Along with his friend Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels believed that a society where a small fraction of the population controls a majority of the wealth and means of production is unsustainable and will eventually lead to class warfare. Their ideas, which lambasted capitalism and the bourgeoisie, would eventually evolve into what is now known as communism. However, despite the fact that Engels disapproved of a society whose economy is based on a free market, he outlines how collective bargaining and other legal measures can correct some of the injustices associated with capitalism in The Conditions of the Working-Class in England in 1844.
Working-class citizens living in a capitalist society are more likely to be exposed to disease, famine, and poor housing, according to Engels. He explains how even the best working-man is “constantly exposed to loss of work and food,” as well as the fact that the “dwellings of the workers are everywhere badly planned, badly built, and kept in the worst condition” with at least one family sleeping in each room (Engels 73). Living conditions such as the ones described are attributed to capitalism, whose goal is to keep wages and prices low, therefore making it necessary for intervention to correct the situation.
Engels argues that workers must unionize in order to prevail in a capitalist system due to the fact that the basic premise of capitalism is competition among business owners. When competing against one another, owners strive to provide their product at the lowest possible price, with lower wages equating to lower prices. He argues this point by stating, “If the employer had no concentrated, collective opposition to expect, he would in his own interest reduce wages to a lower and lower point; indeed, the battle of competition which he has to wage against his fellow-manufacturers would force him to do so, and wages would soon reach the minimum” (Engels 217). His argument shows that collective bargaining can help curb some of the excesses associated with capitalism. Engels later states that the fear of strike prevents owners from reducing wages to a bare minimum, because doing so would ultimately hurt the business and enable competitors to gain an increased share of the market (Engels 217).
In addition to collective bargaining, Engels claims legal measures against businesses that defraud the poor are also necessary in order to rectify the injustices of capitalism. While large businesses, he believes, are more apt to providing a quality product because they hope to uphold their reputation, small businesses do not have the same obligation. The primary reason small business sell a lesser quality product is because the objective of capitalism it to sell at the lowest price, and they cannot buy quality goods due to their reduced capital. As a result, small businesses that default the poor will move to another town, as Engels outlines: “If no one trusts him in Ancoats, he moves to Chorlton or Hulme, where no one knows him, and where he continues to defraud as before; while legal penalties attach to very few adulterations unless they involve revenue frauds” (Engels 71). By only attaching legal penalties to revenue frauds, Engels shows how the poor can be deceived and manipulated, and ultimately how more government oversight is necessary to protect the working-class.
In conclusion, Engels contends that the excesses of capitalism can be reined in if the proletariat can effectively unite, and if the government issues penalties that carry actual weight to businesses guilty of defrauding the working-class. He argues that the best way for the working-class to earn a fair living is to unite against the bourgeoisie and demand the “Ten Hours’ Bill, protection of the workers against the capitalist, good wages, a guaranteed position, [and] repeal of the new Poor Law” (Engels 235). Ultimately, although Engels admits that a capitalist economy based on free trade will always disadvantage the poor, he acknowledges that the government and working-class can take action to correct some of the inequity associated with capitalism.
Engels, Frederick. The Conditions of the Working-Class in England in 1844. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 2005.