When Hugo wrote his novel Les Miserables, the initial results of the new rapid economic development due to machines were already well known: prosperity for a few, exploitation and misery for the new urban proletariat of industrial workers. We give below a brief presentation of the prevailing situation in England and Europe.
The Social Effects of Industrialization
The beginnings of modern industrialization in the eighteenth century appeared to bear out the belief of the Enlightenment that human reason and ingenuity had the power to perfect the world. The invention of labor-saving machines promised to transform man from a beast of burden into a creature of leisure. But that promise soon began to fade. The "Industrial Revolution" in the beginning at least, benefited only a minority, the middle class, while it brought utmost misery and destitution to the growing urban working class. It was only after industrialization had outgrown its infancy that its blessings came to be shared by more and more people.
Many of the early difficulties of industrialization were due to the unsettling effects that the tremendous population growth had on European society. Between 1815 and 1914, the population of Europe increased more than twofold, from 200 million to 460 million. Another 40 million Europeans during this time emigrated to other parts of the world, especially the United States. The rate of growth differed from country to country. It was largest in Russia, less in England and Germany, and least in France. Population growth was probably due less to an increase in the birth rate than to a decrease in the death rate. This decrease had many causes: improvements in medicine and public sanitation, absence of major wars, greater efficiency in government and administration, the revolution in agriculture leading to better diets and more ample food supplies, and, most important, the acceleration of industrial development. Industry provided the means whereby more people could live, and the increase of population, in turn, supplied the necessary industrial labor force and swelled the ranks of consumers. The growth of population and the increasing industrialization of society thus acted on and served to stimulate each other.
Urbanization and Working-Class Misery
With the increase in population and the growth of industry there came a further important change in European society — the movement of people from the country to the city. Large-scale urbanization had been virtually unknown before the early nineteenth century. But as workers began to flock to the mills, small villages grew into crowded towns and quiet towns into noisy cities. This sudden influx of people brought on wretched housing conditions. Teeming slums lacking in sanitation facilities turned into breeding places of disease, vice, and crime. There was as yet no effective municipal administration to cope with these novel problems, and the workers themselves were too poor to improve their condition.
Poor housing was not the only hardship afflicting the early
workingman. Since mechanized industry required little skill, there was always an abundance of manpower, and wages were kept at a minimum. The average working day was between twelve and sixteen hours. But even this rarely yielded sufficient pay to support a worker's family, so that women and children had to work as well. Since they were more easily controlled and received less pay, they were much in demand. But women and children also suffered more than men did from the harsh conditions in factories and mines. No provisions were made for the workers' safety, and accidents resulting from machines to which they were not accustomed were frequent. There was no insurance against accidents, sickness, or old age. Furthermore, as more machines were used and as more efficient machines were invented, unemployment added to the workers' hardships. As industrialization spread to the Continent, so did the abuses that accompanied it. Conditions in Belgium and France were almost as bad as those in England.
It is impossible to give a proper representation of the wretched state of many of the inhabitants of the indigent class, situated in the confined streets where each small, ill ventilated apartment of the house contained a family with lodgers in number from seven to nine, and seldom more than two beds for the whole. The want of convenient offices in the neighborhood is attended with many very unpleasant circumstances, as it induces the lazy inmates to make use of chamber utensils, which are suffered to remain in the most offensive state for several days, and are then emptied out of the windows. The writer had occasion a short time ago to visit a person ill of the cholera; his lodgings were in a room of a miserable house situated in the very filthiest part of Pipewellgate, divided into six apartments, and occupied by different families to the number of 26 persons in all. The room contained three wretched beds with two persons sleeping in each; it measured about 12 feet in length and 7 in breadth, and its greatest height would not admit of a person's standing erect; it received light from a small window, the sash of which was fixed. Two of the number lay ill of the cholera, and the rest appeared afraid of the
admission of pure air, having carefully closed up the broken panes with plugs of old linen.
From "Report from the Poor Law Commissioners on the Sanitary
Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain,"
1842, pp. 21-22.
The attitude of much of the middle class toward the misery of the working class was one of indifference. The pioneers of modern industrialization, the new "captains of industry," were tough and ruthless men. They had to be if they wanted to survive, because competition was keen and risks were great. For every one of them who made good, there were several who fell by the wayside; the path of early industrialism was lined with bankruptcies. Economic booms burst; wars closed markets; machinery broke down or became obsolete; and the agrarian supporters of the old order fought stubbornly against middle-class efforts to gain economic and political influence.
The seemingly callous attitude of the middle class toward the hardships of the workers came from the middle-class philosophy of liberalism, which helped justify such selfish behavior. It was the belief in economic liberalism that prevented any drastic measures of social reform in the early part of the nineteenth century. The absence of such reform, in turn, led to various protests on behalf of the workers, of which Marxian socialism became the most effective.
Given the laissez-faire attitude of liberalism, it is not surprising that efforts to solve social problems through government action found little support among the middle class. What social reforms were introduced owed much to the agitation of a few individuals, who were motivated either by humanitarianism or, as in the case
Child labour in a cotton mill (19th century)
of Britain's "Philosophical Radicals," by a desire to be utilitarian and efficient.
Some of the most effective opposition to early nineteenth-century liberalism came from among the representatives of the old order. For political and economic but also humanitarian reasons, some Tories attacked the new industrial system in its most vulnerable spot, the terrible conditions in the mines and factories. As far back as 1802, Parliament had passed an act that cut down the working hours of apprentices. The first real factory act, passed in 1819, forbade the employment in cotton mills of children under nine years of age and limited the daily labor of children over nine to twelve hours. In 1831 night work was abolished for persons under twenty-one. In 1847 the maximum working day for women
and children was set at ten hours. Two acts in 1842 and 1855 made it illegal to employ women and children in the mining industry.
Despite the best intentions on the part of their sponsors, however, these early factory acts were not very effective. They were not strictly enforced, and they applied chiefly to the cotton industry. Not until 1833 was their scope extended to include other industries, and only then was some system of inspection set up to enforce the new provisions.
There were other reforms in England besides factory acts. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 enabled municipalities to cope more effectively with problems arising from rapid urbanization. To ensure some degree of uniformity in matters of public health, Parliament in 1848 set up a system of local boards of health. One of the most pressing social problems was the care of the poor. The New Poor Law of 1834 for the first time brought some order into the complicated system of poor relief. It was, however, a mixed blessing to the poor. The law abolished the traditional practice of "outdoor relief," under which the wages of the poorest workers had been supplemented from public funds. Henceforth, to be eligible for relief, the poor had to report to workhouses; and by making conditions in these establishments as unpleasant as possible, all but those who could not possibly make a living otherwise were discouraged from going on relief. Here was a measure, clearly utilitarian, that delighted the middle class. It discouraged idleness and cut the expense of poor relief.
On the Continent, little was done to reform the abuses of early industrialism. A French law in 1803 prohibited work in factories before 3:00 a.m. Under the reign of Louis Philippe, the employment of children under eight was prohibited, and the work of children under twelve was limited to eight hours a day. But enforcement of these laws, in France as in England, was very lax. In Belgium, nothing at all was being done to improve the lot of the workers. The only state with any industry in Germany was
Prussia, and the Prussian government, in 1839, introduced a factory law that forbade the employment of children under nine and limited the working hours of older children to ten hours.
Liberalism and Education
The only field of social reform in which the Continent was ahead of Great Britain was education. Here, for once, liberalism was a great help. Like the philosophe of the eighteenth century, the nineteenth-century liberal was a firm believer in education as a means of improving the world and of helping children get ahead. Any governmental measure in favor of education, therefore, had liberal support. Both France and Prussia had a long tradition of public education, which they maintained during the nineteenth century. There was a brief reaction in favor of religious education under the Bourbons, but the Education Act passed under Louis Philippe again asserted the state's role in education. Britain's first provision of public funds for education was not until 1833. It was increased in subsequent years, but even so the amount set aside for education in 1839 was still only half of what it cost to maintain Queen Victoria's horses. Not until 1870 was the first general education act adopted in England. In the meantime, education depended on private initiative, in which the middle class played a leading and beneficial role.
As this discussion has shown, some genuine attempts were made in the first half of the nineteenth century to cope with the ills of early industrialism through social reform. But such attempts ran counter to the laissez-faire philosophy of liberalism. Economic liberalism was, to some extent, a mere rationalization of selfish interests by the middle class. But there was also in it much of the eighteenth-century belief that the world operated according to certain basic laws that could not be altered and that ultimately made for the greater happiness of the greatest number.
This passive acquiescence in things as they were, however, could not possibly satisfy the workers. They refused to believe that the only solution to their troubles was to do nothing, to let matters
take their course. They demanded that remedial action be taken on their behalf, else they were prepared to act for themselves.
The protest of the working class took various forms. Some of the discontent expressed itself in political action, as in the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. In another form of protest, workers vented their anger and frustration on the very instruments that to them seemed primarily responsible for their plight — the machines. There were sporadic instances of such "machine-breaking" during the early phase of industrialization, both in England and on the Continent. But these acts of despair could not halt the advance of the machine age. Instead of waging war against mechanization, workers increasingly tried to escape industrialization altogether by emigrating to the United States, where virgin lands offered them the opportunity of making a better living.
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