Thursday, April 3, 2008

Reacting to the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was a major change in society. It affected many different areas of life, and affected all social classes. It threatened some social institutions, and gave rise to others. It gave power and money to the middle class, took power and money from the old aristocracy, and made life miserable for many of the lower class. We can trace of number of specific reactions to the Industrial Revolution:

The Art of William Blake focused on the human misery that was created by the Industrial Revolution; he did not allow his readers to escape or forget the suffering that filled the slums of London, or that this anguish was brought about for the comfort and greed of the middle classes. The British Romanticists, in both poetry and painting, sought escape, or more accurately sold escape, to their middle class audiences, who would rather envision an idealized rustic rural life, than remember the coal smoke and child labor surrounding them. Marx, the communists, and the socialists demanded some form of revolution to overthrow this system, to destroy the political, social, and economic systems, and establish a utopia, a worker’s paradise of equality. John Stuart Mill and the Reform Liberals wanted a less radical solution; rather than destroy the system, they wanted to fix it, to adjust it, via child labor laws and the unionization of workers, among other means. Kropotkin and the anarchists also demanded a revolution, but instead of replacing the system, they wanted an end to all systems, and a return to an imagined state of nature and harmony. The Conservatives, represented by Metternich, and to a lesser extent Burke, saw the Industrial Revolution as a threat, because it emboldened the middle classes, and undermined the aristocracy; they fervently sought to maintain the old social order as it had existed before the Industrial Revolution, and realized that the threat was not from the lower classes, but rather from reform-minded individuals who naively thought that they were acting on behalf of the lower classes.

The breadth of the Industrial Revolution’s impact reminds us that, as in the case of the printing press, it is often not the lofty thoughts of academic philosophers, but the physical devices of daily life which can bring about the most sweeping changes in history.