Perpetuating the myth of the ‘industrial revolution’, or, O God, it’s not the Olympics again …

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.


11 thoughts on “Perpetuating the myth of the ‘industrial revolution’, or, O God, it’s not the Olympics again …

  1. Isn’t the point of the “industrial revolution”, though, that the way European people related to the means of production changed during that period. Correct me if I’m wring here, but while the technology was gradual, the transformation from peasants to wage-labourers occurred more suddenly. The literature of 19th century England certainly seems to reflect that.

      1. Really?? I’ve even heard it suggested that rural-agrarian economic models endured in most of rural Europe until the time of the Great War in the early 20th C.

      2. Yes, but what type of agrarian models? Even with the so-called refeudalisation of Europe in the 17th century, the relations of production had already changed. Long-haul change it was, brutal as well, but it had begun.

      3. I’m not enough of a historian to go into that much detail, Roland. To be completely honest, I’m mainly drawing on Dickens novels for my picture of industrial revolution England here. But Dickens does seem to be aware of some seriously traumatic social change happening… which just seems to fit in so well with the traditional understanding of what was going on.

  2. But my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Hungus Galbraith was still right on, when he said (as is recorded in the Annals of the Once Mighty Galbraith Clan, a copy preserved among the Parish Records of Bonhill), “Ye marke my words, that newfangled Water Mill erected near yonder burn will give we peasants nothing but trouble and none wille benefite but the Earls. Fucking Wanckers.”

  3. Windmills? You’re confusing water mills for windmills? Next you’ll be confusing windmills for giants!

    There’s this odd debate over peasant resistance to the water mill in the middle ages…

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