Ha Jolly Ha

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Industrialism: Overturning the Natural Order

For several weeks now, I have been reading Flee to the Fields, the Founding Papers of the Catholic Land Movement. The book opens with an outline of principles, first in the bold and emphatic "Introduction" - which claims, among other things, that industrialism undermines family life and is, thus, incompatible with Catholic culture - and then in a stirring "Preface" by Belloc. Both excite the reader's interest and provide some preparation for the organization and purpose of the essays which follow, but they make sweeping generalizations likely to ring true with the believer, but to engender scornful skepticism from the uninitiated. "Chapter One" follows, with a short summary of the Movement's historical background, but it is "Chapter Two:The Rise and Fall of Industrialism" which first offers substantial, historical economic data. For a convinced Distributist of many years, long persuaded of the evils of the Industrial Revolution, considering the grim details of that bleak narrative demands discipline and perseverance.

However, I am fighting my usual distaste and attending with some interest to the concrete details of wages, supply, transportation, etc found in "Chapter Two." The chapter recounts the origins of industrialism in England, and the great changes it wrought upon the economic and social structure there. From its beginnings, industry was tied to a materialistic emphasis upon non-essential, or luxury, goods. Before the cotton industry developed, England obtained many luxury goods(spices, precious metals, etc.) through piracy. When that practice lost respectability, they imported the goods through merchant trade. Lacking a natural resource of commensurate value, they soon realized that England's natural resources - which were agricultural(food and wool) and would always be seasonally dependent - had limited production and trade potential. I do not believe the value of cotton was higher than that of food or wool, at least in the long run, but as a manufacturing product, it allowed merchants to rapidly produce great quantities of goods, unhampered by the inflexible limitations of seasonal crops.

Those who denigrate the agrarian cause always inquire: "Why did people flock to the city, if they enjoyed such a wonderful life in the country?" The answer has never been terribly clear to me - I imagined the lure of riches was at the heart of it. However, Herbert Shove's essay reveals that the first manufacturing enterprises created economic pressure which quickly caused landowners to raise their rent prices, driving tenant farmers into the city. Industrialism was already undermining the foundations of rural life - the odds were already set against the farmer.

From the historical narrative of the Industrial Revolution in England, Shove draws a general conclusion about industrialism itself. He claims that it always overturns the natural order of economics by withdrawing economic priority from more essential goods(necessities of food, clothing, shelter) and bestowing it upon less essential goods. With remarkable accuracy, he notes that, at the beginning, advertisement is employed to convince consumers of the essentialness of non-essential goods; but, eventually, society is restructured so that those goods actually become essential(e.g., cars). As the degeneration of society continues, the triviality of the manufactured goods increases. History reveals the indubitable truth of his prediction - manufacture began with cotton, but it now provides us with gadgets and gizmos of every shape, size and color. Aside from the greediness and disorder at the root of the industrial program, Shove also points out devastating long-term consequences for the environment: Less essential goods are proportionally less organic(from living or, at least, natural material), therefore their production is less limited AND the product less biodegradable. Steve Skojec's recent link about bees gives Shove's warning pressing relevance.


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