By the middle of the 19th century, the transition to capitalism was complete. What was left of feudalism was a mere vestige.
But rather than the promised equilibrium, 19th-century capitalism was racked by cycles and enormous disparities of wealth. A major depression occurred roughly every 20 years. Workers’ conditions would improve and then rapidly deteriorate, prices rise and then fall, banks expand and then collapse.
“New ‘robber barons’ replaced the barons of old. It appeared that, while promising a meritocratic equilibrium, capitalism had instead delivered unbalanced chaos.” ~ Steve Keen
In the Western world, the social order from the industrial age was an evolution from the hierarchy that had characterized feudal society. In earlier times, the rulers and owners of land were one and the same. Land to those who served nobility was a matter of grant, subject to revocation.
As the divine right of kings diminished, property became the basis for preindustrial aristocracy, as well as providing income from agriculture. Peasants and a relative few artisans comprised the great mass of society, with clergy and bureaucrats in between.
Pre-industrialization, the market system and corresponding polity created an upper middle class (haute bourgeoisie) of wealthy merchants, professionals, and the top crust of government officials. Although these people may have owned property, their skills and contacts with the landed aristocracy lifted them from the lower strata.
Below that was a lower middle class (petite bourgeoisie) of handicraftsmen and artisans, retail tradesmen and others in service occupations, and independent holders of small properties. At the bottom rung were peasants, agricultural laborers, domestic cottage industry workers, and many indigent and paupers.
With industrialization came new social classes. Wealth and occupation increasingly determined social stratum, though inheritance counted, especially in Britain.
At the beginning of the 19th century peasants were the most populous group. Even at the end of the century, they still constituted a majority in Europe, though in the more industrialized areas, their numbers had dramatically diminished, having been turned into the urban workers whose lot was just as dismal.
Isolated by a poor communication network, and mentally bound to tradition, a peasant’s greatest desire was a piece of land to call his own. Peasants participation in social movements was sporadic and limited to immediate economic interests.
The Working Class
The 19th century witnessed a multiplication of industrial laborers. The catchall term working class belies a diversity of concerns by occupation. Factory workers and miners, though in similar circumstances with regard to their exploitation, had different concerns. Craftsman and artisans of occupations that flourished in the Middle Ages especially suffered as their skills were obsoleted by machinery, while other workers found themselves in demand because their skills succored industrialization. For casual laborers, transport workers, clerks, and others, working life carried on much as it had in earlier times.
(In 1941, American socio-anthropologist Lloyd Warner and American sociologist Paul Lunt identified 6 American social classes: upper (old | new), middle (upper | middle), and lower (upper | lower). The upper crust was divided between old money and nouveau riche (self-acquired rather than inherited). The middle class was bifurcated by income and associated prestige. The working class was split by skill and steadiness in employment.)
What tied all these workers together into an economic class is the hand-to-mouth existence that characterized their lives. They depended upon their wages to survive.
There were some bitter struggles for social and political recognition and dominance among rival groups in the 19th century. A proclivity for divisiveness rather than cooperation among those in the lower strata often retarded the prospects for success of these endeavors.
Every social advance of the middle class was countered by a rearguard reaction from those whose felt their power slipping. Albeit exceptions, employers fought the obligation of decency for those that labored under them.
“What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails. More books and less guns. More learning and less vice. More leisure and less greed. More justice and less revenge. We want more opportunities to cultivate our better natures.” ~ American labor leader Samuel Gompers
Trade unions have a long history, dating back to journeyman associations in later Middle Ages.
The guilds of medieval Europe were different. The masters of guilds employed apprentices and journeymen who were not allowed to organize.
Guilds were hierarchical groups that controlled the supply of both goods and labor: in effect, securing a local monopoly. Guilds so squeezed the labor supply that admission and advancement became difficult, begetting journeyman associations.
Trade unions and/or collective bargaining was outlawed in England from the mid-14th century. Other countries followed.
Facing antagonistic employers and repressive legislation, unions were often weak, localized, and short-lived through much of the 19th century.
The 1848 March Revolution in the German states was an early breakthrough for unionization: the unrest created broad-reaching repercussions throughout the continent. As well as empowering workers, the March Revolution led to the unification of Germany. The revolution also inspired an exiled German who spent much of his time in the London library.
The Prophecy of Marx
“Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.” ~ Karl Marx
Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels prophesized in the mid-19th century that a trajectory of socioeconomic polarization would culminate in bifurcation of industrialized societies: a ruling capitalist class, who historically had absorbed and replaced the earlier landed aristocracy, and an industrial proletariat: the working class.
Marx and Engels concluded that workers, by sheer weight of numbers, might successfully revolt against their exploitation and establish a more equitable society.
Instead, class antagonism diffused, as workers swelled into a middle class with modest material aspirations. Sufficiently satisfied with their station, and unrealistically optimistic about their individual futures, workers became increasingly conservative, even as their economic status quo was threatened by the very force that Marx had hoped would impel a revolutionary spirit: capitalists. The United States embodies this historical arc of contented idiocy.
In the United States, the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, had mushroomed to nearly 800,000 members by 1886, only to quickly become a rump of its former self owing to mismanagement and unsuccessful strikes.
The American Federation of Labor, founded in 1886, led by English American cigar maker Samuel Gompers until his death in 1924, proved much more durable, thanks to his canny leadership.
In the large, not until the 20th century, by dint of sheer numbers, were workers able to overcome the political clout invested in their suppression. Even then, the fruitless struggle of workers on the lower economic rungs for decent wages never ended and continues to this day.
Exceptions notwithstanding, publicly supported educational institutions were rare in Europe before the 19th century. The well-off hired private tutors for their offspring. Religious and charitable institutions provided elementary education for children of town folk. There were a few private schools.
No one dreamed of universal literacy; to the contrary. The general opinion that counted opposed literacy as inapposite to the station of the lower classes. Technical education was gained exclusively through apprenticeship. Secondary and higher education was reserved for the sons of the privileged, except for aspiring clergymen.
With the exception of Scotland and the Netherlands, the ancient universities of Europe had long ceased to be centers for the advancement of knowledge. These institutions were ossified with traditional teaching heavy in the classics, deemed suitable for church and state bureaucrats, and acting as an appropriate serving of liberal education for the sons of the ruling class.
Education and literacy grew in the 19th century, typically as a social by-product of industrialization. Sweden was an exception. A relatively poor country in 1800, its culture and polity begat a highly literate country antedating its onset into industrialization. This ample stock of human capital put Sweden in good stead once it did begin to industrialize, affording a rapid economic growth in the last half of the 19th century.
To a lesser degree, the peoples of other Scandinavian countries, the United States, Prussia/Germany, and Scotland were relatively well-educated prior to industrialization.
The original 13 colonies of the United States opened public schools in the 17th century. The first was in Boston in 1635. Well into the 19th century, New England was the most conscientious about public education.
Public secondary education in US cities became more common after the Civil War and was widespread by the mid-20th century. The South lagged behind, especially for blacks who lived there. Racial discrimination still pervades the US in every way, soiling the American societal fabric.