Sunday, January 11, 2004

Book Review – T.S. Ashton’s The Industrial Revolution
December 3, 2003
By Alexander Marriott

Despite more than a hundred years of condemnations and the harshest ridicule men like Friedrich Engels could hurl at the time period known in Great Britain as the Industrial Revolution (1760-1830) Dr. T.S. Ashton took up the task of restoring, or at least attempting to restore, the good reputation of those changing times. The degree to which he succeeded or failed is what his book should be read for. Does he effectively rebut the whining of Engels over land enclosures? Does he effectively defend the rights, moral or otherwise, of property owners and factory operators? Does he point out the absolute absurdity of those who live in today’s world and continue to insult and condemn the Industrial Revolution? The answers to these questions, among others, are the measure by which one can say he succeeded in his purpose, which was obviously to cast the seventy year time period in a far better and, hopefully, more accurate light than had previously been done.

Land enclosure was the act of large landowners or primary owners (Lords) closing off unused lands known as “commons” because in the feudal period they were allotted to the serfs and peasants as common grazing grounds. Ashton sets out early to retell the story of this process by saying,

"Some writers [Engels] who have dwelt at length on the fate of those who were forced to leave the land have tended to overlook the constructive activities that were being carried on inside the fences. The essential fact about enclosure is that it brought about an increase in the productivity of the soil. There has been much discussion as to whether it led to a decline in the number of cultivators, and some who hold that it did write as though this were a consequence to be deplored. It is a truism, however, that the standard of life of a nation is raised when fewer people are needed to provide the means of subsistence. Many of those who were divorced from the soil (as the stereotyped phrase goes) were free to devote themselves to other activities: it was precisely because enclosure released (or drove) men from the land that it is to be counted among the processes that led to the industrial revolution, with the higher standards of consumption this brought with it." (pg. 20-21)

He essentially is setting out a utilitarian argument for enclosure, i.e. more people were better off for it thus it was good. But such an argument, which was made by 19th century “capitalist” philosophers like Bentham and Mill, is weak for it concedes the morality argument to men like Engels and Karl Marx. The right of ownership had originally and still lied with the primary owners, and therefore any enclosure of the commons was justified as an absolute right to one’s property. To say that the cottagers and vagrants who lived on the edges of communities, often on the commons, had a more prescient right to the land, or to concede this without mentioning it, gives a victory to those who would destroy private property rights entirely. The reasons why Ashton didn’t set forward any other argument, aside from this utilitarian one, will be obvious later on in his book and this review of it.

Does he defend the rights of factory owners? Seemingly he does until he reaches his discussion of Capital and Labor, or Chapter Four, where he concedes major points to labor cartels, again forgetting who has the actual rights in the situation, over who has a made-up “right,” which he entirely ignored in his discussion of land enclosures. To be fair, Ashton does start the chapter off discussing the tremendous benefits that ensued from the increased division of labor that the factory owners spurred and he also credits them with the first road improvements and canals, a job that is allegedly only possible for the government to do. But he soon squanders these points by saying,

"If there had been a properly constituted system of banking much of the difficulty [lack of liquid currency] might have been avoided. There was, it is true, the Bank of England, which had been set up as early as 1694." (pg. 81)

He seems to insinuate that the presence of a government central bank is a good thing for a “properly constituted system of banking.” This, however, is about as far from correct as one can go. A government central bank will only debase the currency, facilitate government corruption (who gets loans?), and cause inflation, but certainly not help the economy in any way in the long run. Oddly, he then goes on to describe the rise and success of private banks built around rich individuals. This development fixed the liquidity crisis England faced without having to run to the central bank, which at that time was kindly oblivious to all of England outside of London.

Ashton then sets himself to discredit the idea that individualism was on the rise in the industrial revolution, his proof being than employers and workers tried to establish cartels throughout the period and that fraternal societies were on the rise. However, these proofs don’t speak to the concept of individualism at all and why Ashton should spend so much time trying to get this idea out of the Industrial Revolution is odd and telling. He then talks of the related idea of Laissez-Faire, at once praising and condemning it,

"The Wealth of Nations gave matchless expression to the thoughts that had been raised in men’s minds by the march of events. It gave logic and system to these. In place of the dictates of the State, it set, as the guiding principle, the spontaneous choices and actions of ordinary men. The idea that individuals, each following their own interest, created laws as impersonal, or at least as anonymous, as those of the natural sciences was arresting. And the belief that these must be socially beneficial quickened the spirit of optimism that was a feature of the revolution in industry.

Experience has taught us, however, that an industrial society needs a framework of public services if it is to operate without social discomfort. Some of Adam Smith’s followers, intoxicated by the new doctrine, were disposed to confine the role of the State to defense and the preservation of order: laisser-faire was extended from the economy to society at large." (pg. 111-112)


Ashton has now slipped into the language of Marx and Engels. What is “social discomfort?” Why should factory owners, or anyone else for that matter, care about this mysterious undefined thing occurring? But, Ashton tells us, it is because of this thing that the state must step in to provide public services which, he seems to be alluding, aren’t an interference in the economic realm. This is impossible though. The government must have money for any “service” it renders and to raise this money a tax of some sort will have to be levied. Any tax, direct or indirect, is an act of interference in the economy. He also seems to think there is something cruel about Laissez-faire, or leaving people alone. But it isn’t cruel to interfere in their lives and take their money away. For Ashton though, the abominable situation of Laissez-faire never occurred,

"But fortunately most Englishmen have too much good sense to walk by the light of abstractions, and the actions of men, as this chapter has shown, were often better than their creeds or their theories." (pg. 112)

He gives himself too much credit and denies the possibility of everything in his book by condemning abstractions and those who walk by their light. The concept of a mixed economy is a series of abstractions as well; all human thought is predicated on being able to look at the evidence of reality and making abstractions from it, to say that following these abstractions is a bad thing is to deny the human mind. He is saying, implicitly, that human action ought to be determined by some emotional, non-rational, altruism rather than the “cold” light of reason. One can almost hear the echo of John Stuart Mill, “We are all socialists now.”

Ashton’s last chapter is much more effectively written and reasoned than chapters four and five, but he suffers from the same reliance on utilitarianism that plagues the entire book. He uses the chapter to answer the cry of modern British, no doubt Labor, politicians who appeal to the Industrial Revolution as a time they are working to get away from, correct, or undo. His last paragraph eloquently states his rebuttal,

"An historian has written of ‘the disasters of the industrial revolution’. If by this he means the years 1760-1830 were darkened by wars and made cheerless by dearth, no objection can be made to the phrase. But if he means that the technical and economic changes were themselves the source of calamity the opinion is surely perverse. The central problem of the age was how to feed and clothe and employ generations of children outnumbering by far those of any earlier time. Ireland was faced by the same problem. Failing to solve it, she lost in the forties about a fifth of her people by emigration or starvation and disease. If England has remained a nation of cultivators and craftsmen, she could hardly have escaped the same fate, and, at best, the weight of a growing population must have pressed down the spring of her spirit. She was delivered, not by her rulers, but by those who, seeking no doubt their own narrow ends, had the wit and resource to devise new instruments of production and new methods of administering industry. There are today on the plains of India and China men and women, plague-ridden and hungry, living lives little better, to outward appearance, than those of the cattle that toil with them by day and share their places of sleep at night. Such Asiatic standards, and such unmechanized horrors, are the lot of those who increase their numbers without passing through an industrial revolution." (pg. 129)

This paragraph is not without error of course. There is an objection to saying, “the disasters of industrial revolution,” for it is an obvious attack upon the processes of industry. If the historian wished to attack the wars or the cheerlessness of dearth then they could have said, “the disasters of the Napoleonic Wars,” or, “the disasters of economic regulation and lack of division of labor.” But Ashton is right to point out the fact that England escaped the horrors of other countries, but he doesn’t identify the reason why, beyond the obvious fact that they had no industrial revolution. It is because England’s government started removing itself from the economic realm that the industrial revolution occurred in England and not Colbert’s France or Bismarck’s Germany.

At the beginning of this review it was stated that the success of Ashton’s book would have to be judged on the basis of how well he answered the oft heard criticisms of the industrial revolution. With this as the criterion it must be said that he both succeeded and failed, but in entirely different ways. He was able to point to evidence, statistics, and records to show that enclosure critiques didn’t drive people out of the country and that there was no mass death as a result of factories. But his attempts to morally obfuscate and deny the minds of men force a utilitarian and almost Marxist morality upon his work. He fails because he agrees with those who hate the Industrial Revolution; laissez-faire is a false hope, reason isn’t “practical,” and that that which benefits the most is the best. These three tenets are needed for the abstraction of a mixed economy and the ultimate slide to socialism and tyranny.

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