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Impearls: The Industrial Revolution and the origin of the Modern Age

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Earthdate 2005-10-02

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:

Thank God for the evil pharmaceutical companies.  One day, when the history of this period is written, I have a feeling we will look back with astonishment as we recognize that advances in medical science, particularly pharmaceuticals, were arguably one of the most significant developments of this era.  And yet the people who pioneered these breakthroughs were… demonized and attacked.  Baffling and bizarre.  I'm merely grateful the attacks haven't stopped the research progress.  They've merely slowed it.

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:

The industrial revolution, not just here but in Europe, ushered in an era of greed, tenements, poverty, alcoholism, disease, and many other adverse side effects.  Read your history.

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

We dream that the country was idyllic in the eighteenth century, a lost paradise […].  This is a fable, and George Crabbe, who was a country parson and knew the villager's life at first hand, was so enraged by it that he wrote an acid, realistic poem in reply.

Yes, thus the Muses sing of happy Swains,
Because the Muses never knew their pains.

O'ercome by labour and bow'd down by time,
Feel you the barren flattery of a rhyme?

The country was a place where men worked from dawn to dark, and the labourer lived not in the sun, but in poverty and darkness.

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

The men who made the Industrial Revolution are usually pictured as hardfaced businessmen with no other motive than self-interest.  That is certainly wrong.  For one thing, many of them were inventors who had come into business that way.  And for another, a majority of them were not members of the Church of England but belonged to a puritan tradition in the Unitarian and similar movements.  John Wilkinson was much under the influence of his brother-in-law Joseph Priestley, later famous as a chemist, but who was a Unitarian minister and was probably the pioneer of the principle, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”

He goes on: 3

It took a hundred years before the ideals of the Lunar Society became a reality in Victorian England.  When it did come, the reality seemed commonplace, even comic, like a Victorian picture postcard.  It is comic to think that cotton underwear and soap could work a transformation in the lives of the poor.  Yet these simple things — coal in an iron range, glass in the windows, a choice of food — were a wonderful rise in the standard of life and health.  By our standards, the industrial towns were slums, but to people who had come from a cottage, a house in a terrace was a liberation from hunger, from dirt, and from disease; it offered a new wealth of choice.  The bedroom with the text on the wall seems funny and pathetic to us, but for the working class wife it was the first experience of private decency.  Probably the iron bedstead saved more women from childbed fever than the doctor's black bag, which was itself a medical innovation.

The poster of the anti-industrial screed, however, continues:

There are both pros and cons to the Industrial Revolution, but undeniably, it ushered in an era of selfishness and greed, along with personification of big business as having the same rights as individuals, that has only escalated through the years.  Eventually the bubble will pop.

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

So the traveller who lets the current carry him down the Ohio till it joins the Mississippi sails, so to say, between freedom and slavery; and he has only to glance around him to see instantly which is best for mankind.

On the left bank of the river the population is sparse; from time to time one sees a troop of slaves loitering through half-deserted fields; the primeval forest is constantly reappearing; one might say that society had gone to sleep; it is nature that seems active and alive, whereas man is idle.

But on the right bank a confused hum proclaims from afar that men are busily at work; fine crops cover the fields; elegant dwellings testify to the taste and industry of the workers; on all sides there is evidence of comfort; man appears rich and contented; he works.  […]

These contrasting effects of slavery and of freedom are easy to understand; they are enough to explain the differences between ancient civilization and modern.

On the left bank of the Ohio work is connected with the idea of slavery, but on the right with well-being and progress; on the one side it is degrading, but on the other honorable; on the left bank no white laborers are to be found, for they would be afraid of being like the slaves; for work people must rely on the Negroes; but one will never see a man of leisure on the right bank: the white man's intelligent activity is used for work of every sort.  […]

The white man on the right bank, forced to live by his own endeavors, has made material well-being the main object of his existence; as he lives in a country offering inexhaustible resources to his industry and continual inducements to activity, his eagerness to possess things goes beyond the ordinary limits of human cupidity; tormented by a longing for wealth, he boldly follows every path to fortune that is open to him; he is equally prepared to turn into a sailor, pioneer, artisan, or cultivator, facing the labors or dangers of these various ways of life with even constancy; there is something wonderful in his resourcefulness and a sort of heroism in his greed for gain.  [emphasis added –Imp.]

The American on the left bank scorns not only work itself but also enterprises in which work is necessary to success; living in idle ease, he has the tastes of idle men; money has lost some of its value in his eyes; he is less interested in wealth than in excitement and pleasure and expends in that direction the energy which his neighbor puts to other use; he is passionately fond of hunting and war; he enjoys all the most strenuous forms of bodily exercise; he is accustomed to the use of weapons and from childhood has been ready to risk his life in single combat.  Slavery therefore not only prevents the white men from making their fortunes but even diverts them from wishing to do so.

The constant operation of these opposite influences throughout two centuries in the English North American colonies has in the end brought about a vast difference in the commercial capabilities of southerners and northerners.  Today the North alone has ships, manufactures, railways, and canals.

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.”

UPDATE:  2005-09-05 18:00 UT:  Glenn Reynolds the Instapundit has linked to this piece, writing:  “Politics and the industrial revolution:  Some interesting thoughts at Impearls.”

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 (, 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:

Via Dr. Reynolds I found a link to this excellent piece over at Impearls on the industrial revolution and its real legacy.  A very thoughtfull bit and personally timely since I just had a conversation on this subject with someone on campus who was convinced that the industrial revolution was a terrible thing and that we should stop it from happening in the third world.  I've heard this before and the impression that some people have is that industrialization is increasing poverty in the developing world.

Poppycock!  Those shanty towns on the outskirts of 3rd world cities… they, like the tenaments of our 19th century are filled with people who (usually) came there of their own free will because it is a STEP UP from their previous condition.  To us this seems unreal as we are living … well … in conditions that are better still precisely because that the industrial revolution happened.  Living at a subsistance level is not cool when its not a vacation, but rather the only thing you'll ever know… it SUCKS!

Ken also points to a fine article by Baron Bodissey in Gates of Vienna called “Visualize Industrial Collapse,” which I might have seen myself had I not violated my own edict by not reading the Belmont Club every day!

UPDATE:  2005-09-09 21:50 UT:  Richard A. Heddleson wrote in an e-mail:

Events from industrial revolution through to the pharmaceuticals today are seen as evil because they are agents of change, which all people find threatening, and because they utilize mysterious knowledge unavailable to the common person, again something people find threatening.

UPDATE:  2005-09-09 22:05 UT:  Another reader yclept Michael wrote in:

thoughts about rural areas….

Many of my grandfather's generation are still alive today and their childhood's were on a depression era farm.

Me too — my mother and her siblings and parents actually, and other relatives too.

At a recent visit, one of the comments that stuck in my mind was this……

“We didn't realize it was the Great Depression until a man showed up offering a free government mule.”

Life was so hard scrabble, so busy, before dawn to after sunset they didn't have a chance to notice the Great Depression.

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.

That put a lot of stuff in perspective for me.

Just so.

ps, great blog (pointed your way by the insta-man)

UPDATE:  2005-09-09 22:20 UT:  Jerry Brennan e-mailed:

The book “Capitalism and the Historians”, edited by F A Hayek, sheds much light on attitudes regarding the “industrial revolution” in England.

In a different vein, in a speech in January 2003 Michael Crichton, in a very different context, had some comments which might be add to your point:

Let's think back to people in 1900 in, say, New York.  If they worried about people in 2000, what would they worry about?  Probably:  Where would people get enough horses?  And what would they do about all the horseshit?  Horse pollution was bad in 1900, think how much worse it would be a century later, with so many more people riding horses?

But of course, within a few years, nobody rode horses except for sport.  And in 2000, France was getting 80% its power from an energy source that was unknown in 1900.  Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Japan were getting more than 30% from this source, unknown in 1900.  Remember, people in 1900 didn't know what an atom was.  They didn't know its structure.  They also didn't know what a radio was, or an airport, or a movie, or a television, or a computer, or a cell phone, or a jet, an antibiotic, a rocket, a satellite, an MRI, ICU, IUD, IBM, IRA, ERA, EEG, EPA, IRS, DOD, PCP, HTML, internet. interferon, instant replay, remote sensing, remote control, speed dialing, gene therapy, gene splicing, genes, spot welding, heat-seeking, bipolar, prozac, leotards, lap dancing, email, tape recorder, CDs, airbags, plastic explosive, plastic, robots, cars, liposuction, transduction, superconduction, dish antennas, step aerobics, smoothies, twelve-step, ultrasound, nylon, rayon, teflon, fiber optics, carpal tunnel, laser surgery, laparoscopy, corneal transplant, kidney transplant, AIDS  None of this would have meant anything to a person in the year 1900.  They wouldn't know what you are talking about.

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:

Used wisely, [this technology] offers a rapid alleviation of all the purely economic difficulties of mankind.  It offers to rich and poor nations alike a rate of growth of economic resources so rapid that economic constraints will no longer be dominant in determining how people are to live.  In some sense this technology will constitute a permanent solution of man's economic problems.

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:

I learned in my Victorian England class these items:

A technological discovery in agricultural threw a huge number of people off the farms and this excess of labor allowed the Industrial Revolution to begin.  That discovery was animal breeding and the need for fences to keep the livestock of each farm separate.  Most of the farm labor then were herders that tended to the livestock in common village fields.  Herders were no longer needed after fences were constructed.

The men who built the first factories did not know anything about running factories.  How could they?  They had just been invented.  The terrible working conditions were a result of the owner's ignorance.  However, the owners learned by experience and within 20 years working conditions improved dramatically.  As a result, productivity improved dramatically.

Actually, as Jacob Bronowski pointed out in his book:

Mines and workshops had been dank, crowded and tyrannical long before the Industrial Revolution.  The factories simply carried on as village industry had always done, with a heartless contempt for those who worked in them.

Pollution from the factories was not new either.  Again, it was the tradition of the mine and the workshop, which had always fouled their environment.  We think of pollution as a modern blight, but it is not.  It is another expression of the squalid indifference to health and decency that in past centuries had made the Plague a yearly visitation.

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:

The article is spot on, furthermore, I would add that many of the socialistic Ideas which people on the left enjoy, came first from the early millionaire industrialists.  I would recommend the text book, “The Age of Aristocracy, 1688-1830,” by William Willcox.

UPDATE:  2005-09-11 21:35 UT:  The Economics Roundtable restated and linked to (scroll down) Craig Newmark's posting above.

UPDATE:  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,” noting:  ”This piece by Michael McNeil is receiving a lot of buzz in the blogosphere.”

UPDATE:  2005-09-11 22:45 UT:  A couple of comments made to the Far Outliers piece noted above deserve a response.  “SOTS” (of South of the Suwannee) writes:

You may be impressed with Impearls' footnotes, but the fact that he cites only one obscure source for his (and apparently your) contention that “‘liberals’ demonize private enterprise and those institutional vehicles which comprise it” is a bit underwhelming.

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.

“SOTS” continues:

Moreover, Impearls ends his post with the following:  “… 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.”  What is truely ridiculous is the suggestion that “liberals” are intent on throwing civilization back into some pre-industrial agrarian hell.  Perhaps there is the possibility that the downside of modern (corporate) society can be civilized without destroying the benefits it brings.  I enjoy Impearls, but come on, this is a bit sophomoric.

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:

Yes, SOTS, it is a bit sophomoric, perhaps understandably so in reaction to the incessant, sophomoric demonization of anything “corporate” on the academic (or alternative-weekly) left.

I wouldn't use “liberal” the way Impearls did.  It is not at all a pejorative term in my usage, but “left” is starting to trend that way.  I regard the pejorative use of either “liberal” or “corporate” as a pair of shibboleths emblematic of ideological “conservatives” on the one hand, and “progressives” on the other.

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.

4 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; pp. 344-348.  See also the previously published Tocqueville acknowledgments and links.

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