The First Societal Shift - Pre-Industrial to Industrial

The vast majority of civilized human history was pre-industrial. The industrial age began in the 18th century in England and got underway in force around 1830 in the US. Much of the rest of the world started transitioning later, and there are parts of the world today that still operate in a largely pre-industrial manner. The transition of the USA to an industrial society took a very long time, but was essentially complete sometime around 1950, with only some straggling rural areas remaining in the old pattern of life.  Around 1965 America started transitioning to post-industrial culture. Only a few places in America, operate according to a predominately post-industrial paradigm, but it continues to extend its reach further with each year and I believe represents another paradigm shift in society.

As I describe these changes, keep in mind that the entire Bible was written in and about societies organized on a pre-industrial basis.

From Pre-Industrial to Industrial

The signature attribute of the civilized pre-industrial economy is that it was based on household production. Think for example, Abraham and his large flocks. As with Abraham, the overwhelming majority of these enterprises were agricultural in nature.  However, there were other enterprises including metalsmithing or various trading activities that were on a different basis. St. Joseph, for example, was a carpenter. Some of the disciples ran a fishing business. These societies – say patriarchal Canaan vs. the first century Levant – were radically different from each other. But they had in common that they were based around household production.

An example of how this worked in the US is the homestead farm. Columbia professor Ann Douglas gives us a sample of it in her book The Feminization of American Culture (alas, an inapt title as it implies a polemic but is actually a richly detailed portrait of some of the social consequences of societal industrialization, such as the rise of mass consumer culture). She focuses on the role of women.

In 1800, by any reckoning, America, North as well as South, was an agricultural nation.  Only six percent of its population of five million lived in towns of 2,500 or more; only New York and Philadelphia could have over 50,000 inhabitants. The common productive unit was the rural household; the processing and preserving of food, candlemaking, soapmaking, spinning, weaving, shoemaking, quilting, rugmaking, and many other activities all took place on domestic premises. Although extra income might be sought through the sale of produce and goods, such households were more or less self-sufficient. Buying and selling, when it occurred, was often conducted on a barter basis. The system of household industry prevalent in the Northeast through the early decades of the 19th century meant that the majority of the women in the area during that time were actively engaged in the productive activities of feeding, clothing, and equipping the nation. Nowhere was their importance clearer than in the domestic manufacture of woolen goods, most notably “homespun,” a coarse all-wool and usually undyed fabric from which most of the clothing worn in the Northeast was made. The census of 1810 estimates that 24 of every 25 yards of wool produced in the United States was of domestic origin.

The shift to an industrial mode transformed the mechanism, location, and organization of production. Rather than household enterprises, production shifted to the factory, and paradigmatically to the vertically integrated corporation. This led to a transformation of household life. As the household economy was abandoned, the husband went to work as an employee of an industrial firm, while the wife lost many of her productive functions (and political rights) and became focused on child-rearing and, increasingly, consumption, creating the nascent form of what we now know as mass consumer culture.  Douglas calls this the “disestablishment” of women paralleling the disestablishment of the state churches during the same time. She says that “middle-class women in the Northeast after 1830 were far more interested in the purchase of clothing than the making of cloth.” This initially affected a minority of households, but eventually grew to encompass all of society after an extended transition period, reaching its fullest form in 1950s suburbia and the sex role division of labor it encompassed.

This transition dramatically increased productivity but came with many hidden costs. For example, the productive household was poor by our standards but was also at least partially self-sufficient. The Colonial farm may have been at the mercy of the vagaries of the weather but was largely a self-contained unit that traded for outside goods in a limited fashion. The industrial household, by contrast, was completely dependent on the marketplace. It produced nothing and so needed to buy everything it consumed. This meant it needed constant inflows of cash just to survive.  The husband now entirely relied on the goodwill of an employer to obtain this cash and provide for his family. The sex-role division of labor that rendered the rest of his household non-productive dramatically increased this dependency. (Today, researchers like Brad Wilcox still point out that married men make more money than single ones. In part, this is because married men with a family to support are under much more economic pressure to produce. It was long a truism that companies preferred to hire a family man for this reason).

Beyond the economy and sex role division of labor, a vast array of other changes in household structure took place. Just as the industrial economy took away the productive function of the household, it likewise stripped away many other functions that the household previously performed.

For example, the household was often a source of community governance. We see in the Bible the elders of the city gathered at the gates, adjudicating disputes. In the American context, we can think about the New England town meeting. Industrial society, with its enormous corporations like the railroads, required a powerful centralized state organized on industrial principles to serve as a counter-balance.  What’s more, industrialization went hand in hand with mass urbanization. As recently as 1910, only 10% of the world’s population was urban. Today it’s over 50% and heading toward 75% by midcentury. Take a look at what’s been happening in China in the last two decades as mass industrial development went hand in hand with radical urbanization. This gives you a picture of what happened a century ago in the US. (The US hit 50% urban around 1920). The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the arrival of huge metropolises like New York and Chicago, along with a host of other large cities. These cities also required large scale, industrialized government. In an era of big corporations, big cities, and big governments, the small household was relatively powerless, and also totally unable to providing the substantive, meaningful governance functions it had exercised in the largely rural and village environment of pre-industrial society.

The pre-industrial household did many other things as well. It not only provided for childcare, but it was also where the education (mostly vocational training) of children took place. It was the provider of health care, elder care, and most other social safety net functions. In many instances, the household also provided a source of what we’d consider policing and defense. A great example is in Genesis 14, when Lot is captured during a battle, Abraham mustered the men of his extensive household to go rescue them. In the Old West, the citizen posse supplemented the very limited law enforcement. (The police force as we know it is was created in 1829 in London – a product of the industrial era).

During the industrial era, all of these services migrated to either the marketplace or the state. Schooling was formalized and institutionalized in public schools and was extended to twelve years for everyone by the high school movement.  We now have hospitals (very different from the medieval Catholic hospitals), nursing homes, police and fire departments, welfare programs, an army, etc. Overwhelmingly we procure formerly household-produced services from these external entities. This again increases our dependency on the market and the state to provide these services.

The need for the pre-industrial household to serve so many critical functions meant that they were organized on the principle of extended families, with a patriarchal form. The household as we think of it today may have been an extended family household, but was also commonly tied to neighboring kin into clan or tribal type structures, as in ancient Israel or places like Afghanistan today. There were strength and safety in numbers.

My impression is that Europe featured less of an extended family form than other regions, possibly because of the church’s ban on cousin marriages that are often used to strengthen clan loyalty. The US, as a frontier/settler nation, was likely even less extended family oriented. But even here we can think of things such as the Hatfield-McCoy feud. The Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath, who represent the last vestiges of pre-industrial American being mercilessly crushed by the industrial age as symbolized by the tractor, is also a small extended family.

The industrial age, by contrast, featured a nuclear family structure. Urbanization that drew people away from family in the village played a big role in that. We see it playing out before our eyes today in China, where there are big problems reconciling traditional notions of filial responsibility with the reality of an urbanizing country as children move away. The industrial nuclear family retained its patriarchal structure, however.

We see the industrial paradigm in its fullest form in the 1950s suburb, with a husband commuting to an office or factory, employed by a large corporation, while the wife stayed at home. Stripped of most of its functions, the nuclear family household became a locus primarily of companionship, consumption, and childcare, possibly with some elder care or other minor items added. The family also continued its governance function in an attenuated way in the form of the civil society activities whose decline in post-industrial America is now so often bemoaned: the Kiwanis Club, the bowling leagues, the garden clubs, the labor unions, etc. These were thin communities that replaced the previous thick communities of extended family, guilds, monasteries, the feudal order, etc.

Finally, pre-industrial society also had a different authority structure from industrial society. In pre-industrial society, authority was largely personal, arising from the nature of relationships. This is essentially impossible for us to comprehend today, but one example does remain: the authority of parents over young children. Why do I have authority over my son Alex? Because I am his father.  In virtually every other context other than the family itself, industrial-era authority is bureaucratic. It is based on boxes in an org chart, with the person occupying the box filling the role, in theory based on competence. Hence, meritocracy comes to be seen as the justification for occupying a role of authority, rather than personal relationship such as father-son, king-subject, lord-vassal, elder-congregant, etc. Nepotism, for example, is disparaged.

This post was taken as an excerpt from The Masculinist Newsletter #26.

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