Friday, March 25, 2016

Two Classic Articles by Historian E. P. Thompson

Thompson, E. P. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past & Present 38 (December 1967): 56-97.

With apologies to Stephen Hawking, this article is sort of a brief history of time. Thompson observes that almost all people have had some way of keeping track of time and of measuring it. In pre-industrial societies, time was reckoned by the sun, moon, planets, and stars, and was measured by comparison to a task, often one associated with something like farming or cooking.

The author relates how, coming into the modern era, England as well as other parts of Europe began to develop more-accurate clocks and watches. The proliferation of these time pieces, each version more accurate than the one before, matched up with the British Industrial Revolution’s demand “for a greater synchronization of labour” (69). Of course, some tasks have never been very time sensitive. And, some work, like harvesting a crop, occurs only at a certain time of year, and then only when the weather is conducive. Still, even before 1700 at least some work places in England were governed by a “disciplined industrial capitalism, with the time-sheet, the time-keeper, the informers and the fines” (82). This development was accompanied by a Puritan and, later, Methodist emphasis on the Christian’s stewardship of and responsibility for time. Yet, as people like Ben Franklin illustrate, this culture encompassed more than radical Protestantism.

Thompson notes that this endemic aspect of modern, industrialized societies naturally generates a sense of superiority when compared to “undeveloped” nations. But he wonders if “developed” societies have lost as well as gained some things in the transition. He asks if sometime in the future the pendulum might swing back in the other direction. Finally, he ends on the wistful note that certain things, like poetry, simply cannot be manufactured.

Thompson, E. P. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past & Present 50 (February 1971): 76-136.

The title of this article might have been, “From the Moral Economy of the English Crowd to the Amoral Economy of the English Capitalists.” Thompson laments that an old, traditional economic system in England, one that worked relatively well, was crushed by a new system powered by capital and industry. He identifies the end of the eighteenth century and the dawn of the nineteenth as the historic moment of transition.

His secondary claim, with which he begins, is that the historiography of the earlier period routinely speaks of “riots” in response to food shortages. This view treats “the mob” as though they were a bunch of reptiles who mindlessly lashed out whenever they became extremely hungry. But as Thompson relates, the pre-industrial crowd’s age-old routine of forcibly “setting the price” of grain was hardly ever like a riot. The aforementioned changeover of the system is closely related to why it is that modern historians have so misinterpreted “the mob” and their “riots.” That is to say, modern historians have assumed and asserted that such developments have relieved western societies of "the mob."

These two articles clearly exhibit a Marxist theoretical perspective. It is also clear that Thompson himself sympathizes with the often-overlooked characters featured in his history “from below.” As one might expect, he typically ignores any good that has resulted from the developments he dislikes. He is a romantic, passionate Marxist, one who can be quite persuasive as well as entertaining.

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