The Fruits of Civilization (24) Industrialization


The way of industrialism is the way of the machine. ~ American farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry

By the beginning of the 18th century, European businesses had increasingly focused on and achieved productivity improvements. There were sizable concentrations of rural industry in western Europe, mostly in textile manufacture.

With the advent of industrialization, life for workers became dire, both in the factory and at home. British cotton textile workers succumbed to lung diseases from the dust generated during production. This was typical of working hazards, which were multifarious.

Have mercy, cried the blacksmith. How’re you going to replace human hands? Found guilty, said the judge, for not being in demand. ~ Canadian musician Robbie Robertson in the song “Last of the Blacksmiths” (1971)

Under the crushing wheel of industrializing capitalism, those with craft skills lost their livelihoods; replaced by poorly paid, unskilled workers at unsafe machines. 70–80 hours per week labor was the norm, and many worked over 100, with just half of Sunday off.

Laws to protect workers were nonexistent. Men rebelled so frequently that factory owners took to hiring women and children, subjecting them to horrendous working conditions.

The urban working class lived in crowded hovels, sometimes 15 to 20 in a room. Hundreds typically shared a single toilet.

Workers died off like flies. In poor areas of Manchester, England, life expectancy was 17 years: 30 years less than what it had been for the English before the Norman conquest, 9 centuries earlier.

This privation was according to plan. The economic thinking that dominated Europe from the 16th century was that poverty was instrumentally beneficial. Albeit miserable for those caught in the merciless grip of the market system’s “invisible hand,” plentiful cheap labor was what kept the economic engine humming – to the great benefit of investors and industrial masters.

In a free nation where slaves are not allow’d of, the surest wealth consists in a multitude of laborious poor. ~ 18th century Dutch political economist Bernard Mandeville

Not until the 1990s did economists manage to fashion a coherent theoretical framework which suggested that high levels of poverty might be an economic drawback.

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The misery that industrializing capitalism created sparked reaction. Some tried to turn the clock back. The Luddites – supplanted English textile craftspeople – took to destroying the machines that had replaced them.

(Mill owners replied to the Luddites by shooting them. The movement was eventually extinguished by military force.)

Others sought a more constructive response. Welsh entrepreneur Robert Owen tried to build a communal community to illustrate how socialism could work for the benefit of all.

The most notorious respondent to industrializing capitalism was English academic Karl Marx, who derided the efforts of Owen and others as “utopian.” Marx imagined a “scientific socialism”: a polity which took the reins of capitalism and turned it into an egalitarian society with a command economy. Marx had no impact during his lifetime, but his legacy became legendary.

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Until 1750, peasant life expectancy in France was 35 years; no better than hominids a million years earlier. Britain was little better. This owed to malnutrition. Chronic hunger continued for the mass majority in the industrializing world into the 19th century. The exception was the United States, where people were better fed.

Though facing dismal prospects, people kept breeding. Population growth rose rapidly during the early stages of industrialization. Although infant mortality declined, the chances of surviving childhood did not improve with industrialization.

Industrial processes and organization have robbed the worker of his craft and its heritage. ~ American political economist Harry Braverman