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Jonathan Lindsell 25/04/2011 To what extent did the social structure of the Western World change as a consequence of industrialisation?
When al-Qa'ida extremists talk of targeting the West, among their many criticisms are attacks on the bourgeois capitalist culture that countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the United States conform to. The rise of these middle classes is frequently attributed to the industrialisation that took place, for the Western world at least, in the nineteenth-century. It is a widespread, commonly held belief that the rise of the factory and the railway promoted democracy, the abolition of serfdom and estates, created meritocracy and fostered the rise of the middle classes, brought more universal suffrage, and heralded the decline of the aristocracy. Such a view is certainly argued by historians such as Andrew Janos and William Whyte. However, such a belief fails to give proper weight to the impact that the agricultural revolution made. This essay contends that in addition to causing the industrialisation which contributed to social change, the vast improvements in agricultural productivity also established the economic climate and gave power to the appropriate societal strata for social reorganisation. As a consequence purely of industrialisation, very little changed in the Western world. Had factories, engines and railways sprung from the ground, their impact alone would be tangential. The artisans living in the cities would largely ignore them, preferring their time honoured methods and "moral economy". The reason so many see industrialisation as pivotal to social history is that their rise coincided with a massive exodus of landless peasants and a consolidation in business by the middle class. Agricultural improvements towards the end of the eighteenth-century created a surplus of food, a rapidly growing population, and a class of peasants without land. The surplus made merchants and entrepreneurs, who were able to sell or trade it for other goods and free themselves from the countryside, giving them capital to establish pre-industrial manufactories in small towns. Certainly, through agricultural wealth the middle class begins to take shape. Pre-industry took advantage of the fact that higher populations necessitated a larger market, creating a "proliferation of small enterprises rather than requiring heavy inputs of capital and powered machinery"1. The aristocracy, or some elements of the aristocracy, those not so very rich that they could weather the storm, not so complacent as to fall from grace, embraced the changes that agriculture had wrought and invested in the stock market or the pre-industrial towns. The Industrial Revolution hit the West in a scattershot volley, England experiencing its effects before France and France before Germany. It was no seismic change, however. It merely built on the vast forces set in motion by the agricultural stimulation. The dispossessed peasants who had found work in pre-industry, found it in modern industry. Small manufactories owned by entrepreneurs became mid- and large sized factories. The artisans continued to feel threatened but prevailed in some form. The wealth created by the endeavours of the middle class gave them a greater voice, and their liberal and social ideas, which so influence the social structure, were formed, spread and supported. No evidence shows that industrialisation caused these ideas, merely that the wealth it created helped to push them. The social changes of the era were, nonetheless, significant. At the broadest level, the basis for how a man was assessed changed radically from his estate to his class. Estates carried with them rights and obligations specific to that estate, were determined by birth, virtually impossible to change, and embodied the old order and its opposition to egalitarianism. The class structure that was to emerge, whilst far from perfect, applied the same national laws to all, was determined to a large degree 1
The Petit Bourgeoisie in Europe 1780-1914, Geoffrey Crossick and Heinz-Gerhard Haupt, p.42
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