October 18, 2005

Columbus & the Exit, Continued

My previous post on Columbus, the Exit, and the Forge of Modernity generated a substantial number of thougtful and intelligent comments, along with the usual idiotarians. Several of the former class of comments deserve a longer discussion that my relatively brief reply in the comment section, and deserve a more prominent display. As a start, you wwill find below the comments of Tom Billings, and some further thoughts from me.

Tom Billings said:

I too, found the article interesting, especially for its willingness to attribute multiple causes to the starting of the continuing industrial revolution. I would like to suggest that the (relatively) non-coerced labor situation developed by Northern European states also went hand in hand with other incrementally developed elements, that are equally important. As in labor, they involved relative lacks of coercion in regards human actions to build and maintain the highly productive networks of continuing industrial revolution. Rather than using the term "Exit", however, I would use the term 'phase transition', since I believe that incremental change reached a non-linear takeoff point for societies and for the world.

In particular, there was greater freedom of action developing in spiritual activities, intellectual activities, market activities, political activities, and finally physical activities. Each of these have crucial roles to play in building the worldwide networks that have multiplied productivity in industrial societies.

The physical freedom, to change the human environment to fit human needs may be an obvious component, but it needs to be stated. Take it away, and most of the wealth of the industrial revolution disappears. The political freedoms needed to shield (however imperfectly) generated wealth from the twin evils of corruption and confiscatory taxation are also a requirement that is again proving essential. After the collapse of the USSR, most people now admit that market freedoms to build market networks of exchange of value are vital to industrial societies. The intellectual freedoms needed to allow networks exchanging new ideas around the world have been crucial to the advance of both science and technology, as well as markets and politics. Finally, without the spiritual freedom to turn the mind's attention to the subtlest things each individual can perceive at any one time, and the freedom to exchange information about that process, the drift to coarser and coarser levels of attention and action could well negate any of the above advances over what the agrarian world achieved.

Each of these categories of freedom of action was developing between 1500 and 1750 in Europe, to different amounts at different levels of action in different places. It was in Britain that the combination of these freedoms of action finally passed a 'phase transition' point, IMHO, about 1750, lossening the more rigid patterns of the old agrarian world almost as dramatically as the melting of ice to liquid water frees up a flow by several orders of magnitude. Yes, ice flows, but slowly. Yes, agrarian society could generate new ideas, wealth, and technology, but very slowly, compared to industrial society.

Lastly, a word about geography and the development of these freedoms in Britain before they appeared elsewhere in a sufficient combination needed for the industrial revolution. While the combination of naval trade and warfare did allow Britain's stability throughout the 18th and 19th centuries to hothouse such freedoms(at least within Britain itself), there is new information that applies to that.

As N.A.M.Rodger noted in "Safeguard of the Seas", for 1000 years before the 18th century, the sea was as much a highway to invasion as any sort of barrier. It took all that time for Britain to get it right! The huge costs of sustaining the infrastructure for naval warfare required a far broader political base than was available in the centralized states like France and Spain. Thus, for their opponents in Europe, naval warfare was a sometime thing, which waxed and waned with the interests of their opponent's monarch. By 1690 in Britain, the Royal Navy was a fulltime concern of the Parliamentary committees that funded it. Thus, attention was continual, and recognized as vital by those who got the money for the RN.

That broad political base was available precisely because Britain had not got the centralized state structure of much of continental Europe. New information about that comes from climatology, and its relation to political states, through the book, "The Long Summer", by Brian Fagan. In his 10th chapter, he shows how, over the 2500 years before the 18th century, the usual boundary between Mediterranean and Atlantic air masses changed several times, bringing the boundary of highly productive wheat tillage farther North or South.

Wheat had become a crucial factor in maintaining first Imperial Armies, and then later armies of the larger nation states. This boundary never moved farther North than the south edge of the Channel, (being there between 300BC and 300AD). Thus, while imperial armies could be supported a ways beyond this boundary, their hold became ever more tenuous when the boundary moved South again. By about 500AD it had swung far, to the south shore of the Mediterranean, and large centralized states in Britain and Ireland became evanescent.

Even though this boundary (Ecotone is the word used by Fagan) moved North to southern France by the 17th Century, Britain had developed a broad representative political base for government, specifically because attempts at centralization failed. A great contributor to that failure in agrarian Britain may have been the inability to easily support the larger State armies that became predominant on the continent.

Thus, we have an Atlantic air mass, with relatively cold wet summers, blocking highly productive wheat crops, which blocked state centralization in an island sitting near the mouth of rivers needed for trade into the continent. This island thus had far more chances to develop representative government. That broad political base then assured Britain's sustained funding of the naval infrastructure vital to worldwide naval warfare and convoys for trade. That combination allowed those physical trade networks which opened new chances for intellectual networks and the other freedoms of action needed for the continuing industrial revolution.

Thus, some choices were available, and some were not, to political actors in Britain for over 1000 years before the continuing industrial revolution. Still, the value of choices by individuals can never be discounted, if for no other reason than the record of 1000 years of attempts at centralizing a British State, before they settled down to a relatively representative government, and the freedoms it then allowed to grow.

Jim Bennett comments:

I would agree with much of what Tom says above. Bear in mind that the original post was not intended to set forth a general theory of the Industrial Revolution. For such, check some of the works referenced in the bibliography of my book. The post was intended as rather some specific comments on the often-heard charges that Columbus, and in a larger sense, "Europeans" came to the New World to bring genocide and slavery. The discussion of free vs. coerced labor in the pre-Exit world came in that context.

I certainly agree that the coming of the various waves of the Scientific-Technological Revolution (which began, I would argue with the revolution in agricultural productivity in Northwest Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries, went through several waves of Industrial Revolution in the late 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, and seems to be leading to what is being called the Singularity) cannot be reduced to any one cause, but the emergence of societies based primarily on free labor was somewhere prominently in the cycle of cause and effect. To say that the key was creating freer spaces for all activities of life (in other words, the birth of civil society) has got to be broadly true.

The geographical determinist argument is very old. I think you cannot escape the conclusion that Britain's geographical isolation had something to do with the emergence of a different flavor of European society in that island. However, the exact effects of that insularity may be more subtle than generally appreciated. The best and most thoughtful recent examination of the insularity thesis and the survival of medieval constitutionalism in a comparative context is, in my opinion, Downing's , which also looks at two other semi-insulated European polities, Spain and Sweden, and in contrast the textbook case of non-insularity, Poland. Downing makes a reasonable case that the pressures for financing land-warfare mobilization led to the collapse of medieval constitutionalism (the forerunner of constitutonal representative government) in central-western Europe. England's immunity from the need to maintain a large standing army seems to have been a critical factor in its ability to avoid autocratic government.

I was very happy to see you bring up N.A.M. Rodger's work on this point. Rodger effectively punctures a simplistic reading of the insular hypothesis, both in Safeguard, and even better still in Command of the Ocean. Anyone interested in this question should particularly go to the last chapter of Command. Rodger's conclusion seems to be that mastery in either land or naval warfare required an ability to mobilize large resources on an ongoing basis. However, Britain was able to prevail in naval warfare primarily by effective mobilization of financial resources, and consequently was not able to begin to prevail until state finances were finally brought under effective control toward the last part of the Seventeenth Century. He suggests that it was specifically the ability to mobilize and control large manpower resources that gave the Continental autocratic states their supremacy on land. Mobilizing masses of people regardless of their will produces a much different sort of state than one that primarily was able to borrow large amounts of money at low interest. (Britain did have impressment of sailors as a last resort, but that was quite different in nature from general conscription; technically it was a contingent obligation of a licensed profession -- sailors were considered such -- and a practice ship's officers strongly preferred volunteers.)

On nomenclature, I like Gellner's term "the Exit" because it emphasises the cyclic nature of pre-industrial civilizations. Far from being "sustainable", preindustrial civilizations typically tended to destroy the land they used under malthusian pressures, and then collapse. Only the Industrial Revolution put an end to this cycle -- thus its character as an Exit is its most important characteristic.

Posted by James C. Bennett at October 18, 2005 04:10 PM

For an interesting take on the start of the industrial revolution, may I recommend the first part of "Coal: A Human History" by Freese.

Personally, I'm strongly of the view that the physical energy unleashed in England during 1700s really got us started. I appreciate the views here that coal ALWAYS was there but it took the social evolution of Western civilization to put it to mankind's use. Yet it took the excess energy that coal offered to accelerate our development and really improve our standard of living - in other words, to reach the Exit.

As Ms. Freese's book, the latter part is largely political/environmentalist correctness and can be ignored.

Posted by: Whitehall at October 20, 2005 04:55 PM