Review of the Book

Technology, Employment and the Industrial Revolution
by Richard Giles

Roy Douglas

[Reprinted from Land & Liberty, November-Decmeber, 1985]

THE MAIN reason for studying history (apart from pure fun) is the hope that it will provide useful lessons to guide behaviour in the future.

The so-called "Industrial Revolution" in Britain during the late 18th and early 19th centuries has been very widely studied for just that reason. People have argued, and continue to argue, about it -- very largely because they hope to derive political and economic lessons applicable to our own time.

The salient facts are well known. The succession of inventions, the main political and economic events of the period, many of the vital demographic data, are clearly recorded. What is much more dubious, and really much more exciting, is what underlay these facts.

Why did the "Industrial Revolution" occur when and where it did? What effect did it have on the living standards of the people? How far did economic events influence political events, and vice versa?

The interplay of natural science, engineering, agriculture, demography, politics, the arts -- and even the weather -- during the period was certainly very complex, and forms a fascinating study in its own right. Technology, Employment and the Industrial Revolution is a short, lucidly written and stimulating work by Richard Giles.

The author constantly hammers -- and rightly so -- at the various views which have been propounded from time to time on such matters, and seems to find them all in various degrees inadequate.

His final conclusion is the same as the one reached by Mantoux nearly 20 years ago: The Industrial Revolution's "economic consequences strengthened ideas of laissez-faire but its social consequences strengthened ideas of government intervention".

As a statement of fact, this is probably correct. Yet does this paradox really say all that should be said on the matter? The implication seems to be that we must either let things rip and take the consequences in human misery, or regulate things and take the consequences in stagnation.

Perhaps quite a lot of people active in politics today on very different sides would be pleased that matters should be seen in that way, but it really isn't good enough to leave things like that.

Like a lot of historical writers, Richard Giles comes close to the real point, and then shies away from it. Very broadly, he seems to consider that living standards of the mass of the people were rising in a rather intermittent way; but that the disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest was also growing. This is very likely true; but why did it happen?

There are hints in the book, but no very clear answer. What was the mechanism by which the wealthy distanced themselves from the poor? Was it merely the natural operation of market forces which, left to themselves, had to work in that way?

I THINK not. The Poor Law Report of 1834, which he quotes, declares that "We can do little or nothing to prevent pauperism; the farmers will have it; they prefer that the labourers should be slaves; they object to their having gardens".

So, Richard Giles tells us, "Without allotments and rights of common the labourer could not choose between working for others and working for himself. He had lost his bargaining position".

Exactly so. The agricultural labourer was pauperised because the enclosures had left him landless. Thus he could not produce food for himself and his family, and was dependent on the farmer for employment. There were a great many landless men in competition for jobs, and so wages were low.

But the agricultural labourer was not the only victim of landlessness. The industrial worker was pauperised as well. He lacked access to land for the food and fuel that he required; he also lacked access to land for the things he required for production. The miner had no share in the coal seams, which he could only work if some landowners kindly authorised him to do so. The ironworker had no legal title to the iron ore which lay under somebody else's land.

The trouble was not capitalism -- the fact that capitalists owned mining machinery or blast furnaces. The trouble was landlordism -- the fact that labour could not freely exert itself on land, which is the ultimate source of all wealth.

Of course there were capitalists who behaved abominably towards their workers. Of course a sort of Gresham's Law operated, by which disreputable industrial practices drove out good ones. It was natural enough for the industrial worker to blame the capitalist who was the proximate cause of his misery, just as it was natural for the agricultural worker to blame the tenant farmer who was the proximate cause of his misery.

Yet the behaviour of the capitalist employer and of the tenant farmer were consequences, not causes. Why was the capitalist or farmer able to obtain labour at starvation wages? Not because of economic freedom, not because of the private ownership of capital, but because somebody had excluded labour from access to land. If labour had had that access, there would have been no way of getting workers save by offering them conditions more attractive than those which they had previously enjoyed.

[The original review continues from here but was not available at the time this article was reprinted.]