Economics serving society

’The true social molecule’. Industrialization, paternalism and the family. Half a century in Le Creusot (1836-86)

Jérôme Bourdieu and Lionel Kesztenbaum

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The question of the securing of labour is central to understanding the process of industrialisation in Europe in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the “working class” was not created mechanically by the combination of new techniques of production and urban concentration around the great factories. It was the product above all of the interplay between the policies of the bosses and the workers’ resistance. This is nowhere more visible or pronounced than in the steel towns, cradle of the new industrial capitalism. Le Creusot, in theSaône-et-Loire, represents both the symbol and the crisis of this system where the city was confused with the factory, where the mill boss was also the mayor, where social control permeated the very fabric of life.
In this article,Jérôme Bourdieu and Lionel Kesztenbaum measure the principles of this paternalistic model, which aspired to govern all aspects of the lives of workers and their families, against the reality of life in Le Creusot. Paradoxically, in the mid-nineteenth century, this town that mushroomed, increasing ten-fold in fifty years, also experienced a massive rotation of labour, notably through an extremely high rate of immigration. To identify and understand these population movements, Bourdieu and Kesztenbaum use nominal census lists, through which they follow the inhabitants, from one census to another, every five years. Observing the changes to household structures, they show how the bosses used their grip on the town, not only via hiring processes but also via housing, to choose which workers were authorised to stay. After an initial phase of collective accommodation for young workers, the town leaders radically changed their policy under the Second Empire, privileging small houses intended for occupation by families. Often bought on credit and reserved for the workers deemed most worthy, these houses helped to secure a labour force and to constrain it financially. The bosses tended also to privilege qualified workers and above all those who were married (a sign that they were domesticated or docile), which in turn changed the way the town was populated. The results presented here show that, even if the process were not smooth or without crises, there were strong links between between the labour market, access to housing and marriage opportunities, in an environment in which working in the factory implied much more than being paid a wage.
Original title of the article : “ ’The true social molecule’. Industrialization, paternalism and the family. Half a century in Le Creusot (1836-86)”
Published in : The History of the Family, Volume 19, Issue 1, Page 53-76 - March 2014
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