Industrial Revolution - An Alternative View

Before the Industrial Revolution North-West Europe was an advanced agrarian society, featuring complex divisions of labour, an extensive trading network and an emerging manufacturing sector. However, the main energy sources propelling ‘industry’ were still human and animal muscle supplemented by wind and water power, all of which were inefficient and unreliable. Ultimately these energy sources required land, so as land became more expensive so too did the power required to work it. A transformational breakthrough arrived in 1776, when James Watt perfected the ability of the steam engine to convert heat into motion, unleashing its potential to transform society by increasing productivity. At the time Britain was ruled by land-owning elites to whom the common man was little more than a feudal vassal, so Watt’s invention also liberated working men and women from agricultural servitude. They flocked from the countryside to the burgeoning towns where, as newly enlightened individuals, they could pursue their own path to personal prosperity. 

By 1870 Watt’s steam engines would generate 4 million horsepower p.a. and Britain’s economic development took off on a steep upward trajectory. Factories churned out inanimate objects with increasing efficiency and decreasing cost, making goods available to the common man which were previously accessible to only the wealthy elite. Fuelled by market liberalization, industry rapidly grew the British economy and the personal prosperity of many of its citizens. A burgeoning middle-class emerged and the wages of British workers consistently grew ahead of those in continental Europe. However, while the new machines drove economic growth, the invisible hand of the market didn’t distribute the wealth evenly. Those with capital to invest expanded their riches, while those without capital often worked in dangerous conditions and still lived in relative poverty.

Inevitably the gap between rich and poor grew and former class distinctions reappeared as social hierarchies. Many workers found they had simply swapped one form of servitude for another, replacing the land-owning elites of the agrarian era with the factory-owning elites of the industrial age. Even those who stayed in the countryside weren’t immune to the impact of mechanization, with farm workers attacking threshing machinery which threatened to replace them and destroy their livelihoods. In 1845 Friedrich Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England, in which he described the appalling conditions he witnessed in Manchester, and the experience influenced The Communist Manifesto he co-authored with Karl Marx just three years later. To Marx and Engels the issues with industrialisation seemed clear; it was driving social development at breakneck speed but was doing so at a great cost, driving human-beings into wage slavery and urban squalor as cogs in industrial machines, while destroying nature and emptying the countryside of future generations.

The Industrial Revolution represented the left mind’s most audacious attempt to cement its superiority over the right and delivered a significant shift in our collective cognition. It was the ultimate expression of mankind’s dominion over nature and resulted in the rapacious exploitation of natural resources for the purpose of making ourselves rich. Imbuing inanimate objects with great value inevitably narrowed our focus from living organisms to ‘things’ which, for the left mind, is infinitely preferable because ‘things’ are more controllable than ‘beings’. The right mind deals with aspects of experience which are ambiguous, unpredictable and often difficult to manage, subject to the everyday flux and flow of the real world. By contrast an abstract world of machines, production lines and physical objects is utopian to the left mind; controllable, foreseeable and replete with absolute certainty. To Protestant capitalists, steam power must have seemed like a gift from their God and confirmation of their righteousness in His eyes. Until then their main source of power had an annoying habit of answering back, following irrational desires and getting sick, none of which were characteristic of machines.

The impact on the mind of the ordinary worker was immense. As country folk gravitated towards industrial cities they became more detached from the very nature under assault by their new employers. Rural areas not only lost their labour force but came under the increasing control of management methods which saw genuine wildlife and wilderness disappear. Towns too became unnatural places, the planned product of the left mind’s abstract intelligence. Architects replaced the imperfect forms of the countryside with invariant shapes such as perfect circles and linear grids, which are found nowhere in nature but are loved by the left mind. As towns and cities grew, the innately social animals now living in urban squalor became ever more isolated; physically closer yet never more emotionally distant from each other, unable to recreate the natural pace and social support structures of rural life, in an alien environment.

Social disintegration is unquestionably one of the lasting legacies of the Industrial Revolution and has left a painful and permanent scar on the Western psyche. The shift from rural to urban life created ‘societies’ which were little more than groups of atomistic automatons, each chained to a wheel of social progress from which there was little chance of escape. Many ended up as paupers, ignominiously placed in the poor houses, their dreams shattered by the harsh realities of social breakdown and the loss of any sense of belonging. The word ‘belonging’ shares the same etymological root as ‘longing’ and they are connected by the powerful sense of emotional attachment, to people or place, which is so essential to human happiness and which is destroyed by social disintegration. It is ultimately such attachments, our web of relationships with people and places, which give our life meaning and without which we feel anchorless and adrift.

So, while many people did improve their standard of living and set their descendants on a path towards greater economic prosperity, there was also a huge price to pay. Rapid industrialisation and urbanization destroyed the social fabric of real-world rural life - the rolling hills and meadows of the right mind - and replaced it with the mechanistic factories and rectilinear landscapes of the left mind, which are every bit as alien to our instincts as living on Mars. In doing so, their wheels and cogs crushed our intuitive sense of connection to the natural world, deeply denaturing us and shattering our sense of belonging to place and time. Moreover, they cut our deep social bonds with each other, fragmenting our ‘societies’ into the aggregates of separate individuals they remain to this day.

Through the Industrial Revolution the left mind finally revealed the full extent of its ambition. For the first time in history it stepped beyond its role in decontextualizing the real world and instead attempted to manufacture an outer world of its own design. Full of inanimate objects which could be categorized and quantified, all conforming to schematic blueprints which were infinitely repeatable, the mechanistic world was utopian to the left mind because it was devoid of the frustrating foibles of the human alternative. If the left mind could create an external environment in its own image, it would no longer be limited to an abstract version of real life but could instead operate directly in the inanimate outer world it had created. The right mind would no longer be required to interpret unpredictable phenomena because the outer world would now be automated, consistent and certain; full of lifeless objects manufactured and controlled by the left mind. At last, its cognitive superiority would be secured. The right mind could continue to provide its imaginative interpretation of what was ‘out there’ but it would no longer be subject to flux. The real world would be fixed and fool-proof, no longer the subjective narrative of a flawed right mind but the objectively perfect product of an imperious left. And thus, the left mind exposed its own biggest weakness - its inability to see the bigger picture.