Postmodernism, Part 20: Labor Pains

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks (with support from The Conditions of the Working Class in England, by Frederich Engels).

Previous posts:

Enlightenment and Darkness

Rousseau’s Revolutionary Politics

Right Collectivism

Left Collectivism


Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism.  Modernism’s political philosophy proposes reason, individualism, liberal democracy, and free markets.  Postmodernist philosophy is based on the metaphysical nihilism of (Nazi) Martin Heidegger.

jean-rousseauJean Rousseau

Postmodernism’s radical left politics don’t flow naturally from Heidegger’s subjectivist philosophy.  Postmodernism’s leftist political philosophy is explained by twentieth century Marxists’ crisis of faith in the face of undeniable Marxist catastrophe.  Postmodernists took refuge in an earlier totalitarian collectivist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau’s ideas inflamed the French Revolution and gave rise to Napoleon.

Rousseau’s ideas (and Napoleon’s conquests) inspired the German Counter-Enlightenment thinkers (Kant, Herder, Fichte, Hegel).  They gave Rousseau a German twist, including multiculturalism, moral relativism, indoctrinating education, hero worship, state worship, totalitarianism, and dialectical history (with German supremacy and destiny).  This partly explains totalitarian collectivism (and German nationalism).

Left Collectivism has roots in romanticism (inspired by Rousseau).  Romanticism was both an aesthetic and a value system.  It valued unthinking passion, sympathy, virtuous poverty, idyllic nature, danger, violence, and radicalism.  It devalued social consequences and conventional morality.  The romantic Lord Byron had a profound influence.  He was an aristocratic rebel who espoused rebellion, amorality, hero worship, militarism, and revolution.

Left Collectivism has roots in the slow and painful Industrial Revolution.  The state and society struggled with market forces in the painful birth of a new order.

Marx’s Sidekick
engelsFriedrich Engels

It’s easy to take for granted the benefits of modernity (health, wealth, knowledge, science, technology, medicine).  Those benefits came at a cost (still do and always will).

Our ancestors paid a lot of our bill.  We often hear complaints about the unequal distribution of economic benefits and costs (including pollution).  This feels unfair and can cause problems (even catastrophic problems).  We don’t appreciate how easy we have it, compared to the problems of our industrial past.

Marxism arose out of the problems of our industrial past.  Karl Marx often gets the spotlight.  (Maybe, it’s that legendary beard.)  Marx’s sidekick, Frederich Engels, seems like “that other guy” in the musical duo.  That’s so not true.  Engels had a budding solo career, before Marx.  Engels wrote a book that caught Marx’s eye – a book about the problems of our industrial past.  Engels (aged twenty-four) explored and studied these horrendous problems.

Engels went to England, sent by his “fanatical and despotic old man”.  His father ran a textile business, in the German Rhineland.  Germany lagged England in industrialization.  So, Engels’ father sent him to learn English business methods (and to get him away from his radical friends).  Engels was awed by English industry.  He found the working conditions revolting (and thought the workers should be revolting, too.)

Labor Pains

We’d call these working conditions “third world”.  There was economic dislocation.  Industrial areas were crowded and filthy.  The food supply was unhealthy.  Healthcare was lacking.  Workers endured long hours and unsafe working conditions.  They struggled to survive business cycles.  They competed against cheap immigrant labor.  Family and society were collapsing.  Government seemed unresponsive.

There was economic dislocation.  Global markets replaced local markets.  Large farms replaced small farms.  Factories replaced craftsmen.  Workers and families flocked from rural areas and villages to growing industrial towns and cities.  Once, they had been able to provide for themselves (at least a meager subsistence).  Now, their only option was “wage slavery” – industrial labor or (worse paid) agricultural labor.

slumSlum life

Industrial areas were crowded and filthy.  Workers needed housing near work.  The grimy worker slums were suffocating mazes of filthy narrow streets and winding alleys.  Whole families shared single rooms (and single beds).  Families shared closets (empty of furniture) or crowded in attics and cellars (rank with sewage).  Sanitation and clean water were inadequate or lacking.  Streets were clogged with refuse, excrement, and live animals.  Rivers and streams were stagnant, foul, and reeking.

The food supply was unhealthy.  Swindlers cheated hungry workers, selling them tainted meat, spoiled vegetables, and adulterated food.  Some workers could afford meat, others sparingly, and some, not at all.  (The Irish lived on potatoes.)  Workers and their families were malnourished.  Many starved to death.  Protectionist laws made food (and other things) more expensive.

Healthcare was lacking.  In those days, even the best medicine was poor.  Quacks preyed on the workers or sold them patent medicines (that were ineffective, dangerous, or addicting).  There were rampant epidemics of typhus, cholera, smallpox, and scarlet fever.  Cancer and tuberculosis were common.  Injuries (work-related or otherwise) caused infection, tetanus, gangrene, or death.

child-laborChild labor

Workers endured long hours and unsafe working conditions.  Whole families (men, women, and young children) worked long hours (up to twelve hours).  Young boys and girls worked in coal mines.  Working mothers left babies and the young with caretakers, who drugged them (with laudanum).  Children died from poisoning, accidents, burns, and mishaps.  Industrial accidents were commonplace.  Industrial diseases were emerging (“black lung” in coal miners, scrotum cancer in chimney sweeps).

Workers struggled to survive business cycles.  Recurring booms and busts made it almost impossible for workers to save or own property.  Those who managed to save during a boom, were left penniless in the busts.  There was little social safety net to speak of.  Debtors prison was abolished, but the Poor Laws provided meager support to the needy.  In bad times, churches and charities were overstretched.

irish-famineIrish famine

Workers competed against cheap immigrant labor.  Irish arrived by the boatload, to escape dire poverty back home.  They were illiterate and spoke no English.  The Irish competed for the lowest paid, most backbreaking labor.  Barefoot and dressed in rags, they worked for next to nothing, and crowded together in the foulest dens (with their pigs).  They were infamous as drunks and brawlers.  (For them, meager wages and England’s worst slums were an improvement.)

Horrid living and working conditions were corroding family and society.  Husbands, wives, and children all worked.  There was little “home” or “family” to speak of.  Children barely knew their parents.  Promiscuity, prostitution, and illegitimacy were rampant.  Alcoholism was epidemic.  The slums were hives of abuse, violence, crime, and moral decay.

chartist-movementWorker protests

Government seemed unresponsive.  Protests and violence had forced political reforms that excluded most workers.  (Men had a minimum property requirement to vote.)  Reform enfranchised the middle class (merchants and employers), but not most workers.  Employers coerced the workers that could vote.  (There was no secret ballot.)  Workers and the poor were politically powerless.  There was growing anger and unrest, protests, and mob violence.

As always, the revolution seemed imminent – the rise of the proletariat.


Economic dislocation.  Workers had been (quite literally) separated from the “means of production”.  Farmers were forced off land they didn’t own (with ownership concentrated in a landed aristocracy.)  Small farms couldn’t compete with large farms.  Craftsmen couldn’t compete with factories.  Feudalism followed by industrialization left most with little means to sustain themselves.

Industrial housing.  The feudal past, again, made things worse.  High property demand in industrial areas made property expensive.  Some factory owners forced workers into woeful company housing.  Modern landlord-tenant laws were yet to develop.

Landlords had economic disincentives to build and maintain adequate housing.  Landlords leased property or owned it temporarily (in the English tradition).  They would lose their housing investments when property reverted to the “true owner” (so to speak).  This creates incentives to minimize investments (in shoddy housing).

Food.  Food safety regulation was inadequate and poorly enforced.  The better off had fewer problems and more reliable sources (bigger markets with better prices).  The workers had to make do.  Poor enforcement meant that scofflaws would simply skip town, when caught.

Healthcare.  Crowding and poor sanitation made bad medicine worse.  Engels’ writings reflect the prevailing medical theory. (“Miasma theory” reckoned that disease was caused by “bad air”.)  Germ theory wouldn’t take hold until the end of the 19th century.  Medicine frequently involved liquor and opiates (or worse).

Wages and working conditions.  Revolution was a powerful threat.  Trade unionism also emerged as a force to reckon with.  Trade unions and moral outrage would prevail.  Laws would be passed, banning child labor, shortening work days, mandating wages, and improving safety (in a slow process).

Business cycles.  The lack of a social safety net was tragic.  Business cycles seem inevitable.  Engels blamed chaotic competition, and saw central planning as the cure.  In practice, central planning’s cure was worse than the disease.

Engels correctly described other culprits: credit-fueled “speculation” and imperfect information.  Credit-fueled market “bubbles” remain a problem, today.  (These are arguably worsened by central banks and misguided monetary policy.)  However, imperfect information proved a far worse problem for central planners.  (Marxist theory predicted perfect information – not even close.)

Immigrant laborEnglish tyranny drove Irish poverty and immigration. England had colonized Ireland.  Irish Catholics were denied political participation (could not vote or hold political office).  They were denied economic participation (could not own land, obtain education, or enter professions).  English laws were “well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself,” wrote Edmund Burke, “the perverted ingenuity of man”.

Societal decay.  “Capitalist” institutions (the state, society, markets) slowly evolved to address many of these problems.  Interestingly, Engels discovered the “patriarchy” (a favorite of later neo-Marxists).  Some wives were forced to become the main provider (where the husband was injured or disabled).  Seeing this, Engels realized that the family arrangement was false, tyrannical, and oppressive.  (The “patriarchy” was the family, itself.)

Government.  Workers slowly gained greater participation, which helped to bring reforms and new laws.  Archaic English courts evolved to provide greater access to justice.

However, Engels would never forgive the bourgeoisie (employers, merchants, the middle class) for their betrayal of the proletariat (working people).  (The bourgeoisie and trade unions helped themselves, first.)  The enemy of the proletariat was the bourgeoisie (not just the rich).

Revolution.  Hegel and Marx need no forgiveness for caring about the misery of the powerless and downtrodden.  They can be forgiven for always thinking that proletarian revolution was imminent.  (Sometimes, revolution was imminent.)  Their economics was another matter.

Nostradamus was a doomsday prophet, too

Economic theories seek to model and predict human behavior.  Good science is hard to do.  Bad science is much easier.  Good science includes theories that are falsifiable and have predictive value.  Good economics suggests a somewhat valid model of human behavior.

Marxism is dubious “science” (in no small part) because its predictive value is so poor.  (It is more polemics than economics.)  To be fair, much economic theory is dubious science (better lending itself to faith).

Marxist theory would become a secular religion (a veritable doomsday cult).  Marx and Hegel boasted that their “scientific socialism” was superior to “utopian socialism” because it was scientific.  Like a doomsday cult, they perpetually awaited the end days (pushed ever out into the future).  Their followers grew impatient and tossed aside the shabby cloak of science.  Marxism revealed itself: the True Faith of utopian socialism.


The utopian roots of socialism.  Next: Part 21, Owen’s Heresy.