Friday, May 27, 2016

Condition of the Working Class in England (by Engels)

There does not seem to be any doubt but that we are social beings. The doubt arises when you ask whether there is any sense talking about it. Some don't want to, but whether you want to talk about it or not, it remains there. The fact of human sociality remains, and we are always going to be social beings, and that entails helping, cooperating, and so forth, for we can only live where others accommodate us. You can think of this as giving way, interaction. There always has to be some giving way, some interaction.

     Let's say, then, that I am out in Arizona, and I also have a neighbor. He may be a few miles away but eventually I am going to have to decide whether or not to be social towards him: “social” means anything short of a state of war. Or, sometimes it can be a state of war!

     If some persons do not want to talk about it, fine, but I say that they are social: Everybody is. I am social; so are you, however some do not want to have that discussion.

     The matter is settled. Now, if we are social beings and we like to get along with each other it appears that nevertheless at one time capitalism (as described by Engels and also Marx, in the 1840s or 50s) was not very socially accommodating. It wasn’t very social—at least not to workers whom Engels studied. He gives copious references to the condition of “The Working Class in England,” which is a workman-like title for Engels' 1844 book, originally in German. The book is truly without mercy. However, we know now that Engels' analysis of capitalism as strictly anti-social was wrong; capitalism survived. And thus it is my contention, that it must have done so due to the fact that this social aspect of human life was injected into capitalism. Somehow, it eventually entered in, or else it was already there, dormant.

     Still, discussions since the time of marx and Engels (marx shall be henceforth lowercase, as it is the only way to avoid deifying him) are always about how dehumanizing capitalism is. This is something we need to get over.

     Engels says: “the bourgeois certainly needs workers...but as we need an article of trade or a beast of burden...” In the engaging passage that follows (page 114, Penguin Classics), the bourgeoise always gets the better end of it. He “takes very good care” not to treat workers well. In the long run this analysis is not well-supported and incorrect.

     Even in 1844, Engels admits, “it has become very complicated” (p114). Over time something happens that was outside of his model. Engels did not suspect that persons could get nicer. Or probably I should say that human decency gets injected into capitalism. But this is not accounted for in the 1844 report. When Engels speaks of “the centralizing tendency of competition”, on page 117, and of a process that “transfers the goods that cannot be disposed of in one market to other markets”, let us note that it has the potential of social interactions. Possible interactions of this kind are so various, and multiply so much, that over time, another eventuality comes due, the utility of better social behavior. This may come into play as much as any other thing. But perhaps the puritanical German, of Rhineish orientation and under Prussian domination, did not see this one coming.

     At the beginning of what K. Polyani calls “market society,” which is to say the latter half of the eighteenth century, the whole situation naturally seemed chaotic. Thus there was little opportunity to put any social benevolence into the situation. It appeared that workers would be thrown to the dogs, as perhaps they were for one hundred years. This is rather dismal news about capitalism, indeed. Nevertheless, a humanizing trend eventually took hold—even in dismal England where the human cesspools of Manchester were located that were described with such detail and proficiency in the opening chapter of the able Engels volume. That situation could not go on much longer—now, this is correctly perceived by the author (and his friend Marx), but the trend, instead of revolution, was more of an evolutionary process. It was, eventually, humanizing. Humans have an inherent need to be social, and also sociable, as were the good bourgeois Engels and family, Marx and family.

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