengths of two truths misapplied, the doctrine of Malthus (on Population) in its most unripe form, and of Ricardo (on Value) in its most abstract." Jane Marcet's fictional 1816 conversation on what determines the rate of wages remains the clearest exposition of the doctrine, as well, perhaps, as its origin:
Caroline: …what is it that determines the rate of wages 
Mrs. B: It depends upon the proportion which capital bears to the labouring part of the population of the country. 
Caroline: Or, in other words, to the proportion which subsistence bears to the number of people to be maintained by it? 
Mrs. B: Yes; it is this alone which regulates the rate of wages, when they are left to pursue their natural course. It is this alone which creates or destroys the demand for labour.
Ewart disagreed with the workers' objectives, so he simply assumed that their motives were based on the opposite of what he believed was the correct analysis. There is too much symmetry in this assumption, as well as too much certainty. As Chapman later observed in his history of the Lancashire cotton industry, "those who advocated shorter hours, both in this period and later, found also many sound reasons for their action in the expected effect on the health and comfort of the operatives." Moreover, the cogency of the wages-fund doctrine was already being challenged in the radical press of the 1820s, long before Mill's recantation. Thomas Hodgkins, for example, argued that consumption articles for workers are not accumulated in advance as a stock but are constantly replenished as a flow.

The purpose here, though, is not to quarrel with the wages-fund doctrine or its shadow, the fixed-amount-of-work fallacy, or to uphold some alternative argument. Rather, it is a matter of tracing the career of the argument. From whence came it and how did it got credentialed, amplified and promoted until it was accepted as unquestioned and unquestionable axiom of economic science. Whether right or wrong, Ewart's and Tufnell's suppositions about workers' motives and their interpretations of political economic doctrine were transparently partisan and overtly hostile toward collective action by workers. Tufnell's framing of the underlying motives of trade unions – sometimes his exact words – echo through the works of subsequent writers hostile to trade unionism such as Andrew Ure, John Ramsay McCulloch, Edward Baines and James Ward (who plagiarized entire passages from Tufnell's book in the 1860s).

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