The Origins of the
Anglo-American Industrial Age
Class System

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The Origins of the Anglo-American Industrial Age Class System


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In the year 1066, the Normans invaded England.  Through a comedy of errors, they quickly subdued the Anglo-Saxons and appointed themselves the ruling class.  They created a hierarchy of nobility, divided the lands among themselves, established a feudal society, and made the Anglo-Saxons their serfs.  From then on, the serfs either worked the lords’ land in exchange for the right to live in small hovels, or they paid rent to the lords for the right to farm the lords’ land.

This may seem like ancient history, but it is the foundation of modern English society.  To this day, the primary source of Queen Elizabeth’s and Prince Charles’s incomes are rents paid from tenants and tenant farmers. 

When the industrial age began, it became clear that this was a new economic opportunity.  Like every such opportunity, however, the pump had to be primed.  Anyone who could open a factory could make a great deal of profit, but opening a factory required a financial stake.  Either one had to own the land where the factory would sit or arrange to purchase or lease it.  One had to build the factory, install the machinery, recruit the workforce, and purchase the supplies from which goods would be manufactured.  This took money, and the serfs had none.  The factory owners in England through most of the industrial age were the nobility, and the serfs moved from the fields to the factory floor.

This transition was not without its complications.  The workers had been either farmers or craftsmen, and were not used to working under the direction of a shop steward.  Most people were illiterate, and were not used to reading diagrams.  There was nothing equivalent to the craftsman’s apprenticeship, so there was no organized way to train people in the tasks of their new jobs.  People were used to using their own tools, and standardization on the factory floor was difficult.1  In the end, management teamed up with the Church to promote the behaviours of the good employee and to preach against the “deadly sins of laziness, sloth, and avarice.”2

The habit that annoyed the owners the most was the workers’ tendency to work long hours, accumulate pay, and then take off until the money was exhausted.  Some owners counseled keeping pay so low that workers would be forced to keep working.3

In contrast, economist Adam Smith developed his concept of “economic man.” Smith believed that man was driven primarily by the pursuit of money, and that by offering more money as an incentive, owners could inspire the workers to work more efficiently.4

The colonization of the Americas by England took place during the early part of the industrial age.  Throughout the colonial period, manufacturing in the Americas was curtailed to enhance the colonies’ dependency on England; in fact, this was one of the complaints filed by the revolutionaries against the Throne.  Once America became an independent nation, the opportunities in the new land were recognized in England, and many cadet members of the nobility immigrated to open factories in the eastern seaboard states.  In addition to the English monies that they brought to finance their initiatives, they brought English ideas about the relationship between owners and workers that became entrenched in American society.  To this day there remains a clear division between the so-called “white collar” and “blue collar” workers that is evident in everything from their style of dress to the fact that most workers start the day at 6.00, while the management team and office staff arrive at 8.00 or 9.00.

At the dawn of the 19th century, these ideas, based on the division between serfs and the nobility, were pre-eminent.  The owners of the factories did not care about the well being of their employees.  They treated the employees as mere tools on the factory floor.  The work situation did not require anything else.  Most towns had one single major industry, and to change jobs a worker would have to move to another town.  The owners had the employees in a bind.

The 19th century changed that.  With the development of the railroad, the automobile, and—in the largest cities, the subway, elevated train, and streetcar—people became more mobile.  They were less dependent on the single mill owner in their town for employment.  Machinery was being redesigned, but progress was not uniform, so there were output imbalances, forcing a re-organization of workflow.  Labour was expensive because of a high turnover.  Operations were controlled by skilled workers following customs of the trade, so management’s influence was limited.  Foremen compensated by being “despotic.” “..From the perspective of owners and top managers, the methods led to ineffective planning, inadequate coordination, incomplete information about costs, irregular scheduling, and intermittent returns; these problems were compounded for leaders of newly consolidated firms with large and scattered operations.  So business professionals gradually decided to wrest control by establishing and legitimizing a new constitutional system.”5

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1.  Wren, Daniel A.; The Evolution of Management Thought; New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.; 1987; pp. 38-40.

2.  idem; p. 43.

3.  idem; p. 42.

4.  ibid.

5.  Waring, Stephen P.; Taylorism Transformed: Scientific Management Theory since 1945; Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press; 1991; p. 10.