Robert Owen (1771-1858)

Maybe not that popular, but Robert Owen was a really a hero in his time. Could be described as one of the first utopian socialist (with Thomas More permission). The amazing thing about Robert Owen, is that he wasn’t only utopian, but practical. He transformed a little mill village (New Lanark) in something not far from utopian society. He changed the life for hundreds for good!. Owen’s main contribution to socialist thought was the view that human social behavior is not fixed or absolute, and that human beings have the free will to organize themselves into any kind of society they wished.

During Malthus and Ricardo days wasn’t that hard to understand why that gloomy vision of economy and life in general. From Heilbroner:

«In 1828, The Lion, a radical magazine of the times, published the incredible history of Robert Blincoe, one of eighty pauper-children sent off to a factory at Lowdham. The boys and girls (they were all about ten years old) where whipped day and night, not only for the slightest fault, but to stimulate their flagging industry. And compared with a factory at Litton where Blincoe was subsequently transferred, conditions at Lowdham were rather humane. At Litton the children scrambled with the pigs for the slops in a through; they were kicked and punched and sexually abused; and their employer, one Ellice Needha, had the chilling habit of pinching the children’s ears until his nails met through the flesh. The foreman of the plant was even worse. He hung Blincoe up by his wrists over a machine so that his knees were bent and then he piled heavy weights on his shoulders. The child and his coworkers were almost naked in the cold winter and (seemingly a purely gratuitous sadistic flourish) their teeth were filed down!».

Probably this story was exaggerated, but surely inhuman practices were accepted and was none business. Even in these days news about slaves appears once in a while in my own country.

Not only bad practices at job were a problem. Technology was the rage, and machinery meant displacement of laboring hands by efficient machines. In 1779 a mob of 8.000 workers attacked a mill and burned it to the ground, because it was taking jobs.

Even Ricardo, who was very respected, admitted that maybe machinery did not always operate to the immediate benefit of the workman. To an observer, the working class were getting out of control, and something must be done. Repression is the first thought, but not he only one.

In those dark times, one small light shone. That light was New Lanark. And as good light in the dark, New Lanark was visited by over 20.000 moths who visited the miracle. Tsar Nicholas I of Russia was one of those moths. They all came to see that horrible industrial life was not the only and inevitable social arrangement, some good practices were possible too. Some of the good practices were:

  • Workers had two room houses, the garbage was neatly piled up awaiting disposal instead of being strewn in filthy disarray.
  • Most impressive were the factories: Over each employee hung a little cube of wood with a different color painted each side: black, blue, yellow and white. From lightest to darkest, the colors stood for different grades of deportment: white was excellent, yellow good blue indifferent; black bad. At glance, the factory manager could judge the deportment of his workforce.
  • There were no children under ten or eleven in factories. Those that did, work toiled only for 10 \frac{3}{4} hours per day (the norm were 16). Most important, they were not punished; discipline seemed to be wielded by benignity rather than fear.
  • The factory manager was available for objections to any rule or regulation, or bad cube rating (just like a good school or university).
  • Little children, instead of being in the street by their own, they played in schoolhouses. The small ones were learning the names of the rocks and trees. Older boys were learning grammar. Regularly children gathered to sing and dance under young ladies sight. Young ladies were instructed that no child’s question was ever to go unanswered, not child was ever bad without reason, punishment was never to be inflicted, and that children would learn faster from the power of example an from admonition.

Beside all that marvels, New Lanark was profitable. So, this town was not run only by a saint, but by a business saint: Robert Owen, the «benevolent Mr. Owen of New Lanark». A man that born poor and made a fortune as a capitalist. From a capitals to a opponent of private property. From advocated to benevolence (because it pays dividends) to urge the abolition of money. So take your time if you want to classify him, you will need it.

So first Mr Owen was an entrepreneur (a successful one), then as a capitalist, a philanthropist. When he ran of money, he became a social leader. Most important, he was able to build his dreamed society, and it did work. At least once.

Napoleonic wars threatened with general gluts. To avoid the coming misery, the Dukes of York and Kent and other respectable people formed a committee to look forward for solutions for the arriving gluts. They called Owen to present his views. He didn’t came with just that, he came with the blueprints for a new society: Villages of Cooperation.

For Owen, the problem was that paupers became non productive in general gluts, so the solution was to make them productive. Paupers could become the producers of wealth if they were given a chance to work, and they deplorable social habits could be easily transformed into virtuous one under the influence of a decent environment. Why would anyone believe that paupers were not able to produce wealth given the resources?. I mean, being pauper is not an illness. Owen knew they were people, just like everybody else.

Villages of Cooperation were an structure to make people productive. Owen proposed their way of living (from Heilbroner too):

The families were to live in houses grouped in parallelograms, with each family in a private apartment but sharing common sitting rooms and reading rooms and kitchens. Children over the age of three were to be boarded separately so that they could be exposed to the kind of education that would best mold their characters for later life. Around the school were gardens to be tended by slightly older children, and around them in turn would stretch out the fields where crops would be grown. In the distance, away from the living areas, would be a factory unit; in effect this would be a planned garden city, a kibbutz, a commune.

The committee thanked Mr Owen’s plan, and his ideas were carefully ignored. Laissez faire was the beauty girl and planned economy, well, none seemed to care. But passiveness was not an option for Owen. He sold his interests in New Lanark, and set about building his own community of the future. He chose the place where dreams came true, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty: America (North America please), Indiana. It’s name: New Harmony.

New Harmony was a disaster (maybe it wasn’t so easy to have a community without the strong support of a stable business as New Lanark did with it’s own prosperous mill). After loosing four fifths of is fortune in New Harmony, Mr. Owen went back to England to participate actively in leading a new section of the country: the working classes. Indeed, he started the english working class movement by the name of The Grand National Moral Union of the Productive and Useful Classes. Some marketing genius changed the name to just Grand National. The Grand National gathered 500.000 members. It was huge!

The Gran National was a fiasco too. It appears that England was prepared for a national trade union just as US was prepared for a community paradise. Local union could not control their members and local strikes prospered. Grand National only lasted for two years.

So, who was Robert Owen? He was not only an economist, but a economic innovator who wanted to change the world (and he did it, a bit). While others wrote, he went ahead and tried to change it.

Mr. Owen, my greatest respect to you.

2 pensamientos en “Robert Owen (1771-1858)

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