babbage's intelligence by simon schaffer

Intelligence in the Factory System

"I regard the Factory System as un fait accompli....The Factory System originated in no preconceived plan - it sprang from no sudden exercise of wisdom, like Minerva from the brain of Jupiter, but it was formed and shaped by the irresistible force of circumstances. Those who are called the fathers of the Factory System were neither such demons as it has been sometimes the fashion to describe the millowners, nor yet were they perfect angels; they were simply men of great intelligence, industry, and enterprise" William Cooke Taylor, 1844. [61]

The familiar tropes of precision, discipline and class struggle were matters of considerable debate. Thus Engels summarised what he judged the farcical and sinister performances of factory tourism: "You come to Manchester....You naturally have good introductions to respectable people. You drop a remark or two as to the condition of the workers". Engels brilliantly satirised the "easy, patriarchal relation" which tourists would see: "you see what the bourgeoisie promises the workers if they become its slaves, mentally and morally...Dr Ure sings a dithyramb upon the theme". Engels' critique hinged on the contrast between the gaze of the bourgeois philosopher, which he reckoned sightless, and a more penetrating analysis which saw behind the factory's scenes. This was why the question of intelligence was so central in the political production of the factory system, the intelligence gathered about the works and the intelligence embodied within them. The factory system was not an inevitable consequence of the development of power machinery in the textile trades, but, instead, machines were designed to fit new forms of discipline and labour processes within the workshops. Arkwright's new spindles were only licensed in units of a thousand or more so that he could maintain control over the technique, thus spawning large-scale textile enterprises. Manchester strikes in the cotton trade in the 1820s prompted the development of self-acting mules which would give more control of the production process to the employers. Ure characteristically lapsed into the imagery of Olympus and of Frankenstein to describe Richard Roberts' new mule as "the Iron Man sprung out of the hands of our modern Prometheus at the bidding of Minerva - a creation destined to restore order among the industrious classes". The comment was picked up by Marx as an archetype of the disciplinary function of the machine and of "the spirit of the factory". Uneven developments in the implementation of such techniques as Roberts' mule show that the automatic system depended on the extent to which it fitted managerial demands. As William Lazonick has argued, overlookers preferred less mechanical methods for winding yarn onto spindles because such methods yielded much greater intelligence about the conduct and quality of labour. [62] Contemporary analysts would hesitate between the attribution of productive success and labour discipline to the machines themselves, and thus to the logic of the system, or to the human workforce, and thus to the skill of proletarians and engineers alike. The development of these new social formations, as Engels claimed, involved an apparently paradoxical relation between machinery and human intelligence. He opened his analysis with a crude picture of pre-industrial life dominated by machine-like agricultural labour. "The industrial revolution has simply carried this out to its logical end by making the workers machines pure and simple, taking from them the last trace of independent activity, and so forcing them to think and demand a position worthy of men". [63]

The two central political issues of the revolutionary decade of the 1830s were those of the intelligence to be attributed to the working class and of the possibility of representing the new factory regime and its associated system as a natural, and providential, rather than artificial, and thus corrupt, formation. These issues were hard to tease apart. Apologists repeatedly emphasised the inevitability and the virtue of the factory system. Cooke Taylor reckoned that "factories are a result of the universal tendency to association which is inherent in our nature" and that "the factory system is not only innocent in itself but a necessary element in the progress of civilization and a most efficient means of promoting human happiness." In a fashion characteristic of the Scottish philosophy of mind, these remarks referred the co-ordination and discipline of the work-force to principles inherent in human consciousness. Eighteenth century associationism, it was claimed, reached its apotheosis in the cotton works. Thence it was easy to argue that the apparent evils of the factory system were entirely external to its logic. Thus while Cooke Taylor blamed "the want of intelligence in the ruling power....and not the factory system, which does not possess any means for self-legislation", the eminent reformist physician James Kay Shuttleworth, whose revelations about the health of the manufacturing towns supplied countless journalists with scare stories, commented that the evils affecting the Mancunian working class "result from foreign and accidental causes. A system, which promotes the advance of civilization and diffuses it all over the world....founded on the benefits of commercial association, cannot be inconsistent with the happiness of the great mass of the people". [64] The systematic character of the factories was precisely what allowed them to represented as virtuous, and this virtue was allegedly achieved automatically.

The crisis of proletarian intelligence in the factory system emerged as a problem of automatism. "The factory system has a tendency within itself to correct many of the evils". If the factory were not merely the product of an automatic law of moral progress but the consequence of the adoption of the automatic system of manufacture, it was still necessary but difficult to represent the inmates of the factory as themselves possessed of intelligence. The puzzle of the thinking machine was the very stuff of this debate. No doubt this was why the images of the modern Prometheus and of Athena springing fully-clad from the mind of Zeus were so common. Defining the site of intelligence was a key political task. Critics reiterated their suspicion that automatic machinery and factory discipline mechanized the proletariat. Cooke Taylor addressed the puzzle directly. "I am willing to confess that the mechanical processes which require a continuous and unvarying repetition of the same operation...have a tendency to degrade the workman into an automaton". He conceded that "there is a tendency in the use of machinery to materialize the thoughts". But in drawing a picture of the balance between the necessary division of labour and the combination of tasks required within the factory system, he urged that "such combination requires no small exercise of mind and no conceivable adaptation of wood and iron will produce a machine that can think". Nasmyth told the parliamentary commissioners that automatic machinery prompted workers' intellectual development, just because under benevolent management removed the need for hard work. Challenged that under the division of labour "the labourer becomes part of the machine instead of an entire machine", Nasmyth replied that "some of our modern machines are most interesting, and after a time the men begin to feel it...the mere looking at anything absolutely correct or true in geometrical form, I think, has in itself a tendency to improve the mind". [65]

The suspicion, however, was that this vaunted intellectual improvement flowed from the master-machines, and thus from their masters. Ure characteristically and frankly celebrated this subordination. The Manchester guidebook quoted him approvingly: "the benignant power of steam summons around him his myriads of willing menials, and assigns to each the regulated task, substituting for painful muscular effort upon their part the energies of his own gigantic arm". There was thus an unresolved contradiction between stress on the subordination, and thus mechanization, of workers' intelligence, and on the co-ordination, and thus cerebration, of their labour. A notorious example appeared in Ure's attempts to define the term "factory". On the very same page of his Philosophy of Manufactures he defined the factory both as "a vast automaton composed of various mechanical and intellectual organs....all of them being subordinated to a self-regulated moving force", and also as "the combined operation of many orders of tending with assiduous skill a system of productive machines". Marx immediately picked up this striking contradiction between automatism and skill and associated it closely with Babbage's account of the division of labour in the machine system. "These two descriptions [by Ure] are far from being identical. In one, the combined collective worker appears as the dominant subject, and the mechanical automaton as the object; in the other, the automaton itself is the subject, and the workers are merely conscious organs". The "automatic workshop" posed in an unprecedently acute form the challenge of situating its intellectual and thus governing principle: within the skilful workforce, as Cooke Taylor hinted, within the managerial regime, as Nasmyth so often claimed, or within the machines, as Ure and Babbage boasted. [66]


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