Thursday, 10 July 2008

Nineteenth century society: introduction

All societies are, to some degree, stratified or divided into different social groups. These groups may be in competition with each other for social control or wealth. They may be functional, defined by their contribution to society as a whole. They may share common ‘values’, have a common ‘national identity’ or they may form part of a pluralistic society in which different ‘values’ coexist with varying degrees of success or conflict. They have different names like ‘castes’ or ‘ranks’ or ‘classes’. British society in the nineteenth and early twentieth century has been called a ‘class society’ but there are some differences between historians about its precise meaning or whether it is meaningful at all[1]. Were there two classes or three or five or any classes at all? Were there any common values? They do, however, agree that society in 1914 was different from the society that existed in the 1830s. It is important to have some understanding of the ‘wholeness’ of society, whether nationally or within a given locality because it was the overall structure of society that people were reacting against or attempting to preserve.[2] Individuals must be understood, given meaning and significance, not in isolation but within their web of social relationships. Individual biographies can be explained only by reference to the whole of society.

A question of ethics

The underlying basis of the elitism of the aristocracy in the 1830s was one of mutual and reciprocal obligation within a hierarchical framework. Harold Perkin writes that ‘The old society, then was a finely graded hierarchy of great subtlety and discrimination, in which men were acutely aware of their exact relation to those immediately above and below them, but only vaguely conscious except at the very top of their connections with those on their own level .... There was one horizontal cleavage of great import, that between the ‘gentleman’ and the ‘common people’, but it could scarcely be defined in economic terms.’ [3]

This elitist view of society had two important dimensions. First, it was paternalistic. What mattered here was not what was later parodied as ‘forelock tugging’ but sympathetic involvement by the elites in the lives of the rest of society. There was an expectation of reciprocity, a common outlook and identification of interests and, if necessary, sheer coercion to maintain the civil stability of a hierarchical social structure. A Christian faith and moral code was a common possession of all of society and rank, station, duty and decorum were central social values. David Roberts provides a useful model of paternalism in early Victorian society.[4] A paternalist saw society in the following ways. First, it should be authoritarian, though tempered by the common law and ancient ‘liberties’. Secondly, it should be hierarchical. Thirdly, it should be ‘organic’ with people knowing their appointed place. Finally, it should be ‘pluralistic’ consisting of different hierarchical ‘interests’ making up the organic whole. Within this structure paternalists had certain duties and held certain assumptions. First was the duty to rule, a direct result of wealth and power. Parallel to this was the obligation to help the poor, not merely passively but with active assistance. Paternalists also believed in the duty of ‘guidance’, a firm moral superintendence. Paternalism governed relationships at all levels of society. Apprenticeship, for example, was more than induction into particular skills; it was an immersion in the social experience or common wisdom of the community. Practices, norms and attitudes were, as a result, reproduced through successive generations within an accepted framework of traditional customs and rights that have been called ‘the moral economy’.

Secondly, patronage was a key feature. Patronage was central to the paternalist ethic and it retained its importance throughout the nineteenth century. It was characteristic of an unequal face-to-face society, crossing social barriers and bringing together potentially hostile groups. Patronage involved a ‘lopsided’ relationship between individuals, a patron and a client of unequal status, wealth and influence. It could be called a ‘package deal’ of reciprocal advantage to the individuals involved. It is true that by the 1830s much of the ‘politically useful’ forms of patronage like jobs for electors and rewards for supporters had declined but to assume that there was a general decline in patronage is to fundamentally misconceive the issue. Many of the political, social and economic changes of the first half of the nineteenth century greatly increased the amount of patronage that was available. There was a dramatic increase in the number of ‘administratively necessary’ offices. The prison, factory, health and schools Inspectorate were all staffed, at least initially, through patronage. This was paralleled in local government where ‘efficient’ patronage was used by rival elites within communities as an extension of party politics. Finally, offices may have been filled by personal nomination but individuals had to possess some basic competence. This notion of ‘merit’ received a wider and fair application after the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854, though patronage comfortably withstood much of the onslaught of merit until the 1870s. Only the urban middle-classes of the north were apathetic towards patronage. The bulk of the middle-classes were located in the genteel world of the professions and of propertyless independent incomes, far less entrepreneurial and competitive than their industrial equivalents. As long as a common area of shared values existed patronage continued to have broad application and utility.

A process of change

For a variety of reasons this paternalist view of society began to break down from the early nineteenth century. Thomas Carlyle, a contemporary social theorist, saw this as ‘the abdication on the part of the governors’. This process had the following features. The changing focus of the economy away from land and towards manufacturing and service industries led to a gradual decline in the economic power of the paternalist elite. Agriculture may have declined relative to other sectors of the economy but the aristocratic tone of British society was still set by the great houses and the large landowners. As J.F.C. Harrison says ‘Landed England did not survive unchanged. Had there not been flexibility in coming to terms with the economic realities of the industry state, and a willingness to retreat gradually and quietly from untenable positions of political privilege, landed society might not have outlived the end of the century. In fact it displayed remarkable powers of tenacity and adaptation: it sought to engulf and change some of the new elements in society, though in the process it was itself changed.’ [5]

Urbanisation occurred broadly outside the paternal net. There is evidence that many people moved to towns because they perceived them as ‘free’ from the social constraints of rural society. In addition as towns and cities burgeoned in size after 1850 they ceased to be face-to-face societies and became places of anonymity. Changing religious observance, especially the declining support for the Church of England and the growth of secularism broke the ‘bond of dependency’ between squire, parson and labourer. Paternalism was grounded in reciprocal obligations, like ‘just wages’ and ‘fair prices’, many of which were given a statutory basis in paternalist Tudor and Stuart legislation. From the 1770s this legislation was either allowed to lapse or deliberately repealed. The principles of ‘the free market’ could not accommodate the protectionism inherent in paternalism. The aristocracy and gentry gradually ‘cut’ their lives off from those of their labouring workers. The layout of country houses and gardens demonstrated a move towards domestic privacy. Client relationships became less important as labour became more mobile and became centred in urban communities.

The economic and political power of the landed elite came from their ownership and control of land. The same applied to the industrial entrepreneur in terms of their ownership and control of manufacturing. For both these elites the nineteenth century saw important changes. First, the emergence of managers as a segment of the economic elite reflected changing rates and channels of social mobility. Education became a more important medium as a channel of recruitment into managerial occupations and consequently the chances of those from working or middle-class backgrounds of moving into the economic elite improved. The emergence of bureaucratisation, with the clerk as a dominant occupation after 1830 reflects this process. Secondly, the emergence of a managerial sector introduced an important source of potential conflict within the economic elite as a whole. The moral solidarity of the old property-owning elite was undermined. The result of the separation of ownership and control in industry produced two sets of roles that increasingly saw the incumbents move apart in their outlook on and attitudes towards society in general and towards enterprise in particular. The ‘individualistic’, profit-seeking entrepreneur is contrasted with the managerial executive, whose values stress efficiency and productivity rather than profits. Such a difference in ideals and values tended to reinforce divergence in styles of life and social contacts. This in turn produced a certain conflict of interests, sometimes leading to open struggles, since the pursuit of maximum returns on capital was not always compatible with safeguarding the productivity and security of the enterprise. Finally, the separation of ownership and control was held to introduce important shifts in the structure of economic power. Within the large joint-stock companies that emerged in the 1850s and 1860s effective power increasingly devolved into the hands of managers and the sanctions held by the ‘owners’ of the enterprise were merely nominal.

This separation of ownership and control is not the only factor that led to the decomposition of the old ruling class. There was a general rise in rates of mobility, particularly intergenerational mobility, into elite positions in many institutional spheres during the late thirty years of the nineteenth century. There was some redistribution of wealth and income after 1850 as levels of ‘real’ wages rose that helped to redress the balance of power in favour of those in the lower social classes. Parliamentary reform in 1832, 1867 and 1884-5 gave initially the middle-classes and latterly the upper working-class a stake in the existing political structure. This needs to be seen in relation to the rights of organisation in the industrial and political sphere for the mass of the population. The growth of trade unions, especially after 1851, the expansion in the range of political pressure groups and the emergence of the Labour Party in the early years of the twentieth century constituted both potential limitations on the power of elite groups as well as perhaps changing the structure of those elite groups themselves.

Harold Perkin characterised the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century as a ‘one-class society’. Only the aristocratic elite could, he maintained, be seen as a ‘class’. This view of a unitary capitalist ruling class certainly did not exist by 1830. Karl Marx viewed the British ruling class as an ‘antiquated compromise’ in which, while the aristocracy ‘ruled officially’; the bourgeoisie ruled ‘over all the various spheres of civil society in reality’. [6] The aristocracy, that Marx thought had ‘signed its own death warrant’ as a result of the Crimean War (1853-1856), proved to be much more resilient than this in maintaining a strong foothold in the Cabinet, Parliament and the Civil Service. The proprietary fortunes and power of the large landowners remained virtually intact until the end of the century and the relatively amicable inter-penetration of aristocratic landowners and wealthy industrialists remains one of the striking features of British society in the latter half of the century.


[1] On methodology see P. Burke History and Social Theory, Polity, 1992, P. Abrams Historical Sociology, Open Books, 1982 and two books by C. Lloyd Explanation in Social History, Basil Blackwell, 1986 and The Structures of History, Blackwell, 1993.

[2] What follows extends arguments developed initially in Richard Brown Change and Continuity in British Society 1800-1850, CUP, 1987, republished 2008 and Society and Economy in Modern Britain 1700-1850, Routledge 1991, especially pp. 342-367.

[3] H. Perkin The Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880, Routledge, 1969, page 24.

[4] David Roberts Paternalism in Early Victorian England, Croom Helm, 1979.

[5] J.F.C. Harrison The Early Victorians 1832-1851, page 123.

[6] Karl Marx ‘The Crisis in England and the British Constitution’ in Marx and Engels On Britain, Moscow State Publishing House, 1953, pp. 410-411.

No comments: