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Was the Industrial Revolution Necessary? Review


Our conception of the industrial revolution is based upon three fundamental ideas: that the Industrial Revolution permitted, for the first time in human history, for sustained growth to surpass the previous mostly sustenance based economy of agricultural civilization since the Neolithic agricultural revolution, that this economic growth was rapid in contrast to previous economic growth cycles, and that it was a fundamental transformation of economic structures. In Was the Industrial Revolution Necessary? these ideas, particularly that of the second one, are the subject of revisionist arguments. In a mostly well presented series of articles, it is shown that the industrial revolution was not necessary for rapid economic growth, which had happened before, and that it fits into a millennia long period of upward growth cycles in European history.

The first chapter, by the author Graeme Donald Snooks, sets itself the task of identifying the key factors to be discussed in the book and the literature available on it: growth rates, where the prevailing assumption is that an industrial revolution is necessary for fast economic growth, that the fundamental process of economic growth changed, to no longer be dominated by population expansion. and that the economy was no longer controlled by the limitations of the biological economy due to the usage of fossil fuels. It argues that the build-up to the Industrial Revolution should be examined in terms of the long term economic development of Western Europe, drawing not necessarily on examples of industrial development but rather on lands such as the regions of new settlement (United States, Canada, Australia, etc.) which developed economically to a high level without industrial development. Britain similarly was able to achieve a developed position in Western Europe on the basis of its export of wool and foreign trade, even if it lacked the urban centers of Italy. Western Europe as a whole historically experienced rises and falls in economic growth which are comparable to those experienced during the Industrial Revolution: the Revolution was required rather, for society-wide economic growth, continuation, and structural changes of economic development.

E.A. Wrigley's chapter The Classical Economists, the Stationary State, and the Industrial Revolution discusses the conundrum that at the same time as the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, classical economists at the time assumed that economic growth was not infinite and that the period of prosperity would soon end. Although ironic, it made quite a lot of sense in regards to their understanding that land had diminishing returns. Since almost all elements of production came from the land, this meant that inherently it must eventually reach its maximum potential and experience diminishing returns. It would be the rise of alternative energy resources, like coal, which enabled biological limits, ie. the land to be surpassed and economic growth continued.

Graeme Donald Snokes presents European economic history over the past one thousand years as having experienced three major growth waves, in his article Great Waves of Economic Change: The Industrial Revolution in Historical Perspective, 1000 to 2000. The first was the century or so after 1086, the second the 16th century following the end of the plagues and the discovery of the Americas, and the third the Industrial Revolution. After analyzing the feudal economy, it then argues that there was significant total economic growth between 1086 and 1688, both particularly in absolute terms but also very noticeably in per-capita. Growth rates in the period after 1086 were also almost equivalent to growth rates early in the Industrial Revolution, showing that high rates of economic growth are not a modern phenomenon, and furthermore that improved physical infrastructure and technology played its role in the Middle Ages: the Industrial revolution was thus not as unique as is claimed: he argues as well that the idea of population growth and income being negatively related should be reevaluated for the Middle Ages as well.

R.V. Jackson's article What Was the Rate of Economic Growth During the Industrial Revolution? discusses a variety of economic growth indexes and how economic growth rates for the past are inherently subjective, depending on what indexes one uses.

Although women played a critical role in the industries of the Industrial Revolution, such as the mills, the changes it brought diminished their economic status in society

Although women played a critical role in the industries of the Industrial Revolution, such as the mills, the changes it brought diminished their economic status in society

Stephen Nicholas and Deborah Oxley in The Industrial Revolution and the Genesis of the Breadwinner discuss whether the Industrial Revolution was a negative or a positive for women, presenting differing perspectives on the historiographical school: one argues that before the Industrial Revolution, work was organized on a family basis with a family wage, which the Industrial Revolution destroyed and thus limited the economic importance and status of women, while the other looks more positively at the idea of the development of the "breadwinner" wage for men and argues that this reflected a recognition of women's unpaid, home work. Through a comparison between Ireland, without an industrial revolution, and England, which experienced it, using height data for female convicts (apparently a reasonably representative group for working class people) sent to Australia, the data shows that there was a decline in height for British women, linked in most cases of this to a decline in economic well-being - thus substantiating the argument that the industrial Revolution harmed women.

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The final chapter, by Stanley L.Engerman, reviews the previous chapters.

The question which this book raises, if its ideas about economic growth in the pre-industrial era is correct, is how it was possible for a pre-industrial society, relatively close to the sustenance line, to nevertheless sustain significant periods of growth. If one tracks these trends backward after all, then one must arrive at a below-sustenance level. Just how high was England's standard of living in 1086, the baseline for the book? Significantly above the sustenance level? If it was not, then it must have represented the absolute bedrock level of economic development, which would preclude substantial growth beforehand. A relative comparison of just what the levels of economic development for the populations of 1086 and say, 1750, would have been instructive to understand just how much slack existed in regards to living standards before they fell below the minimum necessary.

The schema of economic development could have benefitted from comparison to another world economic nexus, such as India, or more probably China - since China has benefitted from far more effort, so far as I understand, at historicizing and understanding the Chinese economy - in order to compare the European process of successively higher waves of economic development. This was theorized by the authors as a vital part of capital accretion, necessary prior to the Industrial Revolution proper, and would help show to what extent Europe's economic triple growth pattern of Medieval, post-plague/American colonial, and industrial revolution was shared elsewhere, as well as the economic stagnation of the Black Death and succeeding plagues in the 14th century and the war-ravaged 17th century. Perhaps the other economic experiences would also enable a picture of what happens when economic growth hits its limit, but that unlike England, economies like China or India failed to exploit coal production to enable biologically ordained barriers to be surpassed. Furthermore, while the book mentions that the rest of Europe would have simply experienced an industrial revolution sooner or later if England hadn't, as all were bound on the same trajectory, it conducts no analysis of European countries beyond Britain, making it a hollow and unexamined point.

But despite this limitation, the book decisively shows a vital part of economic history: that pre-industrial economics were not static, that they grew, and that this resulted in markedly differentiated levels of economic development, in cycles of economic development which could result in growth patterns even higher than that of the English industrial revolution. The unique contribution of the industrial revolution was not its high degree of growth, but rather that it enabled the natural, organic-inspired limits of the economy to be surpassed, and thus for this growth to be sustained. Britain's unique aspect was comparatively high wages, encouraging mechanization, and above all else as the book points out, its massive usage of coal.

Overall, there are some intriguing chapters in the book, although its section on English growth rates is notably long for a piece which could be simply summarized as pre-modern economic growth rates being essentially conjecture, reliant on entirely subjective features which depend on what variables are inputted. But the chapters on natural resources and fossil fuels, cycles of economic growth, and the changing role of women in the economy as labor shifted to be an individual, rather than family, unit, are splendid, and make for a short, readable, comprehensible, and intriguing book.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas


Lady Dazy from UK on June 16, 2021:

It certainly changed the face of the UK and now it is an important part of our history.

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