Conditions of the English Working Class

Sometime over the weekend i finished reading Engels’ Conditions of the Engligh Working Class. Would imagine that it’s not a particularly popular read at this point in history.

My reasons for reading it were related to the health care debate in America. It seemed impossible to me that a vocal minority (let’s say 30% of the country) could actually be motivated to oppose attempts to improve the lot of the people. Many of those protesting are ideologically confused, republican voting, working class poor, from the famous ‘ red states’. Some how they’ve bought into the idea that they are actually doing well, living in a land of freedom and opportunity. A land were food is poisonous, health is something you have to buy, and destitution is a trip to the emergency room away.

Anyway, my theory was that England at the end of nineteenth century, a period of extreme lassez faire / devil may care, capitalism would provide some insight into how a working class might find itself, and improve it’s lot.

Not a hope.

What Engels really tells you is that when business is running the show, democracy is just something else that is bought and sold. The twentieth century might have bought massive improvements in working conditions, equalised the relationships between workers and employers, but the basic dynamic (excess labour, forced to compete for survival, therefore driving down wages) is still very much in place. Capitalism is at war with the planet. What Engels documented was one of the opening skirmishes.

If anything has changed, it’s now that large parts of the western worlds working class (now living under the label ‘middle class’) are ideologically conditioned to believe that ‘social darwinism’ governs their lives.

The young Engels (he was in his 20s when he wrote this book) felt revolution was inevitable in England, and lived out his life disappointed that it never came to pass. My feeling is that we live in similar times, and the outcome will be similar (at least for the UK and US). The tightly linked system of government, money, and commerce will grind on, and over, decimating everything that stands in it’s path.

This is not me trying to make a case for communism, marxism, etc. Just an observation that anglo-saxon style democracy has been stuck in the same rut since the start of the industrial revolution.

Worth reading just for the thoughts provoked.