Counterfactual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution

4 March 2010


The industrialization of society produced profound consequences through the mobility of labor and the concentration of populations in urban centers, among another developments.

A counterfactual conditional is a statement making a claim as to what would be the case if the antecedent of the conditional were true, but in which the antecedent of the conditional is in fact false. This sounds confusing, but it is familiar in ordinary experience both in irresponsible historical speculation (e.g., “If the Nazis had won the Second World War, we’d all be speaking German now”) and in the commonplace recriminations and accusations that are unfortunately so much a part of our lives (e.g., “If you’d only done as I had asked, we would have been on time!”). As I have just implied, entertaining counterfactual conditionals can be an amusing but pointless way to pass the time, for example, on a long car trip with friends when the stereo isn’t working and everyone is bored.

In an as-yet unpublished manuscript I wrote the following about counterfactuals:

It is an almost irresistible temptation to speculate upon what the world might be like today if some particular change were made in the past. Speculative history is also an irresponsible impulse, as it can count only as a distraction from the real problems facing us, being a philosophical dead end. But let us be charitable, and instead of calling it irresponsible let us call it a guilty pleasure, and let us be twice charitable and give it a respectable philosophical title: a counter-factual thought experiment. Very well, then, I want now to indulge in the guilty pleasure of a counter-factual thought experiment.

The thought experiment I was contemplating in that manuscript I will leave for another time, but here I would like to suggest a counterfactual thought experiment relating to the Industrial Revolution.

I started thinking about this in relation to unemployment. Unemployment is a timely topic due to the recent recession. While the most recent figures show the US economy in the last quarter growing at an annualized rate of something like 5.9 percent (which is quite good), unemployment is still higher than most would like. This is not a surprise. But that the popular media reports this in hysterical tones also should not surprise. Employment is always a trailing indicator of economic growth. When an economy contracts, employers usually delay laying off employees as a last measure. When the economy expands, employers also usually delay hiring until they absolutely must hire in order to keep their businesses running. Again, there is nothing surprising in this.

What is surprising, from a long term perspective (a very long term perspective — the longue durée measured in centuries if not millennia), is that the match between employers and employees in the labor market is as close as it is. Even in a recession in an advanced industrialized economy, unemployment rarely goes over ten percent, though in some localized areas it may climb to twenty-five percent or more. Still, the vast majority of the employable labor force is working. Why should there be such a close match between employers and employees in the labor market? This question posed itself to me, and it suggested a thought experiment.

What if, instead of the Industrial Revolution that we did in fact have, we had had instead an Industrial Revolution of a different sort? Let me try to explain. The mechanization of agriculture has made it possible to feed a population of a given country with only, say, two to three percent of the workforce involved in food production. This is what makes the Industrial Revolution a revolution in a robust sense. Before the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of the population in all social systems in all parts of the world (which means in all climates, raising all different kinds of foodstuffs) were peasants tied to the land. It took ninety percent or better of the population laboring over food production just to keep people fed, and mostly they weren’t fed very well. And then the revolution came.

With the Industrial Revolution, civilization experienced a dramatic and wrenching change in the lives of its people, and this change had two parts. Food production could be managed by a small work force, which meant that the vast majority of the population left the farms and fields of their ancestors. What happened to them? They migrated to cities and got jobs in emerging industry. This is the second component of the movement of peoples spurred by the Industrial Revolution.

But what if we had had an Industrial Revolution that revolutionized agriculture and food production but which didn’t create vast industrialized cities with work for the masses liberated from what Marx called rural idiocy? The industrialization of agriculture could come through mechanization (as in fact it did, in part), but perhaps also it could come without a focus on mechanization but simply with improved techniques in pastoralism and husbandry. This sort of thing was already happening in England during the Enlightenment, and England was also the earliest part of Europe to experience the full force of the Industrial Revolution.

It could be argued that the famous example in Adam Smith of the number of workmen required in order to make a simple coat illustrates the cascading nature of industrialization, and that any economy that industrialized agricultural production would necessarily have evolved other industries in parallel, the growth of which would absorb the masses no longer tied to subsistence agriculture. But allow us to suppose, simply for the sake of argument, that the components of industrialization could be separated, and that agriculture could be industrialized without the remainder of society being industrialized, so that food production employed at most five percent of the population, and the traditional elites that organized society made up about ten percent (probably less) of the population, thus leaving eight-five percent of the population at loose ends. What would the world look like if eighty-five percent of the population were terminally unemployed?

Since most rational discussions of the actual world revolve not around absolutes and extremes, but around rates and degrees, suppose that emergent industry, instead of employing almost all of the population no longer needed for agricultural production, employed only about half of them. This is certainly a conceivable scenario. What would the advanced industrialized economies of today look like if there was a nearly permanent unemployment rate of fifty percent? Could any known society survive the demographic challenge of so many idle hands? Would a very different society have had to emerge from these conditions, since society as we know it would simply self-destruct under these conditions?

If the necessities of life were present in abundance but work was not present in nearly equal abundance, civilized society as we know it today would not function. Perhaps Georges Bataille was right after all about the accursed share, that the real problem for society is not scarcity but superfluity, that we must construct socially acceptable ways of expending wealth. Moreover, consumption can only be fetishized when it is a commodity that is relatively scarce. Perhaps in a society revolutionized by the industrial revolution that did not happen, labor would be fetishized, and instead of the emergence of consumerism we would have a society based on productionism, i.e., fetishized labor. Authentic labor would then be the ultimate scarce commodity, and people would seek authentic opportunities to work as they now seek exotic opportunities for leisure.

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Georges Bataille: not the best known among twentieth century philosophers, but certainly among the most interesting.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “Counterfactual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution”

  1. Joe H. said

    Neal, What you are describing is very similar to the fate of millions in the 21st century. As automation takes over more and more jobs, it may become necessary for governments to adopt a guaranteed income for all.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Perhaps… but if this occurs, it will occur under changed conditions, and not under the conditions of the industrial revolution. If we had had an industrial regime that disemployed the better part of the population in the 19th century, that would have been a different historical transition than an industrial regime that disemploys the majority of the workforce in the 21st century. When a one-time historical transition occurs (by which I mean when relative to the developmental trajectory of a civilization) has as much impact as the fact that it does occur. For example, another counterfactual: if the Black Death had occurred in classical antiquity instead of the late Middle Ages, it would have been a different experience, with different consequences.

      Best wishes,


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