From The World We Have Lost by Peter Laslett.
Laslett wants to dispel some of the myths about life being better before industrialization transformed England. But he points out the price exacted by industrialization. “All industrial societies, we may suppose, are far less stable than their predecessors. They lack the extraordinary cohesive influence which familial relationships carry with them, that power of reconciling the frustrated and discontented by emotional means. Social revolution, meaning an irreversible changing of the pattern of social relationships, never happened in traditional, patriarchal, pre-industrial human society. It was almost impossible to contemplate.”
But the dissolution of the family as a productive unit and the separation of the household from the factory and the expansion of the possibility with improved travel and communication and whatnot undermined traditional beliefs and received wisdom and made revolution possible, made egalitarianism thinkable. The price (if it was a price) was the lost of intimate, taken-for-granted family unity.
In the premodern world, “everyone had his circle of affection: every relationship could be seen as a love-relationship.” That is because everything was personal; impersonal exchange was beyond the scope of everyday life. Social relations had not yet been depersonalized. However miserable life was then, “a man usually lived and worked within the family, the circle of affection, released enough dissatisfaction to account for all the restlessness which has marked the progress of the industrial world.”
Hence the recent efforts to bring affect back into the production world. What may be happening now is that these relations (now carried out with brands and institutions) are being repersonalized. Laslett asks, “Who could love the name of a limited company or of a government department as an apprentice could love his superbly satisfactory father-figure master, even if he were a bully and a beater, a usurer and a hypocrite?” Well, that is what branding and affective labor is all about today. A capitalistic effort to reinscribe the semblance of love into the relations of production and consumption in the social factory, using realtime communications, etc., to shrink the world back to the village size (a la McLuhan’s idea about the global village).
Laslett turns a nice phrase when, in discussing the aristocracy, notes that historians will have to “show an imaginative sensitivity to all those subtle influences which enable a minority to live for all the rest.” I tend to call those “subtle influences” ideology, others hegemony. The point is to be aware of the irrational ways in which privilege gets naturalized, perpetuated — how institutions and material culture conspire to accomplish the task.
The book, in the detail it provides about servants in preindustrial England, made me wonder about the novelty of our service economy, or if that also is a kind of return. “In 1901 personal domestic service was the major occupationof all the employed women in the country…. By 1951 the female domestic servant had practically disappeared.” Service as it is conceived in our economy is something quite different, with a different set of entitlements being deployed to claim the right to require others to serve them. Rather than landed gentry and the dispossessed, there are media corporations poaching the creative self-fashioning work of the masses trying to differentiate themselves.