The Fruits of Civilization (24-5) Society


By the middle of the 19th century, the transition to capitalism was complete. What was left of feudalism was a mere vestige.

But rather than the promised equilibrium, 19th-century capitalism was racked by cycles and enormous disparities of wealth. A major depression occurred roughly every 20 years. Workers’ conditions would improve and then rapidly deteriorate, prices rise and then fall, banks expand and then collapse.

New ‘robber barons’ replaced the barons of old. It appeared that, while promising a meritocratic equilibrium, capitalism had instead delivered unbalanced chaos. ~ Steve Keen

In the Western world, the social order from the industrial age was an evolution from the hierarchy that had characterized feudal society. In earlier times, the rulers and owners of land were one and the same. Land to those who served nobility was a matter of grant, subject to revocation.

As the divine right of kings diminished, property became the basis for preindustrial aristocracy, as well as providing income from agriculture. Peasants and a relative few artisans comprised the great mass of society, with clergy and bureaucrats in between.

Pre-industrialization, the market system and corresponding polity created an upper middle class (haute bourgeoisie) of wealthy merchants, professionals, and the top crust of government officials. Although these people may have owned property, their skills and contacts with the landed aristocracy lifted them from the lower strata.

Below that was a lower middle class (petite bourgeoisie) of handicraftsmen and artisans, retail tradesmen and others in service occupations, and independent holders of small properties. At the bottom rung were peasants, agricultural laborers, domestic cottage industry workers, and many indigent and paupers.

With industrialization came new social classes. Wealth and occupation increasingly determined social stratum, though inheritance counted, especially in Britain.

At the beginning of the 19th century peasants were the most populous group. Even at the end of the century, they still constituted a majority in Europe, though in the more industrialized areas, their numbers had dramatically diminished, having been turned into the urban workers whose lot was just as dismal.

Isolated by a poor communication network, and mentally bound to tradition, a peasant’s greatest desire was a piece of land to call his own. Peasants participation in social movements was sporadic and limited to immediate economic interests.