The Age of Industrial Revolution or Evolution?

Human beings have been driven by the possibility of development since the advent of civilization. Development in early human settlements and society building activity was driven by social capabilities. Human beings gathered as tribes or communities and provided security to its members while trading off some of their personal liberties. This has been the foundation of society building for more than 3000 years. Albeit the size of settlements, nature of governance and behaviour of groups varied drastically across geographic regions and time. A 19t​h​ Century Indian citizen living in Bengal under the harsh conditions of British Colonialism would have lived a harsher life when compared to his British or American contemporaries. His life would also be completely different from an Indian who lived in the same region but during the Mughal rule (the early periods often described as the golden age of Indian society). One British Civil Servant in Bengal Presidency, William Wilson Hunter describes: 

(T)he husbandmen sold their cattle; they sold their implements of agriculture; they devoured their seed-grain; they sold their sons and daughters, till at length no buyer of children could be found; they ate the leaves of trees and the grass of the field; and in June 1770 the Resident at [Murshidabad] affirmed that the living were feeding on the dead. 

Such was the difference in social conditions of a region that is separated by not more than 100 years. What one could observe is that societies even across regions and time would have certain commonalities and differences in how they are formed or structured. One could even argue that societies were formed into structures that are primarily aimed towards enhancing the utility of its members and providing stability. The predominant influencers in these societies shared social norms, culture and tradition. Hence societies were formed based on the idea of enhancing social capability of its members. 

This arguably was the case for most of human history. The birth of technological innovations in the mid-18t​h​ century Europe, especially in England, shook the very foundations of this structure. The increase in productivity triggered by the invention of Steam Engine, Spinning Jenny and modern Metallurgical processes propelled the western civilization into a new era of mass production. Formerly a feudal society where the economy and population were decentralized, England became a society of industries. Industrializations opened up demand for labour in production and a market for consumption. There was a mass exodus to the Industrialized cities of England and this marked the new order in the country and the rest as they say is history. This article answers the following questions: ​Why Industrial Revolution, what happened during the revolution and how it shaped the world. 

Why Industrial Revolution: 

The Industrial Revolution is generally perceived to be a revolutionary change in the socio-economic structure of North-western Europe, specifically England. It is also perceived to be catalysed by the emergence of new technologies, such as steam engines, cotton-based production and ore extraction, that radically shifted the traditional agrarian society to a modern industrial one. The pre-conceptions that the sudden emergence of radical technological growth and social movements unique to England as a mere happenstance is based on fallacious representation of history and economic development. To fully understand the economic growth of England one must look at the events that preceded this era and how it shaped the world. 

A popular economic theory on less-developed countries is that society is mainly dialectical in nature. It is made up of traditional economy and modern economy, where traditional economy is the predominant economic process that engaged most of the labour. This model can be applied to better understand pre-industrial England and the changes in society that resulted in the Industrial revolution (Garbowski et. al., 2003). Pre-Industrial England was a Feudalist society based on the Agrarian economy. The land was held by an elite few to whom the labour was present in abundance as serfs. This system was driven by subsistence rather than profit. The labour was mostly unskilled and lived in small plots of lands without much luxury. Only a handful of people in towns and cities engaged in artisanal work and were highly skilled. The merchants and traders oversaw the trade of these artisan goods to buyers within the society or from nearby communities. 15th century onward there was a significant improvement in laws regarding property and trade that enabled the workers to improve their quality of life and increase the overall productivity of agricultural products. This resulted in excess supply of labour. Between 1600 and 1800 the population engaged in agricultural labour reduced from 70% to 36% (Wrigley 1985). This resulted in a proto-industrial state where the merchants engaged these excess labour forces in highly specialized artisanal activity that produced goods that had huge demand in the market. This meant that the traditional serfdom was no linger the dominant labour character, which resulted in the free movement of labour within the country. 

This condition, where one third of the country produced food for the rest of the citizens, created necessary conditions on which industrialization took place. The agrarian economy was dependent on land and labour with only little need for capital. Advent of technology and political changes resulted in the increased demand for capital in economic process. Many economists and sociological experts have now corrected the traditional perspective on Industrialisation of England as a revolutionary process to an evolutionary one. One that evolved out of various changes in socio-political conditions of labour. The estimated growth in GDP was only 1-3% during the Industrial revolution era (1770 – 1830) which by modern standards is nothing but a slow movement. Albeit what really changed was the structure of the society and the way labour was engaged in productive activity. The proto-industrialisation movement ensured the productive labour was not restricted to men only, as many women and children were used for the cheap labour (which incidentally was not an issue since it increased the overall income of the household). There was an exodus of people from rural areas to the urban areas. A movement of workforce from agricultural production to Industrial production. Hence Industrial revolution can be seen as an evolutionary process that resulted from an increased productivity of the Agrarian economy and availability of large labour forces that moved to urban areas, catalysed by the innovations of the era to meet the growing needs of the population. 

What happened during the revolution? 

Image credits: Kelsey Piper (Vox), Human history in one chart, 2018 

Industrial revolution led to the creation of new cities and towns that saw a large influx of population from rural areas in search of work. The excess labour was made to be specialized to take part in Industrial production. New technologies used in the process meant that the source of energy for production was no longer human effort but through mineral resources such as coal. England became the workshop of the world. England actively traded with most other European countries and its colonies with finished products in exchange for products that were deemed luxury during that period namely, tea, coffee, sugar, timber, silk etc. New cities were established in Northern parts of the countries, such as Yorkshire, Lancashire and other midland areas, which produced industrial goods purely for the purpose of export. 

The Industrial revolution had a significant impact in England and the world over. In England, though it did not significantly increase the per capita income of the masses, it improved the overall standard of living. The economy grew steadily year on year and the manufactured goods in England had a huge demand throughout the world. In 1860, it is noted that England was responsible for 45% of world’s industrial production though they had a population contribution of only 2% to the overall global population during that time period. England accounted for 1/4t​h​ of world’s export and 1/3r​d​ of world’s import. England also had 50% energy consumption out of the total energy consumed in Europe. This transformation from agrarian to industrial economy meant that there was only 22% of labour involvement in agricultural activity (Senghaas, 1985). This display of sectoral composition meant that England was decades ahead of other nations and was the most dominant country in the world with regards to economic and political prowess. 

Though the revolution was significant and incomparable to any past historical event in the country, there were many critiques within England and outside. Malthusian thinkers of this era while condoning the revolution and increased productivity, were skeptical of its sustained growth. They believed that the law of diminishing returns will result in the reduction of food output in England and the successive reduction in population and overall output. They did believe that the revolution can extend its lifetime by having free trade with other European countries for food products in exchange for finished industrial goods. They believed that resources such as land and minerals were limited and cannot continuously expand and accommodate the needs of the population. Though the theory was not specifically formulated with concerns to sustainability but rather for classist reasons, it did give a proto-reasoning for resource exploitation of Industrial growth. There was also huge criticism on the social conditions of the low-income populations in cities, who were living in unsanitary conditions and poor health. Child labour and labour exploitation was rife among the industrialised cities and towns. Population exploded in England due to the income generating capabilities of children and a demand for cheap labour. 

How it shaped the world? 

Industrial revolution has been a topic of argument since its beginning, many positing it to be a force of good while others viewing it as something that is both sinister in its results and impact on the colonies. Most of our school education has documented the positive impacts of industrialization by citing the technological advancements, advent of new political and philosophical thought and overall improvement of social life (albeit only in England). It made England much richer than any other nation state in the world and ushered in a new socio-economic structure in the country. Let us not focus on how it was a lesson that other countries used to develop themselves in the 19t​h​ and 20t​h century, rather look into the impact the process of industrialization had in the world. 

The very popular dependency theory that emerged among the academia of sociological theories proposed an alternative worldview of the industrialisation process. European countries, especially England, were actively colonizing the other parts of the world such as Africa, Asia, North and South America during the period. Though the process of colonization stemmed from the need to find the sea route to India and other South-East Asian countries that produced important spices and raw materials, it later shifted its focus to regions that fuelled the industrialization process of England and major European power. Dependency theory makes two major claims. Firstly, there are two types of Countries (or states). They are the central (Metropolis) and the Periphery (Satellite) states. The central state holds power and authority over the periphery states. Secondly, Central states take raw materials from the periphery states at the lowest possible rates and use these states as the market for their finished goods. Though the data that was later found did not support this theory entirely (many claiming only 5-7% of the GDP of England arose from these activities), there is an interesting theory that could explain other practices. Practice of de-industrialisation of Countries, especially India, making a strong case for the dependency theory. 

The arguments around this were not particularly focused upon the numerical value of the exports and imports from the colonies but the exploitative activities that indirectly enabled these growing economies. Trans-Atlantic slave trade for example was practiced for the soul reason of finding free exploitative labour in the newly established colonies of Americas and the Caribbean islands. Sugar and tobacco plantations that made the settling Europeans rich was built on the backs of millions of Africans who were bought and sold as a mere commodity with their humanity stripped away from them. This however will not be reflected upon the GDP figures of the time but can a mere GDP measurement represent the human cost of such Industrialisation activities? How about the intentional de-industrialisation of Indian cotton Industries? Millions of traditional weavers and producers of finished clothing products were stripped-off of their income by the policies of the East India Company and British Raj. Horrific stories of Bengal weavers being forced to let go of their occupation and colonizers cutting their thumbs off and imposing a ban on exporting Indian cotton in the interest of cotton and clothing Industries that flourished in Manchester are testament to this theory. They transformed India, which was once the leading producer of Cotton and finished goods, to an importer of Finished cotton goods from England. British exported all the cotton as raw material to England for manufacturing in the industrialised regions that were later exported to countries around the world. The raw materials were bought at an exploitative price and the finished products were sold at astronomically high prices in order to maximize profit. What these two examples illustrate is that the industrialisation of England and the rest of Europe was fuelled by the de-industrialisation of Asia and exploitation of people from Africa. The effects are still felt in these countries. India still exports raw cotton to England and the West African countries were divided into colonies not based on ethnicity or homogeneity but based on the whims of European power (scramble to for Africa), the multiple tribes still continue their colonial clashes with each other and in some cases causing genocide (Rwandan genocide). The enslaved workers in Americas and Indies still feel the effects of centuries of oppression for the sake of profits and growth in Industrialised Europe. 

One would imagine that the oppression of the colonies would at least result in the high quality of life for people in England but the reality is nothing but further from this assumption. England and especially London was covered in Soot and smoke, poverty and unhygienic conditions in most of its slums and low-income regions. The Industrial revolution focused on the bottom-line, that is to gain profits from production, without having concerns of labour condition, distribution of Income or even the effects on environment, still the economy did not become the juggernaut that it is today, people did not consume beyond necessity and constantly forced to buy products. There was still the residue of Imperialism and direct division of classes. However, this is the seed for the consumer economy that would emerge much later and shape the world we live in. 

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