History of Working Classes Research Paper

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1.    The Working Classes: Origins Of The Concept

The concept of the working class emerged in Western Europe  during the nineteenth  century. Originally, the term was used as a plural,  denoting  a heterogeneous conglomerate  of  social  groups  performing   various forms of wage labor. The working classes were considered  to  be a fraction  of a larger  ‘proletariat,’ that is, the estate of people without  property, beyond honor. The wage earners were only a part of this amorphous mass. According to the French  nobleman Granier  de Cassagnac  (1838, p.  30), the  proletariat formed   ‘the  lowest  rank,   the  deepest   stratum   of society,’ that  consisted  of four groups:  ‘the workers, the  beggars,  the  thieves  and  public  women’.  ‘The worker is a proletarian, because he works in order to live and earns a wage; the beggar is a proletarian, who does not  want  to work or cannot  work,  and  begs in order  to live; the thief is a proletarian, who does not want to work or beg, and, in order  to make a living, steals;  the  prostitute is  a  proletarian, who  neither wants to work, nor beg, nor steal, and, in order to live, sells  her  body.’  As  capitalist   relations   crystallized more and more, the desire arose among  the ‘respectable’ workers  to distinguish  themselves from the rest of the ‘proletariat.’

Over  the  course  of the  nineteenth  century,  social theorists and the emerging labor movements began to redefine these notions: (a) the working classes became homogenized as a singular working class; (b) this working class was identified with the proletariat; and (c) this proletariat / working  class was marked  off in three ways: from the petty bourgeoisie,  from the so-called lumpenproletariat (the criminal  and  unsteady ‘dangerous   classes’), and  from  the  unfree  workers (slaves and serfs). An early example of this development  was the Manifesto  of the Communist Party of 1848, which emphatically  distanced  the  proletariat working class on the one hand from the ‘lower middle class,  the  small  manufacturer, the  shopkeeper,   the artisan,  the peasant,’ and on the other hand from the ‘‘‘dangerous  class,’’ the  social  scum,  that  passively rotting  mass thrown  off by the  lowest layers of old society’ (Marx and Engels 1973, p. 77). A similar sharp distinction  was drawn between ‘free’ workers and the slaves in the South  of the United  States and in some colonies.

Moreover,  the notion of a working class was a gendered  abstraction, based  on the assumption that workers’ families exist mainly on the wages earned by the male head of the household and perhaps the additional income of other household members. From 1900 or so scholars of various theoretical  orientations seemed  to  have  reached  an  agreement  on  what  a worker  is. In  1926 the  German   social-christian  sociologist. Briefs summarized  this communis opinio as follows: ‘The worker is personally free, i.e., his physical and spiritual-moral powers are completely at his own disposal.   […] He  has  no  property,  i.e.,  he  has  no exclusive material power over capital as a secure basis with relative permanency. […] He has neither a stock of consumer goods that enable him to live, nor permanent interests  of capital.  […] He lives in economic circumstances in which means of subsistence can be obtained only through economic returns. […] He is forced to offer personal  capacities  with an economic exchange  value  in  return  for  means  of  subsistence (Briefs 1926, p. 149).

2.    Origins In The ‘Core Countries’

Detailed surveys of the living and working conditions of the working classes date from the first decades of the nineteenth  century. A relatively early example was the Tableau   de  l’etat  moral  et  physique  des  ouvriers employes dans les manufactures de coton, de laine, et de la soie, written  by Villerme (1840), a medical doctor with   a  great   interest   in  the   social  and   physical condition  of ‘the people’. Many  writings of this kind were  intended  partly  as  moral  and  political  indictments   of  social  abuses.   One  of  the  best   known instances  is Engels’s (1845) Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England [The Condition of the Working Class in England ], which gave a minute  description  of the working classes in English industry, mining, and agriculture.  During  the second half of the nineteenth century social surveys became a quite common genre, especially in industrializing Western Europe. Highlights include the many studies of Frederic Le Play and his school which covered all of Europe, beginning with Les   ouvriers  europeens  (1855);  Henry   Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851–61) with the significant subtitle ‘a cyclopaedia of the conditions and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that  will not work’; Charles Booth’s Life  and Labour of the People of London (1892–97); Alphons Thun’s detailed monograph Die Industrie am Niederrhein und ihre Arbeiter (1879) on the industrial and working classes in West Germany;  and numerous publications of the German  Verein fur Sozialpolitik (Social Policy Association), including Max Weber’s famous study of agricultural laborers  in East Prussia (1894).

All these works were mainly contemporaneous, though   they  have  by  now  themselves  become  important historical  sources. Truly historical  studies of working classes followed at the beginning of the twentieth   century.   A  pathbreaking  effort   was  the trilogy written by John Le Breton Hammond and his wife Barbara Bradby.  The  Village  Labourer,  1760– 1832 (1911), The Town Labourer, 1760–1832 (1917), and The Skilled Labourer, 1760–1832 (1919). Together these  studies  provide  a  rich  survey  of  the  British working  class  during  the  Industrial Revolution. In other  countries  similarly wide-ranging  works usually were published much later, generally after the Second World War.

3.    Classical Debates

The  study  of  the  working  classes  has  always  been central   to  social  and   labor   history.   But  different aspects have been studied and emphasized.

The concept  of the working class has been used in many   different   ways.   Somewhat   simplifying,   one might  distinguish  three  main  patterns   of  interpretation.  The structural approach uses the notion  of the working  class in a restrictive  sense as a term  merely characterizing the common socioeconomic location of a group  of wage earners.  The  historical  study  of a particular working class then boils down to the reconstruction of their joint ‘class position.’ How this class position is analyzed depends on theoretical assumptions (Marxist,  Weberian,  or  otherwise)  and on the various ways in which research is operationalized (models of social stratification).

A second approach focuses on agency and emphasizes culture,  mentalities,  consciousness,  and  social and organizational behavior. Numerous variations on this theme have developed over time. Perhaps the most influential approach was presented  by Edward  P. Thompson in his The Making  of the English Working Class (1963). Here, he argued that. ‘The notion of class entails the notion  of historical  relationship. Like any other   relationship,  it  has  a  fluency  which  evades analysis  if we attempt  to  stop  it dead  at  any  given moment and anatomize its structure.’ Class, according to Thompson is an outcome  of collective experience, and workers are active participants in their own class formation.

While the first approach has been criticized for its ‘objectivism’ and the second approach for its ‘cultural-ism,’ a third approach considers working-class formation as ‘an outcome  of temporal  conjuntures between multiple causal structures’ (Sewell 1990, p. 73). In this view, class formation results  from  a combination of economic and technological  changes on the one hand and of cultural, political, and discursive developments on the other hand.

The  debate  on  working-class  formation is paralleled by an extensive debate  on working-class  devolution:  Does  it still make  sense to  speak  of working classes in advanced capitalist countries? Or have these classes dissolved? And if there has been a process of devolution, how  and  when  did  it  start?  Naturally, everything depends again on one’s conceptualization of  the  working  class.  What   does  one  consider  as decisive:  structural  issues  (free  wage  labor,   etc.), collective  behavior   (e.g.,  trade   unions,   strikes),  or cultural  features? Whichever  position  one takes,  it is evident that the condition of wage earners in advanced societies has changed profoundly during the twentieth century. Research has not given equal attention to all these developments.  Especially the cultural shifts after the Second World War remain underexplored.

Most  early contributions to working-class  history focused   on   work,   industrial   relations,   and   labor markets.  At  a  later  stage  the  field  of  research  was expanded   and  historians   began  to  pay  serious  attention  to  other  aspects  of  working-class  existence, including  labor  processes,  family  life,  religion,  etc. Over the course of time the first approach has become more   sophisticated  and   the  second  approach  has gained influence. The historiography of the workers as a class is now increasingly  merged  with the  historiography  of race, ethnicity,  and gender. While earlier historians considered race and gender as mere adjuncts of class, it is now generally  becoming  ace ed  that class, race, and  gender are thoroughly interpenetrating, and that they shape each other. As a result of these developments,    working-class    history    increasingly overlaps into women’s studies, ethnic studies, anthropology,  institutional economics,  sociology,  or  social psychology.

Now that there exists a huge and still growing body of  literature   on  the  various   historical   aspects   of working-class   existence  first  attempts are  made  to integrate  the  history  of various  aspects  of working-class life and  to write comprehensive  syntheses. The most spectacular  example of such an endeavour  is the ongoing project on the ‘History of the Workers and the Labor  Movement  in  Germany  since the  End  of  the Eighteenth   Century,’  co-ordinated  by  Gerhard  A. Ritter  (see Kocka  1990, 1991, Ritter  and  Tenfelde1992, Schneider 1999, Winkler 1984, 1985, 1987).

4.    The Rise Of The ‘Periphery’

The growth  of working  classes outside  the advanced capitalist  countries  has,  especially since the  Second World   War,   caused   an   increased   interest   in  the working  classes of Africa, Asia, and  Latin  America. From a contemporary point of view this field was first explored by anthropologists and students of industrial relations, who were interested in the problems accompanying  the integration of rural migrants into the emerging  wage-earning   economies.  Early  examples were A. L. Epstein’s ethnographic Politics in an Urban African   Community   (1958),  on   copper   miners   in Northern Rhodesia, and  industrial  relations  studies driven by the question how processes of social change could be controlled  and how the ‘commitment’ of the workers could be intensified (e.g., Moore and Feldman 1960; see also Breman 1999).

Simultaneously, historiographical studies emerged; initially these were often based on official sources and looked at the workers  through the eyes of employers and  authorities. Such was for instance  the case in J. Norman Parmer’s thorough Colonial Labor Policy and Administration  (1960) on  the  rubber  plantation  industry  in Malaya  during  the last decades  before  the Second  World  War.  Since the  1960s and  1970s the historiography of the ‘peripheral’ working classes has changed  too.  First  there  was an upsurge  of classical labor  movement  history.  Many  of  the  major  early studies  of  this  genre  were  written  by  radical  intellectuals, like Jean Chesneaux’s Le mouvement ouvrier en Chine de 1919 a 1927 (1962) or Guillermo  Lora’s Historia  del movimiento obrero Boliviana (1967–70). Second,   gradually   the  perspective   broadened and everyday  life, mentalities,  etc. of working  classes received more attention, just as had been the case in the historiography of the high-income countries. Early at- tempts  in this direction  were still heavily influenced by Western models of historical development.  Morris D.  Morris’s  The  Emergence  of  an Industrial  Labor Force in India: A Study  of the Bombay Cotton  Mills, 1854–1947  (1965)  is  a  major   example  of  this  approach, despite its rich empirical basis. Later attempts often  tried  to  develop  a less Eurocentric approach. Pathbreaking works  include  Charles  van  Onselen’s Chibaro (1976) on mine labor in Southern Rhodesia or Ranajit  Das  Gupta’s  Labour  and Working  Class in Eastern India (1994) on plantation workers,  miners, and textile workers in Assam, Bengal, and elsewhere. These new developments have been covered by a series of consecutive  collections  of essays (Sandbrook and Cohen  1975, Gutkind et al. 1978, Cohen  et al. 1979, Munslow and Finch 1984, Agier et al. 1987, Amin and Van der Linden 1996). While the traditional historiography of the high-income countries focused primarily   on  artisanal and  factory  labor,  the  new working-class  historiography of the peripheral  countries reflected the peculiarities of colonial exploitation and unavoidably paid much attention to the labor  in agriculture  (including  plantations), mining,  and  the transport sector (docks, railways).

5.    Global Insights

The rise of working-class  history  in low-income  and medium-income  countries  has  made  necessary  a rethinking  of old concepts.  First,  in the periphery,  the larger  part  of  the  wage  earners  is not  ‘free’ in  an economic  sense. According  to  the  classic definition, wage earners,  as ‘free persons’  are  free in a double sense because they alone market  their own labor as a commodity  and have no other commodity  for sale. A ‘free’ worker  is, strictly  speaking,  someone  without obligations  to any particular employer. He or she can cancel employment  at will and  apply  for a job with another  employer.  In  reality,  however,  such  a completely uncommitted relationship with the boss is rare, occurring  for example,  among  some forms of casual labor.  Many  workers  are tied to their  employer,  for example  through debts  or  nonmaterial obligations. There can also be all sorts  of cultural  or geographic reasons why it is difficult to change employers. Somewhat  better-placed personnel  can  be tied  to  a firm through superannuation provisions.  Frequently, the  accommodation of workers  is part  of the  labor contract, etc. In short: what formally seems like a free labor  relation  is in practice  often  much  less free. A ‘free’ worker,  moreover,  does not  possess his or her own means of production at all. But in reality there are many types of labor  relations  in which the employee contributes at least part  of the means of production himself. One thinks here of factory workers who own (part  of ) their  own tools,  but  one can also think  of agrarian  share-cropping arrangements. Still clearer is the case of self-employed workers,  who formally  are wholly independent, but who in fact often form a very flexible  labor   force  for  enterprises.   We  can   also mention  here the case of home workers.

Second, there is wage labor  integrated  throughout in households and families whose survival always remains partly dependent on other activities. Not only does a great deal of subsistence labor take place every day  in  every family  (especially,  but  not  exclusively performed   by  women),  but  there  are  usually  also several forms  of activities remunerated with money. Already   in   the   early   1970s  Allen   observed,   for example:  ‘Cash  crops   and   wage  employment   are simply alternative methods of coping with the encroachment of capitalism  on  the  traditional way of life. A  fall  in  the  demand  for  labour  increases  the emphasis on subsistence or cash-crop production, whereas  a  drought or  a  bad  harvest,  for  instance, forces  Africans  to  enter  the  labour   market   (Allen 1972, p. 181). Within these arrangements with multiple coping  methods  the ‘roles’ different  family members have  are  often  not  fixed  permanently, but  instead signify a transient social relationship, which can  be replaced rather  quickly by other sources of income.

Third,  the  new working  class does  not  mainly  or exclusively exist in the industrial  sector. The agricultural  sphere  is proportionally more  important in this sphere  rapidly  advancing  proletarianization has created  a large stratum  of agricultural laborers  and share tenants.

Fourth, in the so-called Third World and even in the Eastand Southeast Asian newly industrializing countries,  permanent employment  relationships have always   been  the   exception   rather   than   the   rule. Insecure employment  relationships, underemployment,  and  long-term  unemployment are  the  reality there.

6.    Implications For Future Research

The new insights  offered  by Third  World  historians have implications  for the advanced  countries  as well. First,  the  dividing  line  between  wage  labor  and small  entrepreneurship is much  more  obscure  than was originally thought. In both the ‘Third’ and ‘First’ worlds   there   are   gray   zones  of  (ostensible)   self-employment,  in which individuals  formally  work  on their own but in reality are dependent  on one or two customers.   This  type  of  self-employment   has  been widespread  in peripheral  capitalism  for decades, but lately, it has been increasing rapidly  in the centers as well, such as in the construction business. Generally, there  seems to  be a  historical  connection  in highly developed  capitalism  between  phases  of  rising  unemployment,  on the one hand,  and stagnation or the growth of ‘small-scale’ self-employment,  on the other.

Second, the border  between wage laborers  and the marginal  groups  is not  nearly  as  obvious  as  older theories would have us believe. In times of desperation, regularly  employed wage earners  may indeed exhibit behavior characteristic of the Lumpenproletariat, such as begging and prostitution, as a way to survive. They will  also  steal  at  the  workplace,   which  represents thoroughly criminal behavior from the entrepreneurial viewpoint. Yet, the experience in the Third World has drawn our attention to a lower social class that can be characterized neither as the industrial  reserve army in a Marxist  sense nor as the classic Lumpenproletariat. Inevitably  we need to come up with a new concept to apply  to  insecure  employment  relationships in  this respect.

Third, the concept of the ‘free’ laborer is less precise than  is usually  assumed.  Fourth and  last,  the  strict differentiation commonly made in advanced countries between urban and rural life must be revised. Contrary to what modernization theories like to tell us, the ties of urban  migrants  to their home villages often do not weaken  but  strengthen   over  time.  Most  likely,  the reason for this is the lack of social insurance  systems. Therefore, the villages become safety nets during times of economic  crisis. Recently,  though,  many  villages have not been able to fulfill this task, since the rise of a commodity  economy has drained  their capacity for subsistence.

What  it means to be classified as ‘working class’ is changing;  the category  is becoming  especially multifarious.  We could  even flip our  intellectual  problem and  ask  why  a  ‘full-time  proletarian’ in  capitalism should have existed or can now even exist at all. From the entrepreneurial standpoint, part-time  proletarians are cheaper by far. Part-time proletarians (who belong to  a household  in which  there  are  other  sources  of income,  e.g.,  from  agricultural work  or  from  self-employment) lower the bottommost, barely acceptable wage threshold  because they have other forms of real income (Wallerstein 1983).


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