Lecture Notes

Lec 7: The Early Cities of Capitalism

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Lecture Summary

The modern city, first established in the late eighteenth century, is the significant and essential prologue for any examination of the contemporary city. “The survival of many more infants and the prolongation of the average age of adults mark off modern times from the past; and this change began in the eighteenth century.” Absolute population growth peaked in England in 1850 when London at over 2 million people became the first largest city in the world in Europe since Rome. Medieval Europe had been a rural world with towns growing at less than 1% per annum, whereas some British cities in the early nineteeth century grew at over 10% per annum. In 1850, for the first time in history, more people lived in cities in England than in the country, a statistic very soon to be achieved world-wide. The capitalism of the first industrial cities was built on agrarian capitalism; in the eighteenth century, half of the cultivated land in England was owned by 5,000 families, a quarter by only 400 families. The enclosure of commons land reduced many of the rural poor to wage-earning migrants destined for the fast-growing new single-industry towns which lacked the infrastructure to support them. The new factory system had evolved from the early household and family system, through the guild system of the Middle Ages, and through the eighteenth century putting-out system. Now production was carried out in the employer’s buildings separating house and workplace (the new journey-to-work), workers owned neither raw material nor tools, production was for a fluctuating outside market and large amounts of capital were required. As Engels saw it, “capital is the command over the unpaid labor of others.”

Cotton was the first industry to develop macro-production techniques and “it took over and monstrously specialized Manchester.” The city, then the second largest in England, became the symbol of capitalist exploitation. In 1819, eleven people were killed there by police in political protest, a number not exceeded through the actions of the police or military until some 143 years later on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland. The British formed the modern city without bloodshed. Ann Lee worked in a cotton mill and after the death of her fourth child, she “screamed that sexual intercourse was the cause of all the world’s evil,” and in 1774 left Manchester to lead the Shaker movement in America. For the eighteen-year-old Robert Owen, Manchester provided a fortune in the cotton business with which he later developed utopian communities; he is regarded by some as the first socialist leader in Great Britain. But it was the young German, Friedrich Engels, who used Manchester as the model for the disasters of the early capitalist city when he recorded his analysis of it in 1849 at the age of 24 in The Condition of the Working Class in England. Accompanied by an illiterate Irish factory girl, his “reading” of Manchester set out many of the dimensions of the early industrial city: the appalling state of health (50% of children born in Manchester died); the deteriorated state of family life; insecurity of work as a function of the market; alienation and the quality of work; child labor, drugs and crime; the by-passing of poor areas by main roads to provide “critical distance” for the middle-class; the middle-class who avoid any acknowledgement of these circumstances and who “know no happiness but profit.” For Engels and his later compatriots, Manchester was the model which the cities of the new Marxist state would replace.

Referenced Texts

Friedman, Benjamin M. “Industrial Evolution,” The New York Times, December 9, 2007.

Huberman, Leo. Man’s Worldly Goods—The Story of The Wealth of Nations. Hesperides Press, 2006, pp. 118–9. ISBN: 9781406798203.

Enclosure in Britain.” The Ecologist 22, no. 4 (1992): 132.

Examples, Precedents, and Works

Manchester, Lancashire, and Glasgow (England); the Salus Populi; Balscott land divisions and enclosures (England)

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