Most economic historians agree that an extensive accumulation regime predominated in the second half of the nineteenth century. This regime was based on what Marx called the ‘formal subsumption’ of wage labourers and remained largely dependent on the subjective knowledge and skills of the workers. Only every fifth American worker was employed in a factory in 1900 (Robinson and Briggs, 1991, p. 622). The subsequent rise of factory production had little to do with its technological superiority over artisanal production (Gordon et al., 1982, p. 81); much more, it resulted from the strategy of augmenting output by increasing the overall number of workers. Rather than qualitatively transforming the work process, the basic business philosophy of the time indeed followed the motto ‘so many hands, so much money’ (Dawley, 1976, p. 28). Robinson and Briggs (1991, p. 652) demonstrate that this strategy was reaching the point of diminishing returns in 1880, ‘as skilled workers in large factories were able to press for higher wages than their counterparts in small artisan shops’. Another factor that intensified competition between the largest factories was the increasingly closer link between product markets, from markets on a local scale to ones on a regional and eventually national scale, as a result of the quickly expanding railway system.
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