On Sunday 7 March 1883, the well-known figure on the lecture circuit, Edward Carpenter, took the podium at the Sheffield Hall of Science to address the usual large, comfortable middle-class audience. He was an arresting figure, lean and bearded with handsome, craggy features and fluent delivery who launched into an evisceration of the working conditions in Sheffield. His first words shook his listeners to the core: “These relations (between labour and capital) are in the present day so monstrous, so unnatural, so productive of manifold evil and suffering that it is impossible that they should continue”.
Screaming for dividends
Transfixed, the listeners heard him lay out the contradictions of a green and pleasant land in which the life of a labourer was made a living hell, while the owners made money out of products that were mainly unfit for purpose anyway. The picture he presented to them of their own city was graphic: deadly competition forcing the prices down to the lowest levels, scrabbling to cut costs, workers made to work harder for less pay in terrible conditions.
He then painted the spectacle of “Half-taught boys and girls doing half the work of the country – scrambling through it amid dirt and ill-health; vast mud-floods of rubbish (products) pouring out over the land, adulteration and deception in everything, shareholders screaming for dividends regardless how they are got… and all the while the land – the source of all production – staring them in the face, half-cultivated, undrained, uncared for, reverting to ruin and waste!”
This last part is uncannily like the rivers of the UK today, as is the emphasis on cutting costs. Today’s listener would have then expected to hear a further description of the kind of politics, left/right, that had led to this. But Carpenter was a talented economist, an attribute too often overlooked because of the attention to his poetry and personal life.
Having got their attention, he switches gear, saying in effect that things could be different and that, over the Channel, there were signs of a more cooperative egalitarian industrial leadership emerging. Here one can recognise the genius of his ability as an economic researcher, which is even more evident in his book Towards Industrial Freedom. This is a must read for any economic history student. He then lays out what a business school would call a case study, telling the story of a successful French industrialist, by the name of Edme-Jean Leclaire.
Leclaire was a self-made builder in the early 1800s, having received training as an apprentice painter, in contrast to Carpenter’s “half-taught boys and girls”. By doing high-quality work, had made a ‘neat’ fortune by the time he was 36. Unlike so many successful entrepreneurs, that was enough for him. He took stock and asked himself “could a workman in our business by putting more heart into his work produce in the same time more product equivalent to an hour’s pay. Could he save money by avoiding all waste of the materials entrusted to him, and by taking greater care of his tools. Everyone would answer that he could … Here would be a handsome profit to be shared with his men, and gained as it were out of nothing”.
Sharing the profits – how very continental
He consulted his wife, who agreed, and thus was set up his mutual aid association, which provided reading rooms and education facilities as well as medical facilities for his staff. After consulting his workforce, he then set up a profit share system in 1842 which added 15% to the wages of each worker by 1870. He also stopped using lead-based white paint because this caused lead-poisoning in the painters, even though it was cheaper.
Now, at this point put yourself in the seats of that Sheffield audience. Given the short shrift still paid to John Lewis Partners, Swann-Morton of Sheffield, and various Yorkshire cooperatives by our industrial institutions even today, can you imagine what the shock must have been to the audience 140 years ago, a time when children under 13 were working underground in UK coal mines and there was no workman’s injury compensation. It was inconceivable, even though cooperatives had been around since 1844, such was the business owner mindset of the time.
Interestingly, if Edward Carpenter had extended his activities further north instead of into Derbyshire he might have encountered a very successful English company in Huddersfield that was operating on the same lines and ideals of Leclaire, i.e. Woodhouse Mills, owned by George Thomson. Thomson came to his ideal of a company through his studies of John Ruskin, whom he called his ‘Great Master’, and, like Ruskin, was very supportive of the cooperative movement.
A higher purpose of economic life
Finally, Carpenter puts his finger on a problem which is causing our industry suppliers great distress today: the damage caused by the emphasis on low costs and cheapness. “At what cost to the souls and bodies of men have these cheap goods been won?” Indeed, what is the cost in low wages, constant work pressure caused by soulless algorithms, unsocial delivery hours that demand our cheap toy is delivered in 24 hours? What cost to the farmer with the insistence by the supermarkets on squeezing agricultural margins down to increase their own retail profits?
We must tackle this exploitative mindset, especially among the supermarkets, and espouse the aspirations of Edward Carpenter who, at the end of his speech, appeals to a higher purpose for economic life. He wrote of the shoots of a new ideal arising, that of human equality, of not seeking to be above others, but to be “with and of them”. Ordinary life is a gift, it should be delightful and enjoyable. Common occupations should be considered honourable. “Baking, gardening, building, maintaining should be pleasurable and respected, such that the rich and idle shall enviously leave their sofas and gilded salons and ‘come and join hands with us’.”
He points to a celebration of productive community life worthy of our common humanity, and as I leaf through the pages of Sheffield’s Festival of Debate brochure, this desire leaps off nearly every page.
Many thanks to Principle 5 in Sheffield for introducing me to Carpenter.
John Carlisle will be making the case for ‘Where Real Economics beats Neoliberalism’ at the Festival of Debate, Sheffield on Tuesday 9 May, 2023. Sheffield: Where Real Economics Beats Neoliberalism | Festival of Debate