In The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, the contrarian Matt Ridley, who convincingly argues against the dire predictions of Malthus, cites abundant information, such as rising levels of real income and lengthening life expectancy, to contradict all-too-common assumptions that the lives of Victorian factory workers were worse than those of farm laborers and the rural poor. Discussing the movement of many English men and women to the industrial cities, he offers a positive interpretation of the changes that took place:

You can see these folk as desperate wage slaves driven off communal land by enclosure acts, the division of common land into private plots that gradually spread across most of England between about 1550 and 1800. But this is misleading. It is more accurate to see the rural textile workers as taking the first step on the ladder of producing and consuming, of specialisation and exchange. They were escaping self-sufficiency into the cash economy. It is true that some people were dispossessed of their livelihoods by enclosure, but enclosure actually increased paid employment for farm labourers, so it was for most a shift from low-grade self-sufficiency to slightly better production and consumption. Besides, Irish and Scottish as well as English migrants flocked to the textile districts to join the cottage industries. These were people giving up peasant drudgery for the chance of joining the cash economy, albeit at a low wage and for hard work. People were marrying younger and consequently giving birth to more children.

The key point for Ridley here is that workers increasingly became prosperous enough to become consumers and that consumption in turn fueled the possibilities for work:

The result was that the very people who were joining the industry as workers would soon begin to be its customers. Suddenly the rising income of the average British worker met the falling cost of cotton cloth and suddenly everybody could afford to wear (and wash) cotton underwear. The historian Edward Baines noted in 1835 that the "wonderful cheapness of cotton goods' was now benefiting the "bulk of the people": "a country-wake in the nineteenth century may display as much finery as a drawing room in the eighteenth." The capitalist achievement, reflected Joseph Schumpeter a century later, "does not typically consist of providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort." [226-27]

Related Material


Baines, Edward. History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain. 1835. [Quoted by Pietra Rivoli. The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade. NY: John Wiley, 2005.]

Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010.

Schumpeter, Joseph. Captialism, Socialism, and Democracy. London: Allen and Unwin, 1943.

Last modified 20 July 2011