• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On the Industrial Revolution

December 2019

Far from being someone in possession of a reactionary bent, I wouldn’t call myself—at least not by the exigency of this binary choice—a revolutionary. Between these two poles, that, to the north, of progress and that, quite behind, of regress, a neutral temperament such as mine finds its solitude. It stays there, quite to itself, happily appreciative of the state of its repose. In this assumed posture of placidity and calm, in this moment of tranquility and peace, such a person as am I observes with dispassionate comfort and acuity of mind both the benefits and harms of revolution and, of its opposite, reaction.

The quantity of revolutions and reactions by which our world has been shaken and, consequently, stilled beggar enumeration. There are, we’ll admit from the very start, too many from which the student of eruptions in the lives of states and men might choose, but it can be said of most revolutions that they have a very specific chronological beginning and end. they can be marked from start to finish. They are born and, just like the human beings by which they’re roused, they die.

Not every revolution, however, offers so discrete and obvious a beginning and an end. Some are quietly, perhaps even imperceptibly taking place. Such is the condition of the revolution about which I’d like to talk below. It was not one induced by the crumbling of a political regime nor the raising of a governmental coup, nor was it specifically a social upheaval by which the normal intercourse and demeanor of man in respect to fellow man was riven apart. It was, instead, a revolution strictly of an industrial type.

The Industrial Revolution, at least in my opinion, is still very much underway. It hasn’t a definitive beginning and end. Doubtless, I think it’s not yet come to its fullest completion, though it began over two hundred years ago. One could even argue, as I do, that this revolution of industry conceived in the second half of the eighteenth century is ongoing in a modified and, perhaps for that reason, a more salubrious fashion, and its continuance is a momentum from which we’ll persist greatly to benefit. Absent the billowing smoke stacks on whose exhaust our forebears choked, exempting the immiseration and the child labor by which their lifespans cut themselves short, and forgetting the fuliginous mines of coal into whose depths so many of our parents plunged, I think we are still in an age of, if not purely industrial, then technological revolution. It’s an age onto whose rapidity of motion we can barely hold, and it moves with any sign of slowing down, much less of stopping.

I think of this, and it strikes me most intimately, as I conduct nearly all of my commerce online. I am, admittedly, one of those millennials from whose laptop’s entanglement he can’t be freed. I’ve witnessed, as have we all, the yearly diminution in days required to send an Amazon package from points A to B and, if said package and its contents are not in accord with our fleeting tastes, directly back again. What once was counted in weeks has come now to be expected in hours. Distance, logistics, supply chains, and the technological cords by which these three things are bound are only on the very rarest of occasions considered by the majority of us.

It is, in every way, a technologically revolutionary age. As such, I’m reminded of that other revolution, the Industrial Revolution, by which this one of which we’re all passive participants was preceded. Both, the technological and the Industrial, must be viewed as having impacted our species with commensurate force. The Industrial Revolution, that great leap forward from human to mechanical power and from Medieval to modern times, is the event, spanning nearly two centuries, out of which this current internet boon to which we’re all witness first emerged.

Without discounting its benefits for the world of exchange, nor understating its importance to the commercial life of man, the emergence of the Industrial Revolution brought with it more than a few adverse effects. Industries, once considered inextricably entrenched, were uprooted seemingly overnight. Institutions, once thought inviolable to the crude probing of a machine, proved vulnerable to the mechanical touch. The environment, unaccustomed to the saturation of its atmosphere with so copious an output of soot, wheezed its way into a distressful respiratory state by which it—and, by extension, we—are still ailed today.

All of these consequences could be discussed at length. For the sake of brevity, though, that upon which I’ll focus below is one specific industry for whose end the Industrial Revolution is to thank.

Antique in its establishment, exclusive in its admittance, profitable in its practice, and—most important of all, as it pertains to our theme—vulnerable to the march of time and the winds of change, the guild—that long-lived phenomenon of artisan craftsmanship and parochial trade—was one of the many victims to which the Industrial Revolution made a claim. The guild, so fondly placed within the memory of our past, long preceded but very quickly succumbed to that century of industry out of whose mechanized labor and unslakable smoke stacks our beloved modern world was born.

The guild had long since fallen into a state of disrepair. Of course, it had available to it a rather long time to fall. You see, the guild is quite old in its existence; it’s only recent in the commercial life of man that it has fully disappeared. Present, from the first century till the nineteenth, in the throbbing urban centers of the continent, ubiquitous in each entrepôt along the Mediterranean Sea, the guild was of uniquely European origin. As an institution, it began with the exuberance of commerce (the same by which we’re still intoxicated today) in the streets and waterways of Imperial Rome. There, in that land of the Latin tongue, the guild went by the name of collegia—as our colleges (whose main purpose, notwithstanding all the drivel and corruption in which they’re seeped today, is the teaching of a profession or a trade) do today.

Over the course of the next few centuries, the guild evolved into an institution upon which nearly every Medieval European economy was built. At least they were partially. Along with the foundational blocks of feudalism, cheap labor, tillage, pasturage, and a peasant class out of whom nearly every inch of life was extracted, the guild became an essential piece by which the grand edifice of Europe was ultimately to be raised. The guild became an inextricable aspect of that era’s progress and its movement away from penury, toil, and the harsh occupational conditions to which the workers of that age had become woefully inured.

It was a movement toward a more genial atmosphere of job security, safety, and a reliable income on which, if lucky, the workers employed in its trade might happily retire. It influenced, among so many other things, the production of goods, the output of crafts, the employment of artisans, the openings and closings of careers, the leanings of politics, and the proliferation or control of commodities, luxuries, and trade.

The guild’s problem, however, was its resistance (an often quite open and shameless one, one might add) to the ineluctable forces of advancement and innovation. Creativity, enterprise, vitality, and change, these were the forces—cosmic in their scale, economic in their scope, though ultimately purely human in their application—for which the guild suffered no allowance. All of these things, we happy capitalists now realize, are to be, and indeed must always be, highly esteemed. They must be protected and welcomed, as if vulnerable and salutary guests. They are the forces without which we moderns simply would have none of the luxuries in which we currently, though sometimes thoughtlessly, indulge.

As gatekeepers to this economy of indulgent, useful, and beautiful goods, these guildsmen played the role of vulgar and inhospitable conservatives. They were the impregnable walls of complacency through which no novelty could flow. They formed a static, if not to say, completely reactionary segment of society into which few, if any, innovatory ideas could penetrate. No such innovation could pierce the hidebound insensitivity of their stubborn wills. They shackled their unpliant wrists and calloused fingers to the ancient and stagnant regulations of which they were the inheritors, and permitted the flexibility of nothing new.

This was their ideological impediment. Along with this, they suffered a practical disadvantage as well. When contrasted with the burgeoning capitalists by whose ambition, lack of deference, comparative verve, and competitive spirit they were so infuriated, the guildsmen lacked far too much to be long sustained as a commercial class. By the weight of their own inability to adapt to the changing industrial winds, they were bound soon to topple over and to collapse.

They simply hadn’t the competence in action nor the industry in scale to be able to satiate the demands of a swelling populace whose demands were growing by the day. They were situated rather for provincial than international trade, for hamlets rather than empires.

Municipalities were their markets, neighbors their negotiators, and they knew nothing worthy of their enterprise beyond what they could see. All the while, the capitalists were busy circumnavigating the globe and literally forging new horizons. As such, the guildsmen lacked the ability for the procurement of such raw materials as cotton, tobacco, sugar, and indigo of which, increasingly, their domestic, artisan goods were expected to be made. Capitalists, on the other hand, were able to secure investments, augment productions, and reach lands in whose soil these resources sprang—and they were able to do so with far less effort. The guilds simply couldn’t compete. The converging forces of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution rendered the institution of the guild, already old, incorrigibly obsolete.

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