The rapid, large-scale industrialisation of Manchester and other English cities in the early nineteenth century was without precedent in England or anywhere else and was subject to significant commentary and interpretation as writers and thinkers were both drawn to and repelled by what seemed to be a new way of living and a new condition for one social class in particular, the workers who operated mechanized, urban mills and factories.
Some of the commentary of the time consisted of accounts of this new ‘condition’- descriptions of working class life in the city – but there were also political analyses of the new social order that attempted to extrapolate what the outcomes of more extreme class conditions in capitalist, urban societies might be. For Friedrich Engels, for example, these were exactly the kind of conditions that would lead to increased social division and ultimately precipitate a socialist revolution (Mackie, 2010, p. 41).
William Rathbone Greg’s assertion that an employer was responsible for productivity and efficiency rather than directly for his employees’ welfare went against traditional ideas about paternalism and social relationships and according to Simon Gunn (in Manchester and the factory: Quarry Bank Mill and Ancoats, 2008) alarmed people who saw the relationship in factories between a small number of employers and a larger number of workers as representing a new kind of social order.
Greg asserts that the employer’s principal direct obligation is to ensure the success of his business. Any role as a benefactor, is not merely secondary, it is to be actively eschewed in favour of faith in market forces and the pursuit of efficiency, which will ultimately increase profits and benefit all classes. The view chimes squarely with the assertions of Adam Smith, that the market, when it is wholly or largely left to its own devices, will ‘blindly’ but inevitably produce the greatest good for all. The ‘invisible hand’ of the market, as the mechanism is still referred to in laissez-faire economics, ultimately becomes the benefactor.
Proponents of political economy and the power of the free market to increase overall wealth and well-being believed that free competition ensured that efficient practices would come to the fore and unrestricted trade would stimulate the economy, in the process increasing employment and wages. But dissenting voices of the time were meanwhile producing accounts of actual conditions in urban areas that seemed to be wholly at odds with the predictions made by political economists. Industrialisation on a scale yet to be seen in continental Europe attracted writers from outside England to try to describe what was happening. While Manchester may not have failed to impress these writers in some respects - Friedrich Engels talks of ‘complex machinery’ and the ‘perfection’ of the manufacturing processes in Manchester (in Mackie, p. 39) – he also describes in detail the squalor of parts of the city. According to Engels, inadequate sewerage and refuse disposal had produced stench, debris and offal (in Mackie, 2010, p. 39) and there was apparently no urban planning in parts of the city, but rather an ‘ill-kept labyrinth’ or ‘knotted chaos of houses’ (ibid).
Léon Faucher also provides an account of the environmental repercussions of industrialisation: ‘The waters of the Irk black and fetid…’ (in Mackie, 2010, p. 43) and of the appearance of the ‘operatives’ (workers), which he says does not give an indication of healthfulness (in Mackie, 2010, p. 44). Though like Engels, Faucher does not seem to have been left unimpressed by a city that he describes as ‘extraordinary’ (in Mackie, 2010, p. 42).
In addition to their accounts of the apparently squalid and unhealthy conditions in which workers in Manchester lived, Engels and Faucher both address specifically the question of wages. Engels suggests that the ‘invisible hand’ lauded by proponents of political economy is rather a blunt instrument, which causes economic conditions to veer between glut and lack, producing concomitant fluctuations in production and wages (in Mackie, 2010, p. 40) and Fauchet, making the same observation about the inherent instability of wages in the capitalist system, likens the fluctuations to those experienced in rural areas due to variable agricultural yields. But Fauchet goes even further and asserts outright that wages in Manchester are the lowest (in Mackie, 2010, p. 43).
Fauchet’s claims in this final respect were of course directly at odds with the prediction of political economy, as espoused so firmly by Greg, that individual pursuit of self-interest, must produce the greatest overall good and Fauchet’s claims about wages did not go unchallenged. J.P Culverwell sought to challenge Fauchet through recourse to the logical proposition, that given the freedom of labour and capital to move within the market, if wages were indeed higher in rural areas, workers would simply relocate there (in Mackie, 2010, p. 21). Of course it would have been possible for urban wages to in fact be higher, but for this not to have translated into increased affluence or better quality of life. Nor would the ostensible freedom of workers to move, have necessarily meant that many did. The character of Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times seems to rather negate the idea of free movement of labour when he says to his employer ‘… if I canna get work wi’ yo, I canna get it elsewheer’ (Dickens, 2011 , p. 156). When Stephen does leave Coketown, it is not through volition but rather his departure is necessitated by circumstances he has unwittingly become embroiled in.
And regardless of whether wages were higher, the descriptions of the city provided by Engels and Fauchet seem to argue against the idea of political economy having provided for the greater good. Part of the problem of the city for Fauchet, seems to be a lack of planned, public space. He talks about a lack of public squares and promenades or ventilated buildings (in Mackie, 2010, p. 42).
This specific aspect of Manchester was to change significantly later in the nineteenth century. The civic improvement that took place was presumably made possible with the wealth of Manchester and inasmuch as it would have required a planned allocation of resources, voluntary and conscious rather than blindly driven by the market, it was exactly the kind of ‘interference’ decried in the quote by Greg.
But evidence suggests that by later in the nineteenth century a paradigm shift had indeed take place and a very different zeitgeist was now at work, which allowed for significant public works, urban planning and civic improvement. By the 1850s libraries, town halls and parks were being built while sewers and roads would have improved city life. This was a conscious rebalancing of society, apparently borne out of the experience of the previous decades of unfettered market forces, which seemed to have concentrated wealth into the hands of those who owned the means of production. So while industry did eventually produce a surplus, which could be used to benefit all, a certain level of planned resource allocation, did seem to be required to ensure the general good.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that the improvements to Manchester in the latter part of the nineteenth century stemmed entirely from altruism or a sense of moral duty. There was also a sense that social order and education, in mitigating against extreme social inequality, might serve to prevent the development of a Marxist outlook among workers. Dickens, for example, asserted that education would lead workers to understand that capital and labour were not at odds, as Marxist theory held (in Loftus, 2010, p. 154). But however altruistic or otherwise the motives were, the result was certainly an improved city and a sense of collective civic duty that was in contrast to the earlier calls for an entirely unfettered market, characterised predominantly by the pursuit of individual self-interest. Testimony to how difficult it was to square this circle and incorporate planned resource allocation into the capitalist system, is the fact that the debate about where the market should be checked by state ‘intervention’ is not one that can be said to have been resolved, even after two centuries of the capitalist experience.
Dickens, C. (2011)  Hard Times. Golgotha Press. (Kindle Edition).
Loftus, D. (2010) ‘Politics and the people’ in Loftus, D. (ed.) Voices and Texts in Dialogue (AA150 Book 3), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 143-189.
Mackie, R. (2010) ‘Manchester: ‘shock city’ in Loftus, D. (ed.) Voices and Texts in Dialogue (AA150 Book 3), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 1-50.
‘Manchester and the factory: Quarry Bank Mill and Ancoats’ (2008) (AA150 DVD), Milton Keynes, The Open University.