Florence, 1330. Between the weak forces of the Pope and the Emperor, in the patchwork of city states that stretches north to the Alps and spans the Italian peninsula, the first outlines of the Renaissance are starting to break the pattern of the Middle Ages. Nowhere more so than in this city, birthplace of Dante and Petrarch — this city whose banking houses now fund half the rulers of Europe. Home to more than 120,000 people, it is second in size only to Paris. The roots of its prosperity lie in the local woollen trade, which spiralled upwards in sophistication to become a proto-industrial system, drawing in the best raw material from England and Iberia, cleaning, carding, spinning, dying and weaving it into fine cloth to be sold across Europe and even in the marketplaces of the east.
Much of this rise in prosperity took place within a single lifetime, the lifetime of a rich cloth merchant who died in the September of 1330 and left his property to be distributed amongst the destitute of Florence. His will was carried out by the Confraternity of Orsanmichele. On the appointed date, those who qualified as destitute were locked inside the city’s churches at midnight. There were 17,000 of them. As they were released, each received his or her share of the inheritance. From the records of the Confraternity, we know who qualified. The destitute fell into five categories: the orphans, the widows, anyone who had been the victim of a recent act of God (in other words, a serious injury or illness), the heads of family totally dependent on wage work, and those compelled to pay rent in order to have somewhere to sleep.
It is these last two categories that should cause us to think twice. To be dependent on working for wages, or to have to keep up regular payments in order to have somewhere to call home — at the close of the Middle Ages, either of these things was a sign of destitution, misery and impotence. Somewhere in the intervening centuries, both have become so utterly taken for granted that the pity they once attracted is not easy to grasp. Today, we are more likely to number among the destitute those unable to find wage work. Yet if we could borrow a time machine, go back to the late 1320’s and scoop up our Florentine cloth merchant, bringing him back to the streets of Västerås or Malmö in 2014, how would our way of living look to him? No doubt he would be astounded by the tools and toys that we take for granted, by the number of us who live to old age, and by a hundred other transformations — but after a week or so, as he began to believe his eyes, would we be able to convince him to look differently on the phenomena of wage-labour and the monthly rental or mortgage payment? I am not sure.
Our ancestors took a slower route from the proto-industrial stirrings of the late Middle Ages to the post-industrial Europe in which we find ourselves, but they did not go gently into the condition of dependence on wage-labour which is the foundation of employment as we now know it. The extent of their resistance is obscured, partly because — as we will see, shortly — it does not fit into any of the historical narratives that came to frame politics in the 19th and 20th centuries, and partly because it does not resemble the forms of action that came to define political resistance in that period.
For a long time, the primary form of resistance to wage-labour was simply a persistent unwillingness to give up the varied activities and irregular rhythms of the day, the week and the year. In England, where full-on industrialisation came earliest, the historian E.P. Thompson catalogues the complaints of the authorities and (would-be) employers against the ordinary people:
If you offer them work, they will tell you that they must go to look up their sheep, cut furzes, get their cow out of the pound, or, perhaps, say they must take their horse to be shod, that he may carry them to a horse-race or a cricket match. — Arbuthnot, 1773
When a labourer becomes possessed of more land than he and his family can cultivate in the evenings … the farmer can no longer depend on him for constant work… — Commercial & Agricultural Magazine, 1800
These difficulties were resolved by the process of enclosure, a series of laws by which the ‘commons’ — land held in traditional forms of collective ownership, to which local people had a web of overlapping rights of access, grazing and foraging — were privatised. Carried out in the name of ‘agricultural improvement’, enclosure was essential to the creation of a large class with no alternative to renting out their bodies at a daily or a weekly rate.
While rural life in England had been shaped by the customary rights of the commons, the skilled trades were also governed by longstanding customary agreements. These formed the basis of a way of living in which artisans worked largely on their own terms, combining the practice of their trade with other activities and shaping the rhythms of their work as they wished. By the early 19th century, this arrangement was under attack from new legislation and new industrial practices. When their petitions to parliament went unheard, the weavers of Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire were ready to fight rather than be reduced to the status of wage labourers in other men’s factories. This was the origin of the Luddite movement: attacking mills by night, smashing the machinery and sometimes burning the owners’ houses, it ran through the manufacturing districts of the three counties between 1811 and 1813.
The tendency of grown men to smash up the machines contributed to the preference of manufacturers for employing women and young children. To create a modern workforce, fully accustomed to the submission of their time and energy to their employer’s command, it was necessary to start young — and so the story of how wage-labour went from a stigma to a human right forms the shadow side of the history of education. The process is described quite openly by William Temple, writing in 1770, as he makes the case for sending the children of the poor to workhouses from the age of four:
There is considerable use in their being, somehow or other, constantly employed at least twelve hours a day, whether they earn their living or not; for by these means, we hope that the rising generation will be so habituated to constant employment that it would at length prove agreeable and entertaining to them.
The origins of mass education are double-edged: on the one hand, the extension of schooling was often pushed forward by those sincerely dedicated to rescuing children from the horrors of the industrial workplace in its earlier forms; on the other, it served as the means to produce an obedient industrial workforce, accustomed to the discipline of completing tasks, often meaningless to them, under the direction of an authority figure and with strict rules concerning time-keeping.
It took generations to complete this transformation. Meanwhile, at the height of the Luddite movement, it took 12,000 troops to restore order to the three counties, a larger force than Wellington had under his command that year in the ongoing war against Napoleon. Even then, it took months before the British government felt it had the situation under control. This was only one episode in the long history of resistance to the new model of economic life represented by the factories and the wage-labour system. The way of life which the Luddites and others struggled to defend against these innovations was undoubtedly a tough one, but the intensity of their struggle is perhaps the clearest evidence of its worth to those who knew it best.
The experience of wage-labour today differs greatly from the conditions of the early industrial factories, at least in countries like ours. The eight-hour day, sick pay, paid holidays, parental leave and the other rights that frame our expectations of working life represent the achievements of the labour movement that grew up in the generations following the defeat of the Luddites. The struggle to defend other ways of living against the dominance of wage-labour had been lost, at least in the most industrialised countries. The new movement struggled instead to achieve a better deal within the system built by the winners. If we are tempted to take its achievements for granted, we just have to think of the gap between our lives and the lives of those who make our iPhones or those who mine the coltan that goes into their making.
Essential to the labour movement has been the normalisation of the identity of the worker. In pointing to this, I am not trying to question its achievements, only to approach a clearer understanding of where we find ourselves today. If we struggle to grasp the pity which the condition of dependence on wage-labour elicited in 14th century Florence — if we misread the fierceness with which people fought against being forced into that condition in England at the start of the 19th century, taking it for ignorant fear of technological progress — then this is probably because, for most of the intervening period, the opposed political and economic forces structuring our societies have been united in the assumption that this kind of work is normal and desirable. Wherever you look, to the left or to the right, you will have a hard time finding a politician who doesn’t want to create more jobs. They may argue over the best means to do so, but they would hardly think of asking whether employment as we know it is a good thing.
My purpose in excavating these older and contrasting attitudes to work is to make it possible to ask that question. It is necessary to add, almost immediately, that this is not inspired by any idea of the past as a Golden Age. Not only is there much that we would not willingly give up about the age in which we find ourselves — even if we wanted to do so, it is not an option. The only time machine we have travels in one direction at a steady speed of just over 365 days per year and we have yet to find the gear stick. A politics that looks to the past with longing is no politics at all. Yet there may be other ways of looking to the past. In renouncing such romanticism, we have not necessarily exhausted the political potential of the backward gaze.
Florence, 1345. The banking system is in meltdown. The houses of Peruzzi and Bardi have fallen, taking with them the political fortunes of the city’s aristocratic elite. The trigger is the decision of the English King Edward III to default on the debts he has built up in his war with France. In the aftermath of the collapse, records Giovanni Villani, the only people still in business are the moneylenders and the guildsmen. Larger forces will soon contribute to the tilting away from feudalism, not least the plague that is already making its westwards along the trade routes that span the old world. But it is those observed by Villani, the new men, the outsiders, who will begin to build a new kind of system in the ruins of the feudal order.
The story is told by Paul Mason, until recently the economics editor of the BBC’s Newsnight, in a 2012 lecture at the London School of Economics. He uses it to frame a question — the best question, he suggests, that we could ask about the point in history at which we find ourselves: ‘Is this a 50-year or a 500-year moment?’ Is the structural crisis which broke out across the global economic system in 2008 more akin to the Depression of the 1930s, or to the crisis which marked the end of feudalism?
The roots of the current crisis go back decades and, six years after that chaotic autumn of banking collapses and emergency bail-outs, it is still far from over. Interest rates remain at emergency levels, much of Europe struggles to achieve anything resembling economic growth, while bankers pioneer new forms of speculative asset which repackage subprime rental incomes into safe investments on the same principle applied so successfully to subprime mortgages. At a day-to-day level, structural economic crisis makes itself felt in the experience of employment, or its lack. A society with high levels of youth unemployment feels different, and not only for those directly affected, but for every young person whose experience of education becomes an anxious competition to avoid that fate, every parent who worries about their child’s future. Meanwhile, the deal of employment gets worse, as short-term contracts and precarity become normal in many sectors. In parts of the west, real incomes have been falling since long before the fall of Lehman Brothers: in Italy, the peak of prosperity was passed in 1997; in the US, a 30-year-old man could expect to earn 22% less in real terms in 2007 than he would have done in 1973.
Those at the centre of existing institutions rarely put together the pieces clearly. Easier to announce new initiatives, or to focus on those elements within the economic data that point in a positive direction, even if this leads to a widening gap between the official account of reality and the experience of many voters. This gap manifests in growing support for populist parties, but also in a broader sense that things are getting worse. This April, an Ipsos poll found that only 19% of Swedes believe today’s young people will have a better life than their parents, compared to 43% who believe they will have a worse life. Responses to such questions are similar across the western countries. The future no longer holds the promise it once did.
At this point, there may be one more historical parallel to be drawn. Feudalism was, in 1345, the most successful economic system the world had ever seen. This did not mean those at the top of that system were in a position to prevent its decline, nor did it mean that an alternative system was waiting to replace it. Instead, what followed was the uneven mixture of improvisation, idealism and opportunism out of which history is mostly made. In time, the outlines of the Renaissance that we can trace in the Italian city states of that century would become the foundations for the modern world. Yet its architects were not guided by the forward gaze that would come to characterise modernity. Their primary inspiration lay in the classical past of Greece and Rome, and it was here that they sought models for new institutions.
If we do find ourselves in a 500-year moment, it may be that the past has more to offer us than nostalgia or romanticism, as the source for a sense of possibility that we no longer find in confident visions of the future. Because the future can only ever be a blank screen and the projections we throw up on that screen are inevitably shaped by the assumptions of the present. Whereas the past is there, like a dim mirror, and as our eyes adjust to its darkness and the strangeness of the things which the people there seem to take for granted, it can begin to reveal to us the strangeness of our own assumptions. If things are going to turn out better than often seems to be the case, in the years ahead, then I suspect it will be because we stumble upon possibilities that had been hidden from sight by the assumptions we inherited from the recent past — even assumptions such as the centrality, necessity and desirability of wage labour.
The story of the Florentine cloth merchant is told in Ivan Illich, ‘Shadow Work’ in Beyond Economics & Ecology: The Radical Thought of Ivan Illich, ed. Sajay Samuel (2013). The quotes from Arbuthnot, Temple and the Commercial & Agricultural Magazine are taken from E.P. Thompson’s ‘Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism’, Past and Present, №38 (December 1967). On the Luddites, see E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and Warren Draper, ‘The Shuttle Exchanged for the Sword’, Dark Mountain, Issue 2 (2011). A video of Paul Mason’s lecture, ‘Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions’ (2012), is available on the LSE website.
For practical proposals that relate to the ideas in this article, see Dougald Hine, ‘The Regeneration of Meaning’ in Global Utmaning, The Baltic Edge: Reflections on Youth, Work and Innovation in the Baltic Sea Region (2013).
First published in MOORIA magazine.