During this summer of royal and sporting spectacles, we seem to be surrounded by the warmed up leftovers of Britain’s patriotic myths.
We’re constantly reminded of our “British values” of fair play, our uniquely majestic-yet-down-to-earth monarch and the pastoral idyll of the English countryside. Then there’s the peculiar inventiveness of the British people that brought the world the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution took off in Britain in the second half of the 18th century. It was one of the most significant events in human history. It transformed the way people live their lives, putting it on a scale with the development of agriculture or of complex urban societies.
But why did it develop in Britain rather than anywhere else? Establishment intellectuals like Melvyn Bragg point to the “scientific culture” of 18th century Britain with its dogged pursuit of technological progress.
They cite inventor-entrepreneurs like Richard Arkwright and James Watt as evidence of a peculiarly British culture. They seek to explain the Industrial Revolution largely through a form of “British exceptionalism”, emphasising “great men” and the “culture” that produces them.
However, socialists look primarily to material rather than cultural causes. This means focusing on our interactions with the natural environment, relations between different societies, and above all, the relations between classes within societies.
From this standpoint, the dramatic shock of the Industrial Revolution is part of much broader historical processes. It is also the child of new capitalist social relations that had burst on the scene with revolutionary movements in 16th and 17th century Europe.
The Industrial Revolution emerged from long processes of technological innovation and interaction across the Eurasian land mass.
Remember that a thousand years ago East Asia was responsible for much technological innovation. Gunpowder, paper and the compass were all inventions crucial to early modern Europe—and they all originally came from China.
Still, at the time of the Industrial Revolution itself, Europe—and Britain in particular—continued to practice “innovation by imitation”.
One well-known example is that of printed calico, a type of cotton cloth much prized in Europe that originated in the Indian city of Calicut (Kozhikode).
In order to protect the English wool industry its import was banned in 1700. But an entire industry then grew up in Britain to print imported plain calico cloth in imitation of the original Indian product.
Many experts argue that neither Britain nor Europe had an economic advantage over areas such as the Indian region of Gujarat until the Industrial Revolution. They were just as commercialised and productive and sometimes benefited from better technologies.
None of this explains why the Industrial Revolution took off in Britain rather than in China or France. For this we have to turn to a number of other factors.
One of the most important was environmental—the availability of cheap, accessible coal in Britain. Coal was first used to provide fuel for heat-intensive industries such as potteries or furnaces.
Later it was used to provide steam power for the new factories. Britain was almost unique in having easy access to large reserves of coal, a far more efficient source of power than wood or charcoal.
A second key factor was Britain’s geopolitical position as an island situated off the coast of the European continent. This favoured the development of British naval power and offered a degree of protection from continental warfare.
Naval power was crucial in allowing Britain to seize the trade routes and colonies that would help fund the Industrial Revolution and provide raw materials.
Like other European nations, Britain was able to extract vast quantities of wealth from the New World and particularly from the slave trade and plantations.
But unlike feudal competitors like Spain or Portugal, capitalist merchants ran Britain. This made it more efficient at extracting wealth. It also meant that wealth could be used to fund the development of industrial capitalism.
In the 18th century, British ships transported some 1.6 million Africans to the British Caribbean alone to work and die as slaves. Britain also made extensive use of mercantilist trade policies to protect its new industries against foreign imports with high tariffs or outright bans.
But Marxists argue that there is more to the Industrial Revolution than all this. By the time of the Industrial Revolution social relations based on wage labour were already well established and Britain was essentially a capitalist country.
The emergence of capitalism was by no means a gradual or smooth process that could be attributed to the “entrepreneurial spirit” of the British.
It was a long period of economic and political change, punctuated by violent upheavals such as the English Revolution in the 17th century. In the early 18th century, Britain was the European country where capitalist social relations had become most firmly embedded.
Two features of capitalism are key in understanding the Industrial Revolution in Britain. The first was the new capitalist class that had fought over the previous centuries to assert its dominance over British society.
The second was the drive of the capitalist system to accumulate capital through the relentless competition between capitalists.
The combination of this assertive ruling class and the drive to accumulate helped accelerate technological innovation that had been going on for thousands of years.
These factors provided the material basis for the growth of a “scientific culture” and the emergence of “inventive geniuses” like Watt.
Pre-capitalist ruling classes had been driven to raise armies to expand their territories or increase their own private consumption. But there were always limits to this sort of expansion.
The capitalist class on the other hand, driven by competition, seeks to expand endlessly. In so doing it is constantly in search of new, more productive ways to combine human labour and technology.
One of the “heroes” of the Industrial Revolution is Richard Arkwright. He is a classic example of a capitalist who helped to drive innovation by applying new technologies in his cotton mills.
He did this not for the sake of science or innovation itself. He did so in order to out-compete his rivals and expand his business.
In 1769 he patented a spinning machine that could be used to produce cheap cotton cloth. He was able to quickly expand his business to multiple factories and hundreds of workers. This heralded the beginning of the age of factory production.
The new ruling class had already begun pushing unwanted peasants from the land. Now it squeezed them into the new mills and factories, creating the working class—the class that could challenge capitalism’s rapacious growth.
There is nothing particularly inventive about Britain or its people. Like the rest of humankind people who inhabit the British Isles can be lazy, stupid, stubbornly resistant to change and completely lacking in inspiration.
Yet throughout human history, social, political and environmental conditions have created moments when huge transformations like the Industrial Revolution can take place. These transformations were often focused initially in one geographical location that enjoyed particular advantages.
These were moments when slowly accumulated changes were swiftly transformed into fundamental reconfigurations of the way we live.
Unfortunately we are still living in the world of capitalist exploitation that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. If Britain gave a gift to the world it is certainly a double-edged one.
Industrial Revolution timeline
- 1619 British land first African slaves in colony of Virginia
- 1649 English revolution beheads King Charles I freeing merchants to develop capitalism
- 1709 Abraham Darby uses coke to smelt iron ore, replacing use of charcoal
- 1758 First threshing machine produced
- 1760-1820 Agricultural enclosures. Common rights lost as big farmers drive millions of poor people off the land
- 1765 James Hargreaves invents the Spinning Jenny, automating cloth weaving
- 1772 Bridgewater Canal completed, transports coal to Manchester and Liverpool. Starts mass building of transport canals
- 1775 James Watt builds first efficient steam engine
- 1779 First steam powered mills
- 1801 Robert Trevithick demonstrates a steam locomotive
- 1811-15 Luddite riots. Workers break machines in a protest at attacks on living standards and working conditions
- 1821 Michael Faraday demonstrates electro-magnetic rotation, the principle of the electric motor
- 1830 The Liverpool and Manchester Railway begins first regular commercial rail service
Owen Miller researches Korean politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in central London