What were the social conditions that led many English intellectuals in the 1930s to engage in fundamental critique of the society in which they lived? Why was social criticism so profound and sustained in Britain from the time of Carlyle and Engels to the surge of English socialism in the 1930s?
The answer, of course, is the harshness and cruelty of capitalism and the rapid industrialization and slummification of cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, and London in the 1840s and the century that followed. It was the perfectly visible immiseration of British working people, and the growing conviction that this was a systemic consequence of the new economic order, that inspired observers as politically diverse as Carlyle and Engels to write their descriptions and denunciations of the emerging economic system (link, link). And it was this perception of systemic exploitation and ruin that led critics to try to imagine a social and economic system that would make those evils impossible.
These critiques were not primarily driven by ideology; they were not driven by an antecedent political program. Instead, many of these social critics were conducting what we might today call "micro-sociology", investigating and documenting the modes of life found in particular communities. The programs for radical change came next. Radicalism did not create the conditions of poverty, bad health, and demoralization that Carlyle, Engels, or Orwell described; rather, the range of socialist visions that appeared were responses to the social dysfunctions that were entirely visible in 19th- and 20th-century capitalism.
If one witnesses the debris and death of a plane crash, one is saddened for the loss of life, but it is possible to think of the crash as a tragic accident. But when one reads of the extraordinary rates of fatal and maiming accidents in the coal-mining industry, the "unfortunate accident" view is not tenable. The high rate of accidents observed is systemic, deriving from the management's failure to invest in appropriate safety equipment and processes as a means of propping up profits as well as the utter lack of effective state regulation of mine safety.
Likewise, a single impoverished family is a sad event; whereas a whole impoverished class is systemic and must be treated as such. A social order that consigns 40% of its population to extreme poverty, illiteracy, and poor health is an unacceptable social order. It must be changed. This was the conviction that was shared by a broad swath of observers of English society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But what form might that change take? That was the question that faced social critics at the end of the nineteenth century. And the question continued through the Great Depression into the 1930s. For many critics, the answer was some form of socialism.
Consider George Orwell and his work of documentary journalism, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). The book was commissioned by the Left Book Club, organized by Victor Gollancz, Harold Laski, and John Strachey, to investigate unemployment in the Midland industrial regions. The first half of the book is based on careful and exact observation of the conditions of life and work of the coal miners and their families in industrial northern England. (Wigan is roughly midway between Manchester and Liverpool.) The conditions of work and living that Orwell describes are horrible and dehumanizing. The work of coal mining was highly dangerous, with high rates of injury and death; the pay was poor, with many deductions; the work was physically taxing in the extreme (Orwell describes the harrowing trudge from the "cage" to the coal face in terms that are almost Promethean in their physical demands); and the working day involved manually moving tons of coal from the coal face to the conveyer belt by miners crouched on their knees. Living conditions were awful as well, both in the central slums and in the scarce and shoddy new housing slowly being built by the municipalities. Sanitation was primitive, living spaces were damp and bug-infested, and every lodging was severely over-crowded. And work was scarce, with high rates of unemployment in every family. Orwell conveys great respect for the men and women whom he meets during his time in the industrial north, but he is also clear-eyed about the dehumanization created by poverty, malnutrition, and precarious and squalid housing.
The critique of the systemic immiseration created by capitalism raised the urgent question of change. But it doesn't determine the answer. Can the worst features of capitalism be reformed? Can the effective political power of working people be increased and brought to bear in support of measures like unemployment insurance, retirement security, and access to education and healthcare? Can extreme economic inequalities be managed through tax policies? That is, are there possible adjustments to capitalist ownership that retain the main features of capitalism but ensure the fundamental interests of working people? We might describe this as reform of laissez-faire capitalism in the direction of "capitalism with a human face", welfare capitalism, or social democracy. Roosevelt's New Deal represented ambitious efforts along these lines, including programs to address mass unemployment (the Works Progress Administration) and old-age poverty (the Social Security Administration). Marx and his followers in the serial Internationals argued that piecemeal reform of capitalism was not possible -- "capitalist ownership implies capitalist dictatorship" -- but that is simple dogma. Perhaps strong labor unions and a progressive political party can institute and preserve social-democratic reforms within the broad confines of a market economy.
Second, if the critic is persuaded that private ownership and management of industrial firms is itself the cause of immiseration -- because owners are under constant profit imperatives of cost reduction, leading to negative pressure on wages and strong resistance to taxation for social programs -- then a second broad avenue for reform is democratic socialism. If private ownership of industry leads to immiseration, then reformers are led to consider social ownership of some kind. Here the slogan might be: democratic institutions govern the state, and a system of social ownership owns and manages productive wealth. Here again there are multiple scenarios to imagine. One possible arrangement of social ownership might involve municipal ownership, much as utility companies were once owned by public authorities. Another possible arrangement is workers' cooperatives (link, link), in which the employees of a firm are also the owners. Again, this is not an unknown arrangement even within an advanced capitalist economy. These alternative systems of social ownership can be described as varieties of democratic socialism, with distributed ownership of the means of production.
Yet another arrangement that might capture the purposes of democratic social control of the economy and decent outcomes for all members of society is the system that John Rawls describes as a property-owning democracy (link). On this view, political institutions embody democratic values of maximal equal liberties and democratic decision-making. And economic institutions are essentially arranged around "mutual funds" owned by all citizens that own enterprises and are subject to democratic oversight by their shareholders (citizens). Rawls writes:
Both a property-owning democracy and a liberal socialist regime set up a constitutional framework for democratic politics, guarantee the basic liberties with the fair value of the political liberties and fair equality of opportunity, and regulate economic and social inequalities by a principle of mutuality, if not by the difference principle. (Justice as Fairness, 138)
All of that said, Orwell was not Keynes; he was not a systematic thinker about social and economic institutions. If we want a detailed, plausible, and workable version of a democratic-socialist Britain, we will have to look elsewhere. Rather, Orwell was a social observer who was passionately committed to the value of the full human development of all members of society; secure equality of opportunity; constrained levels of economic inequality; and full embodiment of political and individual rights and liberties. What he observed in the slums and coal mines of Yorkshire and Lancashire was a human reality at a vast distance from full human development and the equal worth of all members of society. What he demanded was a social, economic, and political order that ended these inexcusable conditions for a large fraction of British society.
(Here is a post that offers a critique of contemporary conditions of work in a large American industry -- Amazon fulfillment centers (link), and the dehumanization and economic stagnation that this business model implies for its workers. One can only hope that union organizers will become increasingly successful at Amazon warehouses.)