Harold Perkin
The Origins of Modern English Society

It was a revolution in men's access to the means of life, in control over their ecological environment, in their capacity to escape from the tyranny and niggardliness of nature. At the material level it can be described as a rise in human productivity, industrial, agricultural and demographic, on such a scale that it raised, as it were, the logarithmic index of society, that is it increased by a multiple (rather than a fraction) both the number of human beings which a given area of land could support, and their standard of life, or consumption per head of goods and services. In the course of six centuries after the Norman Conquest the population of England and Wales perhaps quadrupled, while for the majority of the people the standard of life fluctuated between actual starvation and mere poverty, and rose, when at all, with painful slowness. During the nineteenth century population more than trebled, while per capita industrial production and real income quadrupled. Such a rise in the scale of life required, involved and implied drastic changes in society itself: in the size and distribution of the population, in its social structure and organization, and in the political and administrative superstructure which they demanded and supported. It was in briefs social revolution: a revolution in social organization, with social causes as well as social effects.

This view implies that the Industrial Revolution was—and is—a unique phase of historical development: the one-way road which, if travelled successfully, leads from the undeveloped society's comparative poverty, insecurity, and dependence on the bounty of nature to the comparative wealth, security and freedom of choice of the developed society. It is an irreversible revolution, in that any return to lower levels of productiveness would involve a catastrophe of such magnitude as almost certainly to bring down civilization with it, if not to destroy human life itself, and one compared with which the hydrogen bomb would be but a preliminary disaster.

On this view, the discovery of industrial revolutions wherever there occurred considerable technological changes, however, innovatory and dramatic, such as thirteenth-century fulling mills, sixteenth-century blast furnaces, or early eighteenth-century silk-throwing mills, is unjustified. Important as such technical innovations undoubtedly were, they did not have the profound, large-scale implications for the whole of society of the Industrial Revolution. For a parallel worthy of the name we have to go back to pre-history, to the Neolithic Revolution which substituted for the hunting and food-gathering economy settled agriculture and stock-rearing, raised the maximum population the land could support from perhaps four to upwards of twenty-five per square mile, and provided surplus resources for the first towns, and so for the advent of civilization itself.

The Neolithic Revolution was a precisely similar revolution in human productivity, with similarly profound implications for social organization and political and military power. The process of change was fundamentally the same: an advance in technology involving a more refined division of labour which released from the production of food much larger numbers of more variegated specialists in the arts and crafts, religion and science, government and warfare. It thus increased the collective power for construction and destruction, good and evil, life and death, for organized human welfare and for the organized exploitation of human beings. And the increased collective power over nature was bought at the cost of a loss of simplicity and 'wholeness' and an added burden of social discipline for the individual. The parallel even extends to the problems ofprehistorian and historian: in both cases knowledge of the origins and process of change is limited by the fact that the means of knowledge, in the one case written language, in the other precise social and economic statistics, were only produced in the course and as a consequence of the revolution itself.

But here the parallel ends, for the Neolithic Revolution was but a partial emancipation from the tyranny and niggardliness of nature. Starvation and premature death were held at bay, not within human power to conquer, and the wealth, leisure, knowledge and culture of the few were bought by the poverty, drudgery, and ignorance of the many. Culture and civilization were not possible in the pre-industrial world without exploitation, of slaves, serfs, or the 'labouring poor.' Though industrialism in the short run increased the possibility and perhaps the degree of exploitation, in the long run it abolished the necessity. The uniqueness of the historical Industrial Revolution is that it opened the road for men to complete mastery of their physical environment, without the inescapable need to exploit each other. If life and the ends of life are more than the material means, it was a more than material revolution: in principle at least, it made it possible that all men might have life, and might have it more abundantly, in that wider choice of ends hitherto restricted to the few.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.