Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Industrial Revolution: good or bad?

(See the update at the end of this post for my latest views on this question)

From the invention of the clock in the Middle Ages to the rise of the internet in the 20th century, human beings have had a remarkable knack for coming to resemble the tools they employ. Technologies which offer to give man greater mastery over nature often end up exerting mastery over man.

The inventions that spawned the industrial revolution were no exception to this pattern. Following the perfection of the stream engine in the 1770’s, industries in England and Scotland began to thrive. Work which previously required skilled laborers was taken over by machines. While these machines needed human operators, they required a certain type of human being, one that resembled the machines themselves: mindless, repetitious, and uncreative. If those who sought industrial jobs in the late 18th and early 19th century did not possess these characteristics, it was certain that after a lifetime in the factory they would. The unsafe conditions, smothering uniformity and mind-numbing repetitions tended to suck the humanity out of the men, women and children who worked the machines.

The amount of people caught up in this change was astronomical. At the beginning of the 19th century, approximately 85% of those who lived in Britain worked on farms. At the end of century, 62% of Britain’s population was city-dwellers, and most of these were industrial workers cramped in the main metropolitan centers, working long-hours in what Blake called the “dark Satanic mills.”

The thousands of peasants who left their farms in the countryside for the promise of a better life in the cities, were not merely changing how or where they worked – they would inadvertently be subjecting themselves and their children to changes in how they thought, how they perceived the world, and how they and their children related to one another. Just as the invention of the clock had caused man to perceive the flow of time separate from the flow of events, so life in the factory oriented men and women to see their lives not only separate from nature but separate from any transcendent purpose. In a world where everything hinged on efficiency, value and meaning shifted from the transcendent to the functional.

So this raises a question. Was the Industrial Revolution good or bad? The Romantic movement in the mid 19th century reacted against the dehumanizing impact of industrialization and urged a return to a more primitive and nature lifestyle. Is this a biblical alternative? What would Jesus have said about the industrial revolution? Visit my Facebook page for a discussion of this question.


Since writing the above post, I have come to understand that the Industrial Revolution was DEFINITELY BAD (thanks Brad Bleschner and Brad Littlejohn). Here's why.

The thousands of peasants who left their farms in the countryside did not do so because of the promise of a better life in the cities. Most of the peasants were actually forced out of their farms. The thousands of peasants who left their farms in the countryside for the cities thus had little choice. Forced privatization left entire populations of peasants exiled from common lands that had sustained them for centuries. A series of Inclosure Acts meant that even entire villages sometimes had to be deserted, prompting Oliver Goldsmith to write his moving poem The Deserted Village in 1770.

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