I have been reading a remarkable book entitled Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy, written in the late 1830s by Frances Trollope (mother of the more famous Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope). This was, as far as I have been able to tell, the very frist serialized novel by a woman and it is a solid, expertly written work that deserves a much wider audience than it has heretofore enjoyed. In fact, I would say that it should be required reading in every high-school and university. The reason for this praise is that Michael Armstrong is finest novel I have read concerning the conditions of the working-class in England during the 19th century, beating out anything by Dickens and certainly more descriptive and enlightening than Engels' rather drab The Condition of the Working-Class in England written around the same time. Trollope travelled extensively through Lancashire (sometimes incognito) to research her novel.
Though it is difficult to read (due to its emotive descriptions), Michael Armstrong makes short shrift of the notion that capitalism is somehow about freedom, that trade unions are unnecessary, or that capitalism would treat people humanely in the absence of workers' solidarity and government legislation. The novel describes in painful detail the condition of those working in the cotton mills in the 1830s in Lancashire, particularly the children. Children worked in the factories from the tender age of five, often for 16 or seventeen hours a day. If they survived their tasks of climbing under the fast-moving and dangerous machinery ( a task given to them due to their small size) to clear cotton from the equipment, they were then subjected to brutal and monstrous beatings from their overlords, often suffering concussions and broken limbs during these beatings. They often lost limbs from the fast-moving machinery (or even died in accidents) and there was nothing given to the parents to compensate for these events. In some cases the children were indentured into apprenticeships. Though these were often legitimate, in some cases these apprenticeships were a front for a form of modern slavery in which the children were taken to remote factories and gradually worked to death. The manufacturers who owned these factories worked hard to hide the conditions under which their workers laboured, particularly the children, and they actively attempted to stop any legislation that would restrict their ability to exploit their victims.
As startling as the terrible working conditions were, Trollope's novel illustrates another, perhaps more shocking aspect of this awful exploitation - the ideology of class and the practice of blatant deception. In the early years of manufacturing the factory workers lived on the lowest rung of the social scale and Trollope shows the terrible ways in which other working-class people such as servants and farmers looked down on the factory workers as little more than animals. Meanwhile the manufactures propagated the idea that these workers were overpaid and lazy, and that the only reason that they were poor was that they were spendthrifts. Since few people associated with the factory workers, this notion was widely believed even by other working-class people.
It is striking the degree to which this ideological view of working people is still widely believed, as demonstrated any time a worker anywhere goes on strike and is instantly treated with derision by countless people who call them all selfish, shiftless, and lazy.\
Reading Trollope's Michael Armstrong; Factory Boy has been profoundly depressing to me. I know that the conditions therein described still prevail in many countries today and I have seen some of them myself in maquiladoras. It depresses me too because I know that though not all capitalists are evil, these conditions would quickly return everywhere if capitalism was given a free hand, and it is deeply naive to think otherwise. We are only ever one generation away from complete barbarism.
The other reason I find it depressing to read Michael Armstrong is because it reminds me of the degree to which little has really changed in the ideology of many people. Today on the radio I heard the student protestors in Quebec referred to as "spoiled, lazy malcontents." This is the exact sort of epithet which was given to the factory workers in Trollope's book and everyone else who has ever struggled for equality and justice. I would really like to take that radio announcer by the collar and remind him that everything our society has of value, from freedom from slavery to votes for women is a result of people who were once referred to as a group of lazy malcontents. In the 19th century the rich and powerful had the majority of people convinced that England would go bankrupt if manufacturers were not allowed to employ children under terrible conditions for 16 hours a day. Any notion of improving the condition of the working-class was not only treated as foolhardy but it was even looked at as treasonous. Today the rich and powerful, despite their ever-increasing wealth, are trying to march us right back into the past. They want us to believe that we can't afford a society where everyone has access to an education and the right to a decent pension.
Will it take children working in factories until people wake-up and fight back?