In the opening days of that festival of misshapen bodies and non-political politics known as the Olympic Games in London, one item stood out among the commentators: the inclusion of the ‘Industrial Revolution’ in the opening ceremony. Such ceremonies are, of course, blatant efforts at reasserting political myths, so we can hardly blame them for trotting out a few items of creative imagination. Still, the assumption is that the ‘Industrial Revolution’ actually happened in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As if born of the innate ingenuity of English entrepreneurs, this ‘revolution’ is supposed to provide the key to our modern, mechanized world. Even Marxists like Eric Hobsbawm have been caught up in the fervour, calling this and the bourgeois Frenchie one The Age of Revolutions (1962).
What a load of crap. Already for some time now, historians have been warning us that there is ‘scarcely a concept in economic history more misleading’ than this one (John Nef, already in 1943). Or, the ‘industrial revolution has, in fact – no mean achievement for a historical theory – done a lot of practical harm’ (Colin McEvedy in 1972). Instead, technological change and development was taking place over a much longer period, over a wider zone, and in phases of slowdown and jumps. Further, to single out industrialisation as the key is simply to miss the function of machinery and technology within a more comprehensive economic framework.
Then again, myth, especially political myth, is impervious to however many facts one might throw at it. A bit like attacking a fortress with a slingshot.