Bucolic baloney

It’s probably bad form to have a go at the world’s most influential business thinker the day before he gives a keynote speech to the CIPD but, while there are some things in his interview and his other writing that I agree with, this is bucolic nonsense:

Management was invented to turn human beings into semi-programmable robots. At the start of the industrial revolution, you needed people who could literally serve the machines. We took free-spirited, strong-willed people and turned them into forelock-tugging, biddable resources.

The idea that the industrial revolution was a fall almost as catastrophic as the human race’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden is persistent and pervasive. At some point before the rise of the factories, although precisely when, no-one seems quite sure, there existed a society of autonomous skilled artisans, proudly independent shopkeepers and a cheerful well-fed peasantry, at one with the rhythms of nature. Or so the story goes.

There is a strand of this thinking in most of our political ideologies, from conservatism, of both the traditional-nostalgic and libertarian strains, through blood and soil Nazism to socialist back-to-the-landers, Marxist labour process theorists and, of course, Greens.

We see it in the suggestion that the rising levels of self-employment are a ‘return to self-reliance’ and that we need to get away from process and bureaucracy and ‘back’ to the autonomy and empowerment of a previous age.

The myth of a pre-industrial utopia is one that just won’t go away. Only this summer we saw it powerfully dramatised in the Olympic opening ceremony. Healthy and happy farm workers danced outside their rose-covered cottages while their lambs gamboled in the fields. Then, suddenly, huge black smokestacks sprang up, everything turned grey and stovepipe-hatted capitalists herded the workers into factories to toil at huge machines.

Was the industrial revolution really such a fall? Was the factory worker’s lot really so much worse than that of the farm labourer or small-town craftsman?

Let’s deal with the forelock-tugging first. There is no evidence that industrial society was any more hierarchical than the rural communities from which its workers had come. In fact, there’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest the opposite.

One sign of change in eighteenth-century England was small but significant. The custom of doffing one’s hat to a social superior gradually fell into disuse. Particularly in the fast-moving city streets, it was often difficult to tell who outranked whom. ‘A slight inclination of the head, or motion of the hand, is deemed sufficient’, when greeting a stranger, as a visitor reported. By contrast, in the later seventeenth century, the Quakers had been viewed as dangerous social radicals for refusing to remove their hats in the presence of social superiors. Yet a century later, such behaviour was much more commonplace, and certainly less controversial.

As well as in the intricacies of body language, eighteenth-century England was also innovative in its use of words and concepts to describe society. Notably, it brought into currency one new collective noun, eventually of great and controversial resonance. But ‘class’ in the eighteenth century glided into the language. It was then a new, modernising term. The impulsion of social change had the effect of making the old terminology of ‘rank and order’ seem at first partisan, then archaic, and finally obsolescent.

The newly industrialising cities, then, far from turning people into forelock-tuggers, eroded the formal hierarchies and reduced the amount of hat-doffing, bowing and other gestures of subservience.

The story may be slightly different in America, where pre-industrial rural communities lacked the ranks and titles of their European counterparts, but even here, society was far from egalitarian. America, like Britain, had its aristocracy and, in some states, property qualifications for voting were not abolished until the 1850s.

It’s hard to say how free-spirited our ancestors were because they didn’t do opinion surveys back then but we can be sure that they were tugging forelocks and kowtowing to their ‘betters’ well before the industrial revolution.

What, then, of worker autonomy in pre-industrial societies? Here there is some evidence to suggest that people didn’t work as long a day as they did in the early factories. The working time for a farm worker in 1600 was probably about the same as that of today’s European or American, stretched over a longer day but with frequent breaks and more peaks and troughs over the year. At some points in the middle-ages, people may have worked even shorter hours than we do today.

Some have even suggested that pre-industrial workers only worked a ten-hour week. (See this fascinating argument which raged across Unlearning Economics and Tim Worstall’s blog earlier this year for more.) But, as Tim pointed out, it is difficult to compare working time in pre-industrial societies with that of today. For example, activities we now consider to be leisure pursuits, such as gardening and DIY, were once essential for survival. Artisans had to grow at least some of their own food and farm workers had to make at least some of their own tools and furniture. Their incomes wouldn’t run to buying things in.

For artisans, shopkeepers and farm workers, there was a lot of down-time in pre-industrial society. What may look to us like leisure and autonomy was often simply under-employment. It’s easy to have control over the organisation of your own time when you are only working ten hours a week, as many of today’s newly self-employed are no doubt discovering.

Even if people did work fewer hours before the industrial revolution, they were almost certainly poorer. As Robert Gordon says (See previous post.) per capita GDP in Britain was almost static until about 1750.

Such economic growth as there was only just kept ahead of the population increase. It was only the development of industry that increased workers’ earnings and living standards. With that, a lot of other things began to improve.

The population shot up after industrialisation. As these slides from this fascinating lecture by Professor Christopher Dye show, even when the birth rate began to fall, the population kept rising because the death rate was plummeting.

Deaths, particularly infant deaths, fell and life expectancy increased. People didn’t feel the need to have as many children because more survived. Adults lived longer and bore children for longer. Hence the paradox of a falling birth rate and a rising population.

The places in which the industrial workers lived may have been cold, damp and unhygienic slums but they were still better than the rural dwellings they had left behind. Higher wages meant more food and fuel, so people, and especially children, lived longer.

The ‘free-spirited, strong-willed people’ from the small towns weren’t herded into factories. They went of their own free will because life in the countryside was crap. And they went in their thousands. They may have traded a slower pace of life for what look to us like horrendously long hours in factories but the fact that so many of them voted with their feet shows how miserable rural life must have been.

Eventually, the hours of work came down and the wealth created by industry was more evenly distributed. This is due, for the most part, to the influence of trade unions, the most powerful countervailing forces in Britain since the Civil War. They too, of course, were products of the industrial age.

In short, then, much of what has made the citizens of modern western countries the safest, longest-lived and most prosperous humans in history is due to the industrial revolution. Industrial companies, in partnership with the state, have delivered health, wealth and well-being on an unpredcented scale. The nature and extent of that partnership has varied over time and between countries but, as Michael Heseltine said last week, a modern economy needs both.

This system, has, on the whole, served us pretty well over the past 150 years or so. It has become fashionable recently to dismiss big companies and big government in favour of more ‘nimble’ entities like startups, small firms and social enterprises. All very fashionable and exciting but small firms don’t deliver much growth and social enterprises have yet to prove themselves in delivering public services. The human race’s greatest leap in prosperity and well-being was provided by the boring old big organisations, private, public and collective, that grew out of the industrial revolution. So far, there is nothing to suggest any other forms of organisation will be able to match that. And, in any case, working for a startup or a funky New Economy company sometimes isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Those who cheer the downfall of big government and big employers providing secure employment often invoke the pre-industrial world of freedom-loving artisans. The ‘flexible’ future with less secure employment arrangements is depicted as a simple return to a more autonomous and self-reliant past.

But history – the real history, not some imagined utopia of free farmers and craftsmen – tells us something different. Before we dance on the graves of big companies and the big state, it’s worth remembering that the pre-industrial age was miserable for most ordinary people. If, as some predict, the era of mass employment by government and corporations is over, we may get more than a glimpse of that pre-industrial world – precarious, unequal and, for many, a lot poorer.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Bucolic baloney

  1. Pingback: Bucolic baloney - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Hamel would do well to study China. The same thing is currently happening there – people abandoning meagre subsistence farming for jobs in factories producing goods mainly for export. The result is a rising standard of living – except for the remaining subsistence farmers. Though their children, who have given up the good life for secure and better-paid jobs in factories, send them money so they can carry on being subsistence farmers.

  3. This is a sobering and, in my opinion, pretty accurate depiction. There may have been a few “virtuous” yeoman farmers in the agrarian world, but there were plenty of warlords, rentiers, and hereditary aristocrats, and orders of magnitude more slaves, serfs, and conscripts. The first generations of industrial workers were effectively sold into their arrangement by their landowning masters. It wasn’t a transition from good to bad, but from one variety of bad to another bad.

    People who talk about pre-industrial utopia never mention wars, feuds, and the very high rate of what we’d now call casual violence. Although there were fewer gigantic wars (like the World Wars) it was more common, overall, for an average man to die in violence: about 1 in 3 did. Involuntary conscription was common, and war-induced famines were a frequent occurrence. Most of these “inhumane” factories were built using blueprints from age-old knowledge about how to arrange men– mostly illiterate, involuntarily drawn in, and afraid– into bulk killing machines. The negatives of the industrial era didn’t suddenly appear at that time. They were always there. The difference was that this knowledge was applied to making widgets rather than salting crops and killing people. I call that a step up.

    Regarding startups, I think that an increasing need for people to think “entrepreneurially” is inevitable, and not a bad thing. The paternalistic corporation was inefficient, and it’s not coming back. My problem with the current startup scene is that VC-istan is too afflicted by industrial-era hangovers. VCs talk to each other in all sorts of inappropriate ways, keeping rank in place. If you turn down a term sheet with bad terms (such as multiple liquidation preferences and participating preferred) you won’t get another one. The VC can pick up a phone and call his buddies and burn you out. It’s effectively extortion. The relationship is still paternalistic and corporate. You have to defer to VCs– because they are VCs– in the same way that people have traditionally been expected to suck up to their bosses.

    What VC-istan really is, is a postmodern R&D organization that popped up as academia and basic research headed toward the gallows after 1980, making top creative talent very cheap. The difference is that project managers (founders) can become very rich and join their VC bosses (both in social rank, and literally by becoming VC king-makers) while engineer compensation remains mediocre, and job security for them is terrible.

    Around 1800, the agrarian era of 0.1-to-0.5-percent economic growth gave way to an industrial era of 1-to-6-percent growth. The industrial era is being replaced by a technological one, in which single individuals can have a larger impact than ever before, and under which the potential business value of top technical talent is skyrocketing (and shows no signs of slowing down) into the high-six to seven digits per year. VC-istan is the first attempt to tap that enormous potential value, but I hope it won’t be the last.

  4. The bucolic idyll trope is persistent because it serves both the social democrat left as well as the free market right. The former can indulge in a moral critique, i.e. arguing that capitalism was bad because of bad capitalists, while the latter can deploy the trope as a straw-man in order to dismiss criticism of the evolution of capitalism as the sentimental wittering of tree-huggers.

    It’s worth remembering that the factory system did not replace a raw peasant economy in the UK but rather the putting-out system of proto-industrial production. Shepherds were not transformed straight into machine operators. The UK was the location of the first industrial revolution because (among other things) it had already advanced well beyond a subsistence economy in which every third day was a holiday and we spent most afternoons dozing in the shade of a haystack. Similarly, labour migration in China is somewhat more nuanced than the paddy-field-to-factory cliche. The first wave of migrants after the Deng reforms in 1978 were actually city-born youth returning home after having been expelled to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. The major motor for migration in the 80s was a growing surplus labour population in the countryside. This was the result of the increase in agricultural productivity achieved after communal land was distributed to households. This labour wasn’t fleeing subsistence farming but un-employment. Exactly the same dynamic existed in the UK in the 18th century.

    The crucial change that occured with the introduction of the factory system, as Marx pointed out in exhaustive detail, was the systematic extraction of surplus labour value, which in turn enabled massive capital accumulation. Hamel may be guilty of hyperbole as well as historical error in the above quotation, but he has highlighted a key truth. The extraction of surplus value depended, and still depends, on management as a mechanism for regulating work. The reason why large firms provide a disproportionate slice of national income, and are also the main source of new jobs (most startups sell services to established firms), is because they are more efficient, and that (broadly) is down to more effective management.

  5. “Some have even suggested that pre-industrial workers only worked a ten-hour week. ”

    I didn’t say this. I said they worked a quarter of the time they do now, but the claim was mostly to do with holidays, and I am willing to admit is probably an exaggeration.

  6. Chris Williams says:

    I think you are overstating your case here, Rick. Yes, there was no yeoman utopia, and yes, industrialisation brought wealth (though you need to take into account Hans-Joachim Voth’s work on the increasing length of the working day, 1700-1800). But there was a key HR process going on the new factories – which was about new and closer ways of controlling peoples’ labour. Have you read Sidney Pollard’s work on this?

  7. Tim Worstall says:

    Dear God this is tripe:


    “An important piece of evidence on the working day is that it was very unusual for servile laborers to be required to work a whole day for a lord. One day’s work was considered half a day, and if a serf worked an entire day, this was counted as two “days-works.””

    The work you have to do on your Lord’s land is the work you have to do to pay your rent in a feudal system. You don’t get anything else from that labour: most certainly not a money income.

    You’ve still got to go bake your own bread, brew your beer, tend your own crops, muck out your own cow, milk it and everything else, *after* you’ve paid your rent by working as a vassal.

    “Detailed accounts of artisans’ workdays are available. Knoop and jones’ figures for the fourteenth century work out to a yearly average of 9 hours (exclusive of meals and breaktimes)[3].”

    Artisans, the master mason, coopers and so on are the aristocracy of the labouring classes. They really were working for cash wages and by the standards of the time were well to do. And they’re still working 2,500 hours a year or so, even by these figures.

    “The contrast between capitalist and precapitalist work patterns is most striking in respect to the working year. The medieval calendar was filled with holidays. Official — that is, church — holidays included not only long “vacations” at Christmas, Easter, and midsummer but also numerous saints’ andrest days. These were spent both in sober churchgoing and in feasting, drinking and merrymaking. In addition to official celebrations, there were often weeks’ worth of ales — to mark important life events (bride ales or wake ales) as well as less momentous occasions (scot ale, lamb ale, and hock ale). All told, holiday leisure time in medieval England took up probably about one-third of the year.”

    Yay, the Merrie England of beef and beer. Absolute bloody nonsense. You don’t get to keep animals (as in, still have any left) if you try to take one third of the year off looking after your animals.

    I’m sorry to have to break this to people but peasantry using medieval technology is a hard life of backbreaking labour. I’m perfectly willing to agree that working on the Lord’s demesne took up only some fraction of the year. But over and above that the villeins etc had to farm their own land, tend to their own animals etc. That’s all stuff done on top of those recorded “working hours”.

    To give you an example from the modern day, down here in Portugal. OK, not many olive trees in medieval England, I agree. But there are plenty of wild ones (ie, used to be part of a farm but now just standing around the countryside) where I am, I can see several through the window right now. Harvesting olives looks pretty simple. Spread a net underneath the tree, hit it with long sticks. Ripe olives fall onto your net/tarpaulin.

    But then you’ve got to sort through them, one by one, to check for worm infestations. Then slice the surface. Then you can take them to the local mill. You might get four or five litres of oil from a whole tree’s worth. Which you can buy in the supermarket for 10- 15 euro. Instead of the entire day’s labour it’s taken you to collect and sort them.

    There’s a long piece in The Guardian by some English bod a year or two back who ran through all the work it takes to do this sort of thing, running a smallhold with a few olive trees on it in Portugal.

    The English equivalent back then might have been threshing the grain. Sure, OK, you’ve harvested your wheat, you’re done by September. Until you plough in Oct/Nov. But don’t forget, you’ve also got to shell your grain before you can take it to the miller for flour, then you’ve got to make your own dough then bake it. Oh, and go collect the firewood to run your oven.

    1,440 hours work a year for a villein? Ignorant tosspottery.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s