We are the beneficiaries of 250 years of fast economic growth. Before that time, whole populations lived or died depending on crop cycles. Today, one feels left behind if one can’t afford an iPhone. We have pushed deprivation so far out we don’t really know what it feels like.
At the source of this stream of wealth stands the industrial revolution. All the more surprising, then, that so many deep thinkers, people who have never spent a minute behind a plow or hunting game, consider this event “a catastrophic dislocation” – a sort of original sin on which many current failings, real and imagined, are to be blamed.
The quote above is from Karl Polanyi. In an earlier post, I examined his contention that free markets, and the industrial revolution they engendered, were a moral abomination promoted by ideologically blinded zealots.
Here I’d like to deepen this examination in two directions. One concerns an empirical question: did the industrial revolution really improve the material well-being of the population? If Polanyi is correct, the answer is no. We can then begin to understand the revulsion of the intellectuals.
I also want to reflect briefly on the anti-industrial syndrome, which has afflicted so many clever minds since Polanyi’s day, and what it means to our way of life.
Was the advent of industry a material catastrophe for the people of Britain? My guide in seeking an answer is Joel Mokyr’s Enlightened Economy, which contains a vast amount of information on the British economy between 1700 and 1850.
The growth of wealth during this period is incontestible, according to Mokyr. The speed of growth was less than might be expected: in hindsight, the industrial revolution appears as the towering event of the age, but at the outset industry was a small sector in an otherwise traditional economy. Other factors weighed more heavily on economic growth – not least, the expensive and destructive armed conflicts Britain waged against France until the fall of Napoleon in 1815.
The distribution of growth is fiercely controversial, and given the scarcity of hard data, not likely ever to be settled to anyone’s satisfaction. Mokyr’s take is that distribution was uneven: the wealthy and the middle classes bounded ahead, but the standard of living of the working class flat-lined through 1850.
The reason was demographic. In my opinion, the most important aspect of the industrial revolution had nothing to do with economics. The population of England and Wales tripled in 150 years. Nobody starved, and none were pushed to the edge of the abyss. Malthusian predictions stood refuted. But the country’s increase in wealth was absorbed initially by an explosion of teeming humanity.
The changed conditions of life are even more difficult to assess. As might be imagined, the rich and the middle classes enjoyed a disproportionate improvement in comfort, convenience, and access to ever more consumer goods. For the laborer, the picture was decidedly mixed. The gains were offset by the pathologies of urbanization, familiar to those who have traveled in the third world today.
The urban poor led dismal lives. This is the image of the industrial revolution in the minds of its more apocalyptic critics. It originates in the prose of Dickens and Henry Mayhew, and has been repeated in countless Hollywood productions: London as the home of battalions of prostitutes and starving urchins.
Yet the urban poor weren’t spawned by the economic transformation. If one is to believe Mokyr, they had been there all along, large in misery but relatively small in numbers – the bottom 2.5 percent of the population, according to Mayhew himself.
People migrated to industrial cities, despite the pathologies, because the alternatives were worse. The true human catastrophe of the age was the famine which killed over a million Irishmen. While industrial Britain bears the moral blame, the cause was a crop failure in a traditional farming economy.
The industrial revolution described by Mokyr is a story of increasing wealth and uneven benefits. Even without the advantage of hindsight – the knowledge that industry created the fast-growth world we take for granted today – it’s hard for me to discern a reason for moral outrage.
In human terms, of course, there is no contradiction between an objectively beneficial development and a subjective loathing of it. That seems to be the case here. The industrial revolution delivered the modern world with all its benefits, but triggers a gag reflex in many thinkers – the nausea of the witness to a bloody and monstrous crime.
What I find perplexing is the categorical nature of the condemnation. Polanyi is by no means unusual among critics in asserting that nineteenth century civilization – the world of liberal democracy and free markets – had to be “destroyed” to preserve “society.” No reforms, no ameliorating half measures – destruction root and branch had to be the final solution to the problem of capitalism. Saving the victims seems less urgent than blowing up the system.
These prophets of doom espoused a baffling variety of ideologies. They have been romantics, transcendentalists, Christians, Hegelians, Marxists, fascists, postmodernists, ecologists, Islamists. They include Shelley, Thoreau, Engels, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Alan Ginsberg, Al Gore, Osama bin Laden. None toiled with their hands. All lived off the excess of wealth generated by the fast-growth economy they wished to anihilate.
Something ripped apart people’s identities from their culture, and divorced, in the most acute and fundamental way, their hearts from the world they live in. The term usually applied to this condition is “alienation.” I prefer “self-loathing,” because it better describes most of the actual cases. The experience isn’t falling out of love with one’s community, but feeling tainted by it and needing to destroy it.
The question is why.
I don’t pretend to have an answer – in fact, I don’t believe there can be a single cause to such a complex mix of human motivations. But the urge to speculate is irresistible.
The growth in population which accompanied the industrial revolution – but, Mokyr claims, was not caused by it – may well play a part. Because there are so many more of us, we must now live among strangers and be more wary with one another. Against community there rose the crowd.
Urbanization played a part. The city has always haunted the imagination of thinkers and artists as the birthplace of sin and degradation. Industrial cities, forced to absorb ever larger numbers and to suffer the pollution of the satanic mills, could be persuasively cast in the part of Babylon before the fall. The ideologies and individuals I listed could not be more disparate, yet all looked back to a pastoral age which never existed.
Displacement mattered. I don’t necessarily mean physical displacement, though leaving one’s community for another might have induced moral vertigo. I mean the displacement of hierarchy in the new order of things: the ability of nobodies to become somebodies if they succeeded in the marketplace. Rough new people vaulted ahead of professors, philosophers, and poets, to the outrage of the latter, who were, as I said, quite reactionary in their ideals.
Modernity itself mattered most of all. Or rather a misunderstanding of modernity as a vast engineering project, in which the intellectual, appropriating the title of scientist, devises rationalistic formulas to reshape the human race, much like captains of industry carved up mountains and poured them into iron machines. The spread of education and the rise of egalitarianism probably strengthened this impulse: every man his own messiah.
Useful customs and traditions which had navigated the centuries were attacked without restraint because they failed to meet some private standard of authenticity or heroism.
Whatever the causes, a surprising number of professional thinkers and artists find the modern world repulsive, and feel obliged to shout from the rooftops their wish to see it destroyed. This should give pause to those of us who believe free markets are an essential ingredient of liberal democracy.
The fast-growth economy is bountiful but unlovable. It seems everywhere triumphant but is in fact precarious at all times, and will be fought over, I believe, with every generation.