28 August 2010


Routine Production, Mass Production and

It is interesting to note how the production of cloth was central to the industrialization of medieval Flanders, renaissance Florence, and the Industrial Revolution proper when it first took hold in England.

The Threshold of Industrialization

A few days ago in The Mercantile System I attempted to outline the transitional state between agriculturalism and industrialism, and I called this transitional state the Mercantile System, borrowing the term from the mercantilism of early modern economics.

In the above-captioned post I cited the examples of the cities of late medieval Flanders, renaissance Florence, and early modern England as places in which there was something like an industrial economy, but this industrial economy still supervened upon a primarily agricultural economy, and the institutions by which they societies were industrialized were exapted institutions from the feudal and medieval past. These economies approximated, to a greater or lesser extent, industrialized economies, but no industrial revolution had yet taken place.

I say that no industrial revolution had yet taken place, and I say this because one crucial threshold of industrialization (inter alia) had not yet taken place, and this is the transition to mass production, usually facilitated by power-driven machinery.

Already in the cities of the ancient world we see proto-industrialized economies in which there is large-scale production of consumer goods. We could say that in such economies, including the medieval and early modern examples cited above, that production had become routinized but not yet industrialized. Go to any large museum in Europe and you will almost certainly find examples of the fired clay lamps that were used throughout antiquity for light. No doubt millions of these were produced. The greater part would never have survived to make their way into museums. Such production probably employed dedicated production facilities, dedicated labor, the division of labor, capital investment, and a great many elements that we identify with the capitalism and the factory system as it has emerged since the industrial revolution. I imagine that there were probably moulds into which workers pressed the wet clay of the lamps, so that they could have the face of some god or another on the finished product.

In this example, and in the medieval and early modern examples, every product is still produced by hand, even though the mode of production is routine, and the quantities finished probably approached that of mass production. The difference this between this routine production and industrialized mass production is that every article is fashioned and finished by human hands. The labor is personal. Every item that a person would have owned in antiquity or the middle ages would have been made by oneself or by some other person. You probably did not know who made your oil lamp, but you would have known that someone made your oil lamp. Production processes of the pre-scientific, pre-industrialized era were sufficiently simple that anyone could make their own oil lamp if they wanted, and anyone could set up shop making oil lamps for sale in which they personally controlled the entire production process. Such sole proprietors would have had a possibility of competing with a large proto-factory for oil lamps because industrialization had not yet changed the calculus of production to the point that no individual could reasonably go into head-to-head competition with a mas producer of a given commodity.

Today, in the midst of an industrial society, human labor is an extremely expensive commodity. You never hire a person to do a job if you can get a machine to do the job, because the machine is an order of magnitude less expensive. Hand-finished goods are luxury items that are sold in boutiques for tourists. If you visit a highly industrialized country like Switzerland or Norway, you will find that their hand-carved and painted tourist knick-knacks are quite expensive; the less industrialized a region, the less expensive the handicrafts available for sale.

And notice that human labor in an industrialized society has become a commodity; it is bought and sold on the labor market. Labor sells itself as dear as it can, and labor consumers purchase labor as cheaply as they can. There is a process of what we could call the anonymization of labor that takes place in an industrialized society. You know that many hands have worked to build your car, but their individual contributions have been essentially lost in the process of machine-augmented mass production. During the Middle Ages and the early modern period there was certainly a lot of anonymous labor that went on, but it was almost all anonymous agricultural labor.

The distinction that I am proposing here between personal labor and anonymous labor is not hard-and-fast; it admits of degrees, and we can certainly imagine instances of proto-industrial production that verge upon the anonymization of labor to the extent that we find today. But such instances would have been an exception to the rule. The rule was sole proprietors and small workshops turning out the kind of commodities that would today be mass produced in factories as a rule.

Thus it is important to understand that the institutions in which such proto-industrial production took place were radically different from the institutions in which today’s mass production and mass retailing takes place. Most medieval and early modern production of non-agricultural commodities (which latter were produced by contemporaneous anonymous labor) was controlled by guilds. Guilds (known by whatever name) represent the institutionalization of craftsmanship. Guild corporations carefully controlled and carefully regulated production. Produced items were understood to be luxuries, and it was not expected or intended that they would be mass produced. It was expected and intended that they be produced to the highest standards, regardless of the cost involved in producing such high quality commodities.

There is an enormous historical literature on guilds that details the extent to which they went in regulating the lives of producers, what and how much they could produce, how many helpers they could have and what kind of helpers, what an apprentice needed to know and do to become a master, and much else besides. The famous Elizabethan Statute of Artificers represents a legislative attempt to transfer these guild functions to the state, and therefore to extend the labor institutions under changed circumstances.

Such institutions are the antithesis of capitalism of the industrial era, and they were the institutions that governed medieval and early modern production of non-agricultural commodities. Capitalism under these conditions is not at all the same as capitalism as we know it today, and production under these conditions is not at all the same as industrial production as we know it today. The Florentine production of high quality woolen cloth must be understood in this context, as must the medieval weaving shops of Ghent, and the artificers of Elizabethan England. Thought proto-industrial production could approximate anonymization in a few cases, under these conditions non-agricultural labor could never become fully anonymized as it has today.

The anonymization of labor has become a great challenge to industrialized society, and there is as yet no consensus for a solution to the problems posed by it. We have remarked on this anonymization (using different terminology), especially in Fear of the Future (in the section “Industrialization and Disaffection). There it was the discussion of the disaffection that arises within the anonymous working conditions of industrialized society that allowed us to understand that apocalyptic scenarios in film and contemporary literature are liberating because it restores to us a personal existence by ending the industrial regime of anonymous labor.

We cannot put too much emphasis on this problem of industrialized society. It emerges in unexpected places, such as the internet-fueled growth of conspiracy theories that play on the loneliness and vanity of disaffected individuals who crave self-aggrandizement and cannot get it through their social function. We cannot place too much emphasis upon this because in the contemporary paradigm of industrial society, in which everyone is a worker and everyone has a job in that industrialized society that allows them to meet their bodily needs, this is a universal condition. And the status of this universal condition of workers today (which is everyone) is that the need for a personalized existence is not being met. This is a problem that cannot be wished away, and its solution is nowhere in sight. It is one of the central problems of industrialized society that an ideal social consensus would address effectively.

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One Response to “Anonymization”

  1. […] Productions, and the threshold of industrialization Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon […]

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