Skip to main content

Mátyás Erdélyi: Experts in the Bureau: Private Clerks and Capitalism in the Late Habsburg Monarchy

Organ der Versicherungsangestellten VIII, no. 3 (1908)
Friday, December 20, 2019, 4:00 pm – 6:00 pm

The dissertation offers a social and intellectual history of private clerks employed in banking and insurance in the Habsburg Monarchy between the Gründerzeit of the 1850s and the aftermath of the Great War. It raises the question, how did the mindset, habitus, and ideology of private clerks become constitutive of the changes the modernizing society and economy of the Habsburg Monarchy went through in this period, and how can their understanding of modernity be contrasted to other answers offered to the “great transformation” of the nineteenth century. The dissertation relies on three clusters of theoretical and historiographical ideas to address Habsburg modernity from the perspective of private clerks: the conceptualization of capitalist modernity by Werner Sombart and Max Weber; the rise of numbers and the historical development of credibility in quantification; and the presupposition of a “Habsburg society” and a common Habsburg framework for the social and intellectual history of private clerks. Through the lens of this conceptual framework, the dissertation can bypass the shortcomings of modernization theories and the normativity of descriptions like “failed”, “uneven”, and “belated” modernization to produce a comprehensive account of the “great transformation” in Central Europe in its larger contexts.

The development of financial capitalism in the Habsburg Monarchy produced its own cadre of professionals in the form of bookkeepers, correspondents, cashiers, and so forth. The need for specialized workforce brought about the emergence of vocational schooling on the secondary level beginning in the late 1850s and the Handelsakademien represented a direct competition for classical secondary schools. Private clerks typically graduated from a trade school in the period under scrutiny and the systematic discrimination against women in the sector became the main component of discrimination against women in the bureau. Their labor movements sought to improve the legal and financial situation of private employees; this involved the creation of firm social frontiers between the working classes (both in trade and industry) and private clerks as well as the affirmation of their belonging to the Bildungsbürgertum. Efforts in the systematization of vocational education also targeted at establishing the group as part of the educated gentlemanly middle-classes with the help of prerogatives such as the Matura and the one-year voluntary service of graduates (Einjährige-Freiwilligkeit).

Image: Organ der Versicherungsangestellten VIII, no. 3 (1908)