There has been an ongoing debate over what the industrial revolution was, and whether it required the introduction of fossil fuels.
On first glance, it may seem like, of course fossil fuels were required. How else could the vast amount of output of the industrial revolution be achieved?
Not so, say those who argue the opposite. The argue that the industrial revolution was well under way long before fossil fuels entered the picture.
Rather, the industrial revolution was really all about the reorganization, intensification, and mechanization of human labor, they say. During the industrial revolution, labor was transformed into something closer to what we know today—large amounts of people toiling under the same roof, each doing their own specialized part of the production process instead of individually crafting things from scratch. Deskilling, specialization, routinization, mechanization, and harsh worker “discipline”—these were all aspects of the Industrial Revolution’s reorganization of working life that did not require the introduction of fossil fuels.
Similarly the use of machines first kicked off with human and animal power, and then later moved to water and wind. It was only after centuries of this when steam engines replaced them and fossil fuels became the prime energy mover. By the time fossil-fuel-powered engines came along, the argument goes, they merely had to be plugged in to system that had already been put into place.
In large measure, they have the timeline right. The reorganization, routinization, deskilling and mechanization of labor did indeed precede the steam engine. Early factories were established before the large-scale harnessing of fossil fuels, and output did go up a great deal.
In this case, it’s helpful to distinguish, as some historians do, several industrial revolutions. How it’s divided up varies depending on the historian. But generally, a distinction is made between the birth of the factory system; the mass utilization of coal and steam engines; the use of gasoline and the internal combustion engine; and the harnessing of electricity and the application of scientific research and engineering methods to the creation of new products.
But the question remains, where did this reorganization of labor first originate?
The New World Path to Industrialization
It turns out that it originated in the New World. From there, it spread to the Europe.
That’s the contention in a book called Indian Givers by Jack Weatherford. Weatherford is best known for his series of books about Genghis Khan and the Mongols. But before he wrote those, his specialty was Native American history, and he wrote several books about the topic.
Chapter Two of Indian Givers is called “The American Indian Path Towards Industrialization.” At first glance, it might seem odd to talk about an “American Indian path to Industrialization,” as the American Indians were less, not more, technologically advanced then the European invaders (with some notable exceptions).
But it was a combination of circumstances caused by the exploitation of New World resources, as well as the discovery of new resources that played the critical role. As he puts it,
“Without European technology and organization, the industrial revolution would never have started in America; without American precious metals and methods of processing, the industrial revolution would never have happened in Europe.” p. 58
Weatherford uses as his illustration the village of Kahl in Germany. For a long time a small farming village, it industrialized during the great rolling industrialization of the nineteenth century. Today, alongside quaint village houses, fenced farm fields, and abandoned mills, sit factories, ports, railroads, truck depots, and even a nuclear power plant! What changed, and why did it change so rapidly in just the last couple of centuries?
Farm life in Kahl remained much the same regardless of whether the village was inhabited by Celts, the Chatten, the Romans, or the Franks. A peasant would probably have felt equally at home farming in the Kahl of 700 B.C. or A.D. 1700.
In this time the basic subsistence pattern of agriculture—the crops grown, the animals used, and the tools for growing and processing them—remained basically unaltered. The houses of the peasants from the two eras differed little, the peasants moved around by the same modes of transportation, and they ate roughly the same meals.
Suddenly in the last few centuries, life changed radically after millennia of great technological stability. The peasants stopped working in the fields and started to work in factories. They illuminated their houses and other buildings with electricity, and they replaced their horses with bicycles, tractors and trucks. They altered their diet, and the way they built their homes and educated their children. Within a few generations, virtually every aspect of life changed… IG pp. 40-41
Weatherford asks a question you hear often today: why did technologically advanced and sophisticated ancient cultures not break through to have their own industrial revolution? Why did it take (from our standpoint) so long? If we don’t require fossil fuel power or steam engines to have an industrial revolution, as we saw above, then what was stopping them?
After thousands of years of agricultural life, this sudden leap into the industrialized world seems difficult to explain. Why had the Greeks, with so much mathematical and philosophical learning and such outstanding architectural techniques, not been able to make and use machines? Why were the Romans, with all of their technical and practical knowledge of engineering and their vast array of engines of war, not industrialized? Why could the people of the Renaissance, who demonstrated their mechanical wizardry by making elaborate toys, not make the leap into machine production? What happened to the world in the 1700s and 1800s to make it industrialize after thousands of static years of technological stability? Indian Givers, p. 41
Weatherford’s answer is that the encounter with the New World was the catalyst. This was the missing piece from all earlier eras of world history.
Why was this the case? Well, this was simply based on the fact that the New World had a chronic shortage of labor. The Old World did not.
In fact, it’s highly unlikely that such a shortage would ever have transpired in the old civilizational centers of Eurasia. They also would have not been developed sui generis by people in the New World.
No, it took an invasion to do that. An invasion combined with a labor shortage.
In fact, the Old World had a surfeit of labor throughout most of history. That surfeit of labor would end up becoming the labor stock for the first industrial revolution.
But first, the factory system had to be invented.
Unlike the Old World, the New World suffered from chronic and persistent shortage of labor.
There was a vast pool of resources just sitting around that needed processing, but the people who lived there kept inconveniently dying just when the exploiters needed them the most.
So, the conquerors were forced by necessity to come up with new ways of organizing labor due to the chronic shortage. Because of the labor shortage, Europeans in the New World developed all sorts of new and novel techniques to extract the maximum amount of labor out of their limited workforce—by and large enslaved Indians and Africans, with indentured workers (bonded labor) thrown into the mix.
In this case, necessity was the mother of invention. History shows that things typically aren’t invented until there’s some sort of pressing need for it.
You might say the New World products were the tinder, and the labor shortage was the spark.
The Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries promised vast resources—gold, silver, and furs, as well as the seemingly inexhaustible potential for crops of tobacco, sugarcane, rice, coffee, indigo, and hundreds of other plants. But a major obstacle constantly slowed the extraction of both the metals and agricultural treasures from the ground: the persistent shortage of labor.
The Spanish quickly impressed the Indians into slave labor, but in some areas, such as the Caribbean islands and Central America, the Indians died very quickly from diseases, malnutrition, overwork, or simple culture shock and grief. In other cases the natives lacked sufficient experience in agriculture or mining to be acculturated into the new Spanish system as workers.
No matter how many slaves the British and Dutch shipped to America, the plantation and mine owners demanded more laborers. Because of the lack of sufficient manpower, the Americans improvised whole new mechanical technologies to help tap the natural resources and potential wealth. IG, p. 49
Back in the days of cottage industries, artisanal production, and small, individual workshops, it was unlikely that anyone would have seen a need to scale up their operations very much, or dramatically increase their output, as there would not have been enough customers to buy their products even if they were to do so.
With the introduction of vast new amounts of silver into the Old World, and the marketization of society it engendered, suddenly not only was there a huge amount of new products, but there was also the money with which to buy them! This catalyzed a self-sustaining feedback loop—more money demanded more products, which made more money, which was invested into higher output of products. The New World produced not only the products, but also the money with which to buy the products. Supply really did create its own demand:
At the time of the discovery of the Americas, Europe had only about $200 million worth of gold and silver, approximately $2 per person. By 1600 the supply of precious metals had increased approximately eightfold. The Mexican mint alone coined $2 billion worth of silver prices of eight.
The silver coins flowing through Europe at first promised to strengthen the feudal order, but in the end they forged whole new classes and changed the fortunes of many countries. The new coins helped to wash away the old aristocratic order in which money games could be played only by the privileged few; massively larger amounts of money opened up new games to new people.
Even though all the gold and silver went into Spain, it did not stay there. From Spain the money spread throughout Europe. The Hapsburg monarch Charles V occupied his throne both as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and as the king of Spain; this facilitated the spread of the money from Spain to the Hapsburg holdings in the Spanish Netherlands and across Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the Italian states. Three-fifths of the bullion entering Spain from America immediately left Spain to pay debts, mostly those incurred by the profligate monarchy…
Precious metals from the Americas superseded land as the basis for wealth, power and prestige. For the first time there was enough of some commodity other than land to provide a greater and more consistent standard by which wealth might be measured. This easily transported and easily used means of wealth prepared the way for the new merchant and capitalist class that would soon dominate the whole world…
The tremendous volume of new currency influenced the economy of all Europe. For example, in Naples there wee only 700,000 ducats in circulation and in savings in 1570. In less than two centuries, by 1751, there were eighteen million ducats. These eighteen million ducts, moreover, could be used many times in a year for various types of transactions. The total number of ducats used in buying and selling would be approximately 288 million.
Similarly, in France, which received its wealth from the New World much later than Spain, approximately 120 million francs circulated in 1670, but by 1770 there were two billion in circulation, a fifteenfold increase in a century. IG, pp. 14-16
Not only did they ship over products from the New World like cotton, tobacco and coffee, but they also shipped over the means to buy those same products in the form of silver and gold bullion.
There was tremendous bounty in the New World, it was true, yet New World goods needed a lot of work to process, that is, they were labor intensive. Where would the labor to do all this work come from?
Slavery, obviously. But even slaves can only do so much. Plus, they’re expensive. You’ve got to ship them over from Africa, buy them, feed and clothe them, and so forth. The same is true for bonded labor. Plus, unlike artisans, you’re not dealing with skilled labor here. You’re dealing with simply warm bodies, ripped from their culture and with little to no training in what they are about to do.
So, to minimize the number of slaves you needed to buy (and the bonded labor you need to indenture), and to dumb down the process enough so that they could easily be put to work, you need to maximize labor output and simplify your tasks. And thus the idea of capitalist efficiency was born—maximizing productive output with the absolute minimum of labor input.
In order to do that, you need to reorganize labor and use machines to the greatest extent possible. This is why this process began in the Americas, rather than in the Old World. In particular, it began in the sugar mills of the Americas—large ,extensive operations designed to grow and harvest sugarcane and turn it into the raw material to be shipped back to Europe and sold for profit.
Even though most of the labor was unskilled, you still needed a small class of skilled laborers for supervision, as well as to direct the more precise industrial processes. So you end up with a balance of about 90 percent unskilled labor versus 10 percent skilled labor in the sugar mills, very similar to that in the earliest factories.
And another key ingredient was the impetus to mass production that New World crops gave to European markets. All sort of new products were discovered during the Columbian exchange-tobacco, chocolate, cotton, dyes, rubber, sisal, etc. These were combined with products already known to Europeans but that Europeans were unable to produce themselves because they required a tropical clime—things like like coffee, sugar and cotton, especially.
While cotton was previously known to Europeans, it turns out that cotton was domesticated independently by natives in the New World, and their cotton was of much higher quality than that in the Old World. The strands were longer, smoother, and silkier; so silky, in fact, that Europeans mistook some Indian cotton garments for silk! Cotton cloaks were used as a high-denomination currency in Mesoamerica, alongside lower-denomination cacao beans.
Some Old World types of cotton had been grown in India and the Near East for centuries, but only very small quantities of it ever reached Europe. This cotton was not only expensive, but weak and difficult to weave because of its short strands.
Asiatic cottons, Gossypium herbaceum and G. arboreum, had a strand length of only about half an inch, but American upland cotton, G. hirtutum, usually grew a full inch or more. Meanshile, G. barbodense, the tropical American cotton that became best known as Sea Island cotton (from the plantations that grew it on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia), could grow to two and a half inches.
In Europe the short strands of the Old World cotton served primarily for padding jerkins under the coats of mail worn in battle. In time the uses of cotton expanded to the making of fustian, which was a coarse material built on a warp of stronger flax and a woof of Old World cotton. Not until American cotton arrived in England, however, did the phrase “cotton cloth” appear in English; the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest date for it is 1552.
The long-strand cotton of the American Indians so surpassed in quality the puny cotton of the Old World that the Spaniards mistook the American cloth for silk and interpreted its abundance as yet further proof that these new lands lay close to China.
For thousands of years before the European conquest of America the Indians had been using this carefully developed cotton to weave some of the finest textiles in the world. Many remnants of these early cloths survive to the present day, their colors and designs intact, after several thousand years in the desert burials of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. IG, pp. 42-42
I’m not going to go deep into the history of New World products or foods. Instead, I’d like to take a look at how the labor shortage forced the Europeans to automate many of the processes they used with enslaved New World labor, and how this led to the development of the factory system in Europe. In particular, we’ll look at two critical New World industries: mining and sugar production.