Articles, Blog

The Industrial Revolution

August 8, 2019


The Industrial Revolution. Now, this is something that we’ve been
building towards for several weeks now, thinking about, what does it mean to
have an Industrious Revolution, that’s about the organization of people, and an
Industrial Revolution, which is really where machines come into the story. Ed, what do you think’s important
about the Industrial Revolution? Well, we talked about
cotton textile factories and how those are kind of geared
with the expansions in the cotton frontier of the south. Expansions geographically,
the expansions in the number of people
there– which creates new markets for textile factories–
but also the expanded ability to produce cotton more efficiently,
and to produce cotton textiles more efficiently. This is a real change in the way
those crucial products are made. And it’s possible that,
by itself, already counts as a kind of
Industrial Revolution. What happens, pretty soon
after 1819, is that you start to see the emergence of
the same sort of relationships happening– only, not
happening in one industry, but in several kinds of
manufacturing, and then
several more. That’s when you get a revolution. Textiles and shoes and any kind of
number of things– pin manufacturing– and it’s about bringing the people out
of the countryside and into the cities. Now, America doesn’t become a majority
city-dweller country until 1920. But this is part of this
process of urbanization. So that the efficiency of the
agricultural economy is tied, in some sense, to the rising
productivity of the urban economy. That people are moving out of the
country, and into these factories, where they are beginning to produce
goods at an unimaginable rate. Yeah, as soon as you have thousands
of people living in places like Lowell or these textile towns
in Rhode Island, those are that many more people who are
a market for all kinds of things. Like Louis mentioned, shoes, but
also for commercial agriculture. These folks are working
in a factory all day. They don’t have their own farms. They’re not able to produce
the food that they eat. And so there’s this–
almost a paradox– that, as people move to the country,
they actually, in some ways, make the countryside
more market oriented. And in some areas, more prosperous. And so this amazing– what economists
like to call a virtuous cycle. A cycle– of course, virtuous
with slavery at its center– but virtuous in the sense of,
that the growth feeds on growth. So that they begin to produce, not
just consumer goods, but also producer goods, new kinds of machines that can
be used in other kinds of industries. And so it feeds on itself. And productivity by the 1830’s
and 1840’s and 1850’s is growing at a breakneck pace. How fast do you think
things were going, Ed? So in the old agricultural
economy, you were lucky if annual productivity, or
annual economic growth, hit 1%. And you start to really,
consistently get over 1%, except in those
panic years, after 1815. By the 1830’s, you’re going
to see the national economy growing, at least in those mid-1830
years, at about 6% per year. Now no economy’s going
to keep that up forever. But this is the kind of growth
that really transforms a society. And the most important
point, for me at least, is to remember that as we are creating
new machines to replace workers, somehow there is more
demand for workers as well. That it’s not zero sum game. It’s not Malthusian, it’s capitalist. And the very fact that workers
could be replaced by machines, and then find other opportunities to
use machines even more efficiently, is what is so surprising. It’s what is very counter-intuitive,
not only for us today, but also at the time itself. Yeah, and it was even
counterintuitive for workers. But when you look at something
like the cotton textile factories, you see in microcosm exactly
what Louis is talking about. So when you have all
of these new machines, like you do in the spinning
and the weaving mills, you need to have somebody who
understands how they work. And who understands how they
work well enough to repair them, to fix them when they break. What you consistently find, if you look
at this at a, sort of, a micro-level, is that those repairmen often then go
on to start their own shops, and even their own industries, whether
they’re in watch making, brass foundries, and things
like that in Connecticut. The early shops, which build some
of the first locomotive engines in the United States, and
then take those same sort of principles of using steam and
mechanical force to drive production, and to drive movement, and turn that
into a whole set of other industries. That starts with the cotton mills. And so this most basic idea,
that machines can make products more efficiently, is spreading,
throughout the economy, from the small shops and
factories, to the largest new kinds of areas of products. And so it spreads and transforms
the entire economy, both as a way to produce things, but also a
way– a place in which to invest money. And transforms the very
geography of America. Because, as America is a place where
this revolution is happening as rapidly as anywhere else– Britain
being the only place that’s on the same sort of scale. What America also is, is a place
that immigrants want to move to. Because there are more
and more jobs there. And as more and more immigrants come in
and keep labor costs a little bit lower than they would have, they’re able to
help factories to expand even faster, they become that many more markets
for goods, and many of them also find that there’s an opportunity
for commercial agriculture. And so they get off
the boat in New York, and they head straight for
Illinois or they head straight for Missouri, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. And they push the frontier further west. So they literally shape
America, in response to the needs of this
growing capitalist economy.

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