- Expanding Class: Power and Everyday Politics in Industrial Communities, the Netherlands, 1850—1950
At a time when income disparities are increasing with almost unprecedented rapidity, class-based parties and trade unions are declining in Europe and North America. Don Kalb’s important study of a predominantly Catholic working-class population of North Brabant in twentieth-century Holland casts light on issues of class quiescence of considerable contemporary relevance. An anthropologist, equally at home with historical methods and debates, Kalb presents a splendid mix of theory and empirical research. He portrays class not as an inevitable outcome of the organization of work but as a relational category based on a constellation of diverse alliances and shared “modes of life.” Blending Norbert Elias’s interest on the spread of social mores with class analysis, Kalb shows how values become shared across classes. Showing students of class that the formation of popular culture needs as much attention as the organization of labor, he suggests to advocates of the “civilizing process” that refinement has a class character.
Kalb knows very well that the men and women in his study were not passive victims of capitalist paternalism or religious manipulation, but he also realizes that consciousness of exploitation must be combined with consequential action to constitute protest. Starting with a traditional treatment of class in terms of relationships of production, he extends its meaning to include the larger political environment and the allies available to dissident workers as well as the paternalist character of working-class familism and employers’ efforts to manipulate it in favor of their own “paternalist” strategies. Aihwa Ong’s remarkable study of contemporary Malaysian electronics workers addresses some of the same themes, but Kalb’s historical analysis allows him to better substantiate his quite different conclusions. 1
Illustrating the intertwining of class and cultural influence that so intrigues him, Kalb’s discussion of central Brabant shoemakers shows the appeals of Catholic trade unionism as well as its limitations. Catholic shoemaking trade unions were based on the efforts of the most skilled workers in factories aided by Catholic clergymen to organize exploited homeworkers. Sparked by the newly released papal encyclical, Rerum novarum, young vicars provided the invaluable [End Page 217] link to dispersed homeworkers. Many factory owners supported these efforts since cheaply-made domestic shoes proved competitive with those made by costly factory technologies. Their familism sensitized Catholic trade unionists to the plight of young working women. Catholic unionists encouraged their sisters and daughters to form their own trade union, partly in order to increase their control over their kin’s labor. But the ties formed to bind female kin to males could pull both ways. When a factory owner subjected girls to particularly harsh discipline and the girls struck, the male shoeworkers went out on strike to support them. Such cases of solidarity were rarer among socialist than Catholic workers.
The shoemakers also present a striking example of the formation of what Kalb calls a “civilizing coalition.” The skilled workers and clergymen who led this alliance supported temperance movements celebrating hard work and responsibility; the work ethic was more successfully inculcated by church and union than by employers. As factory work spread in shoemaking, with attendant de-skilling of the union’s core constituency, factory owners no longer encouraged the movement and Catholic trade unionism, caught off balance, failed to develop an adequate response.
The workers at the Phillips plant in Eindhoven in southeast Brabant provide the counterpoint to the shoemakers. Electric manufacturers, Phillips established itself there to take advantage of an abundant unskilled female labor force drawn from a hardpressed local peasantry unable to survive on its own; from first to last, Phillips realized that cheap and reliable female labor was key to the niche that it occupied within the electric industry. Families’ need for additional money for survival led them to pressure daughters to perform efficiently. As the pressure on rural families increased, Phillips even found jobs for many fathers. Daughters’ loyalty to...