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?