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What is task-orientation and how does it order life in pre-modern societies?Looking back today, it is easy to assume that wage labor always existed as an alternative to slavery.
The Industrial Revolution, Slavery, and Free Labor
The Creation of the Modern Wage Labor System
Looking back today, it is easy to assume that wage labor always existed as an alternative to slavery. But the laws, customs, and technologies involved in selling one’s labor took time to develop. The waged labor system has tremendous advantages. It allows work to be broken down into small segments and tracked. Not only does an hourly wage allow employees to receive what it due for work done, it also means that bosses no longer expect to use physical punishment to get them to perform. If they leave work an hour early they simply don’t get paid for that hour. (Although your boss might not be pleased by this.) This is a simple and effective way of creating discipline.
One of the reasons slavery seemed reasonable to people was that if an entrepreneur wanted to set up a new enterprise like a mine or a factory, there were two big hurdles: finding workers and keeping them at their jobs once they were there. The noisy, tedious, and dirty work of factories was not attractive. Nor were the low pay and long hours. In rural societies where people could live on their own land and make a living without having to work for others, it was exceedingly difficult to find willing employees. In the 19th century American South and in Egypt some cotton mills used slaves because the techniques of mobilizing mass labor efficiently had already been perfected under the plantation system. In Russia, as well as Maryland, Louisiana, and Rhode Island, prisoners were used in textile factories because they could not leave.
In Europe, and especially Britain where industrial labor was most urgently needed, slavery was not legal and factory owners struggled to find enough people to tend the machines. Legislatures in various states aided factory owners by passing laws making it a criminal act to shirk at work or quit a job. Thousands of people went to jail or were transported to the colonies for failing to turn up at work. Coercive physical punishment was common in factories. Being late to work or making mistakes could result in a beating. Not surprisingly, workers resisted. In the 1740s, ’50s and ’60s there were riots and attacks against machinery in Lancashire, Britain. In the early decades of the 19th century hundreds of spinning machines were destroyed by French and British workers.
Over time, organized worker resistance forced the state to require better working conditions and treatment. Factory owners and managers also became better at creating working conditions that could keep up production without having to resort to dire punishments. The hourly wage is one of those compromises.
In this classic and influential article, E. P. Thompson shows that one of the key factors helping to create the modern wage system was a new relationship between workers and time.
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