The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Did the Industrial Revolution Require Land Clearances, Slavery, Genocide, and Empire?

The Leninist argument is that imperialism, industrialization, and capitalism were intertwined. It did not make sense to discuss capitalism or industrialization without discussing Empire, and all its crimes. It is also the common argument that land clearances, in which commons rights were taken away from peasants and serfs, often by law and force, were required to create the industrial workforce.

This is because the early industrial workforce was a terrible place to work and live–and the phenomenon is not temporary, by most measures. It was true for between a hundred and a hundred and fifty years. Maybe longer. You worked longer (six and a half days a week, 12 hours a day was common in certain periods), you lived in urban filth, ate less, were sick more, grew to lower height if born into this, and died younger.

So, clearance was bad for the people who were cleared. I trust I don’t have to explain why European Imperialism was bad for most everyone else. Granted, European Imperialism predates the Industrial Revolution (but not the commercial, wind, and water revolutions), but it goes into overdrive during the Industrial period, and the gains of previous periods are definitely used to support the Industrial Revolution.

There are two questions to answer with regards to the clearance issue. First, whether or not clearances were necessary for the agricultural revolution to occur. With no agricultural revolution, there’s not enough food for expanding city populations.

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The orthodox answer to this question is, “No.” But recently, a scholar, Robert C. Allan, went through the agricultural records and compared enclosed field to non-enclosed field production. Common fields were usually somewhat less productive than enclosed fields, but their gains increased almost as fast as enclosed fields did, and were even higher for certain crops (for instance, as with nitrogen fixers, like clover).

In other words, no, the agricultural revolution was not predicated on field enclosure–it just would have happened slightly slower in a non-field-enclosure scenario.

The second question concerns wages for workers, and is trickier. Allan argues that the Industrial Revolution happened in England for a simple reason: The coal was right there and could easily be shipped to factories. Shipping coal was hellishly expensive, and early steam engines were massively inefficient. Industrialization didn’t start in, say, Paris, because it lacked the resources. In Paris, it was cheaper to use more labor rather than to use coal.

Field enclosures made labor cheap in England. Without them, there are a lot less desperate workers, and a lot less desperate workers means higher wages and better treatment of workers (no one’s leaving the peasant village to go work 78 hour work weeks). Higher wages could make steam-driven factories unprofitable. No profit = no revolution.

This is an empirical question, and I don’t see the data to indicate the answer one way or the other. The theoretical point of view is this: Land clearances forced the cost of labor down. The higher wages are, the more you want to use capital (like equipment), not workers. In such a case, again, the Industrial Revolution happens, but it happens closer to Newcastle to keep the cost of coal down, and it is slow to gain traction due to profitability concerns. Once stabilized, however, the incentives for increasing machine efficiency of the machines faster could quite possibly have accelerated the Industrial Revolution faster than how it actually played out. Hard to say, but the argument is sound.

Now, for Empire.

With a very few exceptions, the main one being the USSR, every country which has industrialized, including Britain and the US, has done so with mercantalist policies, that is, behind trade barriers of some sort or another. They become free traders when their industry is well-established, not before.

Mercantalism does not require imperialism, but imperialism can augment mercantilism. When the British invaded India, India had more factories than England. Soon, they didn’t. India was a vast market for British manufacturing and provided raw materials.

The South in the US provided much of the cotton, through slave labor, as did Egypt and various other places which were conquered or absorbed through imperialism. (While the US South was, no, not under British control during this period, the Native Americans were cleared from it by European imperialism and disease and the slaves were brought over on European ships.)

Imperialism provides two things: Markets and cheap supplies for the factories. Even the Chinese opium/tea trade is related. Tea reduces appetites and enables people to work longer, and the British, even with the agricultural revolution, are somewhat underfed. Minus six half-day weeks, of course, they would not need so much food, but they do. (Ever done hard, manual labor all day? I have. I ate A LOT.)

There is clearly a benefit from Imperialism for industrialization under capitalism.

Could industrialization have happened without forcing open these barriers to British exports and without cheaper commodities like cotton, acquired through slave labor, plantations (which require shoving small farmers off the land), and so on?

What would have happened if we didn’t conquer, pillage, and enslave so many people? What would have happened if we didn’t deliberately retard their economic development? If we didn’t kill so many of them?

Perhaps they would have been more prosperous. Granted, many tribal societies have little use for money, but as the Hudson’s Bay experience shows, if you provide goods they really want, they’ll go out of their way to get what you want in return. And India, despite vast numbers of peasants, had vast mercantile cities and trade long before the British, Portuguese, and so on, arrived.

The commodities wouldn’t be so cheap, and Britain may not have gained so near a monopoly in early industrial manufacturing, but other societies would have also been richer–which means more purchasing power. Richer people can pay more.

The British still would have had that huge advantage: Coal near the manufacturing areas and near the coast. It’s an island. You can get what you manufacture to the sea easily, and you can use coal because the coal is near the sea too (everything is near the sea in England, from the Continental point of view).

This scenario suggests that England would have still industrialized first, and the Industrial Revolution still happens in Britain. Is it’s pace slower? Faster? I suspect slower at first, faster later. But it is more humane, and it leads to a better world.

If China and India had industrialized at a faster, more organic pace than they did; if they had been dragged along closer behind, standards of living would have risen faster. But standard of living is negatively correlated to the number of children.

A world in which all (or at least most) boats rise together, with England in the lead, but not excessively so, is one with a lot less of a population problem and a lot less of a poverty problem.

It may just be that being complete bastards to virtually everyone was not required for industrialization. It may be that we would have lived in a vastly better world.

It may not, of course, but I think the argument for “Being Assholes Wasn’t Actually Necessary” is pretty strong.

And I think it’s fairly important, because it’s at the heart of the whole “Is other people’s suffering required for some people to live the good life?” question.

(This is part 3 of a semi-series.  Read part one on “The Death of Capitalism” part 2 on “What Capitalism is and part 4 on  “How The Rational Irrationality of Capitalism Is Destroying the World”.)

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  1. Dan Lynch

    You make a lot of good points, Ian.

    I would add a couple.

    1) “Many tribal societies have little use for money.” Very true, but one way to create a demand for money is to assess a tax on poor people. A head tax, a hut tax, etc.. Now your happy, self-sufficient hunter/gatherer/farmer has no choice but to work for wages. Legend has it that Europeans did just that in their African colonies in order to coerce the natives to work for wages.

    2) You defined the essence of capitalism as a way to tell people what to do and what not to do, and that it concentrates the means of production in a few hands. Those are truisms, I cannot argue with them.

    Others say that the essence of capitalism is private property. Matt Bruenig takes that a step further and says that the essence of private property is “violence vouchers”: the state gives you a voucher that it will use violence if necessary to enforce your private property rights. The “violence voucher” concept drives home the point that capitalism is inherently violent and coercive.

  2. Ian Welsh

    As to #1, yes, case is made in Debt, I think it’s true. But if you don’t colonize and thus can’t impose a tax you can still trade is my point.

  3. Tony Wikrent

    I do not believe this analysis applies very well to industrialization in the USA during the nineteenth century. There are scores of quotes from European visitors to USA before the 1850s in which the Europeans expressed amazement at the huge difference in working conditions they saw in USA compared to Europe. I recommend Marvin Fisher, Workshops in the Wilderness: The European Response to American Industrialization 1830-1860 (Oxford University Press, 1967)

    The clash between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians was based precisely on the perceived effects of industrialization.

    (The centerpiece of Hamilton’s program for economic development, was the creation of a financial system by monetizing the debt of the national government, including assumption of the debts of the states; but also Hamilton’s program included a high protective tariff, which was the first major legislation presented to, and passed, by the new Congress, as well as bounties and other support for manufactures)

    Here are excerpts from The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America, by Drew R, McCoy (University of North Carolina Press, 1980)

    “The prevalent belief in the fragility of republics generated among the Revolutionaries an intense concern with the fundamental character of their economy and society.” p 5 [They held] “a characteristically republican idea of a dynamic interdependence among polity, economy, and society.” p 6 …once the Revolutionaries succeeded in establishing independence from the British Empire, they had to do much more than merely define and put into practice the proper constitutional principles of republican government. They had to define, and then attempt to secure, a form of economy and society that would be capable of sustaining the virtuous character of a republican citizenry. They had to establish, in short, a republican system of political economy for America.” P 7

    P67 “In its purest form, classical republicanism stipulated that republics had to be rather rude, simple, pre-commercial societies free from any taint of luxury and corruption. The essence of corruption was the encroachment of power on liberty, an insidious process most likely to occur in advanced, stratified societies where great wealth and inequality promoted avaricious behavior and dangerous dependencies among men. …as John Adams put it… “power always follows property,” or, more specifically, that the balance of power in a society” closely paralleled “the balance of property
    P 68 in land.” The only possible way of preserving this balance “on the side of equal liberty and public virtue,” Adams characteristically contended in 1776, was “to make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society,” or “to make a division of land into small quantities, so that the multitude may be possessed of landed estates.” If the weak and unpropertied were indeed threatened with exploitation by the strong and privileged, then Franklin’s expanding society of relatively equal, independent landowners was the necessary antidote to corruption.”

    “American republicans valued property in land primarily because it provided personal independence. The individual with direct access to the productive resources of nature need not rely on other men, or any man, for the basic means of existence. The Revolutionaries believed that every man had a natural right to this form of property, in the sense that he was entitled to autonomous control of the resources that were absolutely necessary to his existence. The personal independence that resulted from the ownership of land permitted a citizen to participate responsibly in the political process, for it allowed him to pursue spontaneously the common or public good, rather than the narrow interest of the men – or the government – on whom he depended for his support. Thus the Revolutionaries did not intend to provide men with property so they might flee from public responsibility into a selfish privatism; property was rather the necessary basis for a committed republican citizenry.”

    My notes on this. In the first paragraph, we see that the limit of the franchise to men of property was not so much a device to perpetuate rule by the wealthy, as it was the means best calculated to ensure only those with sufficient public virtue had a voice in governing. If it were more the former – a device to perpetuate rule by the wealthy – I think the case can be made that the subsequent history of expanding the franchise would have been very different, because it would have been much more difficult to expand the definition of democracy, along with expanding the vote.

    We also have here the proper rebuke to conservatives’ fixation on property rights. Those rights are intended by the Framers not to protect untrammeled avarice and unprincipled acquisition, but to provide as wide a basis as possible within the citizenry for the maintenance of republican civic virtue. When the control of property and the distribution of wealth becomes so distorted and so lopsided, as it is now, the framers expected serious deleterious effects to be manifested, such as a withering of a sense of public virtue as private avarice flourished. And they also foresaw that a great inequality of wealth would corrupt the purpose of government, from a steadfast commitment to the general welfare, to what we call “regulatory capture” today. Or, the use of the powers of the state to protect and even facilitate the extraction of economic rent.

    This desire to preserve republican public virtue, McCoy explains, is what underlay Jefferson’s opposition to Hamilton’s plans to nurture manufacturing, banking, and commerce. In Jefferson’s view, the longer the transition to a commercial society from an agrarian society could be delayed, the longer the free yeomanry and their public virtue would be preserved. Indeed, in Jefferson’s view, only a free yeomanry with holdings of land, which they worked to harvest the “honest” agricultural bounty of, had any sense of public virtue. [see pp 32-33 re pastor Brown].

    This idea is concisely expressed by Franklin, in Positions to be Examined, April 4, 1769.

    Finally, there seem to be but three Ways for a Nation to acquire Wealth. The first is by War as the Romans did in plundering their conquered Neighbours. This is Robbery. The second by Commerce which is generally Cheating. The third by Agriculture the only honest Way; wherein Man receives a real Increase of the Seed thrown into the Ground, in a kind of continual Miracle wrought by the Hand of God in his favour, as a Reward for his innocent Life, and virtuous Industry.

    Jefferson expressed this idea explicitly, in Chapter 19 of Notes on the State of Virginia:

    Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistance, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. This, the natural progress and consequence of the arts, has sometimes perhaps been retarded by accidental circumstances: but, generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption. While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry: but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our work-shops remain in Europe. It is better to carry provisions and materials to workmen there, than bring them to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles. The loss by the transportation of commodities across the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of government. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.

    Always keep in mind that after the establishment of the American republic, the enemies of republicanism worldwide never ceased their search for a means of destroying that republic. My reading of world history is that after the Union victory in the American Civil War made clear that the American republic could not be destroyed militarily, the focus of oligarchical efforts to contain and destroy republicanism were shifted to a struggle over philosophies of political economy. (And note that there was a plan to send a British army to Canada in 1862, intended along with the Spanish and French forces which has already landed in Mexico and the Caribbean, to provide support for the Confederacy; that plan was scuttled soon after the Union victory at Antietam by the violent demonstrations of support for the Union led by Garibaldi’s allies in Britain).

    Michael Hudson has noted that a key tenet of early American economic thinking was the Doctrine of High Wages. Here is an excellent snippet from a 1909 book on business management theory, which was obviously quite different then than it is now:

    by A. Maurice Low

    Business Administration, by La Salle Extension University, Vol. IV, Relations of Capital and Labor, 1909

    According to the theory of protection, protection, in so far as wages are concerned, is both cause and effect. The effect of protection is to increase wages, and the increase of wages, that is, the higher scale of wages resulting as the effect of protection, increases the wealth of the country, puts into circulation a larger volume of money, and enables the wage worker to become a larger consumer, thus creating a larger demand for all commodities, and is one of the reasons (but not the only one) why the manufacturer is able to pay high wages. It is an endless chain, beginning in protection and ending in protection.

    It seems unnecessary to waste time in the discussion of what no one disputes It is a fact conceded by economists statisticians manufacturers and workingmen by protectionists as well as free traders that wages are higher in the United States than in any other country in the world higher than in England the country next to the United States where labor is most liberally remunerated in some trades in America wages are more than twice as large as those paid in England.

    But do you ever hear of the Doctrine of High Wages today? Would it not be the obvious historical example to counterpose to the rapidly increasing wealth and income inequalities of our day? But these ideas would certainly tend to undermine the philosophical justifications being spun by neo-liberals and conservatives. Michael Hudson has repeatedly written and posted about how these economic doctrines of what used to be called the American System of political economy have been ignored, and even written out of history, by the neo-liberals who dominate the economics profession. In his 2010 book America’s Protectionist Takeoff: The Neglected American School of Political Economy, Hudson explained that

    ….westward expansion was a Democratic Party policy to extend slavery and plantation agriculture. In an epoch when protective tariffs were the principal source of revenue for the federal government (that is, until the 16th Amendment created the federal income tax in 1913) the South based its cotton and tobacco production on foreign markets, seeking to feed its slaves with low-priced grain from the West. The Whig and Republican industrial program called for concentrating industry in the Eastern urban centers, whose population would be fed by farms that would find their major market at home, not abroad. But industrialization threatened to bid up food prices, eroding the competitiveness of plantation agriculture. This prompted the Democratic Party to urge free trade, small government and credit aimed mainly at export financing not industry. The slave states in particular decried industrialization and urbanization as culturally decadent rather than the key to economic progress. At issue was the kind of cultural, social and political structure America would develop and national trade policy would act to bring about.

    ….Indeed, what became known under the portmanteau term “tariff debate” was more accurately a debate as to the dynamics of economic growth itself. Its major issue was whether the nation should remain primarily agricultural or industrialize, whether the South should become the focal point of a westwards-expanding slave system, or the Northeastern and Middle Atlantic states become the focal point of an increasingly industrial national economy.

    Hudson’s book includes an extremely informative table of the three economic philosophies that were developed during the nineteenth century: British (Ricardo-Malthus); Marxism, and what used to be known as the American School.

    So, what happened between the early 1800s and the late 1860s, when the living conditions of American workers begin to noticeably worsen, as in the tenements of New York City and other cities? My hypothesis at this time is that there were two factors at work. First, the new fortunes which had been created by the building of the railroads were being defended and justified by what would eventually come to be elaborated in 1889 by Andrew Carnegie as The Gospel of Wealth. Second, the British oligarchy was rapidly expanding the beachhead in the American economy it had gained in the 1850s with the establishment of the House of Morgan. This expansion involved the consolidation of USA railroads and industry under Morgan control—the process which created the trusts of the late 1800s, trustification. This process, of course, would lead to, as Veblen argues, the increasing dominance of business over industry. Today, we would call this process Veblen identified, financialization.

  4. Ian Welsh

    It was primarily concerned with the Industrial Revolution, which occurred first in Britain.

    But America’s pattern is impossible to imagine without first having gotten rid of the Indians.

    Genocide and ethnic cleansing.

  5. Tony Wikrent

    “But America’s pattern is impossible to imagine without first having gotten rid of the Indians.”

    Now it is impossible to imagine. But it should be pointed out that there were many early white Americans who were horrified by, and opposed, the treatment of the Indians. There were, for example, a number of Army officers on the frontier who were conscientious in attempting to enforce treaty provisions against settlers encroaching on native American lands. Hamilton and Franklin are especially noteworthy proponents of dealing fairly with native Americans. Washington many times expressed an intent to be fair to native Americans, but his credibility is obviously destroyed by his recalling Major-General Anthony Wayne to active service to lead the campaign against the native Americans in the Northwest Indian War.

    So I think it is easy to miss the point Hudson makes when he writes “westward expansion was a Democratic Party policy to extend slavery and plantation agriculture.” I think the impetus to defraud, cheat, and kill native Americans arises mostly from this insatiable desire to expropriate ever more lands. The desire of the Hamiltonian, pro-industrial faction is to contain population growth to the cities and make them centers of manufacturing.

    I think it can generally be observed that the assholes who slaughtered and cheated the native Americans, were often the same assholes who exploited, cheated, and also often killed white caucasian workers.

    In a way, the historical point is admittedly moot, because the assholes ended up winning. (Even after the Union wins the Civil War, because the Union throws away the military victory by allowing the Confederates to win the peace, a.k.a. Jim Crow.) But in terms of determining who are enemies of republicanism today, an accurate identification of historical actors and their intent is often crucial.

  6. Adam Eran

    It’s easy to focus on the centrality of industry, but a little tougher to factor in Agriculture. Yet the fall of empires is often linked to soil, not whether productive workers or industry was available.

    One example: Current archaeology says the fall of Rome came because, after the Republic, Romans abandoned their permaculture system and started farming with slaves. The soil deteriorated to the point that the Italian peninsula could no longer feed its population. The Visigoths conquered North Africa, which interrupted the food imports and (Western Empire) Rome fell. The Christian Eastern Empire survived for a lot longer.

    Another: New World crops, principally the sweet potato, degraded Chinese soil to the point that their agriculture collapsed. The highest civilization on the planet succumbed to gunboat diplomacy and a slow takeover by invaders.

    Mark Shepard (Restoration Agriculture) outlines a permaculture regime that could be as productive, if not more productive, than the current annual crop agriculture that degrades the soil. His version of farming actually improves soil! Check him out on Youtube.

  7. Ian Welsh

    I wasn’t referring to Westward expansion, though it matters, I was referring to the Indians already cleared, so that the East had very few N. Americans. There was a GREAT deal of genocide and ethnic cleansing in the East. I know you know your history, so I won’t belabor the point, but it was very nasty.

  8. Capitalism requires a cadastre, clear ownership of real property to provide collateral for borrowing. Without real property, there is no capital. One cannot build a factory on land one doesn’t control the disposition of.

    See The Mystery of Capital by Hernando De Soto.

  9. Brett

    This is an empirical question, and I don’t see the data to indicate the answer one way or the other.

    I found these two papers. link, link. It looks like real wages were rising in Lancashire (central to textile production) during an overall decline in real wages from 1750-1800, and the decline in real wages wasn’t coming from a decline in nominal wages – it was coming from rising prices outpacing nominal wages.

  10. Good stuff. A few comments:

    1. Relative productivity of enclosed and unenclosed crops – I think a lot of the enclosed land was used for raising sheep (for meat and the new wool trade).

    2. Industry located in the north of England first because of the water power that was used to move the new machines. Coal came later.

    I’ll try html formatting and also leave the plain link for this book in case you haven’t heard about it:

    Pomeranz: “The Great Divergence”

    “Pomeranz argues that Europe’s nineteenth-century divergence from the Old World owes much to the fortunate location of coal, which substituted for timber. This made Europe’s failure to use its land intensively much less of a problem, while allowing growth in energy-intensive industries. Another crucial difference that he notes has to do with trade. Fortuitous global conjunctures made the Americas a greater source of needed primary products for Europe than any Asian periphery. This allowed Northwest Europe to grow dramatically in population, specialize further in manufactures, and remove labor from the land, using increased imports rather than maximizing yields. Together, coal and the New World allowed Europe to grow along resource-intensive, labor-saving paths.”

  11. Ian Welsh

    Yes, the first factories had to be located by water, as a rule, but the industrial revolution is generally considered to take off when coal comes into use, since it delinks factories from watercourses.

    Or at least, that’s my understanding!

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