Robert Owen


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Robert Owen

  1. 1. ROBERT OWEN By Michael Migiel-Schwartz
  2. 2. Background… Born in Newtown, Wales, in 1771, Became one of England’s earliest proponents of socialism and the co-operative movement. Began an early career as a factory manager and owner. KNOWN FOR: His creation of cooperative communities at New Lanark, Scotland, New Harmony, Indiana, as well as later activism
  3. 3. New Lanark, Scotland Viewpoint in early years: he asserted that human character is a product of environment, and only by treating workers humanely can they develop into full, moral individuals. Set out to transform the mills and the community. Determined to both eliminate child labor in the mills (so that children could be educated) and to improve working conditions of all workers. In essays from this period (1813-1825), he argued that the ideal moral community would be a cooperatively-run agrarian and industrial village. So he enacted change: renovated workers’ homes so each had two stories developed systems for sanitation and garbage disposal paved roads and implemented street cleaning opened a free village school The profits from the company mill largely financed these efforts
  4. 4. Politics and public opinion… Owen proposed regulations to Parilament to raise the minimum age of employment and limit the working day, and also proposed a system in which children would have half-time education until age 12. His ideas deemed impossible, Owen largely turned away from politics and public policy and instead focused on changing public opinion with the creation of alternative communities Owen suggested that the solution to England’s economic problems at the time lay in making the poor productive. He advocated the formation of “Villages of Cooperation” in which 800- 1,200 individuals would work together in agriculture and factories to form one self-sustaining unity. Houses would be grouped to share common living rooms and kitchens. Children would be boarded in a community school so that they could be best educated, and community gardens would surround the school. On the outskirts would lie the factory Most English policy makers and thinkers of the time found these communitarian proposals idealistic and unrealistic
  5. 5. Disgruntled, he fled to America… Owen founded a settlement called New Harmony in Indiana Believed he could enact his social vision of the cooperative community. But, eight hundred settlers arrived in the first weeks, long before any proper arrangements for their living or work assignments had been made, and chaos ensued. Dissatisfaction grew and in 1827 the community divided into smaller groups, few of which ended up being viable. Owen began to face ideological conflict with his partners in the enterprise. By 1828 it was clear New Harmony had failed and Owen returned to Britain.
  6. 6. Back… Activism in England… Owen returned to England in 1828 He wrote and gave lectures that demonstrated a radical progression in his thinking and vision. He now came out explicitly against private property, commercialism, and inequality in general. The development of “Owenism” (the ideas associated with Robert Owen) was evolving and forced Owen to alter his approach working-class trade unionists and other activists transformed Owen’s vision of alternative communities into more immediate proposals for the improvement of working class life. Thus three institutions of working class “Owenism” emerged the cooperative store the labor exchange the trade union (These, esp. the labor exchange theory, should be viewed as key to his economic theories/beliefs)
  7. 7. Cooperative Stores Cooperative stores and societies involve consumer- owners of stores purchasing goods in bulk at affordable prices for the benefit of their members (think GreenStar for shorthand…) While many of these co-ops initially failed, they inspired the successful British co-operative movement of the second half of the 19th century (co-operatively-owned stores still play a significant role in the British economy).
  8. 8. Labor Exchanges and the Labor Exchange Theory Workers not only wanted more affordable goods, but also to reap the full benefits of their labor. They developed proposals for “equitable labor exchanges,” an idea which Owen received enthusiastically. The labor exchanges attempted to institutionalize “the labor theory of value,” the belief that the true value of a good is based on the amount of labor that it took to produce it, plus the cost of the raw materials used to make it. The labor exchanges were locations where individual cooperators or trade unionists (usually individual artisans) exchanged goods without the use of money, but with “labor notes,” which represented a certain amount of hours-worked. Owen had previously suggested that labor be made the standard of value, and his followers followed suit. However, by 1834, difficulties in keeping the system insulated from the broader market economy and emerging factory production led to the eventual downfall of labor exchange system.
  9. 9. Trade Unionism… Socialism! At the same time (1825-35) Britain’s trade unions were fighting for shorter hours, the end of child labor, and safer worker conditions Owen had been the most visible reformer for these ideas in Britain, and so he eventually became the most identifiable leader of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union (GNCTU), which within a few weeks in 1834 grew to over half a million members. The workers and activists behind trade unions transformed “Owenism” (the term then used for ideas associated with Robert Owen) into a critique of what trade unionists saw to be the unjust combination of wealth, power and privilege in England. Though the British government would brutally repress the GNCTU, the GNCTU, closely associated with Owen, represented the first manifestation of socialist-oriented trade unionism. Thus, Robert Owen is known to this day as one of the key figures in the founding of British socialism
  10. 10. Key transformation/point… (Recap of) Early belief: Owen asserted that human character is a product of environment, and only by treating workers humanely can they develop into full, moral individuals. BUT As his career progressed, his philosophy developed from one of benevolence towards his workers into a desire to found just, cooperative communities. BUT When those utopian communities failed, Owen shifted his focus to aiding workers struggling for greater control over their labor by means of producer and consumer cooperatives and strong trade unions.