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Reworking Class

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Reworking ClassEdited by John R. HallCornell University PressIthaca and LondonWork and Culture in the Receptionof Class IdeologiesRichard BiernackirHE CURRENT PREOCCUPATION OF LABOR HISTORIANS WITH THEexplanatory significance of culture represents in large measure aresponse to a theoretic challenge which Marx set for himself but did notmeet: that of explaining how workers' experience of the labor processguides the formation of their collective movements for social change.In the research agendas of the 1960s to the 1980s, most historians andsociologists of labor qualified the effects of work relations upon workers'allegiance to oppositional movements by highlighting the mediatinginfluences of communal and occupational traditions (Thompson 1963;Sewell i98o;Wilentz 1984). At the close of the 1980s, the course of cri-tique reached its current end point: many now reject out of handattempts to make inferences about the influence of workplace structuresupon workers' ideologies of resistance (Judt 1986; Laclau and Mouffe1985). Analysts underscore instead the constitution of workers' experi-ence through discursive traditions that are maintained in the communityand public sphere (Scott 1988; Sonenscher 1989; Somers 1992).Historical investigators have brought about this change of perspec-tive by conceiving of culture as a discursive framework. They do so whenthey make culture the focal point of empirical inquiry and when theydelineate its formation and influence in concrete settings. It is surpris-ing to say, but the use of this notion of culture in concrete research has169170 • Richard Biernackimisled investigators (even those who are in principle dedicated to culturalexplanations) into embracing economically reductionist accounts when-ever they attempt to explain—not just describe and retell—the formationand adoption of oppositional ideologies. I will illustrate this paradox andoffer an alternative model of culture's role in the crystallization of work-ers' movements, a model centered on the signifying practices of manu-facture in the workplace. For a case example of my approach, 1 present acontrolled comparison of shop-floor procedures in nineteenth-centuryBritish and German textile mills. The symbolic arrangement of manufac-turing techniques in textiles, as in other industries, lent German andBritish workers divergent and nationally distinctive understandings of thetransfer of labor as a commodity before the First World War, and theseunderstandings were carried into the union movements of each country.These specifications of labor as a commodity lent British and Germanworkers correspondingly different notions of exploitation and of thenature of the class boundaries between workers and employers. Disclos-ing the cultural constitution of manufacture makes it feasible to drawdeterminate but nonreductionist linkages between techniques at the pointof production and public ideologies of class resistance.Explanatory DilemmasAlthough debate on culture's influence has outdistanced E. P. Thomp-son's The Making of the English Working Class, this opus reveals the endur-ing dilemmas which have arisen from portraying culture principally as adiscursive framework and, correlatively, from incompletely appraising cul-ture's constitution of the labor process. In Thompson's work, processes ofeconomic change frame the narration of workers' evolving responses.Culture—in this instance, primarily the current of political and moraldiscourses (Thompson 1963, 711)—supplies the material of workers'responses: "They suffered the experience of the Industrial Revolution asarticulate, frecborn Englishmen" (831). Thompson describes the work-place as a site for this personal experience, but he does not set out toshow that the practices of manufacture themselves—the rules for puttingmachines to work, for defining tasks, for distributing workers, for meth-ods of remuneration, and for using the space of the shop or mill—weresystematically patterned by culture. In a word, he highlights the workers'Work and Culture in Class Ideologies • 171development of discursive traditions to interpret productive relations, notthe cultural structure of production. With this perspective, Thompsondepicts the articulation and endorsement of radical ideas in two incom-patible ways. First, he presents it as a process of intellectual "self-making,"for which the life practice of workers cannot account (726-27). Thisstance may trace an intelligible progression in ideologies, but it does notattempt to distinguish the precise causes of their change and persistence.Second, when Thompson enters the field of genuine determinations,he attributes the form and circulation of insurgent ideas to the techno-logical setting, to the degradation of labor, and to economic distress.This second, reductionist choice, as incompatible as it is with thetenor of Thompson's work, often commands the argument of The Mak-ing of the English Working Class (Thompson 1963, 9; Joyce 1995, 78 n. J8).Thompson attaches the sequence of ideological innovation among work-ers to that of industrial advance: "artisan culture had grown more com-plex with each £>hase of technical and social change" (Thompson 1963,830—31). He uncovers the logic of John Thelwall's vision by referring itto the economic position of the petty artisans (156—160). He mechani-cally correlates fluctuations in the propagation of radical ideas with cyclesof "rising prices and of hardship" (185). Most explicitly of all, Thompsonsaccount of the Luddite movement employs images of involuntary humanresponse to deprivation. "People were so hungry," he reasons, "that theywere willing to risk their lives upsetting a barrow of potatoes. In theseconditions, it might appear more surprising if men had not plotted rev-olutionary uprisings than if they had" (592). Thompson is hardly a thor-oughgoing reductionist, but these gestures toward economic determinismrecur because he did not find a satisfactory method for integrating hisinsights into the development of discourses with his accounts of "real"productive relations (Anderson 1980, 39, 47-48; Scott 1994, 375).Thompson is not alone among cultural historians in surreptitiouslyembracing reductionist explanation. In parallel fashion the agenda-set-ting historian Patrick Joyce has drawn correspondences between work-ers'political visions and the crudest economic features of work. In Work,Society and Politics Joyce explains the decline of political radicalism in


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