1688. Labor and transition

We think of the move from agriculture to industry as just walking down the street and getting new job. Started reading Fraser’s the Age of Aquiesence. It goes like this:


Globalized capitalist agriculture also wiped out or imperiled peasant proprietors and other small producers in Sicily and southern Italy and all across the Balkans, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Poland, and Scandinavia. As miraculous as the rapidity and scope of American industrialization (and as enmeshed in its triumph) was the overnight uprooting of millions of people from their ancestral villages and from traditional ways of life that could no longer be sustained. If local populations managed to hang on, they did so only by a process of social amputation, exporting their young (and not so young) men, and eventually whole kin networks, to work in the New World, there to remit back what they could to those left behind. A century before industrial ghost towns haunted the American Midwest, ghost villages made their spectral appearances across the underbelly of Europe.

Nearly seven million migrated to America from Europe between 1881 and 1894, increasing numbers of them from the continent’s rural hinterland. In 1907 five thousand immigrants arrived at Ellis Island each day. By 1910, immigrant working-class women from the old country constituted the core of the workforce in textiles and garment manufacturing, and in mechanical laundries and domestic service. Human chains of sojourning labor migrated back and forth across the Atlantic in rhythm with the business cycle, returning home when the economy went south. Once in the United States they joined their efforts with home-grown superannuated farmers along with native handicraftsmen displaced by the machine and the factory’s exquisitely refined division and specialization of labor. These legions of displaced immigrants became charter members of an American proletariat. By 1870 the foreign-born accounted for one-third of the industrial workforce; soon enough in some cities, like Chicago, they would constitute the majority.

Expatriated peasants were not the only river flowing into the sea of wage labor. Mass-production, factory-based, machine-driven industry grew robust at the expense of home-grown handicraft economies and the knowledge, skills, and traditions embedded in those ways of life. They weakened, were debased in a futile effort to compete with the factory, and then vanished. Craftsmen—woodworkers and printers, barrel makers and bakers, butchers and iron molders, tailors and shoemakers, glassblowers and brass workers, masons and smithies, weavers and bookbinders—were swept up into the process of industrial capital accumulation. Once they had been small-shop proprietors in their own right. Or, even after losing that independence, they had clustered together inside factory gates as groups of invaluable industrial craftsmen, enjoying a functional quasi-independence thanks to their secret knowledge, experience, and self-directed control of what went on in their specialized precincts; iron puddlers, rollers, boilers, and heaters, for example, for a time exercised decisive control over production in the iron and steel mills; skilled butchers did the same in the new meatpacking plants of Chicago.

Soon enough, however, these industrial artisans became “nothing more than parts of the machinery that they work.” Capital accumulated at the expense of their social existence; they took up new lives, became part of that larger waged labor force which modern capitalism produces and depends on—its chief commodity and natural resource. Indeed, the stupendous rate of mechanization in America was in part driven by the need to reduce the high costs associated with those forms of handicraft, skilled, and highly valued labor that for a while continued on into the factory age. They not only were expensive but, given their leverage over vital aspects of the manufacturing process, slowed the pace of production on the shop floor. New machines promised to wipe out those remnants that resisted. After a while the machines, aided by the efforts of determined managements, won.

Excerpt From: Fraser, Steve. “The Age of Acquiescence.” Little, Brown and Company, 2015-02-17. iBooks.

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