[The below three pictures represent 19th century art concepts: Romanticism, Realism, and Impressionism.]


5.2: The “Adolescence” of Industrialization: the Social Causes and Effects

No matter how slow the change took in some “bad-factor” countries, the Western world’s switch to industrialized production had big consequences for the lay-out of society: for the first time in Europe’s history, the majority of the population of industrialized nations lived in cities. This, at first, caused a rapid increase in disease, crime, and overpopulation, but later stabilized into the urbanized society we have today. With so many people living together, there was bound to be a mixture of ideas as well.

The “new world” of industrialization led to large changes, not just in the world of economics, but also in the worlds of politics, art, and culture. How 19th century Europeans responded to the Industrial Revolution has had a “domino effect” on the cultural/political views of every generation afterwards.

That being stated, please once again note: as with the reductionist overview of Christian denominations in Chapter 1, be aware that entire libraries are devoted to such economic/political views, so our “SparkNotes” version below undoubtedly will offend everybody who digs deep into such issues.

The big question for governments of societies undergoing the Industrial Revolution was this:

“How much of a role should the government have in the industrialized economy?”

We’ll review each of the early answers in multiple-choice form—feel free to circle the one you agree with. The answer to this question dictates where one stands politically, perhaps more than anything else. It was only because of industrialization that we have the range of political views that we have today.

a) “None at all”—Laissez-faire Capitalism

Adam Smith, a Scotsman of the late 18th-century, proposed that the government should have as little to do as possible with privately-owned (citizen-owned) business. Particularly with the new social ladder that was created with industrialization, Smith stated that humans could improve themselves economically, but the only way that was possible was through their own hard work.

Smith, and modern-day capitalists, believe in the law of competition: the only motivation people will have to improve is their own self-interest in competing with others. If the government were to step in and “help” citizens, that would actually cause more problems than it would solve. Competition enables individuals and societies to constantly strive for more and more success, in order to “beat out” others. The only way we will have better, cheaper products is if companies and corporations constantly compete for our business. The only way to rise from the working class to the middle class, or from the middle class to the upper class, is through hard work. If an individual fails, then that failure becomes his/her motivation to ultimate success.

Proposing that government have as small of a role as possible is called “laissez-faire,” a French phrase literally meaning “let-do,” but perhaps better translated as “hands-off.”


b) “Before we answer this question, we have to determine who benefits.”

A radical thinker also from Britain named Jeremy Bentham questioned Smith and moral limits of his philosophy. There is no traditional morality in an absolutely laissez-faire system: if it succeeds in making money, then it’s “good,” and if it fails to make money, then it’s “bad.” The result, as Bentham and other social critics saw it, was a world in which the most amoral individuals rose to the top and the majority of the population remained under them.

Bentham wanted to flip the perspective, but he ended up producing a system of ideas with just the same limits for morality. Bentham’s idea is called utilitarianism. Just as Smith focused on capital (money) as the basis of what makes something good or bad, Bentham focused on “utility” (or usefulness). Bentham defined the best “usefulness” as that which can be used by the greatest number of people. Concepts of “individual wealth” therefore do not make sense: everyone having $5 would be better than one person having $5 billion. Government itself does not make sense in Bentham’s scheme, either, as government is naturally composed of the minority of a country’s citizens.

Nonetheless, as impractical as Bentham’s idea may be, it prompted other thinkers in the 19th century to develop ideas for how governments might go about to ensure a “fairer” society than “laissez-faire.”


c) “Some role, but not all”

Throughout the 19th century, various radicals such as Frenchman Charles Fourier proposed what they saw as a “fairer” way of running an industrialized society. Springing from Bentham’s views, the focus was not entirely on the individual, but on the betterment of society as a whole. These social philosophies and experiments (like “Utopia, Ohio”) led to the creation of what we might call today socialism. In the basis of a socialistic system, the government has some role limiting “private” businesses and regulating the nation’s factors of production. In other words, “public” institutions run by the government are established that combine citizens’ individual money/resources for the common good.

While the United States certainly collects taxes and sets up federal, state, and city public institutions, it is usually not classified as a “socialist country”. Socialist countries around the world sometimes have an income tax rate of more than 50% of citizens’ income and usually set up “free” health care, education (including college/university), and retirement plans for all citizens. However, even these countries exercise socialism far differently than the small-scale it was originally intended for. For example, Utopia…

Utopia, OH, was a small settlement on the banks of the Ohio River devised by a group of socialism-inspired citizens who wanted to arrange a more just set-up for society. They felt that often those who worked more got less than those who worked little. Their solution was to eliminate traditional salaries altogether: instead, when a person worked one hour, s/he would receive a certificate for having worked one hour. Then, that person could go to the central store in town, which was a “time-store”: with eight hour-credits, s/he could buy something that took eight hours to make, or two items that took four hours to make, or four items that took two hours to make, etc. The Utopians claimed that this concept maintained a strict fairness, ensuring that one could only buy what one worked for. Unfortunately, the town did not last: a flood on the Ohio River destroyed the church sometime after Utopia was established, and now a lone sign from the Ohio Historical Society tells the story of the abandoned utopia.


d) “All role—the government is ‘the people’”

The nature of the new class system produced by industrialization—and, to some degree, causing it—led many to criticize the upper classes. The difference between the new upper classes and the traditional upper classes was that, now, one need not be born into a rich family in order to be rich: one could theoretically work one’s way from a laborer in the working class to a supervisor on the factory floor (the new middle class) to owning the factory itself (the upper class). This “American Dream” was the life story of many successful capitalists, like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller.

In the mid-19th century, two middle-class German thinkers, Karl Marx and Friderich Engels, took issue with the way this “new” society, as they saw it, made the laborers working-class slaves by giving them false hope that they could “rise to the top.” Marx and Engels saw this system as merely a continuation of the old struggle of the lords keeping down the peasants that had been going on throughout civilization.

Marx and Engels felt that socialism did not go far enough in its “reforms.” The only solution was a worldwide take-over by the laborers of all the factories—in essence, a global strike and the creation of a global union. After this revolution, the world would become Communist: “the people” would have ownership of everything, there would be no private property, and the world would be one working community, in harmony and peace.

This vision would inspire many revolutionaries around the world to overthrow unjust systems of government. However, the world has not yet seen the Communist Revolution that Marx and Engels predicted.

Nonetheless, the discussion about the role of the government in the economy inspired much change of unfair business practices: without that debate, there would be little change in regards to workers’ rights. However, child labor, overlong hours, unhealthy working conditions, and unfair payment continue globally to this day.


Utilitarianism in Action: the Creation of “Pop Culture”

Even with all this talk of changing the system from without, one big development changed the system from within and granted workers what they had long sought: a shortened work day and work week. The new development that allowed this was the assembly line, first practiced in a large scale by car-maker Henry Ford. An assembly line allows for a much more efficient production through dividing up the job into many smaller tasks. As opposed to a group of expert car-makers building one car together, the line used many, many untrained workers repeating one simple task for one single step in the overall production. No one worker in this system knows how to build an entire car, and the repetition is tedious, but the result is a car built much more cheaply and much more quickly.

With the assembly line, more cars came off the factory floor than could be sold. Workers were not needed for a 14-hour shift, 6 days a week, and the current work day (9-5, Monday-Friday) became a traditional practice. For the first time in human history, even the working class had leisure time. With this leisure time and new products such as the phonograph, motion pictures, radio, and magazines/comics, even the poorest of citizens had access to culture. This “mass culture,” or “popular culture,” appeals to everyone in society, not just the very wealthy (as “high culture” like ballet, opera, or symphony orchestras did before).

Like the assembly line, and like industrialization itself, mass culture is a double-edged sword: everyone is able to experience and afford entertainment, but entertainment often appeals to the “lowest-common denominator” to make money. Regardless, Jeremy Bentham would be pleased to see culture that is able to please the greatest number of people—even if that pleasure might be viewed as more mindless or “low-class.”

With the Internet, of course, “mass culture” is taken to a whole new level, but that chapter has yet to be written…