Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution by Emma Griffin (Yale University Press 2013), 320 pages).
Emma Griffin calls this a “People’s History of the Industrial Revolution,” and uses documentation of much the same kind as E.P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class — a work she explicitly frames her work as a counterpoint to. Since most of my comments below will be negative, let me start by commending Griffin for the scholarly effort involved in her immense and systematic reading of primary sources, and her obvious sympathy for her working-class subjects.
If Thompson’s history was one primarily of the working class’s experience of the Industrial Revolution as a transformation imposed on English society from above, Griffin’s is one of the positive side of working-class experience: “an unexpected tale of working people carving out for themselves new levels of wealth, freedom and autonomy.” At the same time, she attempts to disprove that the gains of industrial growth were “bought with the blood, sweat and tears of the workers who experienced at first hand its grinding effects.”
Unfortunately, Griffin is able to frame things in this way only by leaving out the vital background —of political power structures and their historical evolution — that Thompson so ably provided. When we add this context, we find the “blood, sweat and tears” of the older radical historians come back with a vengeance.
Working people’s lives did improve during the Industrial Revolution. But they did so, not in the context of the kind of explosion of economic freedom that Griffin implies, but despite the massive intervention of the state in the economy — first in behalf of agrarian capitalists, and then in behalf of industrialists — in order to facilitate the exploitation of labor. The untold portion of this story — whose absence is a serious defect in Griffin’s history — is the role of the state in suppressing the Industrial Revolution that might have been. So while working people did indeed experience net gains, that does not change the fact that the Industrial Revolution in a very real sense occurred at their expense.
One might just as easily write a history of working people’s legitimate experiences of improvement in their daily lives in the industrializing USSR from the 1930s through the 1960s. But a history that depicted that improvement while ignoring the essentially statist, authoritarian, and exploitative nature of the Soviet regime, and failing to note how much more people’s lives might have improved under genuine freedom, would be a severely defective one.
Griffin doesn’t just omit the institutional and power context; she glosses over it in a manner reminiscent of 1066 and All That’s quip about the Pope and his bishops seceding from the Church of England:
At some point, the nation stopped trying to make all its goods by hand, and started to burn fossil fuels to drive machinery to do the work instead. In the process, large numbers of families gave up working the land, and moved to towns and cities to take up employment in factories, mills and mines.
Well, as The Simpsons attorney Lionel Hutz would say, that’s the best kind of true — technically true! Large numbers of families did indeed give up working the land; and this, the history of their deciding to “give up,” is written (if you’ll excuse the reference) in letters of blood and fire. In the period from the mid 18th to the early 19th century alone — when the Industrial Revolution actually took place — Parliamentary Enclosures resulted in the theft of somewhere between a fourth and a third of arable land from the English peasantry. But even that followed on the heels of a much longer process of expropriation — robbery, to speak plainly —in which the common fields were enclosed for sheep pasturage. Over a period of centuries the peasantry were robbed of customary rights in most of the land of England, transformed into at-will tenants, and then rack-rented or evicted. And that was done in the context of a state that was completely controlled, until the electoral reform of 1867, by the king in concert with the landed nobility and heavily landed Church in one house, and the rural gentry and mercantile plutocracy in the other.
There is, by the way, an enormous paper trail of commentary by rural capitalist farmers themselves, in the late 18th century, calling for Enclosure on the explicit grounds that peasants with independent access to common pasture, wood, and waste could not be made to work at agricultural wage labor as hard, for as long, or as cheaply, as their betters desired them to. The Industrial Revolution took place — and industrial employers heavily benefited — against a background in which the majority of the English laboring population had been forcibly robbed of independent access to the means of subsistence and production and driven like beasts into the wage-labor market.
So it borders on disingenuousness to contrast the improvement in living standards in the Industrial Revolution with the cruel poverty of the economy before, without examining the reasons for the cruelty of that old economy’s poverty or the continuity of the power structure before and after. I don’t think Griffin actually crosses that border, because she seems to operate from the sincere — if unexamined — assumption that subordination and hierarchy are “natural”: “All working relationships are defined by a disparity between master and servant….” Griffin is genuinely unable to imagine an economic system based on anything but domination and exploitation.
As for the particular balance between small-scale manufacture and steam-powered machine production in factories, and the balance between self-employment in the countryside or small craft shops and wage labor in factories, “the nation stopped trying” is — to say the least — rather misleading.
The adoption of steam-powered machine production could have taken a considerable range of institutional forms. The specific form actually taken by the First Industrial Revolution reflects the fact that a complex of interests including the newly consolidated English state, the armaments and mining industries, and enclosing landlords were the primary driving force behind the transition to what Lewis Mumford called the “paleotechnic” economy of coal, steam, iron, and Dark Satanic Mills. The actual process was a revolution from above every bit as authoritarian as Stalin’s forced collectivization and First Five-Year Plan — in it, in the words of J.L. and Barbara Hammond, English society was “taken to pieces … and reconstructed in the manner in which a dictator reconstructs a free government.”
The entire First Industrial Revolution took place within a larger power framework in which bargaining power had been shifted in almost every way imaginable from workers to employers. If workers could leave an employer and find a new situation, as Griffin argues, they nevertheless did so in a situation where the labor market was far more of a buyer’s market, and far less of a seller’s market, than would have arisen spontaneously.
As Franz Oppenheimer argued in The State, economic exploitation becomes possible only when wage employers no longer have to compete against the readily available alternative of self-employment. And all the concerted efforts of the state, in league with the employing classes, had been directed toward just that end on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.
Even after most of the actual land expropriations had taken place, the state continued, as the Industrial Revolution progressed, to enforce a host of police-state measures including what amounted to a Soviet- or South African-style internal passport system. The latter itself resulted from the Laws of Settlement, which prohibited workers from leaving the parish of their birth in search of work without the permission of parish Poor Law authorities. Meanwhile, those same Poor Law authorities came to the aid of mill owners facing a labor shortage in the industrial North by shipping paupers (especially children) by the gross to work in other parishes on terms negotiated entirely between the employers and Poor Law authorities.
Other police-state measures included restrictions on freedom of association like the Combination Act and various statutory suppressions of friendly societies — enforced by administrative bodies using prerogative-law procedures and without any common-law guarantees for the accused — and a number of restrictions on freedom of speech and public assembly passed during the Napoleonic Wars.
A different England
If wages were rising, as both Clapham and Griffin have apparently demonstrated, they nevertheless rose despite a whole interlocking system of mechanisms consciously designed, with all the resources available to employers in league with the state, to prevent them from doing so. The entire improvement in working people’s lives resulted entirely from the share of increased productivity left over after the privileged classes had skimmed their rents off the top. If workers experienced a net benefit from their small slice of the increased productivity pie, employers and investors received most of the pie as beneficiaries of the institutional framework within which the Industrial Revolution took place. The fact that the working class was able to improve its lot, despite all the massive outrages against human decency described above, says everything about the tenacity and resilience of the people themselves and the ability of the human spirit to triumph over oppression. It says nothing whatsoever about the benevolence or justice of the framework within which ordinary people were forced to operate.
So although Griffin calls the Industrial Revolution “liberty’s dawn,” she ignores the obvious question: What were the nature, causes, and effects of the previous sunset and night of liberty, against which the Industrial Revolution took place?
Imagine, on the other hand, the form the Industrial Revolution might have taken in an England where most of the rural population had defined property rights to periodically reapportioned strips in the open fields, under village custom, and even landless peasants might survive in relative comfort by building cottages on the waste and foraging from common wood and fen. Imagine an England where would-be factory employers had to appeal to a population so independently situated by offering them wages and working conditions more attractive than the forms of self-employment readily available to them. Imagine a working class able to move from parish to parish without permission, instead of being auctioned off by Poor Law authorities to factory owners in what amounted to a slave market. Imagine a working class able to freely associate, to form unions, to organize production in cooperative shops, and to provide strike funds and other forms of mutual aid — all without being criminalized for it or having to do so underground.
The resulting society would have been one in which it was the worker, and not the employer, who had the freedom to step away from the bargaining table, and the main limiting factor in economic activity would have been the need to make it worthwhile for the worker to work — not to offer sufficient profit to motivate the capitalist.
In the actual history of the Industrial Revolution, Thomas Hodgskin argued in the 1830s, the main reason production didn’t take place is that land and capital were held idle for want of a sufficient rate of profit to satisfy the propertied classes who had enclosed them for rent. In a society where the laboring classes had retained ownership of most land and capital, and put them to productive use under their own direction, the only thing governing whether they were put to use would have been whether the output of the labor would have been enough to support the laborers themselves, and not a superfluous class of rentiers. This is the productive free-market economy that would have evolved, without the fetters on production and deterrence to effort resulting from the expropriation and upward redistribution of wealth.
This — and not the totalitarian monstrosity of the actual period surveyed by Griffin — is what a genuinely free economy and society would have looked like. And it’s hard to find any more polar opposites than the England of actual history and this free England of the imagination.
So despite Griffin’s impressive labors and sympathetic readings in primary resources, in the end the story she tells is overshadowed by the one she didn’t tell.
This article was originally published in the February 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.