Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter V.: NO PROGRESS MADE. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3
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Chapter V.: NO PROGRESS MADE. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 3.
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NO PROGRESS MADE.
The masters meeting was a tedious affair to all parties. The chairman and the three deputies held such long disputes, as to whether wages were really much lower than formerly, that the people who waited in anxious expectation at the Spread-Eagle, began to wonder whether the deputies had lain down to take a nap, or found their business a different kind of affair from what they had expected. If they had known what point was in dispute, they would have wondered what room there was for argument, as any man among them could have told what he was paid two years before, and what now. They all knew that they were now paid by Mortimer and Rowe, only three and fourpence per one thousand hanks, while some time before, they had had upwards of four shillings. How, they would have asked, could there be any doubt as to whether wages were lowered?
Clack was profuse in his expressions of astonishment at the stupidity of those who made a question of so plain a matter; but his wonder did no more towards settling the point than the shuffling of the chairman, who did not understand the true state of the case, and could therefore render no service in throwing light upon it.
If it had not been for Mr. Wentworth, and one or two more who held his views, nothing at all would have been done.
“Nobody doubts,” observed Wentworth, “that you now take so many shillings less than you took five years ago; but that matters nothing to you or to us.”
The chairman and Clack stared in about an equal degree.
“My dear sir, that is the very point,” said the one.
“I always thought you had had a heart to feel for the poor,” cried the other.
“I beg your pardon,” said the gentleman quietly, “it is not, sir, the point in dispute, and I trust, Clack, my observation does not carry any great cruelty in it. If a penny a week would enable a man to buy all necessaries for himself and his family, and if a pound would do no more, would it signify to any man whether his wages were a penny or a pound?”
“Certainly not; but who ever heard of such wonderful pennies?”
“I have heard of shillings which you might think nearly as wonderful as such pennies: shillings which would buy more than twice as much at one time as at another.”
“To be sure,” said Clack, laughing contemptuously, “every child knows that the price of bread and other things rises and falls.”
“Very well. Your concern is about how much of bread and other things you get in return for your labour, and not how many shillings. Shillings are of no value to you but for what they buy. If half the money in the kingdom were to be carried off by fairies this night, so that you could have only half your present nominal wages, you would be no worse off than at present. The same quantity of food and clothing would be in the market, and you would get as much for sixpence as you now get for a shilling. This is why I said the nominal amount of your wages mattered little. I said nothing about the real amount.”
“But you do not deny, sir,” said Allen, “that our real wages are less than they were?”
“I am afraid it is as true as that our profits are less. There is less surplus remaining over our manufacture for us to divide. If this division were made in kind, instead of your being paid in money in advance, you would see the real state of the case,—that we cannot afford higher wages.”
“In kind! Lord, sir,” cried Clack, “what should we do with a bundle of yarns on a Saturday night? what baker or grocer would take them?”
“None, I dare say; and therefore, for the convenience of the parties, payment for labour is made in money; but it is not the less true that your wages consist of the proportion you receive of the return brought by the article you manufacture. You know how the value of this return varies; how, when an article is scarce, it brings in a large return, and how, when it is plentiful, our customers give less for it; and you must therefore see how your wages vary independently of our will.”
“But whose doing is it, sir, that the return varies so much?”
“It is partly your doing; I mean that of those who bring labour to market. We masters have nothing to do with the quantity of labour brought to sale any further than to purchase it. If you bring so much as to reduce its price too far, whose fault is that?”
“To be sure we cannot expect you to pay high, when you can purchase labour cheap,” said Allen, “any more than we would give sixpence for a loaf, if we could get as good a one for fivepence.”
“If,” observed one of the masters, “you brought only half the present quantity of labour to us, we must, whether we liked it or no, pay double for it. If you choose to bring up large families who will in turn rear large families to the same occupation, it is a necessary consequence that wages will fall to the very lowest point.”
“What do you call the lowest point?”
“That at which the labourer can barely subsist. If he cannot subsist, he cannot labour, of course. If he can do more than merely subsist, his wages are not at the lowest point.”
“Ours are so now,” said Gibson, despondingly.
“Not exactly so,” replied the manufacturer. “Don't fancy that I wish them lower, or would not make them higher if I could; but I cannot allow that they are at the lowest. Do you know no Irish hand-loom weavers who make only four shillings a week?”
“Poor creatures! yes; but how do they live? Crowded together on straw, with mere rags to cover them, and only half as much food as they could eat. It is dreadful!”
“It is; and God forbid we should see many more sinking down into such a state! I only mentioned their case to show you that your wages may still fall, if the labourers' proportion of the returns to capital is still further divided among a number. Upon the proportion of your labour to our capital depends the rise and fall of wages through the whole scale of payment.”
“What would you call the highest rate?” inquired Allen.
“The greatest possible proportion of the return that the capitalist can spare, so as to leave it worth his while to manufacture; and this highest rate is, of course, paid only when labour is difficult to be had.”
“We cannot wait till that time,” said Clack. “If we waited till a war or a fever carried off part of our numbers, it would do little good; for there are plenty of young ones growing up. We must bestir ourselves and see if a strike will not do as well. The plague would no doubt be more acceptable to gentlemen, as long as it did not stop their manufacture, like a strike; but the poor must raise themselves by such means as are in their own hands, and not wait for a judgment of Providence.”
“I quite agree with you,” said Mr. Went-worth. “Providence would have men guide themselves by its usual course, and not by uncommon accidents. But I doubt whether a strike is one of the means which will gain your point. It will leave your case worse than in the beginning, depend upon it. A strike works the wrong way for your interest. It does not decrease your numbers, and it does decrease the capital which is to maintain you.”
Clack would hear nothing against a strike. Let the masters all give the same wages as Elliott, or prepare for a strike. Rather to silence the orator than with hope of much benefit from the observation, Gibson said that a pernicious multiplication of hands took place from the big piecers being allowed to spin. The masters for the most part liked that they should, because they soon got to employ them to spin at less wages; and too many of the men liked it, also, because it saved them trouble: and some would even sit down to read, while their piecers were looking after the wheels; but it seemed to him very hard that good spinners should be sometimes out of work, while piecers were practising their business.
The masters thought that any regulation of the kind Gibson wished for, would only have a slight effect for a short time; it could not permanently keep down the spinning population to the number required to ensure sufficient wages.
Clack would not be diverted any longer from the plain answer to his plain question, would. Messrs. Mortimer and Rowe raise their wages to Elliott's rate? Rowe took a long pinch of snuff to avoid answering. Mortimer sat bolt upright with his arms folded, and replied, “Certainly not.” Not a word more could be got out of him. Others of the masters tried to mediate, proposing that Elliott and Mortimer should meet half-way, that is, at Mr. Wentworth's rate: but this proposal was rejected by all parties. Elliott said he left these things to the people under him; but he believed his clerk was popular with the operatives and wished for no change any more than himself; so that he should not reduce. Mortimer would not be dictated to by a mob; and the representatives of this ‘mob’ declared their intention of calling Wentworth to account, when they had done with Mortimer, and that his rate must not therefore be proposed for adoption. And thus the mater was no nearer being settled than before.
“Pray is it true,” inquired Mortimer, “that you have talked of rooting me out?”
“Such a thing has been mentioned in private, sir,” replied Allen, “but immediately scouted. It was never proposed at any public meeting, and will not be mentioned again I dare say.”
“So! you have more prudence than I gave you credit for. I almost wish you had made the trial, that you might end by learning your own place. You would soon have known what comes of dictating to us.”
This was a signal for Clack to renew his oratory. The peace-makers on both sides found it was time to separate, as there seemed no chance of coming to any agreement. The three men made their bow and withdrew,—Allen with a heavy heart, leaving the masters to agree that the affair must be gone through with firmness and temper; that is, some were for firmness, and some for temper. Mortimer was annoyed at being exposed to annoyance from people so much beneath him; and Wentworth and others thought that the shortest way to a good issue was to regard the claims of the people with respect, their mistakes with gentleness, and their distresses with compassion.
Before Allen could speak a word in reply to the inquiries of his eager companions, Clack began in a strain of indignation to pronounce him a trimmer, for having answered Mortimer as he did about the proposal to root him out. The men being disposed at the moment to listen to everything that regarded the punishment of Mortimer, were hard upon Allen, though not so abusive as Clack. Alien kept his temper, stood the brunt of that to which his rectitude of principle exposed him, stayed till the business of the evening was finished, and then pondered, on his way home, the hard chance by which he was exposed to the displeasure of the masters, the unreasonableness of his comrades, and the timid complaints of his wife. Allen was not made for ambition.
Before the operatives separated, it was agreed that all employed at a lower rate of wages than Elliott's should turn out the next morning, except the children, whose maintenance would cost so much that it was desirable they should earn as long as allowed to do so. Meetings were to be held from day to day, first to appoint a fresh committee, and afterwards to to take measures for securing assistance from fellow-labourers at a distance.
Bray, who had taken care that the meeting should not want for harmony of one kind at least during its sitting, betook himself at its close to the York Hotel, just when the masters were dispersing, and with some degree of impudence stated his desire to be impartial, and his readiness to drum the gentlemen home, if they would please to marshal themselves, as he had played in front of the men in the morning. Elliott called for a waiter to turn the fellow away, and Wentworth observed that he feared his travels had not improved the quality of his wit.