Robert Owen. 1771-1858. Robert Owen’s “formal” education ended at the age of 10, when he went to work. His employer owned a good library, and young Owen read, when he wasn’t working. By age 20, Owen was an ultra-efficient, and very much in demand, manager, of cotton mills.
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at the age of 10, when he went to work. His employer owned a good library, and young Owen read, when he wasn’t working.
By age 20, Owen was an ultra-efficient, and very much in demand, manager, of cotton mills.
For a “founder” of Socialism, it’s notable that Owen himself was also proof that some men of humble origin could prosper under Capitalism.
In 1799, he convinced his business partners to buy the largest cotton mill on earth, the New Lanark Mill, powered by a waterfall on the River Clyde.
Built in 1783, the mill was a tourist attraction, the “Poster Mill,” as it were, of the Industrial Revolution.
500 of whom were children,
“recruited” from Scottish Poor Houses.
Children as young as 5 worked 13 hour days.
Owen changed this. As he him-self had, child-ren now went to work at age 10, and worked 10 hour days, until the age of 18. As no new children joined the workforce, child labor was phased out.
Until turning 10, New Lanark’s children went to school. Adults took classes at night. Owen founded the world’s first pre-school and adult ed classes. For Owen, nurture trumped nature.
He founded a “company store,” which sold goods at cost, almost. This was the world’s first consumer-cooperative. Modest profits from the store funded educational projects.
The mill was now an “attraction” for social reformers. It seemed a functioning Utopia.
And, all the while, the mill turned a profit.
But Owen’s partners weren’t satisfied with
the margin of profit, so Owen bought them out.
Owen’s new partners settled for a 5% return on their investment, whereas the average British mill owner, during this critical era of “capital accumulation,” was accustomed to profits of up to 50%!
When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, unemployment was catastrophic. The unemployed were considered “paupers,”
and “pauperism” became a crime.
Owen’s proposal to Parliament posited the creation of communal farms that were quite like an Israeli Kibbutz. Children would be raised communally, to inculcate cooperation.
Parliament didn’t go for this, and, Owen became disillusioned with Britain. In 1825 he bought 30,000 acres in Indiana, U.S.A., and founded an agrarian commune, named New Harmony. The above picture is the “plan,” but it went unrealized.
New Harmony was a debacle. It’s demise would be remarkably mirrored with the implosion of 1,000s of hippy communes, 150 years later! Owen lost nearly all of his vast fortune.
Owen’s one huge shining success, New Lanark, was hardly a back-to-the-land commune!It was an ultra-modern, ultra- mechanized factory, both ultra-efficient,
and they can, but New Lanark flourished because it
produced an in-demand product competitively.
New Lanark succeeded within the free market. It was “Socialism” WITHIN Capitalism. Simply because it’s set in nature, an agrarian commune isn’t some Garden of Eden, automatically. “Self-Sufficiency” is no panacea.
When Owen returned to Great Britain, in 1829, “Owenites” were everywhere. Owen became the figurehead of a number of attempts at mass unionism, and, of the first producer-cooperatives.
Dr. Katherine Shelfer,
a cool guy . He was a century ahead of his time, and then some.