Culture's Contemporaneous Effect
This chapter has compared structurally equivalent cases to identify the distinct contribution of cultural assumptions to the status of overlookers. In both Germany and Britain, weaving overlookers occupied an ambiguous position between workers and owners. On the one hand, they sold their labor for a wage, like a worker; on the other, they exercised authority over the production process, like an employer. The production process in textile factories was sufficiently standardized by the late nineteenth century that it offers the comparative analyst approximate controls for differences in the social organization of work. Weaving overlookers in Germany and Britain had the same technical roles, similar locations in the factory hierarchy, similar positions in the labor market, matching levels of pay, and the same responsibilities for supervising workers. Given these structural parallels, the divergent cultural definitions of labor as a commodity in Germany and Britain intervened to give overlookers different statuses. In Britain, the view that labor was sold via its products accentuated the aspect of the overlookers' activity that corresponded to that of a productive agent. In Germany, the view that labor was sold as a service placed an emphasis on the overlookers' exercise of authority in the name of the owner rather than on the delivery of a product; in this manner, the German view defined the overlooker's role as essentially unlike that of a worker.
Historians of late-nineteenth-century factory organization have often emphasized the willingness of British employers to dedicate the real control of production on the shop floor to the workers themselves, particularly to those with craft skills. Compared to capitalists in other countries of the time, economic historians reason, British employers generally enjoyed greater access to pools of highly trained workers who inherited their know-how from the country's generations-long edge in manufacture. Since many British enterprises were founded early in the nineteenth century, when entry costs were lower, British companies in branches of production such as iron and steel production or metal work were smaller and more numerous than counterpart firms in later-developing countries. These circumstances made it more difficult for British firms to muster the great resources needed for investing in new technology and management organization in the course of the century and made it less costly for them to rely instead on the technical and organizational skills of their workers. By this line of reasoning, the British specification of labor as a commodity could well have emerged as a natural reflection of an organizational structure in which employers were compelled to renounce control in reality, not just in ideology, over the conversion of labor power to a product.
A comparative study of the textile industry reveals the limitations of this approach. As we have seen, no prominent organizational differences existed between Germany and Britain in key branches of wool textile production. Yet important cultural differences did arise between them, revealing that the immediate institutional context is not responsible for differences between the materialized specifications of labor as a commodity. At most historical junctures before 1914 in the Yorkshire textile industry, where trade unions were comparatively weak, and at critical moments in the craft trades, such as metal-working after the wholesale defeat of unions in 1898, British employers had carte blanche to reorganize practices on the shop floor to match the self-conscious conversion of labor power to a product. They did not try. What is more, analysts' reasoning in terms of adaptation to inherited constraints and opportunities fails to explain the structure of practices in large, recently founded companies in new branches of produc-
tion, such as motor vehicles. The Engineering Employers' Federation successfully combated the establishment of formal collective bargaining in the British auto industry. Despite the freer rein given to employers to reorganize shop-floor practices in this innovative business, especially after 1922, management left control in the hands of craft workers and relied on payment by results to stimulate productivity. Surely the employers' premises about the labor transaction, not just structural constraints, contributed to these outcomes.
In view of the visible decline in competitiveness among most branches of British industry since 1914, it is all too easy to read history backwards, attributing the differences between German and British practice before 1914 to German owners' greater push for efficiency. But certainly up to 1914, German textile mills did not operate more successfully than their British rivals. In the branches of wool textiles in 1907, the length of cloth produced annually from a loom in Germany approximately equaled that produced in Britain. Among the European competitors, Britain's share of world trade in wool fabric rose in the decade before 1914. In the cotton branch, German businessmen who measured output in Britain near the turn of the century had no doubt that British weaving mills produced more cloth
In both countries the character of textile technology before 1914 discouraged contemplation of the systematic conversion of "labor power" into a product. The raw materials could not be manipulated by the available technology according to standard rules, only by knack that defied analysis. "The loom of today is practically identical with the loom of fifty years ago," the Textile Mercury complained in 1912. "The loom may be ranked today as the crudest piece of widely used mechanism extant." The technician Charles Vikerman remarked in the 1894 edition of his manual on woolen spinning that "no significant technical advance" had occurred in spinning during the preceding fifty years. Technical experts in Germany voiced similar opinions. In the hands of workers with only general experience in a textile branch, the equipment that twisted fiber and finished cloth operated too harshly for satisfactory results. Each town became a specialist in a different range of types of yarn and fabric, due to the mysteriously acquired knack of local labor for pushing obstinate varieties of fibers and yarns through the insensitive machinery. Even in the same neighborhood, however, a manufacturer sometimes failed to turn out a particular weave while the nearest challenger down the street, relying on the same kind of loom and material, succeeded.
The reliance on the workers' knack for product specialties led the participants in the trade to think of fabrics as the result of confecting rather than of manufacturing. Factory managers drew analogies between the spinning
of yarn and the distilling of fine drinks. To produce yarn suited for different kinds of twistings, a director from Bolton explained, "one mill may have five or six different 'mixings,' as they are called, each mixing [of cotton types] more or less skillfully adapted to the requirements of the yarn. This is as important, in its way, as the blending of teas, wines, or spirits." Like the distiller who coped with seasonal variation in the character of the grapes harvested, the spinner dealt with crops of cotton and wool that differed in unpredictable ways, year to year, lot by lot, depending on the season's conditions for growing cotton and raising sheep. Textile production depended on nature in other ways. The direction of the wind affected humidity and temperature and thus yarn breakages, so workers learned to pace their motions in response to the weather. At a mill sheltered behind a hill they learned a different rhythm of work than in a neighboring establishment exposed to the wind.
By reason of this technical foundation, the textile industry developed in both countries into a "folk" trade, dependent on native lore and resistant to systematization. The relatively stagnant design of equipment and the reliance on hit-or-miss tinkering indicates that the specification of labor as a commodity in German textiles did not arise as a consequence of attempts to keep pace with technical change or to rationalize the use of technology. As the introduction of pay by shot first suggested, the German producers imported the definition of labor into the labor process in the early days of the factory system. They maintained their focus on the transfer of labor power to the employer although the surprisingly primitive technology of textile production during the second half of the nineteenth century discouraged employers from methodizing the conversion of labor power into a product. The adoption of a particular concept of labor in Germany did not reflect utilitarian demands but served as a premise for meeting them. The specification of labor was reproduced, not by its conformity with the tech-
nological environment, but through the symbolic configuration of micro-practices that communicated labor's definition.
In this chapter, as in the two preceding, I have relied on three forms of argument to demonstrate that the cross-national divergences in textile factory institutions had a cultural origin. Most important, I have compared similar business environments in detail to rule out alternative, utilitarian explanations for differences in factory procedures—in this instance, the allocation of overlooking costs—or for differences in the ascription of authority. In particular, my comparisons have excluded explanations based on the timing of the founding of textile mills, on adaptation to the business cycle, or on national variation in the factory directors' commitment to improving efficiency. Second, I have shown that the differing views of labor as a commodity in Britain and in Germany extended into minutiae of factory life where variation did not bear strategic consequences, such as the formal methods for distributing overlooking wages over various types of cloth. The shape of practice in these instances, too, is unamenable to utilitarian explanation. Finally, the contrasting cultural definitions of labor as a commodity in Germany and Britain which found expression in the methods of defining overlookers' remuneration serve as the core principles for interpreting an entire constellation of factory customs. The scope of the instrumentalities elucidated by a cultural principle raises our confidence in the method of analysis and challenges the advocates of purely utilitarian reasoning to account for this range of differences between German and British textile mills. Let them bring their case before the court.