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The Effects of Machinery on the Condition of the Working-Classes.

Se. Centralizing-Influence of Machinery. In seeking to understand the nature and causes of the poverty of the lower working-classes, it is impossible to avoid some discussion of the influence of machinery. For the rapid and continuous growth of machinery is at once the outward visible sign and the material agent of the great revolution which has changed the whole face of the industrial world during the last century. With the detailed history of this vast change we are not concerned, but only with its effects on the industrial condition of the poor in the present day.

Those who have studied in books of history the industrial and educational condition of the mass of the working populace at the beginning of this century, or have read such novels as Shirley, Mary Barton, and Alton Locke, will not be surprised at the mingled mistrust and hatred with which the working-classes regarded each new introduction of machinery into the manufacturing arts. These people, having only a short life to live, naturally took a short-sighted view of the case; having a specialized form of skill as their only means of getting bread, they did not greet with joy the triumphs of inventive skill which robbed this skill of its market value. Even the more educated champions of the interests of working-classes have often viewed with grave suspicion the rapid substitution of machinery for hand-labour in the industrial arts. The enormous increase of wealth-producing power given by the new machinery can scarcely be realized. It is reckoned that fifty men with modern machinery could do all the cotton-spinning of the whole of Lancashire a century ago. Mr. Leone Levi has calculated that to make by hand all the yarn spun in England in one year by the use of the self-acting mule, would take 100,000,000 men. The instruments which work this wonderful change are called “labour-saving” machinery. From this title it may be deemed that their first object, or at any rate their chief effect, would be to lighten labour. It seems at first sight therefore strange to find so reasonable a writer as John Stuart Mill declaring, “It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.” Yet if we confine our attention to the direct effects of machinery, we shall acknowledge that Mill’s doubt is, upon the whole, a well founded one.

According to the evidence of existing poverty adduced in the last chapter, it would appear that the lowest classes of workers have not shared to any considerable degree the enormous gain of wealth-producing power bestowed by machinery. It is not our object here to discuss the right of the poorer workers to profit by inventions due to others, but merely to indicate the effects which the growth of machinery actually produce in this economic condition. Let us examine the industrial effects of the growth of machinery, so as to understand how they affect the social and economic welfare of the working-classes.

Se. Class Separation of Employer and Workmen. The first effect of machinery is to give a new and powerful impulse to the centralizing tendency in industry. “Civilization is economy of power, and English power is coal,” said the materialistic Baron Liebig. Coal as a generator of steam-power demands that manufactures shall be conducted on a large scale in particular localities. Before the day of large, expensive steam-driven machinery, manufacture was done in scattered houses by workers who were the owners of their simple tools, and often of the material on which they worked; or in small workshops, where a master worked with a few journeymen and apprentices. Machinery changed all this. It drove the workers into large factories, and obliged them to live in concentrated masses near their work. They no longer owned the material in which their labour was stored, or the tools with which they worked; they had to use the material belonging to their employer; the machinery which made their tools valueless was also the property of the capitalist employer. Instead of selling the products of their capital and labour to merchants or consumers, they were compelled to sell their labour-power to the employer as the only means of earning a livelihood. Again, the social relations between the wealthy employer and his “hands” were quite different from those intimate personal relations which had subsisted between the small master and his assistants. The very size of the factory made such a social change inevitable, the personal relation which marked medieval industry was no longer possible. Machinery then did two things. On the one hand, it destroyed the position of the workman as a self-sufficing industrial unit, and made him dependent on a capitalist for employment and the means of supporting life. On the other hand, it weakened the sense of responsibility in the employer towards his workmen in proportion as the dependence of the latter became more absolute.

With each step in the growth of the factory system the workman became more dependent, and the employer more irresponsible. Thus we note the first industrial effect of machinery in the formation of two definite industrial classes the dependent workman, and the irresponsible employer. The term “irresponsible” is not designed to convey any moral stigma. The industrial employer can no more be blamed for being irresponsible than the workman for being dependent. The terms merely express the nature of the schism which naturally followed the triumph of machinery. Prophets like Carlyle and Ruskin, slighting the economic causes of the change, clamoured for “Captains of Industry,” employers who should realize a moral responsibility, and reviving a dead feudalism should assume unasked the protectorate of their employes. The whole army of theoretic and practical reformers might indeed be divided into two classes, according as they seek to impose responsibility on employers, or to establish a larger independence in the employed. But this is not the place to discuss methods of reform. It is sufficient to note the testimony borne by all alike to the disintegrating influence of machinery.

Again, the growth of machinery makes industry more intricate. Manufacturers no longer produce for a small known market, the fluctuations of which are slight, and easily calculable. The element of speculation enters into manufacture at every pore size of market, competitors, and price are all unknown. Machinery works at random like the blind giant it is. Every improvement in communication, and each application of labour-saving invention adds to the delicacy and difficulty of trade calculations. Hence in the productive force of machinery we see the material cause of the violent oscillations, the quiver of which never has time to pass out of modern trade. The periodic over-production and subsequent depression are thus closely related to machinery. It is the result upon the workman of these fluctuations that alone concerns us.

The effect of machinery upon the regularity of employment is both a difficult and a serious subject. Its precise importance cannot be measured. Before the era of machinery there often arose from other reasons, especially war or failure of crops, fluctuations which worked most disastrously on the English labourer. But in modern times we must look to more distinctively industrial causes for an explanation of unsteadiness of employment, and here the close competition of steam-driven machinery plays the leading part.

It must not, however, be supposed that machinery is essentially related to unsteadiness of work. The contrary is obviously the case. Cheap tools can be kept idle without great loss to their owner, but every stoppage in the work of expensive machinery means a heavy loss to the capitalist. Thus the larger the part played by expensive machinery, the stronger the personal motive in the individual capitalist to give full regular employment to his workmen. It is the competition of other machinery over which he has no control that operates as the immediate cause of instability of work. Thus the growth of machinery has a double and conflicting influence upon regularity of employment; it punishes capital more severely for each irregularity or stoppage, while at the same time it makes such fluctuations more violent.

Se. Displacement of Labour. But the result of machinery which has drawn most attention is the displacement of labour. In every branch of productive work, agriculture as well as manufacture, the conflict between manual skill and machine skill has been waged incessantly during the last century. Step by step all along the line the machine has ousted the skilled manual worker, either rendering his office superfluous, or retaining him to play the part of servant to the new machine. A good deal of thoughtless rhetoric has been consumed upon the subject of this new serfdom of the worker to machinery. There is no reason in the nature of things why the work of attendance on machinery should not be more dignified, more pleasant, and more remunerative to the working-man than the work it displaces. To shift on to the shoulders of brute nature the most difficult and exhausting kinds of work has been in large measure the actual effect of machinery. There is also every reason to believe that the large body of workers whose work consists in the regular attendance on and manipulation of machinery have shared largely in the results of the increased production which machinery has brought about. The present “aristocracy of labour” is the direct creation of the machine. But our concern lies chiefly with the weaker portion of the working-classes. How does the constant advance of labour-saving machinery affect these? What is the effect of machinery upon the demand for labour? In answering these questions we have to carefully distinguish the ultimate effect upon the labour-market as a whole, and the immediate effect upon certain portions of the labour-supply.

It is generally urged that machinery employs as many men as it displaces. This has in fact been the earlier effect of the introduction of machinery into the great staple industries of the country. The first effect of mechanical production in the spinning and weaving industries was to displace the hand-worker. But the enormous increase in demand for textile wares caused by the fall of price, has provided work for more hands than were employed before, especially when we bear in mind the subsidiary work in construction of machinery, and enlarged mechanism of conveyance and distribution. Taking a purely historical view of the question, one would say that the labour displaced by machinery found employment in other occupations, directly or indirectly, due to the machinery itself. Provided the aggregate volume of commerce grows at a corresponding pace with the labour-saving power of new machinery, the classes dependent on the use of their labour have nothing in the long run to fear.

A machine is invented which will enable one man to make as many boots as four men made formerly, displacing the labour of three men. If the cheapening of boots thus brought about doubles the sale of boots, one of the three “displaced” men can find employment at the machine. If it takes the labour of one man to keep up the production of the new machinery, and another to assist in the distribution of the increased boot-supply, it will be evident that the aggregate of labour has not suffered. It is, however, clear that this exactly balanced effect by no means necessarily happens. The expansion of consumption of commodities produced by machinery is not necessarily such as to provide employment for the displaced labour in the same trade or its subsidiary trades. The result of the introduction of machinery may be a displacement of human by mechanical labour, so far as the entire trade is concerned. The bearing of this tendency is of great significance. Analysis of recent census returns shows that not only is agriculture rapidly declining in the amount of employment it affords, but that the same tendency occurs in the staple processes of manufacture: either there is an absolute decline in employment, as in the textile and dress trades, or the rate of increase is considerably slower than that of the occupied class as a whole, indicating a relative decline of importance. This tendency is greatest where machinery is most highly developed that is to say, machinery has kept out of these industries a number of workers who in the ordinary condition of affairs would have been required to assist in turning out the increased supply. The recent increase of population has been shut out of the staple industries. They are not therefore compelled to be idle. Employment for these has been found chiefly in satisfying new wants. But industries engaged in supplying new wants, i.e. new comforts or new luxuries, are obviously less steady than those engaged in supplying the prime necessaries of ordinary life.

Thus while it may be true that the ultimate effect of the introduction of machinery is not to diminish the demand for labour, it would seem to operate in driving a larger and larger proportion of labour to find employment in those industries which from their nature furnish a less steady employment. Again, though the demand for labour may in the long run always keep pace with the growth of machinery, it is obvious that the workers whose skill loses its value by the introduction of machinery must always be injured. The process of displacement in particular trades has been responsible for a large amount of actual hardship and suffering among the working-classes.

It is little comfort to the hand-worker, driven out to seek unskilled labour by the competition of new machinery, that the world will be a gainer in the long run. “The short run, if the expression may be used, is often quite long enough to make the difference between a happy and a miserable life." Philosophers may reckon this evil as a part of the inevitable price of progress, but it is none the less deplorable for that. Society as a whole gains largely by each step; a small number of those who can least afford to lose, are the only losers.

The following quotation from an address given at the Industrial Remuneration Congress in 1886, puts the case with admirable clearness “The citizens of England are too intelligent to contend against such cheapening of production, as they know the result has been beneficial to mankind; but many of them think it is a hardship and injustice which deserves more attention that those whose skilled labour is often superseded by machinery, should have to bear all the loss and poverty through their means to earn a living being taken away from them. If there is a real vested interest in existence which entitles to compensation in some form when it is interfered with, it is that of a skilled producer in his trade; for that skill has not only given him a living, but has added to the wealth and prosperity of the community." The quantity of labour displaced by machinery and seeking new employment, forms a large section of the margin of unemployed, and will form an important factor in the problem of poverty.

Se. Effect of Machinery upon the Character of Labour. Next, what is the general effect of machinery upon the character of the work done? The economic gain attending all division of labour is of course based on the improved quality and quantity of work obtained by confining each worker to a narrow range of activity. If no great inventions in machinery took place, we might therefore expect a constant narrowing of the activity of each worker, which would make his work constantly more simple, and more monotonous, and himself more and more dependent on the regular co-operation of an increasing number of other persons over whom he had no direct control. Without the growth of modern machinery, mere subdivision of labour would constantly make for the slavery and the intellectual degradation of labour. Independently of the mighty and ever-new applications of mechanical forces, this process of subdivision or specialization would take place, though at a slower pace. How far does machinery degrade, demoralize, dementalize the worker?

The constantly growing specialization of machinery is the most striking industrial phenomenon of modern times. Since the worker is more and more the attendant of machinery, does not this mean a corresponding specialization of the worker? It would seem so at first sight, yet if we look closer it becomes less obvious. So far as mere manual activity is concerned, it seems probable that the general effect of machinery has been both to narrow the range of that activity, and to take over that dexterity which consisted in the incessant repetition of a single uniform process. Very delicately specialized manipulation is precisely the work it pays best to do by machinery, so that, as Professor Marshall says, “machinery can make uniform actions more accurately and effectively than man can; and most of the work which was done by those who were specially skilful with the fingers a few generations ago, is now done by machinery." He illustrates from the wood and metal industries, where the process is constantly going on.

“The chief difficulty to be overcome is that of getting the machinery to hold the material firmly in exactly the position in which the machine-tool can be brought to bear on it in the right way, and without wasting meanwhile too much time in taking grip of it. But this can generally be contrived when it is worth while to spend some labour and expense on it; and then the whole operations can often be controlled by a worker, who, sitting before the machine, takes with the left hand a piece of wood or metal from a heap, and puts it in a socket, while with the right he draws down a lever, or in some other way sets the machine-tool at work, and finally with his left hand throws on to another heap the material which has been cut, or punched, or drilled, or planed exactly after a given pattern.”

Professor Marshall summarizes the tendency in the following words “We are thus led to a general rule, the action of which is more prominent in some branches of manufacture than others, but which applies to all. It is, that any manufacturing operation that can be reduced to uniformity, so that the same thing has to be done over and over again in the same way, is sure to be taken over sooner or later by machinery. There may be delays and difficulties; but if the work to be done by it is on a sufficient scale, money and inventive power will be spent without stint on the task till it is achieved. There still remains the responsibility for seeing that the machinery is in good order and working smoothly; but even this task is often made light of by the introduction of an automatic movement which brings the machine to a stop the instant anything goes wrong."

Since the economy of production constantly induces machinery to take over all work capable of being reduced to routine, it would seem to follow by a logical necessity that the work left for the human worker was that which was less capable of being subjected to close uniformity; that is work requiring discretion and intelligence to be applied to each separate action. Although the process described by Professor Marshall assigns a constantly diminishing proportion of each productive work to the effort of man, of that portion which remains for him to do a constantly increasing proportion will be work of judgment and specific calculation applied to particular cases. And this is the conclusion which Professor Marshall himself asserts

“Since machinery does not encroach much upon that manual work which requires judgment, while the management of machinery does require judgment, there is a much greater demand now than formerly for intelligence and resource. Those qualities which enable men to decide rightly and quickly in new and difficult cases, are the common property of the better class of workmen in almost every trade, and a person who has acquired them in one trade can easily transfer them to another.”

If this is true, it signifies that the formal specialization of the worker, which comes from his attendance on a more and more specialized piece of machinery, does not really narrow and degrade his industrial life, but supplies a certain education of the judgment and intelligence which has a general value that more than compensates the apparent specialization of manual functions. The very fact that the worker’s services are still required is a proof that his work is less automatic (i.e. more intelligent) than that of the most delicate machinery in use; and since the work which requires less intelligence is continually being taken over by machinery, the work which remains would seem to require a constantly higher average of intelligence. It is, of course, true that there are certain kinds of work which can never be done by machinery, because they require a little care and a little judgment, while that care and judgment is so slight as to supply no real food for thought, or education for the judgment. No doubt a good deal of the less responsible work connected with machinery is of this order. Moreover, there are certain other influences to be taken into account which affect the net resuit of the growth of machinery upon the condition of the workers. The physical and moral evils connected with the close confinement of large bodies of workers, especially in the case of young persons, within the narrow unwholesome limits of the factory or mill, though considerably mitigated by the operation of factory legislation, are still no light offset against the advantages which have been mentioned. The weakly, ill-formed bodies, the unhealthy lives lived by the factory-workers in our great manufacturing centres are facts which have an intimate connection with the growth of machinery. But though our agricultural population, in spite of their poverty and hard work, live longer and enjoy better physical health than our town-workers, there are few who would deny that the town-workers are both better educated and more intelligent. This intelligence must in a large measure be attributed to the influences of machinery, and of those social conditions which machinery has assisted to establish. This intelligence must be reckoned as an adequate offset against the formal specialization of machine-labour, and must be regarded as an emancipative influence, giving to its possessor a larger choice in the forms of employment. So far as a man’s labour-power consists in the mere knowledge how to tend a particular piece of machinery he may appear to be more “enslaved” with each specialization of machinery; but so far as his labour-power consists in the practice of discretion and intelligence, these are qualities which render him more free.

Moreover, as regards the specialization of machinery, there is one point to be noticed which modifies to some considerable extent the effects of subdivision upon labour. On the one hand, the tendency to split up the manufacture of a commodity into several distinct branches, often undertaken in different localities and with wholly different machinery, prevents the skilled worker in one branch from passing into another, and thus limits his practical freedom as an industrial worker. On the other hand, this has its compensating advantage in the tendency of different trades to adopt analogous kinds of machinery and similar processes. Thus, while a machinist engaged in a screw manufactory is so specialized that he cannot easily pass from one process to another process in the screw trade, he will find himself able to obtain employment in other hardware manufactures which employ the same or similar processes.

Se. Are all Men equal before the Machine? It is sometimes said that “all men become equal before the machine.” This is only true in the sense that there are certain large classes of machine-work which require in the worker such attention, care, endurance, and skill as are within the power of most persons possessed of ordinary capacities of mind and body. In such forms of machine-work it is sometimes possible for women and children to compete with men, and even to take their places by their ability to offer their work at a cheaper price. The effect of machinery development in thus throwing on the labour-market a large quantity of women and children competitors is one of those serious questions which will occupy our attention in a later chapter. It is here sufficient to remember that it was this effect which led to a general recognition of the fact that machinery and the factory system could not be trusted to an unfettered system of laissez faire. The Factory Acts, and the whole body of legislative enactments, interfering with “freedom of contract” between employer and employed, resulted from the fact that machinery enabled women and children to be employed in many branches of productive work from which their physical weakness precluded them before.

Se. Summary of Effects of Machinery on the Condition of the Poor. To sum up with any degree of precision the net advantages and disadvantages of the growth of machinery upon the working classes is impossible. If we look not merely at the growth of money incomes, but at the character of those products which have been most cheapened by the introduction of machinery, we shall incline to the opinion that the net gain in wealth-producing power due to machinery has not been equally shared by all classes in the community.

The capitalist classes, so far as they can be properly severed from the rest of the community, have gained most, as was inevitable in a change which increased the part played by capital in production. A short-timed monopoly of the abnormal profits of each new invention, and an enormous expansion of the field of investment for capital must be set against the gradual fall in the interest paid for the use of each piece of capital. But as the advantage of each new invention has by the competition of machinery-owners been passed on to the consumer, all other classes of the community have gained in proportion to their consumption of machinery-produced commodities. As machinery plays a smaller part in the production of necessaries of life than in the production of comforts and luxuries, it will be evident that each class gain as consumers in proportion to its income. The poorest classes, whose consumption of machine-productions is smallest, gain least. It cannot, however, be said, that there is any class of regular workers who, as consumers, have been injured by machinery. All have gained. The skilled workmen, the aristocracy of labour, have, as has been shown, gained very considerably. Even the poor classes of regular unskilled workmen have raised their standard of comfort.

It is in its bearing on the industrial condition of the very poor, and those who are unable to get regular work at decent wages, that the influence of machinery is most questionable. Violent trade fluctuations, and a continuous displacement of hand-labour by new mechanical inventions, keep in perpetual existence a large margin of unemployed or half-employed, who form the most hopeless and degraded section of the city poor, and furnish a body of reckless, starving competitors for work, who keep down the standard of wages and of life for the lower grades of regular workers affected by this competition.