Wedgwood and Marx

by Chris Sturr | January 11, 2009

You may have heard that Waterford Wedgwood (the Irish crystal maker bought the British ceramics company in 1986) is in receivership, aka bankrupt. The New York Times’s Jan. 5th news report on the company’s problems cited several possible reasons for the company’s troubles: “Some analysts attribute Waterford’s losses to management’s reluctance to move manufacturing jobs to countries with lower labor costs, like Indonesia. The combination of high manufacturing costs, declining demand for luxury goods and a weak dollar last year overstretched the company’s finances.”

But today’s Times includes an op-ed by Judith Flanders (author of Inside the Victorian Home) chiding the company for departing from Josiah Wedgwood’s tradition of innovation in marketing:

The company is in trouble because it has long forgotten the lessons of one of its founders: Josiah Wedgwood, among the greatest and most innovative retailers the world has ever seen. If the modern operators of Wedgwood, which was merged with Waterford Glass in 1986, had shown a tenth of Josiah’s intuitive grasp, his flair, his zest for selling, it would not now be dying. …

Josiah was an unlikely hero. He was the 13th child of an impoverished potter; a childhood case of smallpox left Josiah with a bad leg that was later amputated, making it impossible for him to turn a potter’s wheel. But if he could not physically throw a pot, he could—and did—find new ways to get goods to market. He threw himself into various schemes to improve roads and canals. And, more fundamentally, he developed new ways of selling. Most, if not all, of the common techniques in 20th-century sales—direct mail, money-back guarantees, traveling salesmen, self-service, free delivery, buy one get one free, illustrated catalogues—came from Josiah Wedgwood.

I’m not so sure we should be grateful for direct mail catalogs, but luckily the company has a much more worthwhile legacy. What Flanders fails to mention is the role of Josiah Wedgwood & Sons in bringing about protective labor legislation, e.g. reducing the working hours for children. Marx mentions it in a footnote in Capital, in section 5 of Chapter 10 (the chapter on the working day). In the passage that is footnoted, Marx is explaining why social regulation is required to improve working conditions, since individual capitalists in the midst of intense competition are not going to unilaterally improve their workers’ conditions. But protective legislation may nevertheless be in their collective interest:

Capital that has such good reasons for denying the sufferings of the legions of workers that surround it, is in practice moved as much and as little by the sight of the coming degradation and final depopulation of the human race, as by the probable fall of the earth into the sun. In every stockjobbing swindle every one knows that some time or other the crash must come, but every one hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety. Après moi le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society. To the out-cry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, it answers: Ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits? But looking at things as a whole, all this does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.

Here’s the footnote that mentions Josiah Wedgwood:

We, therefore, find, e.g., that in the beginning of 1863, 26 firms owning extensive potteries in Staffordshire, amongst others, Josiah Wedgwood, & Sons, petition in a memorial for “some legislative enactment.” Competition with other capitalists permits them no voluntary limitation of working-time for children, &c. “Much as we deplore the evils before mentioned, it would not be possible to prevent them by any scheme of agreement between the manufacturers. … Taking all these points into consideration, we have come to the conviction that some legislative enactment is wanted.” (“Children’s Employment Comm.” Rep. I, 1863, p. 322.)

So, pace Flanders, Waterford Wedgwood may have been following the company’s best traditions after all—in its reluctance to move manufacturing to lower-wage countries like Indonesia, i.e. its reluctance to take part in the “race to the bottom.” If the analysts the Times mentions are right that this contributed to the company’s downfall, it’s more a measure of how rapacious contemporary globalized neoliberalism than a failing of Waterford Wedgwood.

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