The Industrial Revolution was a period in modern history when the production of goods by hand was gradually converted to methods of manufacture using large machines and assembly lines. This shift is seen by many historians as the force chiefly responsible for the birth of the modern era and for the ongoing phenomenon of globalization that emerged in the 19th century and now continues into the 21st.
The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain. In 1650 the population of England was approximately 10 million, of which 90% earned a livelihood through farming of one kind or another. In 1821, Thomas Malthus wrote Principles of Political Economy, in which he discussed the concern that a lack of moral restraint by the British working class might lead to unchecked population growth. This behavior on the part of some people would create a fall in production, and the world would face a famine. Malthus gave a very gloomy prediction that worldwide mass starvation would eventually occur. In just 200 years, 1650 to 1850, the English population soared to more than 30 million, with less than 20% at work in fields, barns, and granaries. During this time England experienced the first Industrial Revolution, as entrepreneurs and capitalists began procuring the natural resources and labor power to produce goods for profit on a scale hitherto unknown.
The Industrial Revolution succeeded the longstanding agrarian age, which had begun millennia before when much of humankind developed agriculture and gave up nomadic lifestyles. Agrarian societies allowed people to escape from dependence on food sources over which they had no control. In such societies people produced surpluses that could be used to feed new classes of non-food-producers. At the same time, these societies required increasing amounts of land, which led to conflicts over territory. The need to store and defend food supplies and to house non-foodproducers resulted in the growth of villages and small cities. Agrarian societies developed extensive division of labor and interdependence.
In Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, economist David Ricardo furthered the explanation for the changes that were occurring during the Industrial Revolution. Ricardo explained the notion of cooperation as a consequence of prosperity in his theory of comparative advantage. Ricardo concerned himself with explaining the factors that caused growth in an agrarian economy. At the time, modern science and technology had not been applied to agriculture, and capital tools such as hoes and plows were of relatively minor importance as productivity inputs. Ricardo argued that the average productivity of labor would eventually decrease. This decrease in productivity would lead to falling wages for workers.
The Industrial Revolution in the simplest terms can be described as the advent of a decline in household production. It started in Britain for several reasons. The increased population provided labor for factories and markets. Britain had a rich supply of raw materials. Britain had many small shop owners that knew how to run a business. The change in production was an economic one, yet over time it became a political one as well as a social one.
Political Thoughts on the Industrial Revolution
The first Industrial Revolution was the impetus that led to the science of political economy. A new way of thinking was needed to explain and justify the social conditions. This began as philosophers in Europe struggled with the fundamental problem of how the individual pursuit of self-interest would lead to the highest social good. According to Arild Saether, theology and the power of the universal church as an explanation for human behaviors were replaced by new theories independent of church doctrines. There was a new distinction between positive and natural laws. Natural law was the manifestation of divine law. This law was revealed through nature based on reason. On the other hand, humankind created the concept of positive law. People needed to create laws to secure peace. New laws were required, because in a natural state everyone has the same equal and unlimited right to everything. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, social structures changed and continued to develop specialized production of material goods. A continued propagation of the natural law would have resulted in a war of all men against all men, and self-destruction would have resulted. Hence, it was necessary for people to seek an agreement of cooperation and common wealth with each other. Works were written to explain positive laws. Such positive law acquired dominance in the 18th century and was firmly established in the 19th century.
The origins of the early teachings of political science are widely agreed upon. The Industrial Revolution had created a wealthy class of industrial capitalists who had to pay workers at least enough to live on. England at that time had a living wage that depended greatly on food prices. Ricardo advocated trade between countries. Consequently, the Corn Laws were passed. The Corn Laws placed tariffs on grain imports and created export subsidies that kept food prices high and increased the wages that capitalists had to pay. The basis of David Ricardo’s theory, accepted in Parliament, was that specialization and free trade were beneficial to all trading partners. Adam Smith and Ricardo had successfully explained the need and advantages for material cooperation and the acceptance of economic inequalities.
Adam Smith, a Scottish philosopher, wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776; the book was widely accepted as a blueprint for economic activity and has been called the “bible of capitalism.” Smith’s teaching underscored the way humans reconciled self with others during the first Industrial Revolution. Smith discussed the division of labor as a consequence of social prosperity and people’s desire to barter and exchange one thing for another. He explained how people managed to coexist by offering goods and services for sale in quantities that satisfied each other’s private wants. Smith described how the invisible hand of the marketplace led to a cooperation that provided productivity and distribution that met the needs of society, and he argued that people would act in their own self-interest to provide goods and services of the greatest possible value. That in turn would allow for one to trade a good or service of a proportional value for another that one otherwise would not be able to receive. Those who produced the best would thrive, while those who provided the wrong good or provided an inferior good would lose out. Smith explained how the Industrial Revolution shaped what became known as the free market.
The free market paradigm provided an incentive for productivity and trade and provided a rationale for people to accept the idea of economic inequalities. Smith in essence justified the unequal distribution of wealth, arguing that in the long run everyone would gain. This notion of inequality was not new to the human race, but the free market explanation was an extension of the new concept of positive law. At the time of Smith’s publication, England’s Industrial Revolution saw the new manufacturing technologies, the development of more efficient forms of transportation, and the increase in productivity of agriculture that led to a massive movement from the countryside to the city. People in search of work migrated from rural areas to crowded cities and toiled long hours.
In 1875, Karl Marx completed work on the book Capital (Das Kapital). Marx’s treatise developed an alternative understanding of the value of human labor. Marx’s work served as an intellectual basis for a different vision of society, one that originated in class conflict, a struggle between labor resources and owners of capital. The labor theory of value, according to Marx, was the value of any commodity that resulted from the labor needed to produce the commodity. Labor provided more value in a day than it was paid. Capital owners were able to extract a profit when labor was used for the production of commodities. This notion proved to be a basis of the controversy as to how cooperation among humans over material value was organized. The philosophy of Marx pointed to the inevitably antiprogressive results of the economic and social inequality that the Industrial Revolution produced. Marx’s view of progress was not supportive of the Industrial Revolution and the decline of family production. His philosophy was not based on incentives for people to be productive in order to get their needs and wants met. Marx’s work in the field of political economy promoted an egalitarian economic and social structure, unlike the theories of other political economists, which were concerned with explaining the Industrial Revolution.
These three scholars—Smith, Ricardo, and Marx—are considered the progenitors of modern economics; in due course their ideas were exported across the Atlantic and promoted in the United States.
The Industrial Revolution in the United States
The Industrial Revolution that began in the mid- 19th century in the United States must have seemed to others to have come out of nowhere. Europe had been the undisputed economic and technological leader in the world until, suddenly, the United States appeared in the vanguard. By 1926, the United States was producing about 45% of the world’s industrial output, including 80% of the world’s automobiles and 50% of its steel, electricity, and crude oil. America’s experience of the Industrial Revolution had a decisive effect on the role of human resources in the economy and on social conditions for the American family. The Industrial Revolution in the United States thus mirrored Europe, as production changed from the manufacture of goods in small workshops to making goods with machines in factories.
The Industrial Revolution in the United States placed the family squarely in the capitalist mode of production, a fact well documented by the stories of urban working-class families’ struggles to survive the Industrial Revolution. Changes in social relationships in the workplace and in households as a result of the Industrial Revolution have been viewed as both progressive and antiprogressive. The limits of capital’s extensive mode of consuming labor in the first phase of industrialization, it has been argued, created a false consciousness among urban working-class families. The forces inducing conversion to a more intensive regime of separate spheres between work and home in the latter half of the 19th century were crystallized. Changing forms of family occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution, as modern industry created the social construction of the “male breadwinner wage.”
Thus, the economic structure of modern industry led to significant changes for American families. Prior to the industrial revolution, families had been largely self-sufficient work units. Fathers and mothers worked side by side, and children joined in the work as soon as they were able. Almost all of the values and skills needed for life were learned in the family setting. A sense of self-worth came naturally as did a sense of one’s place in society.
The Industrial Revolution and the growth of cities changed all that. Fathers left home to work for money wages, and real wages rose quickly. Many families left their small farms and moved to the city. Children became more of an economic liability and less of an economic asset as they became unable to contribute to family maintenance. During the Industrial Revolution, work changed from requiring physical strength to requiring the ability to manipulate factory machinery, and what adults did was separate from children. This prompted the social need to limit the size of the family during the early years of the 20th century. The modern image of the family consisting of mother at home, a father at work, and children playing at home was born during the Industrial Revolution. Some scholars see the current crisis in family life as a long-term effect of the Industrial Revolution, one that poses a serious challenge for the 21st century.
In the United States as elsewhere, the Industrial Revolution greatly enhanced the economic fortunes of the middle classes and brought economic and social improvement for many people owing to the increase in earned wages. The lower classes, however, gained far less economically and socially. As the nation advanced, it failed to build adequate support systems for families in which both parents were employed. Indeed, the United States has not put national policies in place to provide for children’s needs, as many European countries have done. Much of the energy behind popular demands for political change arises from the perception that the socioeconomic system that resulted from the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath has expanded social inequalities. As some economists and sociologists have pointed out, economic power in the 21st century has remained concentrated in the hands of those who own and control the means of production.
See also Economics; Evolution, Cultural; Fossil Fuels;
Global Warming; Marx, Karl; Technology Assessment; Timetables; White, Leslie A.
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