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.