Industrialization Has Always Sucked–But Does It Have To?

Historically, industrialization has always been a painful process whose benefits are not immediately accessible to the masses.  But this has less to do with some kind of iron-clad economic law, and more to do with the distribution of power in a society. 

(This post was originally published here).

Jamie is skeptical that industrialization could ever be easy:

Here’s why I don’t think the transition can ever be all that simple or easy. A massive proportion of society (i.e. rural types) discovers that their skills are no longer needed, and therefore no longer profitable (or, if you prefer, survivable upon). Thus, they must seek work where it is to be found–in the dank cities, the grubby slums, the famed satanic mills. The value of industrial labor plummets at first, as its supply massively outstrips demand, and most of the requisite forms of employment involve little skill, and perforce negligible wages. It’s the ultimate employer’s market. A period of privation, it seems to me, is inevitable.

I would agree that industrialization, historically, has always been a humanitarian disaster.  But what I don’t agree with, is that this is some kind of iron law of development.  We should recognize that industrialization has always taken place at the command of a small minority of elites; if the masses actually had a say in how industrialization should happen, the excesses we are so accustomed to hearing about today would probably not be an issue.  Or in other words–the excesses of industrialization have less to do with economics, and more to do with power.

Take Britain, for example.  Britain was the first country that industrialized; but the way this industrialization was done was through the mass expropriation of common property which was formerly held and used by peasants.  As Polanyi points out in The Great Transformation, the underlying force behind English industrialization wasn’t just the changing economy–it was through an active effort by opportunistic aristocrats (the future bourgeoisie) to use their political power to essentially force peasants off their land, and thus create some very strong incentives (to put it lightly) to migrate to the city and work in the factories.

But let’s assume that the England of late feudalism wasn’t defined by a rigid authoritarian government ruled by aristocrats, nobles, and feudal lords, but rather, one in which peasants had a roughly proportional say in matters of governance and development.  Would such a democratic mode of governance have resulted in such a violent method of industrialization?  Would the workers have elected to make sure that every man, woman, and child is working 12 hours a day in order to maintain a certain rate of capital accumulation?

Likewise, non-capitalist industrialization has also been defined by the use of force by a small elite against the masses.  The Soviet Union, ruled as it was by the elites of the Communist Party (many of whom were hold-overs from the Tsarist era), pushed industrialization in more or less the same way that the English elites did several centuries prior: they took over agricultural land and forced peasants, both directly and indirectly, to head to the cities to work in the factories.  Of course, Soviet industrialization took place over a mere couple of decades (if not less), and so compressed the violence and suffering that underpinned English industrialization into a much shorter time-frame.

As with England, it is useful to imagine what industrialization in the Soviet Union would have been like if the people actually had a say in how their society developed (that is, if the soviets actually maintained power at the local level rather than ceding it to Moscow).  Would they have elected to force themselves and their neighbors to the cities and leave the countryside destitute? Would they have shot their fellow workers for attempting to unionize or go on strike?

Ultimately, I think that industrialization is a very simple phenomena: surplus production from agricultural work is used to support non-agricultural labor (extraction of resources like metal that is necessary for industrialization) which goes into the development of more advanced productive capacity.  There is nothing inherently violent or impoverishing about this process; but historically, the decisions about how exactly to use surplus agricultural production, and how much surplus production there should be in the first place, has been the purview of people who are least likely to be affected by the negative aspects of their decisions.

So is it really that difficult to imagine a scenario where an agricultural community makes a conscious decision to invest their surplus production toward industrialization, in a way that doesn’t require people to work absurdly long hours, in awful working conditions, and in ways that tears apart the fabric of previously established socio-cultural norms?

Lastly, let us recognize that this ongoing debate is anything but a historical controversy, given that much of the world’s population is today either undergoing industrialization, or has yet to experience industrialization.  Those of us in the First World today have managed to avoid living during those dark times in our history–but there is still an opportunity for us to help current populations seize control of their societies, and give them a fair say in how they wish to industrialize.

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