All these German commies look the same, no? Credit - public domain

It’s a standard assumption that living standards declined at the birth of capitalism. This underpins much of the phantasms concerning the desirability of peasant life, the wondrousness of those medieval days with their 70 days holiday (a Holy Day is not a holiday. Animal owning peasants who take 70 days off a year rapidly become non-animal owning peasants) and so on.

The Engels Pause itself is the observation that real wages, thus living standards, didn’t rise – perhaps even fell – between about 1750 and 1840. Thus the peasants were driven off the land by enclosure, not attracted off it by the better lives to be had in the factories. Ya! Boo! Capitalist Bastards therefore.

My own insistence here is that the one thing that Industrial Revolution did do, based as it was around textiles to begin with, was kill off hand spinning and weaving. Spinning being one of the major pieces of home labour that women had to perform. As Brad Delong has been known to note, whenever we meet a woman in literature from before about 1700 she is spinning or weaving. After 1800 almost never. A vast and major part of human labour requirement had been automated, that’s a rise in real wages.

Still, that traditional story tells us that sure, production rose but it was all captured by the capitalists. That’s the Engels Pause.

Except, what if it’s not true?

Building construction workers were never more than about 8 per cent of the population, and this data comes from the very early eighteenth century, so do these finding have any bearing on theories about industriousness and industrialization? In short, yes, because at present we use builders wages as a proxy for the average of all wages. If the amount they earned per day was lower, and the number of days they worked were fewer then annual incomes would have been about 40 % lower than the current predicted £31.00 – £37.00 for craftsmen, and £20.00 – £25.00 for labourers (table 11). What we have thought of as a labourers income was actually a craftsman’s. On this basis a ‘respectability’ basket could only have been attained by craftsmen, not labourers.50 The implication for ‘divergence’ debates could be profound, but is that household composition, substitution and prices may also have been different to what we currently think.

What if the wages we think were being paid before 1750 are too high an estimate?

Traditionally, the idea that at the end of the eighteenth century the working classes
had been forced into harder labour by capitalism and factory discipline was at the core
of Thompson’s and Hobsbawm’s pessimistic view of industrialization that viewed the
irregularity of preindustrial work as tied up with the agency, rights and culture of the

Regular work even at a lower daily wage might mean a higher income than irregular. Or even, living standards 1700 to 1750 were lower than we thought, meaning there wasn’t a dip at the IR, perhaps even not a stagnation.

It does rather change the story, doesn’t it?

We can even compare this to our own time. Those sweatshops are producing better livings than can be gained in the absence of the sweatshops. Why not so for our own forbears?

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The sweatshop produced higher output per hour of labor than the spinning wheel. Workers were not “forced into harder labour” as they were not conscripted; they selected it based on relative payback. All together, more efficiency, in England in 1800 or in Indochina today. Now, some of the resulting money was skimmed off, notably, to pay for the use of the capital to build the sweatshop in the first place. Engels’ point, repeated today by unions, is to look at an organization that combines many inputs and claim that “his share should have been mine.” Viewed without this covetousness, the… Read more »


England circa 1750 was definitely Malthusian. It was horribly overpopulated. The major burden on the landowners and ratepayers of each parish was the poor tax, for the upkeep of the local poorhouse. It took roughly a hundred and thirty years for the overhang of unemployed to be taken up into employment. Automation favoured some while excluding others: the old story of the haves vs the have-nots. Taking into account things like Napoleonic Wars and the loss of the spinning/weaving/dyeing trade to the more innovative Europeans, England did not have an easy ride through the Industrial Revolution. Any time you see… Read more »