Modernism without Industrialism: Europe 1500-1800
17 November 2010
It is interesting to reflect on the peculiar character of civilization in Western Europe after the decisive shift to historical modernity, which we can locate in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, yet before the decisive (and transformative) emergence of industrialization. Roughly speaking, the period of European history from 1500 to 1800 represents a unique transitional stage in the history of civilization.
I touched upon this indirectly in Counter Factual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution, which was an inquiry into possible alternative forms of industrialization that did not happen. But there is a sense in which these alternatives did happen, but continuing economic and technological development made it possible for industrialization to fully overtake modernism so that the two appeared to be two aspects of a single social development, whereas they are in fact isolatable and distinct historical processes.
Modernism without industrialism comprises the emergence of science in its modern form in the work of Galileo, and even the triumphs of Newton, the emergence of modern philosophy in the work of Descartes, the emergence of nation-states as the primary form of socio-political organization, and developments like the British agricultural revolution — the name of Jethro Tull may not be as familiar as that of Newton and Descartes, but his contributions to civilization ought to be reckoned on a similar level.
As noted above, the scientific revolution preceded the industrial revolution, and indeed made the latter possible. One could interpret the British agricultural revolution as a dress rehearsal for the industrial revolution, as it involved the systematic application of scientific methods to agriculture, resulting in increased agricultural production that in turn resulted in more and better quality food for many people in England. It was this abundance of food for all that made possible the ploughman’s lunch.
As another exercise in a counter-factual thought experiment (as in Counter Factual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution), we might similarly imagine the scientific revolution being brought to other areas of life (other than agriculture) but without the peculiar developments specific to the industrial revolution — mass production, the factory system, the mobility of labor, the dissolution of traditional social institutions and so forth. There is a sense in which this did happen in some places, but it happened in parallel with the industrial revolution, and thus was overshadowed by the more far-reaching effects of industrialization.
There is also a sense in which modernism without industrialism still emerges from time to time. In those regions of the world in which industrialism has been imported, where industrialization has not emerged from the indigenous economy, we find circumstances not unlike the transitional conditions of modernism without industrialism in Europe immediately prior to the industrial revolution. One will find a few sporadic traces of industrialism, but not anything like the wrenching social changes which, as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto:
“The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”
Remember this line the next time you hear someone complain about the inability of small businesses to compete with the cheap prices of Wal-Mart: the Industrial Revolution remains an on-going process, and now it is our own “Chinese walls” that are being battered down. The period of European civilization that constitutes modernism without industrialism is a world in which this observation of Marx and Engels is not true; we know that in our time it is true, and is becoming more true as industrialized civilization continues to develop.
If imported industrialism eventually takes root in an economy in which it is not indigenous, it can in time approximate the kind of industrial development we find in places where it has emerged from the indigenous economy. Thus the order of industrialization can vary in different circumstances, but it is likely that there are some orders of industrialization that are more efficient and more effective than others. That is to say, there is the possibility that there is an optimal form of industrialization. If we could go back and do it over again, we would probably do a better job at it, but the industrial revolution is a unique one-time event in the life of a society. Other societies even now are being transformed or will be transformed by industrialization, but they cannot (for obvious reasons) learn our lessons; they must learn these lessons for themselves.
Once again we are forced to recognize the lack of intelligent institutions of our society, institutions that would adapt and develop to meet changing circumstances. While we cannot do the Industrial Revolution over again, we can look forward to future wrenching social changes. Intelligent institutions would require a great deal of time to craft, but in all honesty we probably have a great deal of time before our next wrenching social transformation (unless communicants of the Technological Singularity cult are not as deluded as they appear to be), so that a truly civilized undertaking for a society today would be to formulate intelligent institutions for itself that will serve its interests in the long term future. I suspect this is too dull a proposal to count as a “vision” for the future, but it would be a worthwhile undertaking.
I have formulated a couple of fairly concrete proposals of events that may loom in our future, and which may transform societies around the world (and off the world). The “events” (such as they are) that I have in mind are extraterrestrialization and the next Axial Age. Extraterrestrialization, which would be the transition of the bulk of the human species off world, would constitute a social, political, industrial, and economic transformation of society. The next Axial Age, which would be a period in the spiritual development of humanity in which our mythological institutions would finally catch up with industrialization and provide us with a mythology equal and adequate to industrial society, would constitute a social, cultural, and spiritual transformation of society.
These events — extraterrestrialization and axialization (as it were) — are of a very different character, but both have the potential to have profound and far-reaching influence upon the way ordinary people live their day-to-day lives. They are also likely to lie hundreds of years in the future, and that gives us plenty of time to formulate intelligent institutions that would help us make the transition — with a minimum of violence and bloodshed — to the changed socio-political conditions that would be occasioned by these historical developments.
The Industrial Revolution would have truly done its work, and we could count ourselves as a mature civilization, if we could apply our scientific knowledge to a systematic reform of our institutions making them intelligent institutions that could prepare the way for a peaceful future, even if that future means that the historical viability of civilization can only be secured by the result of civilization being so transformed that it would be no longer recognizable as what we think of as civilization. A mature civilization would be able to look at its other and see not barbarism, but heretofore unrecognized civilization.
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