The Cultural Location of Overlookers
[Persons] performing the same motions side by side, might be said to be performing different acts, in proportion as they differed in their attitudes toward their work.
Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives
Investigators who conduct cross-national studies of the labor process take the "organization" of production as their object of analysis. They assume that cultural differences are revealed in organizational structures. Marc Maurice and his colleagues, in their classic studies of contemporary French, German, and British factories in the 1970s, compared such organizational features as the chain of command, the proportion of blue collar "works" employees, and the distribution of workers among maintenance and production departments. The team of Gary Hamilton, Nicole Woolsey Biggart, and Marco Orrù is bringing this same focus up to date. They have identified national differences within East Asia in the "organizational characteristics" of economic undertakings such as the patterns of subcontracting relations and of social networks for financing. The inquiry at hand diverges from these prior efforts because it finds national differences not in organizational structures but in the humble instrumentalities of production, in the micro-procedures by which workers and employers treated labor as a commodity that could be registered, manipulated, and accounted for. Consider our initial exemplar, the construction of the piece-rate scales, which specified the terms by which weavers' labor was valorized. The piece schedules anchored the essential terms of the labor transaction. Yet obviously the functioning of the piece-rate scales—or of the indicators for output, or of accounting for the
costs of weaving—did not comprise part of the organizational structure of the factory, insofar as they did not by themselves constitute significant differences in job responsibilities or in social interaction among the agents of production in the workplace. They point to a dimension of production separate from face-to-face interaction and distinct from social structure. They mark the formation of inconspicuous but vital micro-procedures for conceiving the valorization of labor.
The constraints of the manufacturing process in nineteenth-century textile mills provide uniquely favorable terrain for illustrating the analytic difference between organizational structure and the instrumentalities of discipline and production on the shop floor. The historian Sidney Pollard, in his distinguished essays on the development of industrial supervision, offered a remarkable comment about the textile business: although this trade included some of the most dynamic enterprises of the first phase of industrialization, it seemed to Pollard that even for the early, "heroic" stage of textile development there was less to be said about administration in this branch of enterprise than in many others. He reasoned that the labor process in the mills was so circumscribed by its essential machinery (in comparison with mining or metal-working) that little scope remained for originality in the layout or design of production. By the latest evidence of the day, some may question Pollard's logic, but we have faint reason to revise his judgment as a statement of historical fact, at least for a comparison of weaving mills. Yet the relative uniformity of industrial organization in this branch of production, far from closing it off to cultural examination, provides a privileged site for highlighting the lodgement of different cultural practices in similar social organizations.
The separability of social organization and micro-procedures becomes evident in the ensemble of practices that defined the activity and the labor contribution of textile factory supervisors. In the weaving branch, overlookers in Germany and Britain had similar training, the same position in the chain of command, and parallel job responsibilities. Yet contrasting procedures were used to conceptualize their wage and to account for its cost to the firm, and the concepts used to compare and distinguish overlookers from workers were different indeed. In other words, although the overlookers had
the same productive functions in each country, these functions received divergent cultural inscriptions.
In the movement of production, weaving supervisors stood in a structurally ambiguous position: they were paid for their labor, in some form, like any other employee; yet in the name of the capitalist they also supervised underlings' performance. Given the overlookers' equivocal status, the definition of the employment transaction in Britain as the delivery of materialized labor could highlight the aspect of the overlookers' activity which corresponded to that of productive agents who incorporated their labor into the product of their subordinates. In Germany, given the same job functions and responsibilities of overlookers, the cultural understanding of employment as the transfer of a service potential framed the overlookers' activity as the execution of the owner's authority over subordinates. The definition of the textile overlookers' role depended upon the template by which labor was commodified, rather than upon differences in the distribution of responsibilities, technology, markets, or societal differences in the style of command in private and public organizations.
Imagining the Overlookers' Contribution
The purchase of labor in the capitalist enterprise confronts social agents with a paradox when they analyze expenses and earnings. The moment workers expend their efforts, their labor no longer belongs to them and cannot be sold. Therefore as a visibly constructive activity, labor lacks an exchange value. It exists as a commodity in the marketplace as a projected activity or as it is materialized in another good—in effect it is brought to market before it is created and remunerated as it disappears into another object.
Yet textile directors had to quantify this apparition. To establish the receipt of labor at a cost, textile employers in Britain and Germany confronted a challenge more difficult than the one they encountered in draw-
ing up scales for the weavers. To establish the price of weavers' labor, owners resorted to measuring the product, either as an index of activity or as a vessel for materialized labor, and on either basis compared the value of fabrics that differed only in their formal properties. For the overlookers' pay scales, however, it was not immediately evident to employers and workers whether there was in fact any "product" of the overlookers' activity to take as an emblem for labor. Overlookers assisted in manufacturing but did not accomplish the weaving themselves. Employers relied upon fictive concepts of labor as a commodity to identify the contribution of the overlookers' activity to the company's overall production effort. To isolate the independent effect of these shared concepts on owners' decisions, we must appreciate the overlookers' visible functions in the weaving process.
In contrast with such enterprises as mining or steel, where an owner needed the overlookers to guide and coordinate the labor of work teams, the role of overlookers in weaving rested more exclusively on an immediate technical demand: namely, the need of prewar power looms for frequent repair, for replacement of worn parts, and for adjustment to each change in fabric pattern. Certainly up to the time of the First World War, looms required constant repair. Even for the most experienced weavers, the loom's output in experimental trials varied considerably with the attention given by the overlooker to the instrument's ongoing adjustment. Textile directors in both Germany and Britain assigned each overlooker responsibility for maintaining a number of looms grouped together in a section of the weaving room. Having a team of overlookers take collective responsibility for all the looms in a room proved impossible, for each machine in the mill had its quirks and idiosyncratic history of repairs. Overlookers worked most efficiently on machines they knew individually. At mills that manufactured short runs of different kinds of fabric the overlookers might also take responsibility for assigning warps to particular weavers.
The weaving overlookers in Germany and Britain also shared the same position in the factory hierarchy. Above them stood the foremen, usually assigned one to a department. Below stood only the weavers themselves. Depending on the difficulty of the pattern and the fragility of the materials, a weaver served from one to four looms: in cotton, four represented the norm; in worsteds, two; and in woolens, one. Any attempt to formulate these averages in a straightforward manner brings out a host of exceptions. Yet in both countries these assignments were the typical ones.
Just as the ratios of looms to weavers corresponded in Germany and Britain, so did the ratios of looms to overlookers. Although employers in both countries saw the overlookers as the key agents responsible for the maintenance of discipline in the mill, the need for adjusting the machinery rather than the need for oversight set the major boundaries for the hiring and allocation of overlookers within the factory. Hardly any manager considered hiring more overlookers than necessary for servicing the looms, although additional superintendents might have offered tighter surveillance over the weavers and greater opportunity to catch faults before weavers ruined a run of cloth. One director of a Yorkshire woolen mill said, "It is far better that the [overlooking] staff should be inadequate rather than too numerous, for men are never so discontented as when they have too little work to do." The precise ratio of overlookers to looms depended primarily on the design of the machine. In both countries, according to oral reports and technical journals, an overlooker for, say, narrow, plain cotton cloth had in his section eighty to one hundred looms and, for checked cotton cloth, fifty to seventy. Due perhaps to relative stagnation in mechanical design in the decades near the turn of the century, these ratios remained stable from at least the 1880s until the
First World War. In silk mills, both German and British businessmen considered fifty looms per overlooker the maximum. In the woolen trade, an overlooker might have charge of fewer than twenty-five looms. The matched numbers of looms per German and English overlooker across the wool, cotton, and silk branches suggests that the actual division of labor in weaving followed down-to-earth technical imperatives in the two countries.
Contemporaries believed that the supply of capable overlookers by far exceeded the demand. Until the First World War, weaving overlookers seldom received specialized technical training, apart from optional attendance at night school. The earliest German investigations into the availability of overlookers, undertaken by the factory inspectorate in 1887, concluded that in Germany as a whole employers very seldom complained of shortages of skilled overlooking applicants. Overlookers' associations in Germany had members on call to fill in or to take up permanent positions.
In Bradford, Yorkshire, the weaving overlookers' union considered the surplus of overlookers so serious that after the turn of the century it periodically prohibited its members from taking on apprentices, even their own sons. The abundance of qualified overlookers in Yorkshire can also be assessed from the circumstance that some owners there, to take advantage of the competition for overlooking jobs, opened bids from candidates for a position and hired the person making the lowest offer. The overlookers may have dominated their underlings, but above the overlookers there towered a forbidding market.
In view of the parallels in weaving overlookers' technical responsibilities and market predicaments in the two countries, it ought not to occasion surprise that German and British weaving overlookers also shared about the same levels of pay, reckoned as a proportion of that received by an average weaver under them. The Board of Trade in the United Kingdom found in its survey of 1906 that overlookers in the north of England earned 50 to 75 percent more than an average weaver. Local surveys and company wage books in Germany reveal about the same differential.
If the level of compensation for overlookers was proportionately equal between the two countries, the business procedures for conceiving it followed contrasting principles. In Lancashire, by "universal custom," an overlooker received the whole of his pay in the form of a commission. It was reckoned as a fraction of all the pay received by the weavers in his section. An overlooker earned a certain amount—from a shilling and twopence up to a shilling and fourpence—on each pound sterling of the weavers' take-home pay. This equaled a commission of 5 to 7 percent. The participants called this the "poundage" system (referring to the unit of currency, of course, not that of weight). Elsewhere in the north of England the methods by which overlookers received their pay varied. In Yorkshire, only 8 percent of overlookers received their wage exclusively in the form of a commission. More often, each received a minimum weekly sum, supplemented by a bonus determined by the earnings of their subordinate weavers.
A variety of payment conventions for textile overlookers also arose in Germany, but remuneration purely by commission was extremely rare. German weaving overlookers, including the lowest loom fixers, generally
worked for a fixed weekly wage. They also received year-end salary bonuses. In contrast to arrangements in Britain, a major portion of the German textile overlookers' compensation seldom fluctuated with the productivity of the immediate underlings they assisted.
How did German and British employers imagine they received the commodity of labor from overlookers? In the case of the overlookers, unlike the weavers, the product could not be decomposed to serve as a model for the activity put into it. For the overlookers we must look beyond the form of remuneration to consider how employers apportioned the cost of overlooking wages in their company books. Since each textile enterprise manufactured a spectrum of products, companies had to estimate the expense of producing each type of fabric. With the maturing of the industry and the consequent crowding of the yarn and cloth markets, cost accounting became increasingly important for the survival of the enterprises in both Germany and Britain. "Many mill men will say with pride that they can tell what it costs to produce a pound of yarn, or a yard of cloth, to a small fraction of a penny," the Textile Manufacturer reported in 1907. Although directors and
their scriveners tallied labor expenses with great precision, they used contrasting reasoning in Germany and England when they conjectured about the expense of overlooking for different fabrics.
Managers in Yorkshire who cared to reckon their expenses with precision used different methods than in Lancashire, yet in both districts they followed a logic that was generically different from that used in Germany. In Lancashire, the system of pay directly reveals the accounting method in use: owners automatically lumped the overlooker's wage together with the weaver's wage in the cost of each piece. If the employer wanted to handle not only the weaver's labor but also the supervisory and technical contribution of the overlooker as a commodity embodied in the finished product, this method was the most suitable. It offered a formal advantage in the event of a downturn: not only did overlookers' wages decline automatically, but they did so exactly proportionately to weavers' wages, as if to buy exactly so much "labor" from the overlookers as was necessary for the productive tasks at hand. In terms of Weber's criterion of formal calculability, this system of pay ranks as the most rational: it makes supervisory "labor" a totally flexible production factor. The employer remained free to buy only so much "labor" as he needed at the moment and could shift all the uncertainties of the demand for labor onto the overlookers themselves.
Although the Lancashire system had a high degree of formal rationality, its measure of the "labor" purchased had little to do with the substantive realities of production. Because it piggybacked an overlooker's wages onto those of the weavers, the Lancashire procedure gave an overlooker a bonus when the weavers in his section wove cloth with complicated patterns, which required more skill and thus commanded higher wages. But the overlooker might not be called upon to do proportionately more tuning for the weavers in this case; he received a bonus for their skill unrelated to his own input of time or effort. (Furthermore, an overlooker might let the machinery fall into a poor state of repair and then move to another shop, reaping the pay in the short term for the completed fabric and avoiding the long-term investment in equipment maintenance.) No matter what the conse-
quences, the Lancashire system looked at the value of the labor embodied in the product and reckoned backwards to surmise the overlookers' contribution embodied in the product.
The Yorkshire costing method shared the premise of the Lancashire system that the overlookers' wages ought to be figured as if their labor were embodied in the fabric like other workers'. In Yorkshire, the textile book-keepers costed the production expenses of a particular run of cloth by adding the overlooking wages onto the cloth in the same manner as finishing and burling wages: by length of the fabric. The firm took its total cloth production for a year, in yards, and divided this by the overlookers' wage bill for the year. (Less often, the average costs were tallied separately for several major varieties of fabric.) For purposes of costing a particular fabric, Yorkshire mill accountants treated overlookers' salaries as "Productive Wages," together with those of the finishers and burlers and with those of the weavers. Company records show that the overlookers' costs were distributed per piece of fabric, adjusted for length.
In Germany, standard accounting procedures separated the overlookers' wages from those of the subordinate workers. The clerks merged the costs of overlookers' salaries with the costs of machinery, insurance, property taxes, energy, and so forth into a category called Regiekosten. A modern accountant might translate this as "administrative overhead," but the term also connotes something like "costs of directing production." Having created this general classification, German factory owners relied upon two different methods to distribute the costs of supervision onto a weaving mill's product. With the first method, German accountants calculated how long it took a loom to turn out a particular length of cloth, based on the average efficiency ratio for the firm as a whole or for that particular kind of cloth; then the annual overhead, including the overlookers' salaries, was added to the cloth based on how much of the loom's time, including the changing of the warp, the piece would have been expected to claim. The
German accountants apportioned the wage costs of the ordinary weavers by a different means than they used for the overlookers; they simply read off the amount specified on the piece-rate scales for fabric of a certain grade. But they did not merge overlooking outlays with these expenses, because they did not regard the costs of overlooking as a form of wages (Arbeitslöhne ).
German accountants also used another system for distributing overlooking costs. This second method distributed weaving overlookers' wages, like other overhead costs, as a percentage of material costs and ordinary workers' wages. The firm recorded its total annual expenditure for ordinary wages and materials and then calculated the ratio of this total expenditure to the yearly overhead expenses, including overlooking. For each piece of cloth, then, the company first considered the cost of the materials that went into it, plus the piece-rate wages for the weaving and warping and the average per meter for burling and finishing. Then the firm assumed that for this particular length and type of cloth, the ratio of these primary costs to overhead costs should be the same as for the mill's output in general, so the firm added on this standard percentage to arrive at the cost of that cloth.
Both German methods merged funds expended on overlooking with general overhead, processing overlooking expenses as part of the underlying cost of maintaining the firm, not, as in England, as an ingredient, like weavers' labor, that was used up and embodied in a length of cloth. Neither German method distributed overlooking outlays as a separate component per length of the cloth, as the Yorkshire and Lancashire systems did. In particular, the first of the German methods considered only the time required to turn out a number of shots with a given efficiency ratio rather than the length, that is, rather than the product. This German method
operated more accurately at a given juncture in the business cycle than the Yorkshire method, in that its focus on the activity also properly measured the time taken up by producing the various densities of cloth, whereas the British either proceeded by length alone or by only a few benchmark densities for which separate yearly tallies could be kept. The Yorkshire method, however, ran with greater accuracy than the German over long time periods, in that overlooking outlays were distributed per length as a separate component rather than as capital investments, which might not behave like overlooking costs through the business cycle.
What, then, were the practical implications of the methods of allocating overlooking expenses? British costing rested on the assumption that overlooking represented a cost that fluctuated with output: under the Lancashire procedure, if a mill turned out more fabric than the previous year and improved its efficiency, overlooking expenses in costing procedures for the following year remained constant per cloth length. This also meant that overlooking costs rose both absolutely and, since capital overhead for machinery would decline per length, as a proportion of total manufacturing costs per length as well. The system treated the overlooker's contribution as an ingredient embedded in the product. Cloth had the same "amount" of this input even if efficiency improved. The Yorkshire costing procedure assumed that overlookers' pay would behave like the pay of other ordinary workers, that is, would remain stable per length of cloth.
Under the German accounting system, if the factory improved its efficiency after the course of a year, then for costing purposes in the following year the expenses of overlooking, like other overhead, would decline as a proportion of total manufacturing costs per length. Companies treated overlookers' supervision as a precondition for production, part of the "base" for manufacturing, rather than as a quantity which was incorporated into the product. This procedure incarnated a cultural procedure more than it corresponded to the actual conditions of production; in practice, the Germans dismissed overlookers in the event of a business downturn, so overlookers' pay did not represent a fixed cost like that of a standing loom or like the company's key clerical staff.
Can we derive the difference in these procedures from the demands of the business environment? Is it plausible that the German costing procedures in textiles, which fused overlooking costs with general fixed expenses, resulted from a greater tolerance for high or invariable outlays on supervision? German business manuals argued that if a firm confronted a need to reduce manufacturing costs, it caused less turmoil in the factory to cut the salaries of the overlookers than the piece rates of the workers. German business magazines stressed the need to cap outlays for overlooking. Want ads in German professional journals sometimes specified a preference for unmarried applicants among candidates for overlooking positions, presumably so that the applicant could accept a lower salary or undertake repair work during the evenings as needed. The contrast in accounting logic for overlooking outlays did not mirror thrifty administration in Britain and prodigal management in Germany.
To attribute the difference in modes of payment to Britain's "earlier" industrial development would be fashionable but unduly facile. The British arrangement resembles systems of management which have been called "subcontracting" or "indirect control." In many branches of industry, the pioneering factory owners, unable or unwilling to take direct command of production on the shop floor, started by delegating authority to their foremen, whom they paid by the turn-out of goods (and who in turn hired and
controlled their own workers). Research in a range of historical settings, from Europe to Japan, has found that in the early industrial era, systems which paid overlookers as subcontractors predominated in many trades. At a time when manufacturing still depended on craft knowledge or on the secret know-how of the overlookers and foremen, graded monetary sanctions gave owners the only feasible check on, and evaluation of, the overlookers' loyalty and efficiency. An explanation of the British method of paying weaving overlookers based on this ground seems especially plausible since Lancashire, the earliest center of the textile industry, also offered the practice's clearest expression.
Yet such an argument based on the timing of development does not apply to the question at hand. The Wuppertal, a forerunner for the rest of Germany, moved only a few decades behind Lancashire in mechanizing its weaving mills; indeed, in wool weaving it kept pace with Yorkshire. But the Wuppertal had a pure salary system for overlookers and allocated overlooking costs as a fixed expense. Even if payment by results first arose in an earlier stage of development, its survival depended on active propagation, not institutional inertia. Management experts contended that the commissions graded by weavers' wages "stimulated" overlookers' interest in efficient production and encouraged them to be punctual. At J. T. and T. Taylor's mill at Batley, Yorkshire, in 1912 managers shifted the overlook-
ers to pay based solely on output. The methods British owners used to remunerate overlookers resulted from contemporaneous reasoning rather than unexamined tradition inherited from an earlier phase of development.
A final utilitarian approach to the difference between Germany and England might dissect the consequences of the payment methods for production costs. The textile industry was exposed to price fluctuations on both the input and the output side. On the input side, since the trade's raw materials consisted of vegetable and animal products, their prices varied with the weather and growing conditions. Raw cotton prices could change by as much as 50 percent in a few months, and prices for wool yarn fluctuated even more severely. Merchants and manufacturers alike speculated in the market for these raw commodities. On the output side, the fortunes of many firms and of whole branches depended, season to season, on unforeseeable shifts in clothing fashions.
If a company cut back on production, the Lancashire and Yorkshire systems, by basing the overlookers' wages on those of the weavers, automatically reduced overlooking expenses. At first blush, the German technique would seem to rigidify overlookers' salaries; but in the event of a downturn owners simply laid overlookers off. In 1893 and 1894, members of the German overlookers' and foremen's union (which, to be sure, included non-textile overlookers) reported nearly eight hundred cases of changes of employers; of these, 60 percent were due to the employer having given notice.
Alternatively, mill directors could reduce the days of work and pay of those German overlookers on weekly wages. In short, the German procedure featured a degree of elasticity. The two systems did not diverge greatly in their ability to conform to the business cycle.
Finally, mills in both countries specializing in long runs of fabric for which demand was relatively stable did not deviate from the standards set by firms with fluctuating orders. The same accounting logic prevailed regardless of the market niche in which the firm operated, from simple towel makers to fancy goods manufacturers. It also applied to the spinning branch. This relative invariance within each country makes it implausible to contend that the variation in accounting systems evolved to cope with differing business experiences.
The owners' payment of overlookers and their procedures for allocating overlooking expenses fit the commodity forms of labor German and British producers used in carrying out production. As in the construction of weavers' piece-rate scales, so with overlookers the British relied upon the fiction that owners buy the labor embodied in completed products. The employers paid overlookers so much per length of cloth received and calculated the cost as if it represented labor incorporated as a fixed expense in each portion of cloth. As a British textile accountant put it, all machine workers "expend direct labor," because their work is "seen in the finished product." The guidelines for discharging weaving overlookers in Britain also confirmed that overlookers received their payment for materialized labor. In many districts, a weaving overlooker was not to leave his place of employment until the weavers he had supervised had turned in all the cloth he had
superintended. Otherwise, the overlooker had not "delivered" his labor and did not receive credit for it.
As in the measurement of weavers' activity, so with the overlookers the German producers relied upon the fiction that employers had the right of disposal over the workers' capacity and effort. The German procedure for adding up production expenses mixed the elements of supervisory labor and capital expenditure in apportioning overhead costs. In an accounting manual written in 1903, a costing expert from Aachen saw no incongruity in combining these elements: he suggested a 50 percent cost addition for a category called "overlookers' salaries, electricity, and steam" and joined together supervisory costs and the depreciation costs of looms. The German accountants handled the overlookers' labor capacity as a kind of "human capital," a conveyable resource rather than a substance received in a product.
To trace the construction of a "commodity" out of the ephemeral activity of the overlookers we have so far relied upon the cultural assumptions inscribed in manufacturing practice. In contexts where these suppositions had to be articulated explicitly, they can be found in discursive practice as well. The assumption in Germany that textile supervisors sold the disposition over their work activity, not merely objectified labor, came to light in the judicial interpretation of overlookers' employment contracts. The most arresting legal question for German mill owners in 1911, gauging by the coverage given it by the trade's professional journals, centered on a complaint filed by an overlooker in a town near Düsseldorf. Today the minutiae of this conflict seem, in a word, dull—but not the participants' perception of the facts. The news accounts indicate that the owner of a silk mill hired a certain Herr K. in 1910 to oversee his dyeing department. By the terms of the four-year contract they concluded, the foreman held the title of Obermeister (chief foreman) and headed the whole department. He agreed to obey the firm's production directives under all circumstances. Twelve months after the start of the agreement, the owner found it necessary to divide the velvet section from the remainder of the dyeing department, and
he entrusted supervision of the new section to another person. Herr K. retained his title and salary. Yet he charged the owner with a violation of the employment contract on the grounds that the owner had to let him keep the entire department or dismiss him altogether. Before the provincial court in Düsseldorf, Herr K. demanded payment in full of his remaining (three years') salary, since the contract specified that this was due to him in case of dismissal.
How is it that this course of events, whose unfolding makes today for such pedestrian reading, managed to hold the interest of contemporaries? The manner in which the business community endowed the conflict with significance represents an odd fact; its strangeness offers a riddle about the culture of production.
Although the courts ultimately resolved the suit through an evaluation of the pettiest terms of the employment contract, the business community thought that the case raised a basic question about the nature of the factory staff's employment contract. Owners and staff asked whether Herr K. might not have "the right to fully utilize his own capacity for work." One technical journal summed up the issue at stake this way: "A company official, who has bound himself by a contract, naturally has the duty to place his full abilities at the disposal of the enterprise; but it is not so automatic that he also has the right to see that his capacity for work is taken advantage of to the full." Certainly this organ's coverage of the affair threw the foreman's right into question. Yet in its analysis the magazine formulated the possibility of the right as the reverse side of the foreman's contractual obligations. And in so doing the journal, like the foreman's lawyer, revealed something about the business community's understanding of the labor transaction that was set in motion by the employment contract.
In formulating Herr K.'s rights, the press assumed that he offered for remuneration, not the successful turn-out of a quantity of dyed materials, but the disposition of his activity. The business community took the foreman's Arbeitskraft as the basis of the exchange, applying the same generic term for the factory official's productive capacities as for those of ordinary workers. This focus on the sale of the capacity for executing work, rather than on its external outcomes, was widespread: in discussions of the legal fine points of hiring factory staff, German business periodicals did not state,
for example, that by accepting a position factory officials obligated themselves to do the best job they could for the owner; they said that the staff had to devote all their abilities and knowledge to the interests of the owner. Only with the premised sale of "labor power" in view could the foreman's lawyer possibly have articulated his client's complaint in terms of a "right to the full exploitation of his labor power." Since the owner understood that he bought the foreman's full capacity, the argument went, he could not alter that capacity's sphere of operation or application. The contract's provision that the owner still had to pay Herr K.'s full salary even in case of dismissal also follows the supposition that the contract covers the disposition of the activity rather than of the output: Herr K. offered up his full capacities and therefore deserved compensation for having offered them even after he was released from the firm.
In its decision the provincial court of Düsseldorf in 1911 sided with Herr K. The owner appealed the decision on the grounds that it interfered with his prerogative to manage his own business. Finally in 1912 the imperial court at Berlin ruled for the owner; it judged that if the owner had the right to dispense with the foreman's services (at the cost of paying him his full salary), then the owner also had the right to dispense with a part of the foreman's services. In this instance the court ranked the right to full exploitation of one's labor capacity as subordinate to another principle—the owner's management authority. For my cultural analysis the fact of primary significance is simply that the conflict was expressed in terms of the sale of Arbeitskraft at all.
My interpretation of the German courts' emphasis on labor power, far from representing a kind of philosophic abstraction, does nothing more than follow the thoughts of the participants themselves. In an age when owners usually regarded the small stratum of professional employees as a species apart from the manual workers under command, the owners nonetheless used the term labor power for a factory official's technical services. Only
on the basis of logical assumptions about labor activity on behalf of the enterprise in general could they have abstracted this essential similarity between types of action whose overt appearances and prestige seemed otherwise so discrepant.
If the history of Herr K. discloses something about Germans' perception of the labor activity in general, as opposed to something about the status of overlookers, then we ought to be able to find analogous cases for lower grades of workers. This poses a special challenge, since most factory labor codes governing the employment relation specified the owner's right to switch ordinary workers to another machine or task. Yet a German technical journal in 1900 described a dispute involving a lower worker that offers a close parallel to Herr K.'s case.
The facts of the case were these: a regular factory hand in Berlin stayed on the job after a portion of his company's work force began a strike. The management suspected the worker of organizing support for the strikers at the shop. It requested that he cease actual labor but continue to show up briefly at the company's desk twice each day. In this fashion the firm could isolate him from his fellows but avoid freeing him for an entire day to earn money elsewhere. These check-ins were to continue during four weeks, because, according to the factory labor code issued by the owner, both worker and owner had to give four weeks' notice if they wanted to terminate the employment contract. During this period the firm offered to continue paying the worker his full wage. But the worker objected that unless he worked, he was not obligated to check in at the office at all. After the firm fired him, he complained in court that four weeks' pay was due him for his unjustified removal. His employer argued in court that by requesting that the worker check in, he had simply wished to verify the worker's readiness to work (Arbeitsbereitschaft ). In any event, the employer reasoned, a worker had to report in twice during a regular workday, so the firm was not demanding anything exceptional of him. In the dangerous atmosphere of a strike and at a court which was not known for its support of workers' interests, the judge ruled in favor of the worker. "The plaintiff had a right during the [four-week] interim period not just to payment of his wages," the judge decided, "but to the carrying out of his contractual employment as well."
The Berlin court's decision attached the complex of legal norms to the employee as a bearer of work capacity, not to a person who merely received pay. In a similar case a decade later, the business court of the city of Chemnitz judged that the employment contract required the owner to use the workers' labor capacity and not merely to guarantee compensation. In Britain, by contrast, the laws pertaining to employment were the same as those covering agreements for the delivery of products. Workers could be dismissed without obligation, even if the employment contract required prior notice, so long as they received compensation for the work they could otherwise have completed. The concepts of labor that the manufacturers enacted in practice, the courts sanctified in words.
Forms of Authority
German and British weaving overlookers shared the same dependencies and capabilities with respect to employers above and weavers below. In each country the structure of the production site generated similar conflicts among these parties. Yet due to the understandings of labor as a commodity, the paradigms on which people could draw for interpreting friction varied between Germany and Britain, endowing identical problems with contrasting significance. The British and German definitions of labor as a commodity hold contrasting implications for the owner's authority in the workplace. The German view of employment as the command of "labor power" made the exercise of authority over the execution of work an integral part of the process of earning a profit. The German view unified the relations of appropriation and domination. When capitalists purchased "labor power," their receipt of a profit depended on how successfully they converted that labor capacity into labor itself. Without the immediate domination of the worker, the owner did not appropriate a surplus. Marx believed as a matter of theory, not of rhetoric, that the capitalist organization of work was despotic. Although profit may have been realized through exchange on the market, it was generated and appropriated in production.
The purchase of embodied labor in Britain, by contrast, denied any necessary connection between the exercise of authority and the generation of profit. The producers may certainly have believed that the factory proprietor took advantage of his command over capital to pay workers less than he ought. Even so, the owner secured a surplus through an exchange relation
set up by the trade of resources rather than in an immediate relation of domination. The generation and appropriation of surplus were accomplished at a remove, not through the owner's command over the labor potential and person of the worker and not through the owner's authority over social relations in the factory.
Weaving offers an exemplary environment in which to explore the influence of these concepts of labor as a commodity, because the technical characteristics of the labor process made the overlooker's role more ambiguous in this than in many other industries. Weavers worked on their own when all was well with their looms; the overlooker did not coordinate the work of machines or of people, nor was he required to show initiative in leading a team of workers. He did not have to exercise authority as an intrinsic part of his technical function. Furthermore, the overlooker did not contribute to output by combining in his department diverse outputs or mechanical procedures; he only aggregated outputs from similar machinery. Production was the sum of the individual loom outputs, a feature which made it easier to think of the overlooker as bestowing his labor upon the lengths of cloth rather than as acting in the capacity of a manager. Textile businessmen in Britain referred to their weaving overlookers as machine "operatives," even when they gave overlookers the right to hire and fire subordinates. Finally, in comparison with a metal-working plant, where each of a company's overlookers might have command over a set of different machine tools and make different kinds of products, a weaving mill had many weaving overlookers, each with a quota of similar kinds of machinery. Because they could compare overlookers who did the identical jobs and they hired many different overlookers for the same job, owners could equate the overlookers' labor and think of it as a homogeneous "input" bestowed upon the fabric.
In this complex situation, how did people on the shop floor define the role of the overlooker? The words used in Britain to designate the overlooker's occupation offer evidence of the participants' emphasis on his role as a technical and productive one. Mill workers in Yorkshire, and on some occasions the owners as well, called their weaving overseers tuners , a title which put these employees' technical function before their supervisory one. The word overlooker may have appeared in management journals and social
scientific descriptions, but not in the ordinary language of the people on the shop floor. Their interviews and their union newspapers' descriptions of mill life used the word tuner. In Lancashire the popular term was tackler , a metonymic derivative that referred to the overlooker's tools—his tackle—rather than to his authority and place in the chain of command.
The evolution of textile production from home weaving to the centralized factory allows the analyst to place the dimensions of the overlookers' role—the exercise of a technical skill and the exercise of authority over other people—in a diachronic progression. Loom tuning or tackling had become a recognized occupation in England and on the Continent before the rise of the factory system. By the early nineteenth century handlooms had become complicated enough that special tuners made house calls to fix or adjust them. In this era the fixers were commonly called loomers. (If the fixer specialized in dobby looms, which had parts called witches, the occupation's popular title carried a pun: "witch doctors.") The chore of overseeing workers' conduct was added to the "looming" occupation with the rise of factory production. But when the occupation acquired a new popular name in the transition, the workers did not apply to the overlookers the range of terms, such as gaffer or simply boss , that they used for persons in higher authority.
In Germany, despite a path of structural evolution similar to Britain's, the overlookers' titles did refer to their supervisory responsibilities rather than to their technical function alone. The lowest-level weaving overlooker, who had responsibility for a certain section of looms, the workers called the Webmeister ("weaving master") or Reviermeister ("section master"). In contrast to the English weaving overlooker, the German overlooker bore a title that placed him in an integrated system of supervision, part of a hierarchy of officials. The system gave higher-level foremen the title of Saalmeister ("room master") or Werkmeister ("shop master").
These phrases were not empty punctilios; they betrayed the essence of the overlookers' performance in Germany. German officials articulated
the overlookers' role when they were called upon to elucidate a new pension law for "professional technical workers." The law, which took effect in 1913, was based on the longstanding proviso that employers contribute to a comprehensive pension and insurance fund for white-collar workers. It extended this requirement to cover higher-level workers in the workshops as well (technische Angestellte ). Government administrators had to decide exactly which persons the law admitted to the pension system as professional technical workers. According to the district reports submitted to the German Foremen's Union, the owners of large weaving mills recognized the weaving overlookers (Webmeister ) as such professionals for insurance purposes without hesitation. But some employers tried to evade requests for insurance coverage by changing the overlookers' occupational titles from Meister of various sorts to mere Vorarbeiter ("preparatory workers").
To adjudicate the resulting disputes, the imperial insurance bureau in Berlin studied in detail the functions of overlookers in the weaving branch. How could this office decide whom to designate as a professional, not just as a schooled technical expert? In the end officials took the employees' exercise of an oversight function, rather than their level of technical expertise, as the critical requirement for classification as a professional. If weaving overlookers did simple manual work such as installing the warps, they were still higher-level professional workers so long as they also were in charge of watching the weaving process, distributing warps, or enforcing the factory work codes. In another illustration of the importance given to authority, the imperial insurance bureau decided that in departments smaller than the weaving rooms, such as those for carding or dyeing, supervisors had to have at least two workers under them to be classified as tech-
nical professionals (technische Angestellte ). Income levels and the time intervals by which the salary was calculated were judged to be irrelevant. Command over other workers was considered the distinctive part of the overlookers' work role. Even technically trained foremen complained that they were viewed by some employers "only as a driver of the employed workers."
When the German courts were called upon to interpret the overlookers' labor contracts, they too made the exercise of authority delegated by the owner an essential part of the employment relation. By the provisions of the German business law, overlookers, unlike ordinary workers, could be dismissed without the usual notice required by contract if they were proven "disloyal" in their service. What constituted "disloyal" conduct? The construals of the courts discloses the conventional interpretation of the labor transaction. An industry journal, in an article about the legal definition of an overlooker that appeared in 1912, asserted that an overlooker, by the implicit terms of the labor contract, "obligated himself to devote his skills fully and completely to the interests of the employer." In this magazine's view, overlookers became instruments of the owners' will, and to support this claim it cited legal verdicts. The German courts had ruled that overlookers, unlike ordinary workers, could not give notice together at a firm. Giving such notice would amount to an attempt to bargain collectively for better employment conditions and therefore would mean that the overlookers were no longer acting "faithfully" to advance the proprietors' interests.
The employment contract was void if the overlookers did not minister to the owners as servants.
This bond of service let the courts designate overlookers as literal agents of the owners. According to German law, if a worker grossly insulted the employer, he or she could be dismissed immediately. The statutes, however, did not specifically address the question of whether overlookers, like owners, enjoyed this privilege. When the courts were called upon for an interpretation, they decided that even the lowest-level overlooker ought to be regarded as an "agent of the employer." On these grounds, disrespect toward an overlooker equaled a direct insult to the owner. The German judicial review for business courts reprinted the rulings of the imperial court in Berlin that emphasized the view that overlookers were agents of the proprietors. The review in 1901 summed up the precedents: "The authority of the employer is transferred to the foreman, for without the accompanying carryover of the 'prestige' of the owner, the transfer of part of the owner's legitimate authority would be unthinkable, otherwise it [the transfer] would directly contradict the interests of the employer, for whose protection the transfer is consummated." The authority of the employer was distilled in the overlooker's everyday activities.
Although the specification of the overlooker's labor as a ware differed between Germany and Britain and the exercise of authority by overlookers carried different implications, the responsibilities of the overlookers in the two countries did not diverge. Even in the most important area in which overlookers exercised authority—in hiring—the German and the British overlookers occupied approximately equivalent positions. To be sure, one finds great variation within each country in the weaving overlookers' responsibilities for production. There were two benchmark systems. Under the first, the owners or mill directors took responsibility for recruiting and hiring new workers and assigned them to overlookers as
they pleased. Under the second system, overlookers or departmental foremen did the hiring entirely on their own. This could lead to extreme decentralization: at a mill near Bradford, a female weaver whom an overlooker fired in 1902 for acting as a ringleader in a "disturbance" immediately found a job under a different overlooker at the same firm. These two pure systems of responsibility for hiring, in which either factory directors or the overlookers themselves took sole responsibility for hiring, formed in both countries the exception rather than the rule. Between the two extremes lay various mixtures of authority between overlookers and higher managers. At many factories, the overlooker did the hiring, but the director exercised veto power or carried out an interview with each worker before the final decision. At others the manager did the hiring but restricted the main field of candidates to people recruited or recommended by the overlooker.
In these mixed systems of hiring the producers never arrived at consistent rules for finding new hires. If a manager happened to see a vacant loom one morning, he might immediately put someone on without asking the overlooker, yet assume that the overlooker as a matter of routine would fill
other empty looms. This vague apportionment of responsibility for hiring at mills in northern England could result in overlookers and managers at a firm promising the same loom to more than one person. Workers in Yorkshire complained that when they wanted to leave the firm they did not know to whom they should give notice. Likewise in Germany the weavers said they were unsure about which of their supervisors was "really the master" and whose permission they needed to take a day off. In Germany, on the one hand the newspapers of the textile workers criticized overlookers for abusing their arbitrary powers of dismissal; on the other, the papers acknowledged that in effect overlookers also needed, but did not always get, upper management's consent to fire a worker. In both countries the compass of the overlooker's jurisdiction was ill-marked and specified more by imputation than by official notice.
If the exact boundaries of the overlooker's responsibility for hiring remained unclear, his influence was nonetheless real. In light of their command over people, how could British producers have crystallized the overlooker's activity as the delivery of materialized labor? Even where British overlookers hired weavers themselves, this could be seen as a technical function, a means of equipping looms with weavers, not weavers with looms. James Burnley, a textile worker and well-known dialect poet, described overlookers' roles in mill life after he revisited a Bradford weaving company: "There are several overlookers in the room, each of whom has the superintendance of a certain number of looms. Their duties are to keep the looms in repair and to supply them with weavers." Burnley, who had a
firsthand acquaintance with weaving, expressed himself with precision—and his choice of words made the looms, rather than the workers, the overlooker's real object of attention. Then, too, the ultimate means by which overlookers supported or dismissed weavers was not that of official commands but of covert deeds. If a weaver got on the wrong side of the overlooker, he or she might as well leave the firm, even if the overlooker said nothing. When a piqued overlooker began to withhold prompt technical assistance, the earnings of the ancillary weaver declined quickly. The authority of the overlooker could be transmitted through their care of the machinery as much as through a chain of command.
The specification of the overlooker's transmission of labor did not alter the overlookers' functions and responsibilities in Germany or Britain, but it provided the template for workers to formulate their grievances about superiors. For a ground-level view of workers' complaints, I coded the local reports that appeared in the newspapers of the textile workers in Britain and Germany. In Britain, the Yorkshire Factory Times focused its coverage on the everyday concerns of textile workers. This journal, whose premier edition appeared in 1889, devoted most of its pages to a feature called "Echoes from Mills and Workshops." Each week this revue described incidents at factories in more than a dozen towns and villages, based on correspondents' reports and on letters and tip-offs sent in by workers. Nowhere else, the paper boasted, could one find "so true an index of the life of the textile factory."
In Germany, reports from textile factories reached two newspapers. In 1889 the "free" (or Social Democratic) trade union of the textile workers began publishing the complaints workers submitted to union officials or voiced at meetings. The Christian union for German textile workers fol-
lowed suit with a similar publication in 1898. I coded the complaints of workers about practices on the shop floor from the earliest surviving volumes of each of these newspapers. In both countries, these early volumes had the richest and most extensive coverage of problems on the shop floor. The British sample covers the years from 1890 through 1893, the German sample the years from 1899 through 1902. I coded the complaints concretely, with over one hundred separate categories. With such a naive procedure, I could register problems ranging from the cleanliness of the toilets to the timbre of the factory bells used to dismiss the labor force.
The catalog of major complaints listed in Table 1 suggests that in many respects the immediate grounds for conflict were parallel in the two countries. In both, the four most frequent complaints concerned the level of pay, reductions in pay, the fines imposed for allegedly "bad" work, and the disrespectful attitude of supervisors toward their workers. Since the question of interest is how complaints varied within manufacturing processes that were organizationally and technologically alike, I compared the distribution of complaints between countries within the same occupation. The most significant divide is that of the weavers versus those in other textile occupations. In both countries, about two-thirds of the grievances recorded in the newspapers came from the weaving branch (66 percent in Britain, 68 percent
in Germany). Table 2 compares the twelve complaints that appeared most frequently among weavers alone. The non-weavers were fragmented among so many labor processes that the sample does not allow for such comparisons across other occupations. The figures serve as one piece of evidence among many, not as an arbiter of hypotheses. I cannot derive the meaning of problems as they appeared to the weavers themselves from a set of codings. What appears to have been the "same" complaint for German and British weavers may have come to life in substantially different cultural forms.
To help us begin to appreciate the cross-national differences in the import of complaints, in Table 3 I compare the distribution of persons blamed in the newspapers for workplace problems in all branches of textiles. The Germans assigned blame to the "firm" as a whole for problems nearly twice as often as the British. On the face of it, the meaning of this divergence remains uncertain. It could imply that the German papers considered it less important to censure particular categories of persons, as opposed to the "system," as the cause of problems. Assigning responsibility to the "firm" might also serve as just another way of blaming the firm's owner. If we leave aside complaints about the "firm," the German papers blamed owners and managers in 75 percent of the cases, compared to 54 percent of the cases in the British paper. Rather than looking upward to the top of the company to assign blame, the incidents reported in the British papers stayed closer to the persons with whom workers labored side by side. Among the complaints that blamed particular categories of persons, the British paper blamed the overlookers in 30 percent of the cases, whereas the German paper assigned only fifteen percent of problems to that lower-level party. If we treated complaints about the "firm" as referring to owners and higher managers, the German complaints would appear even more top-heavy. Finally, the same table shows that within the German sample, the Christian and socialist newspapers assigned blame among the factory personnel in almost identical proportions. If these two journals, which originated in markedly contrasting ideological milieus, assign blame to the same categories of persons in the workplace, we have more secure grounds for supposing that the stories to some extent replicated the workers' formulations, not just the agendas of the editors who processed the stories in their offices.
The German workers' tendency to focus more often on higher-ups is slightly more pronounced among weavers than among the sample as a whole (Table 4). This only accentuates the question of how factories that appear similar not only from the standpoint of organizational structure and technology but in the sorts of conflicts and disagreements they generate can differ significantly as institutions that "produce" a human experience of the labor activity. We need to rely on contextual evidence to assess the cultural significance of the German assignment of responsibility to overlookers. One of the most frequently voiced complaints, that concerning the supervisors' disrespectful manners, illustrates how British and German workers attached different meanings to complaints that appear categorically similar.
For weavers and for textile workers in general, the British newspaper complained more about the disrespectful treatment workers received from supervisors than about any other difficulty. The late-nineteenth-century factory provided a setting in which overlookers could indulge in severe verbal abuse of their underlings. Employers considered it something of a prerequisite for maintaining discipline that overlookers be able to swear in the local dialect. A reporter from Elland said that some overlookers treated their spot in the mill as a "privileged place." In the overlooker's corner, the reporter said, a female underling might hear "a voice addressing
her in language known as profane, and which, if used on the public streets by a drunken man, would see him taken in hand by the police." The textile workers' unions tried without great success to elicit the cooperation of the overlookers' unions in restraining the corrupt language. They had better
luck in securing the assistance of the courts. One judge in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, ruled in 1913 that a worker who objected to a supervisor's lewd comments could quit work without waiting to give proper notice.
German workers complained that managers addressed them in military-style, "barracks" language. They claimed that the supervisors' dictionary of abusive terms included "scoundrel" (Halunke ), "rogue" (Spitzbube ), and "old ass" (alter Esel ). At a spinning mill in the Mönchengladbach district, workers testified that a supervisor had "badly cursed even older people." The workers at this mill, trying to discover whether the supervisor could be prosecuted for such conduct, sought the advice of police, who would, they supposed, be knowledgeable about the law.
Not surprisingly, workers picked out their immediate supervisors, with whom they had the most contact, as the most frequent users of humiliating expressions. In both countries, overlookers received a greater share of complaints about rude conduct than about other problems. British workers blamed overlookers for the ill treatment in about two-thirds of the reported incidents in the Yorkshire Factory Times. In Germany, overlookers received the blame for harsh manners less frequently, in about 42 percent of such complaints. Yet German overlookers received the blame for poor language more often than did managers or owners (see Table 5).
The raw numbers do not show that British workers reviled their overlookers more than the German their own. Rather, they provide clues whose meaning for the participants can be reconstructed by examining the style of the evidence. The British newspaper framed its comments about the overlookers differently than did the German papers. In Britain, workers criticized the overlookers as individuals; their complaints portrayed the
personalities of the overlooker. The epithets applied to the overlookers reproduces this personalistic framework. Many of the insults refer to the physical appearance of the overlooker, such as "Golden Whiskers," "Little Darkey Tuner," or "the fancy-moustache stroker." Others summed up the conduct of the supervisor with nicknames such as "Growler & Howler," "Woman Hater," or "Sleepy." The British workers' conflict with their overlookers rested on a foundation of familiarity. The British complaints also characterized the behavior of the overlookers by comparing them to animals: a "puddledog that can do nothing but bark," a "bull terrier," a "wild bear." These analogies removed the overlookers' conduct from the context of the factory hierarchy. They emphasized the overlookers' personal failings rather than their exercise of the authority that inhered in their office. One story about an unpleasant overlooker (which cited an unfortunate cliché) captured the way workers attributed problems to an unchangeably bad character: "How true it is," the correspondent wrote, "the black man cannot wash his face white, nor a bad-tempered man forget his ways."
German workers also used epithets for their overlookers, but of a less personal sort. They labeled their overlookers with general names in popular circulation, such as "brute" (Grobian ), "beast" (Vieh ), and "ape" (Affe ). These were the impersonal insults that might well be applied to an over-bearing stranger. The German newspapers criticized overlookers as the occupiers of an office who insisted on exercising their authority in the name of the owner. Overlookers, they claimed, had nothing better to do than to demonstrate a "service of love" for their employers. "One constantly observes that the overlooker at every moment supports only the interests of his master employer," the Textil-Arbeiter reported. "Direct personal contact with the owner," it added, "is suited, like no other practice, to illustrate the superiority of the position of overlooker."
Another major complaint points to different understandings of the exercise of authority in Britain and Germany. As is shown in Table 2, twenty-three complaints about people who squealed to higher-ups in the factory appeared in my British sample for the weaving branch. Sixty percent of these cases identified overlookers as the culprits. A story from a mill in Dewsbury, published in 1893, conveys the spirit of these reports:
A tuner here is to get married shortly, and the weavers, like good weavers, chaffed him in good fashion. He could not stand it and went and complained in the office. Wasn't it nice to go and complain over a paltry affair like this? I wonder what his affianced will say about it?
The story illustrates the belief that the overlooker's conduct violates the norm against tattling. Its concluding question hints that the overlooker, by snitching on his underlings, will suffer the censure of his friends. The account also suggests that workers and overlookers were co-producers, enough on a level for them to form joking relationships.
Most of the tales British overlookers took to superiors concerned the alleged errors weavers made in production or the slow pace of their production. An overlooker who tattled became known as a "greasy" tuner, a "greasehorn." The British complaints regarding tattling about production foul-ups reflect the workers' assumption that the overlooker should not have acted as if he were merely an agent of the owner. The British weavers believed that the lower-level overlookers ought to support their efforts to labor with a degree of autonomy.
In contrast to the frequent complaints about snitching in the British sampling, the German cases revealed only one example. In this exception, from the Bergisches region, the workers had already launched a movement against the authority of the central management. They complained that an overlooker had informed on the weaver who he believed had given a signal to the others to stop work at their looms before the rest period. The account mentioned the overlooker's conduct only as a detail in its narrative of the work stoppage. The significant comparison to draw about tattling is this: in Germany, no grievances appeared regarding overlookers' informing about everyday production errors or about workers' demeanor. Instead, the German workers' comments about the overlookers' "service of love" indicate that workers took it for granted that overlookers would keep the owner informed.
The frequency of complaints about the rude manners of overlookers in Britain suggests that overlookers and workers stood in a closer, more equal relation to each other in Britain than in Germany. British workers, in comparison with their German counterparts, expected overlookers to classify workers as colleagues and were perhaps more sensitized to disrespect. Respondents from Yorkshire said that supervisors and weavers drank at the same pubs. Indeed, the textile workers' newspaper in Yorkshire complained that weavers who shared pub rooms with the overlookers tried to get better warps for themselves or jobs for their relatives by buying drinks for their overlooker. Yorkshire weavers expected their overseers to socialize with them and accused them of "putting on airs" if
they did not. British weavers were familiar enough with their overlookers to play practical jokes on them without fear of reprisal when the perpetrators revealed themselves. As a weaver correspondent from Bingley expressed it, "Tuners are only workers like ourselves." A spinner from Halifax in an interview put it even more simply: "We was one."
A careful reading of the textile workers' newspapers in Germany provides insight into a different set of relations in Germany. To be sure, the workers there complained that some of their colleagues used all manner of tactics to bribe overlookers for preferential treatment. They alleged, for example, that some workers gave overlookers free pies and turkeys or agreed to buy trinkets from overlookers at inflated prices. In their coverage of these incidents, however, the German newspapers did not mention an equivalent to the British workers' tactic of tipping a drink side by side at the pub, perhaps a relationship more intimate or socially reciprocal than the German overlookers would have tolerated. A respondent from Oerlinghausen in Westfalen, for example, volunteered the insight that the overlookers and weavers in town drank at separate inns and that social mixing would have broken an unspoken law.
The farewell gifts workers gave their overlookers also serve as an index of national differences in relations between these groups. The workers' newspapers in Britain reported that weavers frequently took up collections to provide farewell presents for tuners and managers who were retiring or
transferring between mills. Since the gifts went only to departing supervisors, they could not be reciprocated in favors at work. By all accounts, British workers offered the gifts spontaneously and apart from those bestowed by management. In Germany, by contrast, stories about unsolicited collective presents from workers to exiting supervisors seem practically unobtainable.
According to German journals of the textile trade, many German owners preferred to hire supervisors from distant areas, on the grounds that strangers could better maintain their distance from the lower workers. A respondent from Barmen, who became a loom tuner himself, said weavers believed that the manager "deliberately" hired outsiders from other towns as supervisors, with the aim of keeping them separate from the workers. By comparison with this explicit discussion in Germany, the professional literature for textiles in Britain remained silent about this tactic. Factory ordinances issued by German employers warned that each overseer had the duty "to protect his prestige against the workers." Indeed, the separation
of overlookers from workers in Germany took the most solid form possible: factories' architectural design. A number of mills in Germany provided toilets or eating rooms for supervisors separate from those for workers.
The pattern of fining for indiscipline also betrays the greater emphasis placed on the overlooker's authority in Germany. In both Germany and Britain, workers received petty fines for "misconduct." For example, overlookers and foremen punished workers by withholding earnings for offenses such as looking out the window, talking, or letting bobbing lie on the floor. All of these fines might be explained, perhaps, as measures to ensure high output or to provide greater safety on the shop floor. Beside the fines that bore upon output, however, the German supervisors, unlike their British counterparts, also imposed disciplinary fines for actions they perceived as insults to their authority. At a firm in Mönchengladbach, for example, the foreman fined a weaver who once forgot and twice refused to take off his cap upon greeting the foreman. At a firm in Birgden, near Geilenkirchen, a weaver who expressed irritation at the overlooker for not adjusting the loom received a fine for disrespectful conduct. German managers listed these punishments into "fine books," which include entries for "insolence," "insult," "is always coarse toward me," and "affront."
German overlookers also charged their underlings in court with having affronted them. In fact, the records of the local arbiters from textile towns indicate that this was not uncommon. In Odenkirchen, a textile center in the Rhineland, the summary transcripts show that the legal complaints during a twelve-year period at the turn of the century included charges of insult brought against employees by the following supervisors: a spinning overlooker, a weaving overlooker, a carding room supervisor, two foremen, a maintenance overlooker, and a factory director. Where such records also specify the location of the alleged offense, they often refer to the factory itself. The overlookers took seriously the supposition that they shared in the employer's dignity.
The lists of mill complaints in the Yorkshire Factory Times , and, less frequently, in the Cotton Factory Times might have been expected to mention fining for "affronts" to overlookers' authority. Yet accounts of such incidents are wanting. To the contrary, workers seem to have teased their supervisors to their face. The autobiographies of textile workers describe how workers mocked their overseers. One female weaver from Bradford mentioned her encounter with her overlooker, Harry:
I have not forgotten how he tried to set Ellen Jaratt's loom right . . . and he had no sooner set it on when the shuttle flew right through the window into the dam, and they never found it yet. I asked him if he had made a goal with that shuttle, and if it counted to his side the other goal, but he pretended not to hear me. . . . I can say a great
deal more about Harry if he tries to be so witty about me being an old maid again.
Weavers near Baxenden played a game with authoritarian overlookers to shame them. They handed such overlookers the gift of a whip, ridiculing them as slave drivers. Perhaps the most telling demonstration of British workers' assertion of their equality with overlookers came from Great Harwood, Lancashire. The weavers who struck a mill there in 1893 succeeded in having their overlookers sign an apology, which said, "We, the undersigned, do admit that we have been guilty of driving and humbugging the weavers employed under us. . . . We herewith guarantee that in future we will not speak to any weaver when going round with the slate or when fetched to tackle their looms." The autobiographical stories of British workers leave no doubt that they were exposed to tyrannical abuse from some overlookers. At issue is not the degree of cooperation or conflict but the intimate and equalitarian framework British workers used to condemn mishandling.
The factory owner's first motivation for hiring an overlooker, according to the working-class press in Germany, was not to acquire the skills of a technical expert; it was to obtain an agent through which he could exercise his authority
over the factory. As the Textil-Arbeiter said, "The owner of the production shop naturally says to himself that it is in his interest to place the tasks of the workers under control by putting a person there . . . so that a mere glance from this personage will spur workers to the strictest fulfillment of their duties." The German practice of fining workers for mere "affronts" to supervisors reproduced the view that the overlookers' exercise of authority in the name of the owner was essential to the extraction of surplus. In Britain, on the other hand, since the overlookers did not act merely to extend the owners' authority, the extraction of a profit for the owner of the factory was severed from the exercise of authority on the shop floor. The Northern Pioneer , a journal for the labor and the "liberal radical" movements in the Colne Valley, expressed the view that the exercise of authority was not an essential aspect of the employment relation and extraction of profit. Textile workers and factory owners, it said in 1883, were merely exchanging their commodities. "Employers should not want to be masters anymore than the men should want to be masters," it concluded. For the British textile workers, as for artisanal workers in an earlier age, the exchange of labor as a commodity could be not only separated from but contrasted with the exercise of authority. "You are no master of mine," a rule-maker told his employer in the 1840s, "but only a man who buys my labour for a good deal less than it's worth." The formulation acknowledged a relation that included both formal equality in the marketplace and real exploitation.
It would be simple but superficial to imagine that the differences between practices at the point of production in the two countries resulted from a greater emphasis in general in German society upon authority for building social relations. Such an approach would confuse the ideologies celebrated in the public sphere with actual practice on the shop floor. If the famed tradition of liberalism in British political discourse lent support to notions of individual liberty and autonomy, such ideals did not have any elective
affinity with actual use of the British idea of labor as a commodity. After all, the confinement of inmates in fortress-like enclosures scarcely embodied the notion of liberalism. The specification of labor as a commodity in Britain did not inhibit employers from attempting to exercise control episodically in heavy-handed fashion on the shop floor. Although the practice formed no part of the usual organization of production, British employers, if it struck their fancy, fired underlings without warning for looking at them "the wrong way."
The contrasts between factory procedures in the two countries were based not on degrees of authoritarianism but on the modalities by which employers asserted their domination. British employers devoted no less attention to cultivating a paternalist regime in pliant neighborhoods outside the factory as their German counterparts did. Rather than consecrating their mastery of the transformation of labor power into a product at the site of production, British employers displayed their superordinancy in the community, where they could influence workers' mobility and sense of dependency. The Strutt family, acclaimed in the early nineteenth century as factory pioneers, watched over their employees' morality by imposing fines for such mischievous behavior outside the workplace as maltreating a neighbor's dog. In the second half of the nineteenth century, British factory owners did not just support recreational and educational clubs at the mill site. They subsidized workers' clubs, schools, and churches in the community at large. Interviews with former textile workers from Lancashire
and Yorkshire towns reveal that into the first decade of the twentieth century many workers still felt compelled to attend the same church or chapel as their employer. Even in large towns with an adequate stock of housing, some British textile employers (like several of their German counterparts) erected company homes and required subordinates to occupy them. British textile workers in employer-provided housing denounced the "tyranny" of their dependency. But the textile industry was in this respect typical of British business.
The prominent commitment of British employers to molding an obedient community outside the point of production attracted the criticism of German employers. As a businessman from the German wool trade judged in 1886, "To encourage the factory director to exercise surveillance over his people even beyond the work hours in order to look after their moral health—this is one English institution that has been taken too far. By this means one develops only empty-headed workers." We should not accede unreservedly to the national contrast this executive wished to draw. But his sentiments undermine the presumption that German employers were automatically more custodial. What differed fundamentally between British and German employers was not the general readiness to supervise or control workers but the catego-
ries of social consciousness by which they defined the exchange of labor at the point of production. If the emphasis on the disposition over labor power in the German factory had derived from a general cultural emphasis on authority, we would expect the authoritarianism to carry over into all contexts. Instead, in the community, where social relations were mediated by capitalist relations of production but not cast directly in their image, British employers appear no less interested than their German counterparts in controlling subordinates' leisure, religion, and education.
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.
Concluding Reflections on Part One
Part One of this study has not attempted to decide which of two forces, culture or material circumstances, was the more powerful. Analysts who conceive of these forces as variables to be laid out side by side might suppose that their effects were conjoined, but their admixture is in fact more fundamental than that. Not only were both prerequisites for the composition of production, but the very operation of each remains inconceivable without the other. Material constraints assume their social effectivity only as they are encoded by culture; culture operates only as it is materialized in the concrete media at hand. The two forces are different moments in the same social process. Nonetheless, we can still isolate the effects of culture if we ask, not which had the most influence, but which comprised a social logic. The brute conditions of praxis in capitalist society, such as the need to compete in a market, did not provide the principles for organizing practices in forms that were stable and reproducible, for by themselves they did not supply a meaningful design for conduct. Rather, practices were given a consistent shape by the particular specifications of labor as a commodity that depended, to be sure, upon the general conditions of praxis for their materials, but granted them social consequences according to an intelligible logic of their own.
The discovery that factory production in Germany and Britain was orchestrated according to its signifying function bears important implications for sociological theories about the distinguishing character of human action in the capitalist order. Many in the tradition of Western Marxism have viewed the increasing salience of exclusively calculative, instrumental conduct as a characteristic developmental tendency of capitalist society. But looking at the sensuous realm of practice on the shop floor from a comparative perspective discloses a more complex process. One can, perhaps, refer to the "rationalization" of the labor process at the very end of the nineteenth century, when formal ideologies of management appeared and the legal system, at least in Germany, elaborated more explicitly the rules governing the transmission of labor in the factory. But the development of capitalism was not marked by the progressive reduction of the activity of labor to the logic of instrumental action alone, without respect for action's communicative function. Instrumental action, rationalized by progressive adjustments
to end-means logic, was still ordered by its conveyance of meaning and followed the cultural coordinates of a commodity form that varied apart from immediate economic conditions.
If micro-procedures at the site of production were grouped in a meaningful pattern that incarnated different concepts of labor, how did this cultural logic tend to be incorporated consistently into practice? The concept of culture has drawn researchers' attention to the systematicity and global patterning of practices and signs, of strategies and life forms in society. Yet it is too easy to take this patterning as evidence for the influence or presence of something termed culture without asking how culture produces this configuration—or this configuration, culture. No social agent craftily designed the constellation of instrumentalities in the factory to embody, across the board, different specifications of labor as a commodity. By what processes did people create and reproduce not just an accidental assemblage of practices and concepts but an undivided cultural system based on concepts of labor?
To explain the survival of consistencies in the form of practice we need not invoke the notion of an overarching, harmonized normative order, internalized by the agents, that restrains deviant action. Once practices were installed as a consistent ensemble, their very execution could reproduce the concept of labor they embodied. Adherence to an ideal did not descend downward from contemplative knowledge of the general but percolated upward from practical knowledge of the concrete. It was the encounter with ideas residing in these humble instrumentalities that gave producers a practical knowledge of the ideal form by which labor was transferred as a commodity. The micro-practices contained within themselves the principle that structured the social whole; execution of specific practices could reproduce the structure of the whole from the ground up.
The question that remains unanswered is not how a patterned cultural system was maintained, but, simply, why and how do practices cohere to
begin with? The matched comparison of economic environments for British and German factories shows that, in each country, alternative conventions would have met the requirements of the firm in the realm of capitalist competition equally well. If a method for, say, the imposition of fines is installed under one form of labor as a commodity, the choice of form for other techniques is not entailed by practical necessity. What generated the tendency toward consistency of form?
Even if one admits that agents' cultural schemata are arranged into a systematic whole, it by no means follows that the institutions of the factory must themselves incorporate this coherence. Instead, culture could be used by the agents to formulate only a subjective response to practices shaped by external necessities. The built-in requirements of the mind for the production of meaning, which the cultural structuralists present as the ultimate cause of the coherence of culture, may well dictate a kind of formal patterning in language and in conceptual designs. If this holds true for the constitution of language and signification, however, the question—altogether separate—remains of how and why industrial practice in the newly emergent capitalist factory methodically embodied such adroit schemata.
Max Weber's sociological perspective offers an advantage in responding to the riddle of systematicity in factory practices because it views cultural patterning as a contingent accomplishment open to historical investigation. As is well known, Weber identifies intellectual specialists as the historical actors who are responsible for the creation of doctrines that make possible the systematic patterning of culture and of conduct. Yet the details of the
cases at hand disqualify the Weberian approach to the development of a meaningful configuration of micro-practices in the factory. The principle of labor as a commodity did not form part of a formal management doctrine imparted to factory employers. To be sure, general precepts about the mutual responsibilities of the employing and the working classes had wide currency throughout the nineteenth century. But those sanctimonious philosophies about virtuous relations had nothing to say about the organization or execution of manufacturing techniques themselves. "So far as we know," Sidney Pollard concluded for the period of early industrialization in Britain, "the management pioneers were isolated and their ideas without great influence." Since so many factories were family-operated, the technical mysteries of the trade could be passed between generations through firsthand experience in the enterprise. In point of fact, there was as such no formal management doctrine to disseminate during the early development of the factory system. Professional administration of employees did not form an object for sustained reflection and study in either Germany or Britain until approximately the 1880s. Until then the managerial function on the shop floor was not differentiated from that of technical oversight. Accordingly, books on the management of textile mills most often referred to machinery, not people. At least until midcentury, the very term manager in Britain lacked a clear referent. The usual title for a supervisor of employees was clerk , a locution directed toward the older activity of book-
keeping. The crystallization of factory practices based on specifications of labor that varied between Germany and Britain occurred decades before the emergence of management science in either country.
The functioning of the networks of communication in the textile districts also excludes the possibility that similarities in practices across regions arose from the diffusion of formal doctrine about the efficient deployment of labor among machines. Although factory procedures in Yorkshire and Lancashire were based on similar principles, in the formative years of the factory system factory owners in these provinces did not remain in contact with each other to transmit information about those practices. The language of shop-floor life confirms the independence of development. In each of the neighborhoods of Lancashire and Yorkshire counties, managers used distinct vocabularies for parts of the loom and jobs in the mill. Information about technical innovation—a subject of great concern to mill managers—was slow to diffuse. For example, managers in Elland, just outside Bradford, did not acquire for two decades the attachments for automatically changing the weft color on multi-shuttle looms that were standard in the city of Bradford by the 1870s. How much less likely is it, therefore, that communication at length among factory managers about the interior social life of the mill led to the standardization of procedures within each country for managing the purchase of "labor" in the factory. The patterning of conduct according to the specification of labor as a commodity did not reflect a deliberate systematization of administrative rules.
If the patterning did not result from agents orienting themselves to environment with a certain schema and then creating a world in the image of this schema—the solution of idealists—neither was it the trace of the imperatives of the capitalist system imposing their image on people's consciousness. We cannot derive the cultural pattern from the functional requirements of the economy operating behind people's backs, for the
differing specifications of labor were both equally well suited for the reproduction of capitalism. Moreover, they could have been used together indiscriminately in one setting. The conditions of the capitalist system may have sustained a cultural outlook, but they did not by themselves inaugurate it; conversely, a cultural template lodged in concrete practice may have served as a moment in the reproduction of the capitalist system, but it did not create a capitalist economy.
The execution of practice incorporates a cultural schema, as Bourdieu always reminds us. Yet even in his studies of kin-based societies, Bourdieu did not consider seriously the next issue: whence, not just culture, but a cultural system? If action requires conception, still there is no requirement emanating from the agents themselves that requires diverse practices to follow a single, generalizable idea. The record of anthropological research shows time and again that agents seem to have an inexhaustible capacity for synthesizing contradictory assumptions into a coherent, though perhaps imperfectly consistent, outlook. The systematicity of practices on the shop floor did not reflect some cognitive necessity lodged in the agents themselves that required them to "think" the structure of society or of the factory with a single principle. Such an explanation would reduce culture to a constraint of the contemplative mind, as if agents engaged in practice so as to gaze upon it from without as upon a work of art—and a simple one at that.
In each country, the operative concept of labor had two guises. Within the rude walls of the factory, the producers transmitted "labor" as an imaginative construct of their lifeworld to their employers through their tangible actions and face-to-face social ties; yet, beyond the realm of lived experience, abstract human labor formed the common denominator by which diverse kinds of products with incomparable use values could be brought into relation with each other and exchanged in the market, awakening to life an impersonal world of commodities in motion. The category
of labor did not function as a pivotal concept because it expressed the detached logic of the capitalist system, or, from the other side, because it revealed the supremacy of culture in the producers' negotiation of a meaningful order; instead, it bridged these two realms of a market-integrated social structure and the experienced world. If people monitor and organize their conduct in accordance with the commodity form of labor, they reproduce the networks of exchange and of objectified social relations that constitute capitalist society. Georg Lukács, who insisted on linking the dynamic of the capitalist system to the forms of understanding that people used to constitute their practice and experience, gave this insight a classic formulation long ago. "Objectively, in so far as the commodity form facilitates the equal exchange of qualitatively different objects, it can exist only if that formal equality is in fact recognized—at any rate, in this relation, which indeed confers upon them their commodity character," Lukács wrote. "Subjectively, this formal equality of human labor in the abstract is not only the common factor to which the various commodities are reduced; it also becomes the real principle governing the actual production of commodities."
In capitalist society alone could a concept of labor serve as the organizing principle for a multiplicity of humble practices. Where labor has not been subsumed under the commodity form, it may be recognized as the source of material sustenance but it does not take on the social function of structuring the relation of person to person through the exchange of abstract labor time. Definitions of labor may not surface at all in kinbased or precapitalist societies as a principle for structuring social relations; should they arise, they remain subordinate to other categories coordinating social reproduction. Only in capitalist society is labor both a form of understanding and the integrative principle that regulates social relations in society as a whole; only there does it bridge lived experience and the invisible functioning of a system.
If these considerations render intelligible the patterning of practice by a specification of labor as a commodity, yet they do not explain why the concepts of labor differed between Germany and Britain. To answer this question requires us to uncover the historical genesis of the divergent concepts and the conditions governing their transmission in quotidian practice. That is the task in Part Two of this work.