In many of the specific cases he cites (e.g., baking) conditions were bad precisely because the firm had not been able to afford to introduce machinery, since it lacked capital. In effect, Marx is dealing with pre-capitalist conditions, and ignoring the truth which stared him in the face: the more capital, the less suffering. Where he does treat a modern, highly-capitalized industry, he finds a dearth of evidence; thus, dealing with steel, he has to fall back on interpolated comments (‘What cynical frankness!’ ‘What mealy-mouthed phraseology!’), and with railways he is driven to use yellowing clippings of old accidents (‘fresh railway catastrophes’): it was necessary to his thesis that the accident rate per passenger mile travelled should be rising, whereas it was falling dramatically and by the time Capital was published railways were already becoming the safest mode of mass travel in world history.
Thirdly, using reports of the factory inspectorate, Marx quotes examples of bad conditions and ill-treatment of workers as though they were the inevitable norm of the system; in fact these were the responsibility of what the inspectors themselves call ‘the fraudulent mill-owner’, whom they were appointed to detect and prosecute and who was thus in the process of being eliminated. Fourthly the fact that Marx’s main evidence came from this source, the inspectorate, betrays his biggest cheat of all. It was his thesis that capitalism was, by its nature, incorrigible and, further, that in the miseries it inflicted on the workers, the bourgeois State was its associate since the State, he wrote, ‘is an executive committee for managing the affairs of the governing class a whole’. But if that were true Parliament would never have passed the Factory Acts, nor the State enforced them.
Virtually all Marx’s facts, selectively deployed (and sometimes falsified) as they were, came from the efforts of the State (inspectors, courts, Justices of the Peace) to improve conditions, which necessarily involved exposing and punishing those responsible for bad ones. If the system had not been in the process of reforming itself, which by Marx’s reasoning was impossible, Capital could not have been written. As he was unwilling to do any on-the-spot investigating himself, he was forced to rely precisely on the evidence of those, whom he designated ‘the governing class’, who were trying to put things right and to an increasing extent succeeding. Thus Marx had to distort his main source of evidence, or abandon his thesis. The book was, and is, structurally dishonest.
What Marx could not or would not grasp, because he made no effort to understand how industry worked, was that from the very dawn of the Industrial Revolution, 1760-90, the most efficient manufacturers, who had ample access to capital, habitually favoured better conditions for their workforce; they therefore tended to support factory legislation and, what was equally important, its effective enforcement, because it eliminated what they regarded as unfair competition. So conditions improved, and because conditions improved, the workers failed to rise, as Marx predicted they would. The prophet was thus confounded. What emerges from a reading of Capital is Marx’s fundamental failure to understand capitalism.