One of the great intellectual tragedies of the Left — which, it should be noted, pale in comparison to its practical tragedies — is that it’s focused discussion on how goods are produced, rather than how they are consumed.
This is hardly surprising: not that Marx or Engels knew a damn thing about it, but working conditions in the 18th and 19th centuries were downright brutal. Mines, pollution, and back-breaking, mind-killing drudgery were hardly innovations but, even if we stipulate that portrayals of pre-industrial farming are highly romanticized, at least there was something about work in the open air that could be made attractive with enough polish. Coal mining and textile mills have never attracted the kind of poetical praise that farming and shepherding once did, and for good reason.
So, if the Industrial Revolution changed the nature of work without actually improving it (and arguably making it worse in some ways), do its critics have it right? Not if one considers what the drudgery actually produced and to whom its products were sold. The technical revolutions in water and steam power that launched the revolution allowed quality manufactured goods like clothing, metalwork, and pottery to be produced so inexpensively and on such a massive scale that — for the first time in human history — they were within the means of the common laborer who made them.
Consider, for example, the career of Josiah Wedgwood, whose innovations transformed the pottery industry. In an earlier age, Wedgwood’s clients would have been a handful of the rich and royal, from whom he would likely have made a comfortable income. But empowered — literally — by water and steam, he was able to become so fantastically wealthy by producing products for the average person, that his grandson, Charles Darwin, had the time and means to pursue his scientific career without ever worrying about where his next meal would come from.
In addition to serving the masses, Wedgwood also built a clientele among Europe’s rich and powerful. But amazingly, he did so by selling them the same products as he did to English textile workers and Welch coal miners. As Jacob Bronowski writes in The Ascent of Man:
[I]n 1774 he [Wedgwood] made a service of nearly a thousand highly decorated pieces for Catherine the Great of Russia, which cost over £2000 — a great deal of money in the coin of that day. But the base of that tableware was his own pottery, creamware; and in fact all the thousand pieces, undecorated, cost less than £50, yet looked and handled like Catherine the Great’s in every way except for the hand-painted idylls… That is what the man in the street could buy, at about a shilling a piece. And in time that is what transformed the kitchens of the working class in the Industrial Revolution.
And this was only one example. Countless other products became widely available as well, including metal goods, manufactured clothing… even fuel to heat one’s home became affordable in ways never available before.
And it didn’t stop in the 1700s. In the next century, Standard Oil made indoor lighting affordable (the price fell 80%), US Steel made metals widely available (prices falling 75%), and these two — combined with the steam engine technology that kicked-off the whole process — led Cornelius Vanderbilt and others to revolutionize travel and shipping.* In the century after that, Henry Ford transformed the automobile from a plaything for the rich to — arguably — the defining product of the 20th century. More recently yet, the personal computer and then the cellular telephone followed the same pattern.
In all these instances, the fortunes created were not made by making ever-finer products for the rich and powerful, but by finding increasingly efficient and economical means to manufacture fine products for the masses. The cost of that efficiency was grueling conditions — and still is in places like China — but the gain is that goods that were once hand-made luxuries for the few, are now everyday commodities for billions.
In the past, the best way to become rich was to convince ordinary people to work on your behalf; since the Industrial Revolution, however, the surest way has been to convince ordinary people to let you work on theirs. The world remains a messy, broken place, but — in some significant ways — it is getting better.
Image credit: William Bell Scott [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
* Statistics from Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, p. 23.