receding the industrial revolution, labor was cheap and materials were expensive. That’s why everything from before the 1800’s is covered in lace and filigree or carved out in bas relief – some landlord would trade off a cow, a sheep, a hectare of land and a daughter of virtue true for about half an ounce of gold, and then he’d take the first-born son of one of his tenants, raise the boy up as a goldsmith (or whichever trade was appropriate) and, having taught the boy a skill, then taught the boy to turn his back on his birth parents and ascend such as he could through the ranks of the emerging bourgeoisie until he eventually overtook the lords estate and evicted his own parents before going mad and burning down the manor house, he inside, dying a painful and gruesome death, all so the the landlord could have a nice snuff box with a depiction of the crucifixion carved on its lid.
There may have been some lead in the water.
The point is, there were all these people just hanging around breeding like rabbits and working their tenant lots or family farms, and they didn’t have much in the way of interesting skills because their ancestors had spent the last few hundred years poking the ground with sticks, burning witches, and leeching the pox most foul from one anaether’s humours fyve. There was a labor force the likes of which had not been seen since Exodus, but most of the people involved still thought the sun was god’s smiling face, and it went around the earth once per day bringing a spirit fayre to the aerth.
Stuff, on the other hand, was hard to come by. Wood, cotton, and thatch are pretty easy to get, but unless you wanted to be a cotton-shirted peasant in a thatched-roof wooden cottage, you wanted things made out of gold, or silver, or, like, tungsten or whatever. All of which has to be mined and refined or cut and polished or it just looks like dull rocks in the mud. The people who would be the refiners at this point still think the process be ye aulde devyl’s alchems, and a nobleman won’t sully his hands with that sort of work, which ought to be done by a peasant, if only peasants knew how.
So things happened pretty much as I described them above – landed gentry would sponsor promising persons of lower station to go and learn the crap that wasn’t pheasant hunting and philandry, and the sponsored parties enjoyed greater wealth. These new craftsmen began bringing up apprentices, and so from feudalism came mercantilism, and from mercantilism comes industrialization.
See, while peasants had reclaimed the lost arts of brick-making and not shitting in the same well they drank from, they still mostly just grew food, ate food, made babies, and danced around a maypole.
So the mercantile class sees all these peasants milling about and not making them any money, and not making any money themselves, and therefor not buying the goods that these new merchants are producing, and they say “hey, couldn’t we do something with all these peasants?” and indeed, the peasantry was the next big exploitable resource. The problem is that all that baby making and food growing had rendered them, collectively, as smart and useful as a sack of hammers.
So somebody comes along and invents a machine – this machine does almost exactly what the old hand process did, but it does it faster, more consistently, and only requires one person to work it. Furthermore, that person doesn’t even have to know how to do the original task – that person just has to hit a lever, put coal in the burner, and not get his hand caught in one of the 237 moving parts, every single one of which is capable of ripping his arm out of it’s socket.
Now all of a sudden these peasants, who before had been preoccupied mostly with not stepping in cow flop and watching sheep fornicate, could produce good wool cloth, or smelted iron, or any sort of product imaginable. Waste was minimized and output maximized, and profits, at least for the industrialists, skyrocketed.
Over the next few decades, the pecuniary balance shifted, this time towards labor. The exact reasoning for why is fuzzy, but basically newer industrial processes became a skill of sorts. As the machines did more, so too did the people operating them. Sure, you could still have children hauling iron ore out of mines, but it turns out that you can’t just put that ore in one end of a machine and get precisely tempered surgical steel out the other. Any moron could push a cart up the street, but it took a certain degree of genius and innovation to make a cart that could comfortably transport a maximal number of passengers by way of a minimal number of horses.
If that last paragraph sounds familiar, it’s because you can very easily transpose the situation of workers two hundred years ago with those of today. The machines which do more today are computers and industrial robots. The children hauling coal out of mines are third-world miners and production laborers. The morons pushing carts need not be morons, what with increasing opportunities for education and such, but they still pretty much just guide a vessel (truck) down a pre-established path (road) at several hundred times more efficiency than their counterparts of ages past (2 months and considerable loss of life to get a covered wagon over the Rockies versus 3 days and a little crystal meth to move a 40-ton semi truck).
My reason for mentioning all of this is not wholly to defend industrialization, but to come to terms with it and to share this rumination with anyone else who looks at the process and doesn’t always like what they see. Although we can call ourselves post-industrial until we’re blue in the face, the fact is the production model hasn’t changed all that much. Make things – sell things. Now, we make goods on such a mind-boggling scale that it’s cheaper and easier to replace things than to repair them. It’s no longer quite a matter of raw materials being cheap – the produced goods themselves are cheap.
But if prices just went down as income went up, there would be a very obvious length of slack in the system. The way our system takes up that slack is the part that proves problematic for most people – in a word, exploitation. Animals are pumped full of drugs so that they produce more meat, plants are genetically modified to grow fast and hearty, and the third world provides a source of cheap labor and raw materials while serving as a dumping ground for toxic waste.
It’s a true baby-and-bathwater scenario. I think it’s all come to mind with the Pandora craze, a movie (produced by a big huge profitable corporation) that thrusts it’s unsubtle “let’s all live in teepees” politics so far in advance of itself that I accurately foretold the movie’s theme after viewing half the trailer. I used to be on board for that sort of earth-mother harmony live-off-the-land stuff, but I call shenanigans on it now. It’s a very pretty idea to indulge in the comfort of a modern home, but there is an oppressive reality forming it.
In a perverse way, industrialization IS mankind’s natural defense. We have big brains, sophisticated tools, writing, and stereoscopic vision. We don’t have claws, or fangs, or camouflage; we can’t spit poison or spin webs. Honestly, we can’t even run very fast. In short, we need technology the way fish need water.
It’s a cruel mastery we have over this planet, but it need be no more cruel than the mastery of a wolf’s teeth over a fawn’s neck. For my own part, I try to be conservative, taking what I need and reducing my waste. It’s my way of making peace with the whole scene, because I’m sure as hell not going back to animal skins, raw meat, and a thirty-five year life span without a fight.
A Look Back – 18 August 2021
Join a union.
This was another “let’s write until I get my thoughts straight even if that doesn’t actually happen” post, so if any sort of thesis seems to elude the piece, well, that’s pretty much how these go: start with a premise, state some thoughts, contradict, revise, review, and eventually retire – that is, quit the piece and post it just to get it done.
I re-post this now about two weeks after an important piece of UN-backed research which indicates that human beings have passed the point of no return, and so yes, my opinion on industrialization has indeed soured accordingly. Yes, I’m writing this on a computer in an air-conditioned apartment, but I’m extremely tired of the boring false-equivalency of personal consumption and mass production. Producers do the polluting, and “demand” is by and large manufactured. If someone “wants a faster computer,” they don’t necessarily mean they want a new computer – only an upgrade or maintenance on their current device…but that’s not necessarily profitable, so a new line is introduced that is of course not compatible with the previous edition and so on and so on and a ton of toxic waste gets dropped on a child’s home.
To complicate matters further, I wrote this at the start of what I’ve taken to calling the neo-artisan era: a time of beards, wood, musk, and hand-done everything. It was a trend in the 2000s, probably like 2007 or 8 to RIP 2012 or so…Charmin launched it’s “Rustic Weave” commercial in 2016, so the trend was well over by then. Regardless, I’m still not sure the complete fallout of that movement has manifested, e.g. what does this mean – but it reflects a larger cultural trend away from obvious mass production (and towards either “hand crafted” or faux hand-crafted) goods that also carried with it some weird baggage, like nostalgia for settler colonialism and (if I’m not stretching too far) the “viking” cultural meme and it’s often subtle echoes of white supremacy.
This is all to say that I had some fun writing up a bit of history, no matter how sloppily documented, but my feelings on production and consumption remain more complicated than what I can express in a 1000 word kind-of funny essay. I can express them in a few quick slogans though:
Join a union. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Eat the rich.