"A Court for King Cholera"

“A Court for King Cholera”

It is impossible to overestimate the consequences of the Industrial Revolution. More people could work outside agriculture, in factories. Their productivity was extremely high, which made the cost price of industrial products fall sharply; and the old (non-mechanized) industries could thus no longer compete. Manufacturers switched to cotton because it was difficult to mechanize the production of wool, and cotton could be imported in bulk by steamship from the colonies and the southern United States. There, slavery, which had become almost extinct, was re-introduced. It happened that there was a great demand for textiles at the end of the eighteenth century, because hundreds of thousands of Britons had to be fitted out with uniforms for service as soldiers or sailors in the wars against Napoleon. When he was defeated at Waterloo, the textile barons switched to other types of garments. Everywhere cheap English cotton pushed the traditional textiles out of the market. In relation to the preceding periods, world trade intensified, creating a real global market.

Alas, British workers saw none of the benefits of this, as the falling prices became an argument for the employers to lower wages to below subsistence level. Diet became poorer: some families now had nothing more than potatoes to eat and only the odd person could afford horsemeat. Pork, mutton, or beef were absolutely out of the question. If a family wanted to get some money to buy even the cheapest foodstuffs, the mother had to do soul-destroying work at the loom and the children had to push trolleys in the mines. To extend the working day, the industrialists had workmen’s cottages built at a stone’s throw from the factory, so that no time was lost on travel to the workplace. Needless to say, the productivity which was won in this way was cancelled out by absenteeism due to illness: contagious diseases, such as tuberculosis, spread like wildfire. And in those days, no employer paid sickness benefits.

Yet, in the very direness of the situation, the seeds of improvement began to germinate. Bacteria have the habit of not respecting borders between different areas and different social groups. Well-to-do people were in danger and in the second half of the nineteenth century their representatives in Parliament voted for the laying of sewage pipes. Because it was useful that factory workers could read and write, compulsory education was introduced. The ordinary man could learn in detail about events in regions that nobody had heard about a century before. The workers became more articulate and they organized into trade unions that fought for and got in quick succession: the six-day week, a ban on child labor, social legislation, the ten-hour working day, and general suffrage. Furthermore, the position of women improved because, as they also worked at machines and needed to be able to read, they were required to go to school. The advantages of industrialization began to offset the disadvantages. What was still inconceivable in the 1860s was realized two generations later: women could study, become university professors, sit in Parliament, and elect Members of Parliament. Therefore, we can consider industrialization, democratization, and women’s emancipation all to be aspects of the same modernizing process.

However, in the first half of the nineteenth century this was all in the future. Initially, British industrial capitalism was a humanitarian catastrophe. While the average life expectancy rose after 1740, it began to fall as industrialization continued. In a town like Liverpool, life expectancy in 1840 had fallen below that of 1740. That it never came to revolution was due to the fact that for male workers there was an honorable escape from this misery: they could become soldiers and help build the British Empire. A German industrialist who was visiting England around 1840, Friedrich Engels, was deeply shocked at the conditions there and accused his British colleagues of ‘mass murder, wholesale robbery and all the other crimes in the calendar’.

A high price has been paid for the modernization of society, both in England and in the countries that supplied the raw materials. It took a bloody civil war in North America to free the slaves on the cotton plantations, and in England the gap between the haves and the have-nots has never completely disappeared.

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