The Victims of Industrialization

The nineteenth century saw an explosion of industrialization which spurred innovation, but had grave consequences for the growing working class. Child labor was rampant and the conditions in factories were detestable. Richard Oastler, a proponent for the ten hour working day, bemoaned the new economic system under which parents had to send their children off to the factory in order to make ends meet. He claimed that children laboring in factories destroyed familial connection as their parents became nothing but a wakeup call and someone to put them to bed after a thirteen hour or longer work day. Child laborers were also subjected to tortures such as vicious whipping for the smallest mistakes. ((Yorkshire Slavery, Richard Oastler)) A medical examiner’s survey of a particular group of textile workers highlighted their deformed appearance and ill health. Their complexions were pale and sickly and they had a notably short stature resulting from long hours standing on the factory floor or stooping to work machines. The tendency for laborers to remain in a sedentary position during their tasks supposedly stunted the development of children, making them shorter with curved spines. ((The Physical Deterioration of Textile Workers))


Barefoot children working in a mill

Abhorrent working conditions with little to no regulation pushed many workers to the brink of uprising. H. Heine’s poem “The Silesian Weavers,” about a protest by workers of the same name, claimed the weavers were producing Germany’s funeral shroud as they “[sat] at the spinning wheel, snarling cheerless.” ((The Silesian Weavers, H. Heine)) The Weavers’ protest pushed the King of Prussia to give his people a constitution. To many, such an uprising would be seen as a success, but the economist Karl Marx would consider it an incomplete revolution because the workers remained in their debased position in the aftermath. Marx viewed increased regulation and improved working conditions as nothing more than appeasement which made workers complacent slaves to the capitalist system. The enlightened idea of progress was dominant in many thinkers’ rationales, but what progress looked like often differed. In regard to Marx’s view of progress and the necessary worker revolution, do regulatory policies such as shortened work days and minimum wage significantly improve workers’ lives, or simply keep them in a perpetual state of oppression?

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Consequences of the Industrial Revolution through “Silesian Weavers”

“A curse on this lying father-nation/ Where thrive only shame and degradation”

With a great deal of good always comes a fair amount of bad. So when the Industrial Revolution took off, along with the economy and development of machinery, the poor treatment of workers came to light. This neglect for the welfare of laborers is brought to attention by Heinrich Heine, author of “Silesian Weavers”. In this poem, Heine uses strong negative diction to impassion his audience, in turn sparking the development of a constitution for Prussia. Particularly striking word choices include the repetition of the word “curse”, “gloom-enveloped eyes”, “funeral shroud”, “dank rot”, and “cheerless”, among others. Heine uses these negative words to illustrate the mistreatment of laborers during the time. He points a finger at the government, in particular the king himself (“A curse on the king…/Who was not moved even by our grief”), in order to draw attention to the main cause of this degradation of workers. The quote at the very beginning of this post highlights the sentiments of Heine and his supporters during this time of ill-treatment. This particular line suggests that the nation has been reduced to a country that can only host shame and degradation, and no longer has a place for honor and respect in its labor system.

This situation was not exclusive to Silesia, but was prevalent throughout Europe during the Industrial Revolution. The poor treatment of workers ignited a revolution within the Industrial Revolution, a revolution of workers seeking respect. It inspired workers to pursue better treatment, working conditions, and rights.

Although in America and many parts of Europe, people work in the presence of humane conditions, American and European corporations run countless enormous factories in third-world, developing countries in which the workers are exploited, similar to what occurred during the Industrial Revolution. In these establishments, workers are paid close to nothing for hours of grueling, tedious labor. We do this because it ensures greater profit for our corporations. Obviously it is unjust, but why do countries repeat mistakes that have been made in the past? Is it because we have the power to domineer over less fortunate nations? Do these workers have the capability to ignite a movement against exploiting corporations, such as what occurred in Prussia? Why aren’t we taking more action against this exploitation of foreigners working for our companies? Is it because we feel removed, distant, and unconnected to these people because they are working thousands of miles away? We certainly have the resources and power to end this exploitation, but no great measures are being taken to end it.