Friday, July 15, 2005

Learning to Be Grateful for the Industrial Revolution

"Working hours increased radically during the industrial revolution, while the desirability of the work generally declined, being dangerous, toxic, repetitive, noisy, and otherwise unpleasent compared to the far from idyllic but basically acceptible alternative."

I would very much like to receive empirical support for the notion alleged above (and in his comments to my previous post) by Michael Vassar. By comparing the Amish with 19th century factory labor, Michael perpetuates a dreadful illusion founded by Marx, Engels, and Dickens: that rural peoples lived in some sort of idyllic bliss prior to the Industrial Revolution.

The Amish live on exceptionally productive land and benfit in numerous ways from the technological miracles of the Industrial Revolution, including the extremely low cost of any implement or supply they purchase through the modern marketplace. Pre-industrial agricultural people's lives in no way resembled Amish life today.

In Ireland rural peoples often lived in mud hovels that, when it rained, as it frequently did, were wet hell-holes. Imagine raising a baby in a wet hole in the mud. With respect to working hours, agricultural hours during agricultural seasons were as long, or longer than daylight - often longer than factory hours in the sun. It is not clear to me that, on balance, the desirability of work declined. Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution rapidly made luxuries previously available only to the wealthy into cheap commodities enjoyed by the working classes: Cotton clothing, tea, sugar, books, and newspapers conspicuous among them. The overall desirability of pre-industrial life must include wearing the same wool clothing throughout the year. By the mid-19th century working class peoples could travel to distant cities via cheap rail tickets; a level of cosmopolitanism that was unheard of for the generations of rural peoples who had never left their village.

Social mobility began to increase as well during the Industrial Revolution, as various mechanical jobs (often in factories) became available to talented working class boys. This was the age of the working class inventor, with numerous inventions (and wealth) created by sons of farmers and other working class boys (see Paul Johnson's "The Birth of the Modern" for a great account of this aspect of the Industrial Revolution.)

Why does all of this matter today? Because poor rural peoples around the world continue to be impoverished by righteous do-gooders who attack "sweatshops" and capitalism on the misguided notion that applying our current standards of well-being will help their lives. I've met people from the developing world who state openly "Please give us your sweatshops" because they know that the jobs provided by multi-nationals are almost invariably better paying and working conditions than are currently available locally (including farm labor). If pre-industrial rural conditions are so rosy, why is it that Thai farming families sell their daughters into prostitution?

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, famine was a recurring fact of life for the working classes around the world. The Industrial Revolution, for the first time in history, created such an astounding increase in the standard of living that by 1830 or so, periodic large-scale famine never again occurred in Britain or the U.S. This achievement is strictly due to laissez-faire capitalism. The notion that pre-industrial conditions were "better" somehow fails to take into account the extraordinarily harsh lives of the starving poor prior to the introduction of full bellies, cotton clothing, books, cosmopolitan travel and careers open to talent that represent the amazing legacy of the Industrial Revolution.

Engels and Dickens told compelling stories that were based in actual conditions at the time. Unfortunately they did not provide a realistic account of pre-industrial alternatives. Lives continue to be destroyed by the illusions created by Engels and Dickens.


Anonymous Michael Vassar said...

Mike, it seems to me that you are reluctant to acknowledge that although industrialization had great advantages, it also had a not insubstantial downside which was not just the hallucination of a few nuts with a drum to beat, but which was observed by practically every commentator on the situation both then and today. Obviously pastoral life has been romanticized unfairly, but equally obviously, many people chose it when that option and that of urban life were both available.
It seems to me that the preferred economics approach is not to debate over whether a change involves trade-offs but over whether people choose those trade-offs, implying that the change represents an improvement, of have the change forced upon them, implying limited improvement.
It seems to me that the most unambiguous example of choice is found in the American fronteir, where vast numbers of people chose extremely low-tech agrarian living over industrial lifestyles until the middle of the nineteenth century, but where over the second half of the nineteenth century this flow to the fronteir declined, and ultimately for all effects and purposes ceased.
I would tend to identify the critical transition as the cross-over to an economic growth rate faster than the population growth rate, an event which revoked Malthus's (Ricardo's) "Iron law of wages". Once this occurred, it became possible for the standard of living of the common laborer to improve at a much faster rate than had previously been possible, and expansion of European populations into new territory essentially ceased.

2:19 PM  
Anonymous Michael V said...

It was a common-place observation in Colonial America that Native Americans who were educated and offered a European lifestyle generally reverted, while Europeans captured by Native Americans and assimilated into tribes genearlly "went native" and declined to return to civilization when the opportunity was available.
The portrayal of rural life in Walden does not appear to me to be basically unfairly romanticized.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Michael Strong said...

Michael, I have lived happily without running water and electricity for months at a time. I like living simply and am in complete sympathy with peoples throughout history who have chosen to do so. I am willing to believe that under some circumstances, some indigenous tribes experienced happiness that we cannot know (one of my favorite books is "The Continuum Concept," which presents an extremely romantic view of indigenous life). It is not that I deny that, under some circumstances, pre-industrial life was positive.

But the clause "under some circumstances" is crucial. And, as well as I can ascertain, those circumstances were not the circumstances under which most working class people lived most of the time. I still maintain that for the vast majority of working class people and peasants, the industrial revolution was a glorious miracle for which all of us alive today ought to give thanks every day of our existence. The end of routine life misery for most of the people most of the time was unprecedented. There ought to be holy shrines at the sites of the first factories in Manchester and elsewhere.

The fact that relatively well-fed romantic literary figures whined and complained about smokestacks uglifying the pastoral countryside, regardless of how many of them complained or how frequently they complained, provides precisely no information regarding whether or not the industrial revolution was a net benefit to the poor. Your comment about "practically every commentator" merely shows that casual observation based on the preferences and prejudices of the educated classes is an unreliable source of evidence.

Worse yet, the romanticization of pastoral life, by Marx and Engels among others, is indirectly responsible for the 100 million communist murders of the 20th century. I regard correcting this nightmarish historical mistake to be one of our most important obligations of historical revision.

There was a moral awakening in the late 18th and early 19th century. It is good that people finally became aware of the plight of the poor. But this change in moral awareness is almost universally confused with a decline in well-being. There are earlier accounts of peasants in France being run over like dogs by the carriages of nobles; the accounts are striking for the matter-of-fact manner in which brutality was reported. Defoe's Robinson Crusoe includes brutal killings of primitive peoples calmly and routinely. Earlier life was extraordinarily callous. It was precisely the increase in wealth that resulted for the first time in the widespread awareness of poverty. Poverty prior to that point had simply been accepted in all its hideousness. Morally sensitivity was a 19th century fashion that remains with us to this day. But it was a historic rarity prior to the dramatic increase in wealth due to the industrial revolution.

4:33 PM  
Anonymous michael vassar said...

Marx was many repugnant things, but by my reading of the Communist Manifesto he was no Romantic. He was fully aware of the benefits of capitalism and believed in progress. At any rate, I don't think that it is a good idea to select beliefs for the sake of refuting fools and monsters rather than on the merit of the beliefs themselves.
Your point about moral awakening accompanying economic advance is very important, and I generally agree. There were tentative efforts toward moral awakening prior to this, but in a fundamentally Malthusian world aspirations at universal moral inclusion were fundamentally Quiotic and doomed to diminish to obscurity. The best that was generally practical was the creation of a community of people who were able to live relatively happily without oppressing those around them.
I agree that the industrial revolution was, over all, an unprecedented miracle, but I think that an understanding of certain very dark aspects is necessary to make history comprehensible and probably to enable realistic expectations regarding future technologies. The absence of large scale famine, for instance, obviously doesn't include Ireland, which lost the majority of its population in the late 19th century. I am not comparing the lot of industrial revolution workers to agrarian life at its best, and in my book even agrarian life at its best pales compared to modern life in a relatively decent third world country. Remember that one of the major defenses used by slavery's apologists was to point out that many slaves lived in economic conditions superior to those of European industrial workers, and that the accuracy of this statement was accepted even by many of slavery's stalwart enemies. When W.E.B. Du Bois described the lot of late 19th century freed slaves, he was describing agrarian workers in worse than typical conditions. He described abject poverty, gross ignorance, expolitation and hopelessness, but he describe a way of life. What Engles and others were seeing in Ireland was slow death.
I agree that "casual observation based on the preferences and prejudices of the educated classes is an unreliable source of evidence." and it seems that this is a fair summary of the majority of writings, and specifically of pretty much any papers which consist of simple complaints rather than of balanced analysis of the situation, but even serious historians generally agree that the burden of labor on the 19th century poor was much greater than that in the 18th century.

5:49 PM  
Blogger Michael Strong said...

"even serious historians generally agree that the burden of labor on the 19th century poor was much greater than that in the 18th century."

Michael, You are simply wrong here. Serious economic historians emphatically do not believe this.

Serious economic history (i.e. economic history based on actually looking at economic data such as prices and wages) is a relatively new field. There were a few such historians in the 1940s and 50s. In the 1960s and 70s real economic history become a substantive field. By the 1980s, as a consequence of finally looking at real data, it had become clear that the core myth of the industrial revolution, that the "rich got richer and the poor got poorer," or, in your terms, "that the burden of labor on the 19th century poor was much greater than that in the 18th century" was simply false.

Previous narrative historians, who relied on documentary reports of the time, all of whom did reflect the Dickens/Engels message, had concurred with Dickens and Engels (often from within a more-or-less Marxist framework which itself had originated from the Dickens/Engels observational approach). But narrative history is merely anecdotal history, and one cannot construct an accurate economic history from anecdotes.

As I have previously agreed, there were numerous true horrific anecdotes. I have never denied this in the least. I merely insist that:

1. There is every reason to believe that there were at least as many, and probably far more, horrific anecdotes prior to the 19th century, but that it was only in the 19th century that observing the poor's misery became fashionable.

2. Serious economic historians have conclusively showed that by numerous different measures, the standard of living of the working class did improve during the laissez-faire period of the industrial revolution.

It is an unfortunate aspect of academy that "serious" narrative historians exist who remain woefully ignorant of economic history. Very gradually the economic historians are winning this battle by showing the most fundamental ignorance that is pervasive in narrative history that ignores economic history, but it is a very slow process because of the fragmented structure of academic journals and disciplinary boundaries. Economic historians remain mostly in economics departments, and narrative historians (or at least economically-ignorant historians) continue to dominate in history departments.

To take a very different example: About fifteen years ago the economic historian John Nye showed that it was a myth that 19th century Britain was characterized by low tariffs. It turns out that legendary "free trade" 19th century Britain actually had higher tariffs than did allegedly "protectionist" France. And yet Nye's work remains largely ignored in most history departments, or occasionally receives a footnote that does not acknowledge the full implications of his analysis. HIs work is solid and has not fundamentally been challenged; academia in the social sciences is glacial in terms of incorporating new knowledge.

And, regarding famine in 19th century Ireland: Of course! Ireland had not industrialized! Britain and the U.S. had, but Ireland remained a traditional, famine-prone agricultural society.

6:40 PM  
Anonymous michael vassar said...

OK, I may be wrong with respect to my historians of choice, could I have some sources? The books I am primarily thinking of, the ones that most influenced my views of this period, are primarily Adam Smith (both books), David Ricardo, the Intellectual life of the british working Class" by Jonathan Rose, numberous sources which have asserted that cities have historically been a sink for population (negative population growth) until the 20th century, and some books specifically on the question of why the reduction in average working hours in the last 50 years has been so much less than in the previous 50 and why it has been rising in recent years. I also remember various internet sources on life expectancy, which basically started to rise in Britain in the 1840s and which I consider the best single metric of standard of living, and on height (which started to rise a decade or two earlier but which had slowly been declining for centuries).

Ireland was part of Britain, it seems to me that saying "Ireland wasn't industrialized" is a bit like saying "the English countryside hadn't industrialized" or at least like "the Scottish Highland hadn't industrialized".

I had heard about Nye's findings, but hadn't investigated. You are confident that they are solid? If so, do you know why the standard story differs?

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