Tuesday, October 6, 2009

dreaming, again

In the past two weeks, my class has covered what I find to be some of the most fundamental questions facing students of American history and the history of capitalism. However, I have doubts about whether I conveyed my extreme enthusiasm in class. Partly, this is because the issues are so complex that it's hard to go to the front of the class every other day and show them anything representing a coherent answer. I'm somewhat confused myself, and the hardest thing to do as a teacher is pretend like you know something really well when you are still searching for the answer yourself.

For example, today we read the beginning chapters of Kessler-Harris' Out to Work. Sure, the book is about the gendered aspects of work but it is just as much about workers coming to grips with the new social relations that came to dominate the economy by 1860. For example, on pg. 21 she asks, "Could a largely agrarian population unused to laboring for masters be persuaded not merely to sell their labor, but to sell it in confined quarters and under conditions that could remove them from their agrarian roots?" Honestly, this is one of the most striking sentences I've read in any work of economic history. It goes to the core of what the changing social economic system truly meant for these workers. I think it is the mark of a great historian (social, political, economic or other) to ask a question about the psyche of the people he or she is studying. Indeed, this is one of the questions that motivated me to focus on this time period in American history. I really want to understand on a fundamental level how factory work became such an integral part of American society and how people responded to it.

This is related to what I believe is the other central question of this time period which we have studied in class: given that work is a social relationship between parties, these relationships have a legal expression in the form of contracts. In fact, this is one of the most important expressions of the work relationship because contracts specify an exchange of property rights (labor power for a wage), and people are instinctually very attached to their property and the rules governing the use and distribution of that property. Here is the second question: How did the law deal with the changing nature of contracts which reflected the rise of factory work?

Of course, the two questions are intricately related. At the same time that you see the rise of a will theory of contract, you see the rise of proletarianization. Both are rooted in individualism, the market economy, liberalism. But the roots are more complex than what this simple picture may imply. Simultaneously with the rise of the factory worker, societies consciously grasped onto the home as a point of stability. How are we to fit this into our narrative, especially if the institutions of democratic capitalism are so entrenched by 1860?

Actually, how "entrenched" were they? Shaun, a friend of mine and a commentor on a few previous posts of mine on this subject questions whether we should think about capitalism in a utilitarian framework -- as an efficient economic system representing the interests of the majority. Can power explain the rise of capitalism in the U.S.? Does individualism contain any grain of truth in the story?

Such difficult questions indeed. I fully appreciate what my friend Zhun told me back in May when I was searching for a unifying theme for my American history syllabus: find that, and you have yourself a dissertation.


  1. Dan,
    Just a clarification: what makes you argue that the rise of proletarianization is rooted in individualism? It seems to me that on the contrary proletarianization is precisely the demonstration of the opposite phenomenon: namely, that the quick development of industrial capitalism rejects prior individual differences and, by placing rapid masses of individuals in the factory, accelerates the processes of social division of labor.

  2. Harry,

    Thanks for your comment. Proletarianization has many dimensions, one of which is the creation of a "free" labor force. I mean "free" in the sense that you have short contracts that allows capital to hire and fire without any legal constraints. It also means, in a sense, giving workers the option of exit to look for a better job somewhere else. It's the opposite of a feudal organization of work, where the tenants are bound to the land, or slavery, where the people are bound to their owner. I guess this is what I meant when I wrote that there are strains of individualism in proletarianization. But really, that is a capitalist/neoclassical way of speaking about the work relationship instead of trying to understand the workers in the larger economic system.

    So, I went too far in saying proletarianization is rooted in individualism. But I do definitely like that the legal understanding of the proletarian, in terms of the perceptions of the dominant class, is one of individualistic relationships between worker and boss.

    So certainly I agree with your point that the creation of the proletariat is part of a larger process in the economy whereby a class is created for capital accumulation through power struggles among those who own the means of production and those who must work for their subsistence. Thanks for the clarification!

  3. EDIT

    So, I went too far in saying proletarianization is rooted in individualism. But I do definitely THINK that the legal understanding of the proletarian, in terms of the perceptions of the dominant class, is one of individualistic relationships between worker and boss.