Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know.
E = M
Energy is eternal delight.
Impearls: 2005-10-02 Archive
The Industrial Revolution and the origin of the Modern Age
It's been obvious and has disturbed me for some time the way in which supposed “liberals” demonize private enterprise and those institutional vehicles which comprise it — companies and corporations — as the veritable Princes of Darkness. A liberal friend appraised me recently of the extent to which departments and classes at a local university are continually boiling in contempt for corporations as institutions, derogating them as hives of villainy and greed.
This long-time liberal mantra is woefully off the mark. With regard to the pharmaceutical industry — one of the most vilified of modern corporate endeavors — Andrew Sullivan recently put it well (hat tip, Instapundit), in expressing his gratitude for the innovations which have created the medicines that are currently saving his life:
Of course, it isn't just pharmaceutical firms that have progressed technologically with blazing speed in recent years. Companies and corporations have had tremendous impact on technological advances across the board, from the computers we internet upon, to the Internet itself (after the initial impetus provided by Federally-funded academic R&D), to the DVD, CD and before that videotape and audiotape technologies that have transformed our home musical and film experience; aircraft technologies which have brought the world so much closer together — the list goes on and on.
The fact is that the modern industrial age, in combination with the scientific revolution, and organized along the lines of the modern American model of society (which has now been transferred, more or less, to many another country around the world) has created the only instance in history where the bulk of the population of affected areas can enjoy a life of ordinary (what we think of as “common” nowadays), healthy, leisured, literate, decency.
Nor does the liberal chorus just target modern-day entrepreneurship, but also directs its ire back to the beginnings of the industrial revolution which occurred at this point a couple of centuries ago. As a liberal commenter on a political mailing list recently put it:
Well, I've read quite a bit of history, and looking back at the origins of the industrial age in the 18th and 19th centuries, it's clear that in pre-industrial rural areas the poverty and disease were even greater — that's why the rural poor poured into the cities during the industrial revolution in the first place. As Jacob Bronowski put it, in his fine book (and PBS television series) The Ascent of Man: 1
As Bronowski points out, the tenements of the industrial age were a great step up for vast numbers of people. Then again, the industrial revolution was founded to a very considerable degree by visionary folk who had the interests of the people in mind. Read about the Lunar Society in Britain (Bronowski talks about it), and individuals like Josiah Wedgwood who provided high-grade pottery ware for common people on the cheap. There were many like him. Bronowski continues: 2
He goes on: 3
The poster of the anti-industrial screed, however, continues:
The industrial age has been going on now for some 200 years, but “eventually the bubble will pop”? If the commenter keeps on wishing, maybe someday he'll get his fondest dream — or maybe it'll turn into a nightmare. Be careful what one wishes for!
Notice too that he lists greed at the top of the supposed evils ushered in by the industrial age. This is a tragically misguided charge. Let's see what Alexis de Tocqueville, profound French observer of the early United States, had to say on this subject in his classic study Democracy in America while observing where the two eras, ancient and modern, lay in close juxtaposition — separated only by a river — in pre-Civil War America. We've had occasion to quote this passage before, but let's review it one more time: 4
Thus, we see what “greed” together with industriousness and science brings us as a society — the origin of the modern age and the good life for all.
As stated before, this is the only instance in history where the majority of the people are able to enjoy a life of what we think of as “common,” healthy, leisured, literate, decency.
Despite the existence of some aesthetic drawbacks to the modern
“rat race,” the idea that we should just throw up our hands and eliminate (or at a minimum throw verbal manure on) this goose that has laid a very golden egg, and age — while essentially consigning the bulk of the world's population back into wretched poverty — is frankly ridiculous.
UPDATE: 2005-09-04 07:00 UT: Brian Dunbar's Space For Commerce has linked to Impearls' piece, commenting: “Impearls has a fascinating post on (among other things) free enterprise, the industrial revolution and some other topics. Nothing seems to lend itself to excerpts — doing so drains the context. Worth a few minutes of your time to read.”
And a hearty welcome, Instapunditers! There are other articles you might find interesting here, too.
UPDATE: 2005-09-08 15:40 UT: Joel at the terrific Far Outliers (just my kind of blog!) has linked to this piece, with an article entitled “Impearls on Entrepreneurism and Its Enemies,” writing: “Impearls is back to blogging more regularly in his trademark long and thoughtful essays with footnotes. His latest post bemoans the derision of all corporate entrepreneurism by too many on the political left. […] The whole essay is worth reading, but I'll cite just a couple of his supporting quotes.” […]
Beyond quoting from quotes that I mention, Joel makes the connection with a recent Virginia Postrel piece in Forbes on “Criminalizing Science,” which I'd seen but hadn't made the connection with this subject. Thanks, Joel!
Joel goes on to ask: “Where do these truly evangelical beliefs of the secular left come from? Medieval agrarian repulsion at urban corruption (like the Moravian Brethren)? High-born disdain for the commoners who produced the surplus wealth that funded noble endeavors? A combination of both?” I wonder about that too.
UPDATE: 2005-09-08 15:45 UT: Jim Bennett at his splendid Albion's Seedling (Anglosphere.com), which I should have linked to long since except it fell through the cracks in my brain, linked to this piece in the context of an article on “What's This ‘Exit’ Stuff All About?,” described as “the transition point in human history where production becomes in general a more effective means of survival and prosperity than predation.” After discussing this, Jim notes that: “Our society has navigated the Exit so successfully that many people have entirely forgotten what life before the Exit was like. Some of these idiots are described here.” [pointing at Impearls' piece] “Read the whole thing.”
UPDATE: 2005-09-08 16:00 UT: Ken Talton in his intriguing Brickmuppet Blog linked to Impearls, writing:
Ken also points to a fine article by Baron Bodissey in
Gates of Vienna
“Visualize Industrial Collapse,”
which I might have seen myself had I not violated my own edict by not reading the
UPDATE: 2005-09-09 21:50 UT: Richard A. Heddleson wrote in an e-mail:
UPDATE: 2005-09-09 22:05 UT: Another reader yclept Michael wrote in:
Me too — my mother and her siblings and parents actually, and other relatives too.
That, in turn, was a bit of a return, for rural folk, to conditions as they had predominated — for the poor, anyway; for peasants — throughout history prior to the previous century.
UPDATE: 2005-09-09 22:20 UT: Jerry Brennan e-mailed:
As Crichton implies, it's just this kind of multiplicative effect which modern industrial techniques enable. It's obvious when you think about it: the only way that the average Joe person can feed, clothe and house himself and his or her family, transport them, holiday, and play, all like a king of yore, is if he himself as a typical worker produces enough of whatever it is he makes for a small army of other people. Thus, when everybody's products of a myriad of different types are economically distributed across the broad population, then just about everyone will be able to afford a spectrum of the items out there that he or she desires. To date that's only been possible by means of industrial methods, though as technology continues to rocket ahead, that may change and more and more become almost (and perhaps actually) biological in its approach to reproduction and growth. See visionary physicist Freeman Dyson's remarkable essay The World, the Flesh, and the Devil for insights on how this could proceed, as well as via techniques of nanotechnology now in their initial stages of development. As Dyson says:
UPDATE: 2005-09-11 21:30 UT: Craig Newmark of Newmark's Door has linked to Impearls' piece, under the title “Did the Industrial Revolution destroy Nirvana? No!,” commenting: “Michael McNeil sharply replies to those who think the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions destroyed a wonderful way of life.”
A commenter in Newmark's Door named Jake (apparently from my own home state of Montana) made this point:
Actually, as Jacob Bronowski pointed out in his book:
What the industrial revolution did was bring these abuses into the spotlight, which led to their mitigation.
Another commenter, Kyle N., responding to the same posting, made the point:
2005-09-11 21:45 UT:
John B. Chilton's
The Emirates Economist
has linked to this article, under the title
“The good old days? :: Impearls,”
”This piece by Michael McNeil is receiving a lot of buzz in the blogosphere.”
So Alexis de Tocqueville is an “obscure source”? Oh, you must mean Jacob Bronowski! Well, he may be obscure to you, but for me Bronowski (Science and Human Values, The Western Intellectual Tradition, and especially The Common Sense of Science) is one of my most respected sources. Moreover, all he's writing about in the sections of the indicated piece (in The Ascent of Man) is providing the background for the Industrial Revolution; he never meant, nor was my referencing it intended, to specify a reference to “liberals” demonizing private enterprise — that I'm providing myself from my own experiences.
Of course, most liberals don't mean to throw civilization “back into some pre-industrial hell,” but since many of them don't even recognize that there was a “pre-industrial hell” to be thrown back into, that doesn't inspire much confidence. The historical ignorance among many such people is profound, and frightening.
Beyond that, the above writer illustrates part of the problem, exhibiting the tendency and desire to tinker with the mechanism which has created the modern age so that, as he put it, the “downside […] can be civilized.”
While I would be first to admit that there are downsides to modern industrial society and also that improvement is likely possible, I don't have much confidence in the tinkering liberals would institute in this regard.
Wasn't cutting into the original goose that laid the golden eggs in an attempt to improve it what killed that golden goose in the first place?
As the liberal poster I was responding to in my original piece expressed it, from their point of view greed is the major problem — and as the quote from “obscure” Alexis de Tocqueville ought to have made clear, greed is a feature of the modern system, not a bug.
To usurp Churchill's famous adage with regard to democracy: Capitalism is surely the worst system in the world — except for all the rest.
Next, Joel, founder and inspiration behind Far Outliers (and one of my favorite people as a result), responded to SOTS's posting as follows:
I tend to agree with Joel in this characterization, and normally in my political writing, e.g. here in Impearls, I don't speak of “liberals” per se (who I often have little dispute with), but rather of leftists pure and simple.
Now, leftists of course oppose capitalism; they want to overthrow it in lieu of socialistic “solutions.”
However, that doesn't seem to be what's happening in our society today, nor is that what I'm talking about.
Rather it appears to be the liberals, or “leftists lite” in this regard, who have taken up the mantra of habitually derogating corporate life and culture in our civilization, and it is with regard to them (and I'm not using the term “liberals” here in a particularly pejorative sense) that I'm speaking.
1 Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, 1973, Little Brown & Company, Boston (ISBN 0-316-10930-4); p. 260.
2 Ibid., p. 274.
3 Ibid., p. 279.
Alexis de Tocqueville,
Democracy in America,
12th Edition, 1848, edited by J. P. Mayer, translated by George Lawrence, Anchor Books, Doubleday and Co., Inc., New York, 1969;
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