We tend to think of Marx’s work on immanent potentials for transformation as referring to dramatic, large-scale sociological processes. Certainly his work analyses such processes. And certainly he presents large-scale transformations of everyday social practices as generating unexpected possibilities, which can then be appropriated for new ends. More often than is appreciated, however, Capital will drill down into accidental historical discoveries that happen on a more micrological scale.
In section 9 of chapter 15, for example, Marx examines the implications of the sanitary and educational clauses of the factory acts. Most of the section discusses the impact of the factory legislation on small businesses – the trend toward centralisation of production hastened by the centralised application of even very weak regulation – and the poor state of occupational health and safety practices in the industry of the time. These passages are often harrowing, and I’ll discuss them at a later point when I can give them more adequate attention than is possible in my current time-starved state.
In one small passage, however, Marx discusses the requirement that factories provide some minimal education, if they are to hire children. Under pressure not to steal too much productive time away from the working day, the factory legislation mandated education – but only for a fraction of the time that it would be provided for non-working children. Quoting from the factory inspectors, Marx suggests that this makeshift practical compromise – reducing the teaching day to minimal hours – led to several accidental discoveries, including that manual labour could be combined successfully with education, and that the shorter school day did not impede learning:
Paltry as the education clauses of the Act appear on the whole, yet they proclaim elementary education to be an indispensable condition to the employment of children. The success of those clauses proved for the first time the possibility of combining education and gymnastics with manual labour, and, consequently, of combining manual labour with education and gymnastics. The factory inspectors soon found out by questioning the schoolmasters, that the factory children, although receiving only one half the education of the regular day scholars, yet learnt quite as much and often more.
“This can be accounted for by the simple fact that, with only being at school for one half of the day, they are always fresh, and nearly always ready and willing to receive instruction. The system on which they work, half manual labour, and half school, renders each employment a rest and a relief to the other; consequently, both are far more congenial to the child, than would be the case were he kept constantly at one. It is quite clear that a boy who has been at school all the morning, cannot (in hot weather particularly) cope with one who comes fresh and bright from his work.”
Further information on this point will be found in Senior’s speech at the Social Science Congress at Edinburgh in 1863. He there shows, amongst other things, how the monotonous and uselessly long school hours of the children of the upper and middle classes, uselessly add to the labour of the teacher, “while he not only fruitlessly but absolutely injuriously, wastes the time, health, and energy of the children.” From the Factory system budded, as Robert Owen has shown us in detail, the germ of the education of the future, an education that will, in the case of every child over a given age, combine productive labour with instruction and gymnastics, not only as one of the methods of adding to the efficiency of production, but as the only method of producing fully developed human beings.
A political compromise – a partial concession – a provision for education inadequate according to the prevailing pedagogical standards. And yet, according to Marx, also an accidental discovery of “the only method of producing fully developed human beings”.
What interests me about this passage is not whether Marx is right in his positive assessment of this historical development, but rather the form of analysis the passage implies. Political potentials can be generated by accident, as unintended side effects even of the most ill-willed historical developments. Without the practical test of how children would actually learn, if learning were provided in this new assemblage, we would have lacked a valuable practical demonstration that education could be organised in a fundamentally different way than it had been in the past. We would have lacked a practical example that class divisions in the provision of education are not required – that all children can still learn and develop themselves, even if work were equitably allocated among all members of society. The “education of the future” can construct itself with insights built out of present-day possibilities, revealed on the ground in practices experimentally introduced now.
We might pick up on different practical insights by using a similar technique today. In another part of the same chapter, Marx quotes the lament of a witness who bemoans the impact of the factory system on women:
The greatest evil of the system that employs young girls on this sort of work, consists in this, that, as a rule, it chains them fast from childhood for the whole of their after-life to the most abandoned rabble. They become rough, foul-mouthed boys, before Nature has taught them that they are women.
“Nature” has a fascinating status here – suggestive of a kind of strain involved in maintaining the conviction that women are, by nature, different from men, when practical experience demonstrates that this need not be the case. Nature is presented here as something that doesn’t always get the time to work its magic – practical experience can intervene, turning girls into boys before Nature has the opportunity to teach them what they really ought to be. In this situation, when practical experience conflicts with received cultural preconception, the gendered “ought” can still be asserted – but it can no longer remain doxic: practical experience shows the contingency of this aspect of women’s perceived role. The gender roles of the future can therefore also construct themselves by appropriating the insights built out of present-day possibilities, demonstrated in practice on the ground.