than good. The only mood-altering drugs available were alco- hol and opium. The role of religion in providing a moral and psychological underpinning to people’s lives must not be ig- nored, especially as it did not incite them to upset the status quo, as it had tended to do, as often as not, in the previous century.
THE COMMERCIAL FOUNDATION
Long before it went into Industry, England had gone into Com- merce (or, to use a term that has never quite lost its pejorative tone, Trade), a requisite step, for if Commerce is possible with- out Industry, Industry is quite impossible without Commerce. It is arguable that intellectual reflection on Commerce gives greater insight into the mechanism of the Industrial Revolution than contemplation of its products. It took longer for society to come to terms with the merchant, who did not produce any- thing himself, than with the industrialist, who did. Even less persona grata was the financier/moneylender/usurer who dealt in money alone, which intellectuals, beginning with Aristotle, were unable to recognise as a commodity. Without Trade (to find the customers) and Credit (to bridge the gap between find- ing them and selling to them) there would be no reason for anyone to produce the large quantities of goods generated by industrial processes.
ADAM SMITH’S “INVISIBLE HAND”
The rationale of the Industrial Revolution (as hinted above) had in fact been laid down by Adam Smith before anyone noticed it was happening. He had claimed that when everyone worked as hard as possible in his own interest he, “led by an invisible hand”,15 benefited everyone else as well. This proposition was to some unbelievable. To others it was, if true, outrageous. To nobody was it morally uplifting. Keynes is supposed to have sneered that it was “the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all”.16 All of which omits, of course, the context in which the invisible hand operated.
... AND ITS CONTEXT
It has already been pointed out that this context depended very little, in Britain in general and in England in particular, on gov- ernment coercion or intervention. Nothing could be more dif- ferent from today’s state of affairs, when regulations pour from
government presses and everyone be rectified at public expense.
with a grievance expects it to Yet somehow society held
sanctions which could be people knew each other and undoubtedly have operated
applied in a system where most each other’s business. Some must in ways of which the participants
ford That from
to set up house, which in turn the birth-rate could have been the fact that a woman’s average
regulated the birth-rate. much higher is obvious age at marriage had re-
mained at about least (the fantasy has done much to
twenty five for some two hundred o f S h a k e s p e a r e ’ s J u l i e t m a r r y i n g a t confuse the issue). 1 7
years at thirteen
CAN WE KNOW WHAT WOULD HAVE BEEN BETTER?
We must not, of course, fall into a panglossian state of mind about society in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century. All the same, if a time machine could transport us back into it, we might well hesitate over which aspects we should try to alter. A Health and Safety Executive would almost certainly have halted all progress in its tracks, not least from its recruitment of many able men to hamper the imaginative designs of the simi-
larly gifted. One shudders to think of what Luddism any Trade Union network would have wreaked. Though such anachron- isms are inserted here to make the flesh creep, they are, in fact, mere end-results of what began later as some mild regulation of conditions of work and legitimation of workers’ “combina- tions”. Eighteenth century governments would be unable to en- force the enactment of either, nicely matching their reluctance to try to do anything of the sort. Perhaps any successful inter- ference would have crushed the delicate plant that was to bur- geon into the torrid jungle of industrialism. Who can say whether even such remote legal constraints as primogeniture or the indissolubility of marriage were not somehow involved in its growth, to say nothing of more obvious factors such as the lack of any tax on income or on wealth, rather than on expendi- ture.
HUMAN SOCIETY AND THE STRUGGLE FOR EXISTENCE
It is important to realise that, as in nature, so for most of human history, the struggle for existence ensured that the poor, the weak, the very young and the handicapped were the first to succumb and, if not actually to succumb, to fail to breed. In a static population, net social mobility was downwards. As the population increased during the latter part of the eighteenth century and expanded enormously during the nineteenth, what particularly exercised contemporary observers (and impressed later historians) was the poverty and squalor in which so many people lived. What they failed to note was the fact that larger total numbers were living in smaller areas.
Men and women who in previous times would have failed to breed were now doing so. As before, those at the bottom lived precariously, subject to all the old vicissitudes of severe weather and bad harvests, together with some new ones such as greater vulnerability to epidemics and unemployment due to such overseas catastrophes as the Napoleonic Wars. All the same, it must be stressed: the first product of economic success is an increase in population. The powerfully distorting effect of modern social engineering did not operate at a time when the only form of social security was the nuclear family, and when children could earn their keep at quite an early age. Would-be social engineers such as Malthus18 could only stand on the sidelines and wring their hands in anticipation of a cata- strophe which in fact never happened, unaware of the system’s built-in corrective devices which had been operating for cen- turies, or lacking confidence that they would contine to do so. Admittedly these devices worked over the long term and spec- tacular population crashes could occur, the largest being the Black Death and the most notorious the Irish famine. Interes- tingly, they did not happen where the pessimist might have ex- pected them to, in the great modern industrial cities. In the last hundred years, famines, like other mass deaths, have had politi- cal rather than economic, let alone demographic, causes.
MORE PEOPLE AS THE MEASURE OF THE STANDARD OF LIVING
The human population can be analysed, in its growth and beha- viour, in biological terms suitable, mutatis mutandis, for any animal population. It is especially appropriate to do so in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, because individuals at the base of society continued to behave as they did in preindus- trial conditions, marrying and reproducing when they could ex- pect to bring up a family, which meant under subsistence conditions — which at the time was a wage of seven shillings a week.
It is not surprising that in the growing towns large numbers could be found managing just to survive, in conditions of squa- lor which shocked middle class persons who observed and