On industrialism

The Industrial Revolution was another one of those extraordinary jumps forward in the story of civilization.

– Stephen Gardiner

The Industrial Revolution, considered as the onset of industrialism, powered initially by water and then by steam, is usually represented as having been a Good Thing. A lot of people didn’t see it that way at the time, and there are plenty who don’t see it that way in retrospect either, but we’re supposed to think of it as Progress and therefore Good.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit to having grown up in the Black Country of England in the 1970s. We were post-industrial long before it became fashionable. It was a depressing landscape of decaying canals and abandoned factories, and I got out of there at my first opportunity. So my view of the Industrial Revolution may be a trifle jaundiced.)

The quotation at the head of this article is a particularly choice example of this. There’s so much wrong with this sentence that I hardly know where to start. Apparently “the story of civilization” – the story, because there’s been only one civilisation and there’s only one story to be told about it – consists of “jumps forward”, and the Industrial Revolution is Exhibit A in the demonstration.

It’s hard to avoid viewing historical events as inevitable in retrospect. The Industrial Revolution resulted in where we are today, and where we are today is supposed to be good (although not as good as where we’ll be tomorrow, when we’ll all have flying cars). The standard metaphor for a thing being good in our culture is that it is further forward or more advanced – that is to say, tending in the direction of flying cars, as opposed to the other (“backward”) direction, which leads directly to the caves without passing Go or collecting £200.

I’ll give him “extraordinary jump”, though. It was certainly a period of rapid and thoroughgoing and often jarring change. There wasn’t much that was smooth or gradual about it. Mind you, the same description applies equally well to the final scene of Thelma and Louise.

But what do I mean by this word industrialism? Well, I’m talking about large-scale processes that follow this kind of model:

We’re all familiar with this kind of thing: there’s some central location where the magic happens, stuff goes in, stuff comes out. People have been doing this on a small scale since the palaeolithic. What makes it industrial is the scale of it. The Industrial Revolution consisted of the development of this large-scale processing of raw materials, initially using wind and water power and then steam. We all learned this in school. Nothing to see here, move along.

There’s something rather vital missing from that diagram, by the way: energy. Industrial processes are typically energy-intensive, as are the extractive processes that feed them and the transport systems that make them useful. Energy will be getting its own post; suffice it to say for the purposes of this discussion that without a concentrated energy source, large-scale industry doesn’t work.

Another thing the diagram doesn’t show is that all this needs to make a profit. People want to buy the products, and this pays for the factory, for the raw materials and labour, and for dealing with the resulting pollution (unless the industry has managed to shift this burden onto society at large, which most of them do to some extent). When the industrial model is used for activities that don’t directly make a profit, the result is either going to be straight failure, a requirement for government subsidy, or profit-gouging by other means. Without profit, the production-line stops running.

Something else I want to stress about the industrial model is that it operates at a large scale. Consider someone back in the Palaeolithic era making a stone axe. There’s a worker, there’s raw material (the piece of flint), and there’s energy expended – muscle energy in this case, but still energy. And the output includes a product (the axe) and some waste (flint chippings). But this is just one person making one axe. We don’t see any evidence that there were special places where lots of people gathered in order to make hand axes full-time, in the way that there are special places where lots of people gather today in order to make Ford Fiestas full-time. Nor do we find huge mounds of flint chippings comparable to the slag heaps left behind by many industrial processes.

What characterises industrial civilisation is the relentless application of the industrial model to all spheres of life, regardless of whether or not it’s appropriate. Some obvious examples:

  • education – children and teachers in, supposedly well-educated adults out (we call the factory a school);
  • healthcare – sick people, doctors and nurses in, well people (or corpses) out (this factory is called a hospital);
  • agriculture – seeds, pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and lots of diesel in, crops out (the factory is called a farm);
  • food – raw foodstuffs and various additives in, “edible food-like substances” out (at least we call a factory a factory in this case).

I’m sure you can come up with plenty more.

This model is so central to our society that anything that wants to be taken seriously has to characterise itself as an industry. Hence we have the leisure industry, the childcare industry, even (heaven help us) the culture industry. Even something as nebulous as financial services calls itself an industry. If it’s not an industry, it’s trivial by definition. Forestry is an industry; being a tree isn’t.

Incidentally, this worship of the industrial model is by no means confined to capitalist societies. The old Soviet Union was very keen on factories, especially as the industrial proletariat was seen as its power-base and justification. The ecological consequences of this obsession are still being felt across large tracts of the former USSR. Modern China is also doing plenty of this sort of thing.

Another definition of an industry is that industries have lobbyists. They exert local and sometimes national political influence. Some of the really big ones even get to write legislation. It furthers one, therefore, to be an industry.

But thinking about everything as an industry can lead us in the wrong direction. It might suggest, for example, that we would be better off having a small number of big hospitals (because economies of scale are great, right?) rather than having lots of smaller ones. The logical conclusion of this would be one enormous hospital somewhere in the middle of the country – bad news if you break your leg in Aberdeen, though. And making a direct profit out of healthcare is something only the US seems to be able to manage; here in the UK we have spent many years frantically sprinkling the National Health Service with private-sector pixie dust, but it still seems to cost us money, strangely enough.

As to education, that will be getting a post of its own; but throughout my lifetime successive governments have sought to tweak the education process in various ways, apparently in the hope of discovering some kind of pedagogical Chorleywood process, without noticeable success. It’s almost as if children were individuals and not lumps of pig-iron to be moulded into the desired shape.

The desire to have children be lumps of pig-iron to be moulded into the desired shape is itself a consequence of the industrial model, since workers tend to be conflated with raw materials, given that they’re both inputs to the system, and it’s convenient to have access to a steady supply of both. The tendency towards automation and robotics is another symptom of this. After all, robots don’t sleep, get ill, go on holiday, go on strike, have industrial accidents and sue the factory-owner, or do any of the other annoying things that human beings are prone to do.

Something else to notice about the industrial model, which has been pointed out many times but I’m going to point it out again, is that it is linear. Stuff comes in, different stuff goes out. In this it differs from the ecological model, in which one actor’s waste output is another’s useful input. Within an ecological system, stuff goes round in cycles. Cow manure feeds the soil; the soil feeds the grass; the grass feeds the cow; and so on.

Ecological systems are of course vastly more complex than industrial ones, and we tend to avoid thinking too hard about complex things. Still, they have some useful properties, such as being able to sustain themselves, and being able (within limits) to adapt themselves to changing conditions. And of course there’s the useful property of sustaining all life on this planet, including us. But more of that in a forthcoming post.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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