Explain the shift from artisan to factory worker, and discuss the factory system. What were the advantages and disadvantages? Who was left out? Who benefited? What were some ways workers responded?...

Explain the shift from artisan to factory worker, and discuss the factory system. What were the advantages and disadvantages? Who was left out? Who benefited? What were some ways workers responded? 1800's-1840's (Market Revolution)

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pnrjulius eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An artisan makes goods by hand from raw materials, and every item created is unique and special. They perform a variety of tasks in that construction, and may spend days making a single item.

A factory worker uses machines to make one part of a good, interchangeable with other parts of the same type, which is then passed down an assembly line to other workers with other machines. They perform the same simple task over and over again, hundreds of times a day.

As a result of this, there are two major differences between artisans and factory workers, one positive, one negative.

The positive is that factory workers are vastly more productive---in many cases hundreds or even thousands of times more productive.

The negative is that factory workers have far less autonomy over what they produce, what hours they work, and what type of work they do.

Much of the political debate over the upsides and downsides of capitalism ultimately boils down to those two facts. Adam Smith's defense of capitalism rests upon the first fact---enormous increase in productivity and thus standard of living---while Marx's attack on capitalism largely rests on the second fact---alienation and loss of autonomy.

The greatest benefits of the shift to factory work of course fell upon the factory owners, some of whom became fantastically rich. One's opinion of capitalism also often rests upon how much one believes that this is deserved for their investment of useful capital as opposed to undeserved rent extracted by exploiting workers.

Factory work is also usually easier than artisan work (though that definitely depends on a number of factors), so workers with lower skill levels generally benefit from a shift out of artisanship into factory work. Workers with high skills can either lose or gain, depending on whether they try to cling to artisanship or become designers and engineers for the factory-made products. In the best-case scenario (which sadly rarely happens), everyone can benefit from the increased productivity of factory work, as low-skill workers become employed, high-skill workers become designers and engineers, and factory owners become wealthy from their investments. But in practice many people have difficulty adjusting to a different kind of work, and thus the shift to new industries causes unemployment and discontent.

We are seeing similar effects today as new technologies emerge that replace many types of workers---robots that replace welders and machinists, soon self-driving vehicles that replace truck drivers. These technologies are good for productivity and probably ultimately for overall economic growth, but that doesn't make it any easier for the machinists and truck drivers who become unemployed.

Moreover, the loss of autonomy is very real, and especially early on in the transition to industrialization workers were often very heavily exploited.

One response to that exploitation was to resist the entire process of industrialization---as the Luddites infamously did. This response was understandable, but ultimately harmful. It really only had two possible outcomes (both of which were observed in different places): Either you succeed, and hold back your society's economic growth; or you fail, and the exploitation proceeds.

Eventually unions formed as a better response to this exploitation; while no single worker in a factory of hundreds can have much influence over the direction of the company, all the workers together can have an enormous influence. By organizing into unions, workers were able to preserve the high productivity and economic growth that comes with new technology, while ensuring that they received their share of that growth. (Of course, this meant that capital owners received a smaller share, which they weren't happy about; so in many countries there has been a backlash against unions, and the conflict goes on.)