Discussion Question (375)

6. Urban historians have long debated whether capitalism resulted in better living conditions for the average worker. What evidence do we have from the development of the industrial city to answer this question?

KW: extended commodity production, urban implosion, money, accumulation, Reformation, specialization of labor, class hierarchy (and “the spatial separation of the rich and poor”), commodification of everything (land, labor, etc.) and thus private property, attenuation of traditional ties (including family), enclosure of the commons, increasing size of cities (and the problems associated with population increase: overcrowding, disease, crime, poverty, etc.), lack of urban planning (uneven development), absence of symbolic aspect of industrial capitalist cities in the sense that cities’ growth did not correspond to a religions model

Engels’s description of Manchester: dangerous built space, lack of adequate sanitation, psychological toll of living in these conditions. Ex. “rivers polluted with the intestines of slaughtered cattle” and “‘foul pools of stagnation urine and excrement'” (46).

In contrast to the feudal era, when ordinary people were primarily serfs tied to the land and the arbitrary rule of a local lord, life in the industrial capitalist city was much freer. This freedom, however, depended on an element of coercion. If a person was not compelled to offer a tithe of his produce or labor to the local authorities as was common during the Middle Ages, she was essentially forced to participate in the city economy as a waged laborer simply in order to survive. At this earlier stage of industrial capitalism, when there were few if any laws regulating the treatment of workers or their living conditions, to be a member of the urban proletariat was to be at the mercy of employers and other social elites. Life in the industrial capitalist city was determined more by money than by social ties. Everything was for sale– i.e., commodified– including living space and life itself. Workers, after all, sell their lives piecemeal in return for a wage. The chaos of this social formation can be seen in the absence of urban planning, the negative consequences of overcrowding such as poverty and disease, and a general atmosphere of misery and alienation. Those who obtained the necessary wealth, on the other hand, surely experienced the industrial capitalist city as social terrain full of variety and promise. If there were beggars on every corner there were also venues where the bourgeoisie could socialize and entertain themselves.