Review of the Book
Technology, Employment and the Industrial Revolution
by Richard Giles
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty,
THE MAIN reason for studying history (apart from pure fun) is the
hope that it will provide useful lessons to guide behaviour in the
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
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
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
[The original review continues from
here but was not available at the time this article was reprinted.]