Monday, 9 May 2011

From paternalism to class

For a variety of reasons this paternalist view of society began to break down from the early-nineteenth century. An ‘abdication on the part of the governors’ had been recognised as early as the 1820s though it was Carlyle who popularised it in the 1840s.[1] 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 and the fabric of state paternalism was gradually dismantled. 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 From the 1770s this legislation was either allowed to lapse or deliberately repealed.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 critical issue is whether the notion of the caring landlord existed in reality and how far there was an actual ‘abdication’ or whether it was simply thought that there was an ‘abdication’ by those fighting to retain older values in the face of social and economic change. While there is no doubt that society changed, to view change solely in terms of a shift from paternalistic solidarity to unbridled individualism is too simplistic. Both capitalist practices and vertical antagonism between different groups in society existed before the economic changes of the late-eighteenth century. Nineteenth century society contained elements of both but despite this there remained a widespread belief that there had been a shift from a paternalist to a capitalist society.

Class 2

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.[2]

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 declining support for the Church of England and the growth of secularism broke the ‘bond of dependency’ between squire, parson and labourer. The aristocracy and gentry gradually ‘cut’ their lives off from those of their labouring workers. The layout of country houses and gardens that evolved from the mid-seventeenth century demonstrated a move towards domestic privacy.[3] 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 while for industrial entrepreneurs it came from 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.[4] 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 separation of ownership and control in industry resulted in the emergence of two different roles as individuals moved 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 stressed efficiency and productivity rather than profits. Such a difference in ideals and values reinforced 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.[5] 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.[6]

Class 3

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 benefitted those in the lower social classes. Parliamentary reform in 1832, 1867 and 1884-1885 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’.[7] 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’. [8] 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 in maintaining a strong presence 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] Ibid, Perkin, H., The Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880, pp. 183-196 discusses this issue.

[2] Ibid, Harrison, J.F.C., The Early Victorians 1832-1851, p. 123.

[3] See, for example, Pollock, Linda A., ‘Living on the stage of the world: the concept of privacy among the elite of early modern England’, in ibid, Wilson, Adrian, (ed.), Rethinking social history : English society, 1570-1920 and its interpretation, pp. 78-96, Meldrum, Tim, ‘Domestic service, privacy and the 18th century metropolitan household’, Urban History, Vol. 26, (1999), pp. 27-39 and Taylor, William M., ‘Visualising comfort: aspect, prospect, and controlling privacy in The Gentleman’s House (1864)’, in Taylor, William M., (ed.), The geography of law: landscape, identity and regulation, (Hart Publishing), 2006, pp. 65-83.

[4] Pollard, Sidney, ‘The genesis of the managerial profession: the experience of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain’, Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 4, (1965), pp. 57-80.

[5] This was evident in agriculture after 1870: Hunt, E. H. and Pam, S.J., ‘Managerial failure in late Victorian Britain?: land use and English agriculture’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., Vol. 54, (2001), pp. 240-266 and ‘Responding to agricultural depression, 1873-96: managerial success, entrepreneurial failure?’, Agricultural History Review, Vol. 50, (2002), pp. 225-252.

[6] Alborn, Timothy L., Conceiving companies: joint-stock politics in Victorian England, (Routledge), 1998, Taylor, James, Creating capitalism: joint-stock enterprise in British politics and culture, 1800-1870, (Boydell), 2006 and Johnson, Paul, Making the Market: Victorian Origins of Corporate Capitalism, (Cambridge University Press), 2010.

[7] Ibid, Perkin, H., The Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880, pp. 36-38.

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

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