First, what spawned industrialization. Well, we can’t trace it back to anyone one person, event, or even place; however, people were discussing the philosophy of how markets work and could produce goods faster, better, and at less cost well before the 19th Century. The book, The Wealth of Nations, written by Adam Smith in 1776, lays out an approach to production that would redefine how individuals and companies made things. Smith argued that there are several ways to industrialize (or make things more efficient in) production. You can divide and specialize the labor force, meaning people do a specific job and become good enough at it that they can do it far more rapidly than if a person was trying to do all of the jobs him or herself. Smith also argued that external forces, such as taxes, monopolies, and lobbies would prevent efficient production. So, ideas were swirling around the coffee houses of England when it happened…
Machines and things like steam power, electricity, and combustion engines exploded onto the scene in the 19th Century. All these innovations happened relatively quickly, and, as a result, London, along with other major cities across Europe and America, jumped into the industrial age. This is what gives us the sooty and depressed look of London conveyed by Charles Dickens and others. Coal burning was everywhere, massive groups of specialized labor were present in most businesses. Technology was allowing for things like conveyor belts, which led to assembly lines, light bulbs, which led to longer working hours, and large machines, which mean new jobs in maintenance and engineering.
One of the reasons industrialism was even necessary or possible is explosive population growth. Far more people were being born and that meant demands were increasing as well! This new population growth was almost exclusively urban… which means more people lived in the cities. Even the people in the countryside would move to the cities because there were far more jobs and resources available. Fewer and fewer people were farming, and, frankly, fewer people were needed on farms, since tractors could help one person do the work of twenty. For example, in America in 1820, only 7% of people lived in cities (defined as larger than 2,500) by 1920, more than half of the population, at 52% of people lived in such urban areas.
So, what are the ramifications of a growing population, technological advancements, total shift in agriculture to industrialization? Well, there are many views that continue to divide historians, sociologists, and economists. The most popular, and diametrically opposed, are free-market capitalism and Marxism. Let’s briefly dive into these.
Marx, a 19th century, German philosopher, opposed industrialization because, according to him, it degrades the worker. The factory worker, Marx argues, has less fulfillment in life: “Everything which the [business owner] takes from you in life and in humanity, he replaces for you in money and in wealth.” And now that you have a little money, but not as much as you like, you have to CHOOSE, what you do, and you become at war with yourself. If you sacrifice one way of expressing yourself, you can have another, but you can’t have them all. In that way, it makes factory work frustrating and alienating. Many Marxist historians, of the early 20th century, would write that farm life before industry was a better life, because the farmer could choose to do certain things:
“He was not hopelessly and despairingly poor. He had some say in his own life: he could go out and dig in his garden or smoke as he pleased: he was in some cases a farmer as well as a weaver or a spinner. The industrial changes that occurred at this time destroyed this social economy with its margin of freedom and choice for the worker.”
Okay, you’ve heard from the Marxist side of the room, now for a different perspective.
Ludvig Von Mises, a 20th Century, Austrian economist, agreed that although the factories were often “horrible”, working in them for a living was better than starving to death, which many people would have done, given the large amounts of population growth. Additionally, because factories made things faster and cheaper, those same poor workers could actually afford to buy things.
“In the first decades of the Industrial Revolution the standard of living of the factory workers was shockingly bad… Hours of work were long, the sanitary conditions in the workshops deplorable…. But the fact remains that for the surplus population… work in the factories was salvation. These people thronged into the plants for no reason other than the urge to improve their standard of living.”
For Mises, free market industrialism was solving a problem: over-population and under production of goods, which would only lead to soaring costs, a lack of supplies, and millions of people starving. He argued that “most of the authors who wrote history of the conditions of labor under capitalism were ignorant of economics,” which led to misinformation and propaganda.
So there you go. A very broad overview of industrialization.
I hope it helped. Be sure to subscribe to our channel and like this video. As always, happy studying.