Is it melodramatic to compare modern-day freelance writers to tubercular seamstresses and other “outworkers” of the Industrial Age? Well, yes, but some of the financial indignities sounded familiar to me, last month, as I read in Sean Wilentz’s masterful Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 about the transition from what he calls the “artisan republic” to what he calls the “bastard workshop”:
“[Thurlow] Weed recalled one who warned him that he would never get anywhere in the trade unless he was willing to persist in dunning his master for back wages” (p. 49). “For others, it was the insecurity of employment, the constant ‘subbing’ or running from office to office in search of temporary work, the flattery and deference expected by the foreman, that made a printer’s life so difficult” (p. 131). For those who think that if they were editors, they would treat writers differently, in defiance of the economic pressures: “‘If they were all the purest of philanthropists,’ the Tribune admitted in 1845, ‘they could not raise the wages of their seamstresses to anything like a living price'” (p. 123). For those who would defy the trends by starting their own magazine and turning to friends for help in launching it: “Men like the cellar-dwelling cobbler were unable to save money by cutting wages and could stay in business only by exploiting themselves and their families to the limits of their endurance” (p. 45).
Cost-cutting by reliance on outwork, disruption of apprenticeship, labor glut, and mechanization (where once the loom, now the internet). Against such forces, what resistance?
One thought on ““Sweating” and writing”
There are striking similarities with the condition of "adjunct faculty," too.
There's also, in Wilentz' distinction between the two types of production systems, an echo of E.P. Thompson's discussion of how craft unions in early 19th-century England resisted–without much success–the growth of what they called "the dishonorable trades." Under the older system, skilled artisans, exercising guild-like control over entry into the trade and enforcing high standards of skill (the word "masterpiece" originally meant the work produced by an apprentice that won him admission to the ranks of journeymen) while producing small volumes of goods for a few upper-class consumers. The dishonorable trades introduced mechanized or de-skilled production methods, shoddy materials, capitalist (rather than master-workman) control of production, sheap goods aimed at a broader market, and in general a worsening of working conditions and a lowering of pay.
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