John Thornton and a more intelligent capitalism

 John Thornton -- the good capitalist

John Thornton -- the good capitalist

I readily admit that the romance is my favorite part of North and South, but I'm also passionate about Elizabeth Gaskell's vision of a more humanitarian capitalism. The softening of the stern Milton master is one of the most beautiful developments of the story. And today, as the world continues to search for the proper role of capitalism in human governments, John Thornton's example offers a ray of hope that society can incorporate humanitarian values into the sphere of commerce and industry.

At the same time that Gaskell was writing fictionalized accounts of contemporary life, Karl Marx was issuing forth his anti-capitalist works. The misery of the lower classes in this early industrial period is well documented. With few regulations to protect them and no voting rights, the poor were at the mercy of those in positions of power. As industrialism swept more people into its workings, Gaskell's novel seems to be asking: what is capitalism's role in humanity's progress? The answer she provides can be found as we watch Thornton slowly evolve his stance as a powerful businessman with far-reaching influence.

When we first meet Thornton, he is an autocrat who is fully involved in pursuing productive excellence and efficiency. He believes the only moral duty to his employees (beyond his regular honesty in all his dealings) is to embody the model of self-control and diligence that has made his own business successful. He takes little or no account of workers' concerns and resists involving himself any further in his workers' lives, claiming that it would be an interference of their independence. 

It is Thornton's initial detachment from his employees that fosters the distrust, ignorance, and hatred that is destined to be destructive. 

 The autocratic ruler of Marlborough Mills

The autocratic ruler of Marlborough Mills

Margaret's consistent demand that he consider a deeper moral obligation to the leagues of men under his employ slowly opens Thornton's consciousness to broader possibilities. And through his contact with Higgins, he creates a new relationship with his workers -- a relationship that is on more equal footing, where no one side has all the right answers. In an atmosphere of basic respect where differing parties can regularly interact and communicate with each other, animosity is deflated and friendships are born. (It's a sweet yet astonishing bonus for the tight-lipped, reclusive manager that he finds in Higgins a personal friend!)

It may be easy to dismiss Thornton's eventual success with his workers as happy fiction, but I believe that in Thornton's establishment of a workers' kitchen at Marlborough Mills, we can distinguish the elements required for a practical model of a kinder, gentler capitalism. It is a living example of how a working blend of business principles and humanitarian concepts might take shape.

In the natural course of his developing friendship with Higgins, Thornton becomes aware that the men don't often eat well. It is Thornton's idea to purchase food in bulk in order to supply the workers an affordable meal. But this is not, as Thornton later makes clear to Mr. Bell (and again to Mr. Colthurst of the book), a charity effort on his part. Thornton delegates the task of working out the details of setting up and running a kitchen largely to the men. It's a collaborative endeavor that Thornton invests in to improve the well-being of his workers. The end result is a win-win situation. Thornton's men are comparatively better workers for being fortified with decent food, and the men are offered an affordable and convenient meal at noontime. Both sides participate, both benefit.

 Thornton mingles with his workers.

Thornton mingles with his workers.

Thornton enjoys this expanded model of a humanitarian business so much that he refuses to take work without this new worldview in mind. He declines work as a partner with Hamper's son, who he knows as a vain, merciless capitalist who seeks only personal profit. Thornton is eager to expand his concept of success, purpose, and progress beyond the scope of mere monetary gain. He has a driving desire to explore how lives might be improved in the course of operating a capital enterprise.

Thornton's model of working with his men -- knowing many of them by name, seeing some them occasionally at Higgins' home -- builds the human relationships that support his business when Marlborough Mills begins to decline. The workers take it upon themselves to finish work without pay. The loyalty and respect Thornton has earned increases his business's chances to succeed when business profits are down.

And when Marlborough Mills closes its doors, the men sign a round-robin to say that they will come work for Thornton again if he ever manages another capital enterprise. Thornton's humility and honesty has created great respect among his colleagues. His honest and earnest cooperation and collaboration with his employees has earned him the trust and loyalty of his workers. And it is this relationship of mutual trust and respect that will allow Thornton to re-open his doors and begin again the adventure of finding ways to improve the lives of others while creating a successful business.

In sum, a more intelligent capitalism takes far more than mere profit and statistical productivity into account. If the essential purpose of any business is to provide goods and services to improve the lives of fellow beings, then why should the purpose be limited to customers and investors? Isn't it also essential to improve the lives of the employees who make the enterprise function? The cost of not caring for your workers can be high -- as Thornton discovered in the strike that eventually undermined the economic stability of the mill. 

A truly wise capitalist will take care to remember that his business involves meeting the concerns of humanity at every level of operation. A disregard of human concerns eventually creates problems that are destructive to the whole of society. And that kind of heartless capitalism can never be considered good or intelligent, since it leaves out the most important part of being alive -- having a heart.