Johann Georg Eccarius

The Well-being of the Working Classes

September 1851

Notes to the People. No. 22, 27 September 1851

During the last two years the eulogisers and apologists of the present system have been incessantly revelling on account of the success of our recently adopted commercial policy. Every new return of the revenue, of imports and exports, etc., was an improvement compared with the preceding one—a new sign of prosperity and increasing wealth. The recorders of profitmongering called triumphantly upon reactionary and revolutionary antagonists to behold the figures, and with an air of glorious self-satisfaction, they told the world that the rule of capital, free competition, and private enterprise, as at present existing, was the only true road to happiness.

During the same period, the contributors to the bourgeois press have taken especial care to intermix their cheerful reports with more or less detailed accounts of the working-man's happy condition, his lot has been painted with the most beautiful colours, and his well-being has given universal satisfaction to the defenders of the existing state of things.

Why is it that our oppressors have paid so much attention to this theme? Is it because of the love they bear to the wages-slave, as a human being and a fellow-creature? No! It is because they are sure of their prey as long as the working-man has a bone to pick and a crust to knaw.

Save the agents and instruments of sport and prostitution, the capitalist employs nobody, and pays no wages, unless he can make a profit out of it, and add to his wealth. Is it, therefore, wonderful that the wages-slave, the creator of commodities, should be a little more at ease in a period of unexampled prosperity, than in times of stagnation? But, it is asserted, in the face of numerous exposures of misery, wretchedness, and oppression, that the working classes are really well off—better than at any former period. To demonstrate this blessed state of felicity, the political economists have recourse to the returns of pauperism, the cheapness of food, etc., but they take good care never to mention the actual amount of wages received by the workman.

It is a fact, generally understood, that the wants of man—aye! and of the working-man too, vary with the degree of civilisation under which he exists. The standard of well-being is therefore relative. Well-being, in a civilised state of society, does not consist in the actual amount of commodities which an individual does consume, and command: it consists in the relative amount, that is—how far he partakes of the annual produce of the land and labour of his country, in the proportion of his share to the gross revenue of the society of which he is a member. The upholders of the present system ignore this, and take a positive standard. Anything above starvation level to the sons of toil they consider well-being. A working-man's condition may, according to their doctrine, be positively better than at any former period; while, at the same time, his relative position is worse than ever—so that he is really cheated.

Suppose that a certain nation, at a particular period, produces by its annual labour a gross revenue of £400,000,000. That, under this state of things, the amount of wages paid to the workmen of all descriptions, from the government clerk down to the street-sweeper, would average £50 each, and that this sum would enable the working man to live, and propagate his race, and make him contented with his lot.

Suppose, now, that during a space of fifty years the population had doubled, the money-value of the gross annual produce had also doubled, but that it had quadrupled in quantity, so that the working man could now purchase as much for £50 as formerly for £100. If his money wages had continued the same, his condition would be improved one hundred per cent; his command over the necessaries and luxuries of life would be doubled; his relative position would be the same.

Let us now suppose that during this period the invention and improvement of machinery had been rapidly progressing; that the consequent diminution of manual labour had reduced its nominal price twenty-five per cent., and that the loss of time occasioned by slack time and a super-abundance of hands, had caused another decrease of fifteen per cent. per annum, we should find the working-man with £30 a-year at the expiration of this period.

Taking the amount of commodities purchased for £50 at the beginning of this period, to be equal to £100, the purchases made with £30, at the expiration would be equal to £120. Joseph Hume would call this an increase of real wages of twenty per cent. Yet, despite the positive increase of twenty per cent, the working man's relative income would be diminished forty per cent., since his share ought to be equal to £200, to obtain his former proportion.

Thus, within the space of fifty years, the real income of the working-class, their command of social products, would have increased twenty per cent., while that of the capitalists would not only have increased one hundred per cent., on account of the progress in production, but they would have received an additional augmentation correspondent with the diminution of the relative income of the working class.

Such is our actual position in the blessed year of prosperity, 1851.

The contrast between labour and capital is hourly widening; the relation between the poor and the rich becomes daily more antagonistic; the more production is facilitated and augmented, the faster wealth is accumulated—the lower sink the working classes in the social scale.

But this is not all. Fifty years ago, the notions of what constitutes human life were very different from those of the present day. With the general progress of art and science, our views have expanded; with the increase of production, our wants have multiplied. We create manifold luxuries and comforts of life—they are continually exposed to our view—we are haunted in the streets with tickets and advertisements announcing places of amusement, and sales of articles of which we are in want. The trading capitalists themselves are the instigators of all this; every scheme that can be devised to draw a penny out of our pockets is eagerly seized upon; yet, when we complain of receiving too little for our toil, the whole chorus turns round and charges us with sensuality and extravagance. They have forced us to become politicians, to help them to fight out their quarrels with the aristocracy; and, having now become politicians for our own class-interest, they call us bloodthirsty ruffians, incendiaries, and anarchists. For profit's sake they have caused newspapers, periodicals, books, and pamphlets to be manufactured for us to read, and having arrived at conclusions unfavourable to their class interests, they accuse us of being visionary schemers. In the midst of civilization, surrounded by wealth and luxuries, with increased wants and knowledge, they imagine that we ought to be contented with the commonest necessaries of life, sleep, and hard-work, like our predecessors. Not to mention the idea which widely pervades the working classes, as to whether any individual ought to be permitted to exercise any private control whatever over the produce of other men's labour, our wants, in the present subordinate position, have increased fully one hundred per cent, during the last half century, while our means to satisfy them have only increased twenty per cent.

Moreover this is only the condition of the more favourably situated among the working-men. There are hundreds of thousands of good workmen, sober, and willing to work, who, for want of employment, are often without the most indispensable necessaries of physical life, even in the present time of prosperity and cheap food.

But even this is not all. As long as a working man is capable of keeping a lodging and a few sticks, though he may have bad work, or sometimes none at all—though he and his family should frequently be obliged to go without their proper meals, yet he is still considered as a member of society—he exists in the world of the living-he can communicate and mix with his fellow working men—and may occasionally enjoy an hour of happiness. Though his condition is a degraded one, he can sink still lower in the social scale—he can lose all, his precarious little comfort, his last vestige of independence—he can become a pauper, and be excluded from all family and social intercourse—with one word he can be shut up in the bastile of degradation.

Grievous and hard as it is for men who have wasted all their labour power, their strength, and energy of youth and manhood, to end their lives in the workhouse—yet it is infinitely harder and more grievous for adult able-bodied men to be excluded even from that little which is granted to the working man, and in the prime of life linger away in the workhouse virtually imprisoned.

As the exports of British and Irish produce and manufacture are generally taken as the thermometer for ascertaining the temperature of British commerce and manufacture, it is obvious that our foreign trade greatly influences trade in general, and consequently rules, to a certain extent, the demand for, and the price of, labour. Hence the fate of the British operative depends on the power and inclination of the Chinese, Americans, Germans, etc., to purchase our manufactures, and crime and pauperism increase and diminish in proportion as exports rise or fall.

The man who commits crime from want of food, and the pauper who goes to the workhouse to obtain relief, belong virtually to the same category of working-men; the only difference between the two is, that the former will not give himself up to imprisonment until he is overpowered by the arms of the law and police, while the latter submits quietly, and steps into the bastile. Both are driven into their respective confinement by the rule of capital. But, as it is not our intention to treat of criminals here, we shall content ourselves with the latter category of our unfortunate fellow-beings.

The number of adult able-bodied human beings doomed to subsist by parish support was, in—

590 unions, Jan. 1, 1849 - - 201,644.

606 unions, Jan. 1, 1850 - - 181,159.

------------         1851 - - 154,525.

The exports of British and Irish produce and manufacture during the same period amounted to £48,946,395 in 1848, £58,910,883 in 1849, and £65,756,032 in 1850. Thus, an increase of exports of £9,964,488 redeemed above 20,000 persons from pauperism in 1849, and a further increase of exports of £6,845,149 redeemed 26,634 persons in 1850.

These results have given complete satisfaction to the capitalists. They have put forth these figures as if the occasional decrease of pauperism was something heretofore unknown; yet the same thing has occurred over and over again. For years past the history of trade and commerce has been a continual rising and falling; the periodic recurrence of commercial crises has been as regular as the rising and setting of the sun. Will they tell us that pauperism must vanish because of free-trade? Look at the figures: to redeem the total number of adult able-bodied paupers would, under the present system, require an additional increase of our foreign trade of £50,000,000 annually. Will either our free-trade policy or the promised parliamentary and financial reform, enable our foreign customers to buy nearly twice as much of our goods as they do now? No!

Already, in spite of a deficient cotton crop and high priced raw material, the markets abroad are glutted with the finer descriptions of our cotton goods; and raw cotton having now become cheap, on account of an abundant harvest, our manufacturers are busily at work to over-stock the markets with heavy goods also. Besides, there is a general dullness in almost all branches of trade; and while the imports of raw material and colonial produce are heavy, the demand and prices decline. This and the late failures show that we have already arrived at the eve of another crisis, when pauperism again will increase until, after much ruin and misery, the next tide of prosperity sets in.

Thus we see there is no hope for those who linger away in the bastile, of being finally released under the existing system. Even in times of unexampled prosperity a considerable number of able-bodied men must be kept in unwilling idleness—and why? Is it because the people are too well housed, too well clad, and too well fed? or is it because there is no waste land that could be cultivated—no raw material to work with, etc.? No! it is because the drones of society have all they want, and to employ more productive labour might interfere with the profits of the capitalists.

There is no getting out of the dilemma without a complete change of system. Even if our home, as well as foreign, trade could be increased sufficiently to employ all hands at remunerative wages, the invention and improvement of machinery would soon restore the old conditions. Scarcely has famine and emigration reduced the hosts of Irish labourers, who used to migrate through the length and breadth of this country during the hay and harvest seasons, taking work almost at any price, and, therefore, keeping down wages,—ere reaping-machines came in from different quarters, and, at once, not only blight the hopes of the agricultural labourers to raise their wages, but even threaten to deprive them altogether of the little extra payment which they hitherto received in the harvest season.

On the other hand the reaping machine, together with other inventions and improvements, will relieve the farmers more and more from the necessity of employing an extraordinary number of hands during the summer months, which it has been their interest to keep (though it should be in the workhouse) in the rural districts. The services of these hands having become entirely useless, they will be driven to factory towns, still more to increase the surplus of the labour-seeking population, which again must tend to reduce wages.

Another fact, which demonstrates the precarious position of the working classes, is, that, even in times of unexampled prosperity, when the demand for labour has reached its maximum, the rate of wages cannot be maintained. There is scarcely any one branch of trade in which the capitalists have not attempted, and, alas! too frequently successfully, to reduce wages within the last two years. Such having been the case when trade was flourishing, what will it be under less favourable circumstances?

Such, then, is the social position of the modern wages-slaves; such the highly-praised condition which the apologists of the present system have the audacity to denominate the real wel-being of the working classes. If we could be induced to believe them, when perusing their pages, the pinching of the stomach, our attire, our lodgings, etc., would very soon remind us that we were grossly belied. If social progress, improvement of condition, and the well-being of the working classes, mean, that the more fortunate of working men shall advance one step to every hundred advanced by the capitalists, and the less fortunate toilers be trampled in the dust—if it mean that the producers of all wealth have no claim to participate in the enjoyment of the comforts and luxuries they create,—if it mean annihilation to some, hard work and privation to all,—then our antagonists are perfectly right. But the working man has different notions of well-being: the ages of spiritual delusion are past—we live in an age of materialism; the poor do not now rejoice in the splendour of their rich oppressors, as in times gone by; nor do they believe the superiority of the ruling classes to be of divine origin, or their own misery ordained by a supernatural power— and nothing short of a full share of the fruits of labour will satisfy their claims in the long run.