The Leninist argument is that imperialism, industrialization, and capitalism were intertwined. It did not make sense to discuss capitalism or industrialization without discussing Empire, and all its crimes. It is also the common argument that land clearances, in which commons rights were taken away from peasants and serfs, often by law and force, were required to create the industrial workforce.

This is because the early industrial workforce was a terrible place to work and live–and the phenomenon is not temporary, by most measures. It was true for between a hundred and a hundred and fifty years. Maybe longer. You worked longer (six and a half days a week, 12 hours a day was common in certain periods), you lived in urban filth, ate less, were sick more, grew to lower height if born into this, and died younger.

So, clearance was bad for the people who were cleared. I trust I don’t have to explain why European Imperialism was bad for most everyone else. Granted, European Imperialism predates the Industrial Revolution (but not the commercial, wind, and water revolutions), but it goes into overdrive during the Industrial period, and the gains of previous periods are definitely used to support the Industrial Revolution.

There are two questions to answer with regards to the clearance issue. First, whether or not clearances were necessary for the agricultural revolution to occur. With no agricultural revolution, there’s not enough food for expanding city populations.

The orthodox answer to this question is, “No.” But recently, a scholar, Robert C. Allan, went through the agricultural records and compared enclosed field to non-enclosed field production. Common fields were usually somewhat less productive than enclosed fields, but their gains increased almost as fast as enclosed fields did, and were even higher for certain crops (for instance, as with nitrogen fixers, like clover).

In other words, no, the agricultural revolution was not predicated on field enclosure–it just would have happened slightly slower in a non-field-enclosure scenario.

The second question concerns wages for workers, and is trickier. Allan argues that the Industrial Revolution happened in England for a simple reason: The coal was right there and could easily be shipped to factories. Shipping coal was hellishly expensive, and early steam engines were massively inefficient. Industrialization didn’t start in, say, Paris, because it lacked the resources. In Paris, it was cheaper to use more labor rather than to use coal.

Field enclosures made labor cheap in England. Without them, there are a lot less desperate workers, and a lot less desperate workers means higher wages and better treatment of workers (no one’s leaving the peasant village to go work 78 hour work weeks). Higher wages could make steam-driven factories unprofitable. No profit = no revolution.

This is an empirical question, and I don’t see the data to indicate the answer one way or the other. The theoretical point of view is this: Land clearances forced the cost of labor down. The higher wages are, the more you want to use capital (like equipment), not workers. In such a case, again, the Industrial Revolution happens, but it happens closer to Newcastle to keep the cost of coal down, and it is slow to gain traction due to profitability concerns. Once stabilized, however, the incentives for increasing machine efficiency of the machines faster could quite possibly have accelerated the Industrial Revolution faster than how it actually played out. Hard to say, but the argument is sound.

Now, for Empire.

With a very few exceptions, the main one being the USSR, every country which has industrialized, including Britain and the US, has done so with mercantalist policies, that is, behind trade barriers of some sort or another. They become free traders when their industry is well-established, not before.

Mercantalism does not require imperialism, but imperialism can augment mercantilism. When the British invaded India, India had more factories than England. Soon, they didn’t. India was a vast market for British manufacturing and provided raw materials.

The South in the US provided much of the cotton, through slave labor, as did Egypt and various other places which were conquered or absorbed through imperialism. (While the US South was, no, not under British control during this period, the Native Americans were cleared from it by European imperialism and disease and the slaves were brought over on European ships.)

Imperialism provides two things: Markets and cheap supplies for the factories. Even the Chinese opium/tea trade is related. Tea reduces appetites and enables people to work longer, and the British, even with the agricultural revolution, are somewhat underfed. Minus six half-day weeks, of course, they would not need so much food, but they do. (Ever done hard, manual labor all day? I have. I ate A LOT.)

There is clearly a benefit from Imperialism for industrialization under capitalism.

Could industrialization have happened without forcing open these barriers to British exports and without cheaper commodities like cotton, acquired through slave labor, plantations (which require shoving small farmers off the land), and so on?

What would have happened if we didn’t conquer, pillage, and enslave so many people? What would have happened if we didn’t deliberately retard their economic development? If we didn’t kill so many of them?

Perhaps they would have been more prosperous. Granted, many tribal societies have little use for money, but as the Hudson’s Bay experience shows, if you provide goods they really want, they’ll go out of their way to get what you want in return. And India, despite vast numbers of peasants, had vast mercantile cities and trade long before the British, Portuguese, and so on, arrived.

The commodities wouldn’t be so cheap, and Britain may not have gained so near a monopoly in early industrial manufacturing, but other societies would have also been richer–which means more purchasing power. Richer people can pay more.

The British still would have had that huge advantage: Coal near the manufacturing areas and near the coast. It’s an island. You can get what you manufacture to the sea easily, and you can use coal because the coal is near the sea too (everything is near the sea in England, from the Continental point of view).

This scenario suggests that England would have still industrialized first, and the Industrial Revolution still happens in Britain. Is it’s pace slower? Faster? I suspect slower at first, faster later. But it is more humane, and it leads to a better world.

If China and India had industrialized at a faster, more organic pace than they did; if they had been dragged along closer behind, standards of living would have risen faster. But standard of living is negatively correlated to the number of children.

A world in which all (or at least most) boats rise together, with England in the lead, but not excessively so, is one with a lot less of a population problem and a lot less of a poverty problem.

It may just be that being complete bastards to virtually everyone was not required for industrialization. It may be that we would have lived in a vastly better world.

It may not, of course, but I think the argument for “Being Assholes Wasn’t Actually Necessary” is pretty strong.

And I think it’s fairly important, because it’s at the heart of the whole “Is other people’s suffering required for some people to live the good life?” question.

(This is part 3 of a semi-series.  Read part one on “The Death of Capitalism” and part 2 on “What Capitalism is.”)

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