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Title: The machinery question : conceptions of technical change in political economy during the Industrial Revolution c.1820 to 1840
Author: Berg, Maxine
ISNI:       0000 0001 2437 1015
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 1976
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The Machinery Question during the early Nineteenth Century was the question of the impact of technical progress on the total economy and society. The question was central to everyday relations between, master and workman, but it was also of major theoretical and ideological interest. The very technology at the basis of economy and society was a fundamental platform of challenge and struggle. In the early Nineteenth Century, it was political economy, the 'natural science' of economy and society which took up the theoretical debate on the introduction, diffusion, and social impact of the radically new techniques of production associated with the era. The machine question also came to infuse not only the theoretical realm of political economy, but also the wider culture and consciousness of the bourgeoisie and the working classes. The machine question reflected the close connections of the relations of production to the concerns and conflicts pervading theory, culture and politics. This thesis has analyzed only one part of this many sided issue. It has focused on the attempt of the middle classes to use the new science of political economy to depict technical progress as a natural and evolutionary phenomenon. However, the thesis also shows that the great variety of theoretical traditions in political economy, combined with significant theoretical and working class dissent with the so called doctrine of political economy prevented the unqualified success of this attempt. The depth of the controversy evoked over the machinery issue indicated the still marked uncertainty of the experience of industrialization. By the 1820's and 1830's the factory, urban agglomerations and the coal heaps of mining counties had transformed some parts of the industrial landscape. But the permanence of this change still seemed questionable. Such change was still confined to a very small number of regions, affected small sections of the population, and contributed minimally to national income. The experience of technical change was of great novelty and excitement for those who contemplated the prospects of wealth and power it might bring. On the other hand, for the first generation of factory labour and cast off artisans and domestic workers, it still seemed possible to stop the 'unnatural' progress of technology. Working men and women felt keenly the unprecedented demands for mobility, both geographical and occupational. For them the machine meant, or at least threatened, unemployment, an unemployment which at best was transitional between and within sectors of the economy, and at worst affected the economy as a whole at times of scarce capital. For them the machine was accompanied by a change in the pattern of skills, and involved all too often the introduction of cheap and unskilled labour. In the period before the 1840's, when labour's great onslaught was against the machine itself, the machine question also featured in middle class doctrine. The times were still uncertain enough to demand that the 'cult of improvement' take on the shape of a cultural offensive rather than mere complacency. Thus the 'cult of improvement' during this era sought its -reatest scientific context in political economy. Most of the secondary literature on this period depicts the views of the middle classes and especially of political economy as ones of great pessimism. This thesis shows, to the contrary, that optimism and great faith in the new industrial technology was fundamental to the vision of political economy and to that of its middle class adherents. Ricardo's work was an intellectual and doctrinal tour de force which gripped the whole period, but which, in addition, just as significantly generated a great array of criticism. Curiously, the great historical problem of Ricardo's work was the lack of understanding it met, and the serious distortion it suffered at the hands of his popularizers. The great range of Ricardo criticism in the decades after his death was based often on misconceptions of his work. His own Principles which exuded so much interest in and hope for technical progress generated a wealth of dissident literature which also focused on improvement, skill and technical change. Though the political economy of these years was very diverse, and policy debates were hotly conducted, there is no doubt that the self-defined profession of political economy accepted certain assumptions and outlooks. There were several themes and conceptions which shaped the overall nature of this critique of Ricardo. These themes allow for the demarcation of two epochs of political economy between the 1820's and the 1830's. Political economists of the 1820's placed great emphasis on labour productivity and the skills of the artisan in their attempt to contradict the so called Ricardic predictions of overpopulation and the stationary state. By the 1830's economists still found in 'improvement,' technical change, and increasing returns, the great empirical and theoretical rebuttal to the 'Ricardian' predictions. However, 'improvement' was now discussed as the evolution of capital, and even more crucial to this change was the tendency to see capital as a material embodiment, as fixed capital and machinery. This shift of concepts was accompanied by a new methodological thrust. The political economy of the 1830's reflected a polemically inductivist mood. Unprecedented energy was devoted to debates over abstraction and induction. The political economy which resulted was more empirical, comparative and historical. New interest was given over to visiting factory districts, drawing on government reports, and in using and participating in social surveys. Political economists devoted more time to comparing the course of economic development in Britain to that of other Western economies, that of primitive societies, and that of previous historical epochs. The conceptual shift in political economy over these years seems to parallel certain tendencies and changes in the economy itself. The political economy of the 1820's appears to reflect the concerns underlying the economic-phase defined by Marx as the phase of 'manufactures'. The shift that takes place in theory in the 1830's approximates to the shift in the economy to the phase of 'modern industry.' But the conceptual changes in political economy over the period are also very closely connected to class struggle. This shows in the very seriousness attached by political economists to the 1826 anti-machinery riots in Lancashire and to the 1830 agricultural riots. Discussion of these two disturbances infused the very heights of economic theory. The establishment of political economy reflected the alarm of the middle classes and provided the 'scientific' answers to the working man's critique of machinery. Moreover, in debate with their critics, they helped to generate a new theory of technical change based on the machine and on the evolution and security of capital and the capitalist. The overall effect of these riotc on the middle clashes was a celebration of the cult of technical improvement. The force of this 'scientific' optimism in political economy was given a deep cultural basis in middle class improvement societiesandmdash;the Mechanics Institute Movement of the 1820's and the scientific and statistical societies of the 1830's. These movements were attempts to involve both the working classes and the middle classes in a concerted energetic programme to promote technical advance. They also acted to forge new cultural connections between the provinces and the metropolis. A scientific movement which, in its rhetoric at least, focused on the practical, economic and technological connections of science, created a new nexus simultaneously economic and cultural between province and metropolis. This scientific culture was material and empirical.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Economics ; History ; Machinery in the workplace ; Technological innovations ; 19th century