Of all the arguments against a universal health care system, such as Medicare for All, surely the stupidest one is the concern over the fact that some people might lose their jobs.
When have politicians in America ever given a shit about eliminating working-class jobs?
The only time that I can think of is when the profits of some wealthy special interest group are being threatened.
Let me repeat: when have we expressed concern over the elimination of working class jobs in the modern era, in the media or elsewhere? Nowhere, for as long as I can remember.
It’s just never happened. Why now?
Where where these concerns over jobs when the industrial Midwest, where I live, started bleeding jobs, and continued bleeding jobs for over forty years? Where were they then?
No, when industrial workers and people who wear hard-hats to work and carry lunch pails lost their jobs in the Heartland, the answer from politicians and the media was just to suck it up and deal with it. It was to let them fall back on their own resources. It was to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Their answer at every turn was every clichéd variant of “let them eat cake”: more education, retraining, the “service economy,” and more recently, the “gig economy” (“drive for Uber…”)
They just didn’t care. During the forty years of jobs losses that decimated entire communities and reduced large swaths of the country to the living standards that rivaled those of developing countries for squalor, the politicians and the punditocracy just didn’t give a rat’s ass. They told us that those people deserved it. That they were stupid and racist. That they should have hit the books and studied harder. That they should have moved to New York or San Francisco. That government help would simply “encourage dependency.”
They told us that globalization was just an impersonal force of nature that no one could control, certainly not the politicians from both parties who were helpless in the face of it (even while signing trade deals). Kevin Williamson famously told us that these communities deserved to die. And he wasn’t alone, he was just the most blunt about expressing the belief embraced by the entire Neoliberal professional managerial class.
But NOW they’re just SO CONCERNED that some people might be out of a job if all of us have access to decent health care.
For Christ’s sake!!!
And what’s even more disingenuous is that for years, those of us concerned over job losses due to rapidly advancing automation and outsourcing were lectured by the brain geniuses of economic “science” about the so-called “Lump of Labor” fallacy. We had it thrown in our face at every turn. We were lectured like children by the armchair geniuses who hung out on Internet forums: “Don’t you know about the LuMp oF lAbOr FallAcY, haR Har!” We were told that automation always creates more employment, not less. Anyone who doesn’t believe that, or thinks that circumstances might be different this time, “just doesn’t understand economics” they said. After all, all those agricultural workers eventually found jobs didn’t they?
And now, some of those exact same shills are arguing that we need to keep the most cruel and inefficient health care delivery system in the entire world going because it might cost jobs? Jobs that solely exist because of rampant inefficiency and bloat? That it’s more important to preserve these Bullshit Jobs rather than having an efficient health care system that actually delivers care without bankrupting people? Really? In other words, they are arguing that the Lump of Labor fallacy suddenly becomes true when it comes to preserving health care office jobs, and not for any other part of the economy, apparently.
So we’re supposed to care about workers who owe their jobs to health care bloat after forty years of telling manufacturing workers to go fuck themselves. Sorry, not buying it. The truth is, the Lump of Labor fallacy is just another pseudo-scientific, selectively applied economic bullshit concept used to justify the interests of the powerful and to intellectually bully critics.
Truly, this shows the absolute moral and intellectual bankruptcy of Neoliberalism, and the libertarian bias of economics more generally. It also shows the sheer desperation of the sociopaths who are trying to defend this indefensible and inhumane system that kills people.
The fact that we need to have bloat and inefficiency to ensure that enough people have jobs (if that is, in fact, true) is the most damning indictment of modern American capitalism that I can imagine. If we can’t create enough jobs that really need doing that create actual value for people, then we need to rethink how our entire economic system is put together from the ground up. We need to start reducing working hours and sharing the work. And we need to make a decent standard of living less dependent on the whims of capricious employers whose only goal is to fatten their profits, regardless of the what it does to the living standards of the average person.
If that’s Socialism, then sign me up.
How about this: maybe we should have a fair and efficient government-run universal health-care system AND help those people who have been displaced from jobs. Maybe we can help hurting workers in a way we DIDN’T do for all of those years when we threw manufacturing workers under the bus.
If anybody is still using these arguments, including any media pundits or politicians, you know that they are morally and intellectually bankrupt shills, and you shouldn’t listen to anything they say. That goes especially for the Neoliberal Democratic candidates, many of whom stealthily profit off of the suffering of their fellow Americans.
This post makes much the same point with perhaps a slightly less outraged tone: Our Current Healthcare System Is a Bad Jobs Guarantee (Mike the Mad Biologist). What I favor is replacing the bad jobs guarantee provided by our health care system—one which leads to bankruptcy and premature death—with a good jobs guarantee—one that actually improves the lives of American citizens. And yes, we can afford it.
As I’ve often pointed out, we already have a socialist program that provides education and training to people from blighted rural and urban areas of the country—it’s called the U.S. military. We just have to pretend it’s something else. And don’t forget how many indirect jobs are created by the government military spending gravy train. Without that, the U.S. economy would likely be a wreck. And we already have a de facto UBI as well—we just call it disability benefits and pretend it’s something else.
Maybe we should just stop pretending we have a true “free market” economy (if we ever really did), and just create those programs for real. You know, drop the pretense and quit pretending. Just a thought.
Finally, shoutout to a couple of underdogs who came out big winners in Nevada this weekend: Tyson Fury and Bernie Sanders. It’s a great day. Congrats to both!
It’s not often that questions of architectural style make the news. I suppose I should at least address this topic, if only because I am an AIA member, and this is the only field I have actual qualifications in.
According to an exclusive report by Architectural Record, the predictably named “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” executive order would seek to reposition classically inspired architecture as the country’s default public building style. The shift comes in opposition to the longstanding style agnosticism displayed by public buildings in recent decades following the creation of the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture directive crafted in 1962 by former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Moynihan’s directive—which states that “The development of an official style must be avoided” and that “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government and not vice versa”—has resulted in a wide ranging set of innovative public building projects that embrace contemporary design strategies and material approaches, including the SOM-designed New United States Court House in Los Angeles, Morphosis’s San Francisco Federal Building, and the United States Courthouse in Austin, Texas designed by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects.
The history is pretty unequivocal on this issue. Fascist and authoritarian regimes have customarily been backward-looking and historically have had a fascination with distinctive architectural styles, typically favoring classical and rationalist styles as representations of order, strength, and power. Mussolini had an entire suburb built in Rome to demonstrate his own favored style of architecture which hearkened back to his obsession with ancient Rome. It’s still there:
Begun in 1936, the EUR project was to become the site of the 1942 World’s Fair, an idealized Fascist wonderland complete with stately rationalized architecture that was designed to pay tribute to both the glorious past and future of the Roman Empire. Designed under the initial direction of Italian architect Marcello Piacentini, the original structures of the EUR district were all built of limestone, tuff, and marble. Their simplified neoclassicism is evident in both their traditional materiality and their more overt stylistic themes, which included the use of columns, arches, and classic Roman statuary, the combination of which made for a magnificent city within a city.
Hitler (who once flirted with architecture school), was also an enthusiastic fan of specific types of architectural styles, which he patronized during his regime. His plan for Berlin featured the vast Germania dome (the Volkshalle), which was intended to be large enough to have its own weather patterns (although I’m pretty sure that’s apocryphal). Fascist regimes in general tended to heap scorn on anything that remotely smacked of “modernism,” which was depicted a decadent and leftist (and often Jewish).
Wikipedia even has an entry devoted to fascist architecture:
When Mussolini took office, he took on the role of bringing about fascism and idealism to replace democracy in Italy. He utilized all forms of media along with architectural identity. The new modernist style of architecture was one way to help build his vision of a unified fascist Italy. When Mussolini called for a fascist style of architecture, architects used the style to imitate that of imperial Rome and to bring historical pride and a sense of nationalism to the Italian people. Fascist architecture was one of many ways for Mussolini to invigorate a cultural rebirth in Italy and to mark a new era of Italian culture under fascism.
Similarly, once Hitler came to power in 1933 and transformed the German Chancellory to a dictatorship, he used fascist architecture in the form of Stripped Classicism as one of many tools to help unify and nationalize Germany under his rule. Hitler had plans to rebuild Berlin after the axis powers won World War II under the name Germania, or Welthauptstadt Germania. Hitler had his favorite architect, Albert Speer, design this new metropolis using fascist architecture design.
So there’s a bad precedent here. One wonders if the new executive order will incorporate the theory of ruin value (Ruinenwert), which, given the state of the United States these days, might actually be a good idea.
Hitler accordingly approved Speer’s recommendation that, in order to provide a “bridge to tradition” to future generations, modern “anonymous” materials such as steel girders and ferroconcrete should be avoided in the construction of monumental party buildings, since such materials would not produce aesthetically acceptable ruins like those wherever possible. Thus, the most politically significant buildings of the Reich were intended, to some extent, even after falling into ruins after thousands of years, to resemble their Roman models.
What I’m wondering is, why the sudden interest in architecture? Prominent politicians have avoided sticking their grubby fingers into the subject before, at least not in the present era, as far as I’m aware. After all, the Republicans have held power, more or less, since 1980 (at least ideologically). Yet there’s never been any interest in controlling architectural styles under any previous regime—Reagan, or either Bushes. Why now?
For centuries, autocrats, authoritarians, and dictators have held a fascination with using architecture as a political tool to glorify their regimes, often while also dismissing modern architectural styles as lowbrow, cold, or weak. The current crop of far-right world leaders with authoritarian impulses is no different—and that now appears to include President Donald Trump.
Last week, the trade magazine Architectural Record obtained a copy of a draft executive order from the White House, titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” that would require newly built or upgraded federal structures to hew to “the classical architectural style.” It doesn’t strictly specify what the “classical” style encompasses, but it cites the infrastructure of “republican Rome” as its inspiration…
As many critics of the draft order have pointed out, while there is much to appreciate in classical and neoclassical buildings, admirers of these styles have long included authoritarians who see these schools as embodying the glory of the state. Adolf Hitler notoriously held a fascination with classical architecture, as did other fascist leaders of his time. When totalitarianism flourished across Europe, so did “fascist architecture,” or the construction of new federal monuments and buildings in the same architectural style. More than just a way to telegraph leaders’ political vision for the country, it was a way to inspire and reinforce national unity, inextricably weaving together lived experience and political philosophy. At the heart of all that building was a belief that architecture could be a political statement about whom society serves and what it values.
To me, this is all part of a new turn in Republican rule, alongside their use of blatant agitprop and attempts to transform the U.S. into a de facto one party state.
It further cements the transformation of the Republican Party into one mainly preoccupied with cultural issues more than anything else. Rather than a pro-wealth, anti-worker, economically-oriented party as it has historically been, the new Republican Party centers itself mainly around cultural issues: anti-egalitarianism, an obsession with strength and might, contempt for institutions and the rule of law, opposition to modernism, hatred of intellectuals and intellectualism, and a disdain for social movements like feminism and gay rights; combined with strident ethno-nationalism. The non-ideologically-based pro-wealth, anti-worker party is now the mainstream Democrats (as demonstrated by their extreme opposition to the Sanders candidacy). The Republican Party is now something else entirely, something possibly new in the American experience.
With its pivot towards white identity politics and socio-cultural issues, it aligns with many of the other right-wing movements which are achieving power simultaneously all across the globe, in a sort of real-life domino effect: Poland, Hungary, Russia, China, Brazil, the Philippines. Many other countries are on a similar trajectory: India, Italy, Australia, the U.K., etc. It’s not too much to say, I think, that the vast majority of the world’s population right now lives under at least a quasi-authoritarian regime, and it’s only getting worse as the twenty-first century unfolds.
And unlike their erstwhile twentieth-century counterparts, these regimes show no signs of burning themselves out anytime soon.
Online, traditional architecture enthusiasts, white suprematists, and other groups have aligned their shared passions for classical aesthetics with sordid nationalist politics to consistently weaponize classical motifs under a variety of nativist mantles. Increasingly, classical orders, fluted columns, and dentilled cornices have come to symbolize not simply solid, timeless architectural motifs but also the “Whites Only” idealized version of the past these groups seek to celebrate today. As in other facets of federal policy, President Trump’s long-running embrace of nativist politics is, with the potential executive order, gesturing toward and growing to absorb these discourses into the country’s legal and regulatory apparatuses.
The order also uncomfortably evokes the standard-issue reactionary weltanschauung, which has persisted since at least the late nineteenth-century: that the decadent Postmodernists and the Marxists (or the Postmodern Neo-Marxists) are engaged in a vast conspiracy to undermine society’s core values. This aligns itself with the Reactionary Right’s embrace of conspiracy theories more generally.
…for the social conservatives of Architecture Twitter, that brutalist buildings still stand is testament to the West having lost faith in itself. Last year, ArchitecturalRevival, one of Twitter’s most popular architecture accounts with more than 40,000 followers, was accused of promoting white nationalism under the guise of appreciating “cultural tradition,” “beauty” and a “hyperborean worldview.” These terms, while seemingly innocuous, were, according to the New Statesman, used by Twitter accounts that regularly post content rife with anti-Semitism and Nazi propaganda. While ArchitecturalRevival hasn’t formally apologized or addressed the retweets, the British architectural magazine Archinect reported that in 2017 the account tweeted, “Where there is ugliness, we will bring beauty. Where there is chaos, we will bring order. Where there is vice, we will bring virtue.”
Other traditional architecture accounts that mostly share pictures of old gothic cathedrals and European baroque structures also have been called out for promoting alt-right and far-right figures who use terms like “traditional” to promote anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic content. For example, TradWestern Art has tweeted, “Reading Nietzsche followed by Evola can cure you of atheism,” while claiming that modern architecture is eradicating “white identity.” And MagicalEurope, a 50,000 follower-strong account that posts pictures of “traditional European culture,” has gone as far as to suggest that Turkey isn’t a real country, in an attempt to downplay the influence of Muslim architects in European traditionalism.
The impetus for this appears to be an organization called the National Civic Art Society:
It’s true that modernism abounds in D.C. Standing on a street corner near the National Mall, there’s actually a mishmash of architectural styles. Let’s talk about three of them: In the distance, the gleaming white pillars of the U.S. Capitol dome, the kind of classical architecture the president’s order favors. Closer in, there’s a towering, steel-mesh scrim that’s part of the Eisenhower Memorial, a contemporary design by Frank Gehry which is under construction. Right behind the scrim, there’s the beige, boxy, concrete-heavy Department of Education, a Brutalist building — the style a lot of people love to hate.
Marion Smith of the National Civic Art Society is one of them. He looks at this entire vista with disgust. “From where I’m standing, I see modernist structures, and the only hint of a classical building I can see is the top of the U.S. dome,” he says. “That is not what our founders had in mind. This is a new reigning orthodoxy of modernist, Brutalist, postmodern design.” (Brutalism was a popular movement with architects beginning in the 1950s, but it’s mostly fallen out of favor.) The Society led a six-year campaign against Gehry’s Eisenhower memorial, which forced the architect to make some changes to his orginal design.
Once again, we’re playing out the passion play of the 1930’s and the run up to World War Two in almost excruciating detail, just with the players changed.
Now, long-time readers know I’m highly critical of modern architecture. And I stand behind that criticism. I think it’s important and necessary not to become a hermetically-sealed echo-chamber. The fact is, we as a profession have often failed to listen to the public, and assumed the role of elitist aesthete taste-makers. We have discarded millennia of good design in favor of novelty and abstract theories. It is true that the public have voted with their feet and dollars to embrace traditional neighborhoods and rejected much of what has been built after World War Two (which was driven mainly by developers, not architects). The places most visited by tourists are, by-and-large, places where modern design is largely absent, such as Paris and Venice.
This post provides a good criticism of the way America has built since the Second World War:
Much of the rest of the world takes for granted architectural principles of how to build life-affirming human settlements. These principles evolved over thousands of years, and it’s no accident that so many cultures reached the same conclusions. Urban Europeans, and indeed Armenians, are accustomed to vertical growth, mixed-use development (shops on first floor, apartments above), sidewalks, plazas, public squares and street cafes. These are the fixtures amidst which your halcyon childhood days played out, where you walked hand in hand with your first love, where you met friends for coffee, and hopped the train to work. It’s the corner with the pastry shop, it’s the supermarket down the street, and the bench in between.
Few people can prepare themselves for the degree to which Americans have, in the last half-century or so, taken this entire corpus of human experience and thrown it completely into the trash, with the exception of a few older cities–not the places where the majority of Americans live. What has replaced it is a surreal moonscape. For those accustomed to the traditional urban civilisation, the primary question in America is: where do I go? What do I do? Looking around leads to an intangible but intense realisation of emptiness.
Suburbia is both a cause and an effect of the destruction of civic and community life in America: there’s increasingly little to come home to, and vanishingly little to go out to. This has real effects. Your children will have nowhere to play, as there is no courtyard full of friends; they will depend on your willingness to drive them (sometimes quite far) for prearranged “play dates”. You will not take leisurely strolls to admire the scenery, for there is neither admirable scenery nor anywhere to stroll. It’s likely that you won’t even know your neighbours. You certainly can’t venture downstairs for lettuce or milk; strict zoning codes have ensured that only residential structures can be built where you live, and you’ll have to drive a few miles to reach the commercial zone, where the grocery stores are.
Nikos Salingaros is reviewing a book entitled Making Dystopia by James Stevens Curl, a prominent British architectural historian. At the outset, Salingaros (himself an author of several books, some in my library) states the premise:
Architecture shapes human society and drives much of its commercial and economic engine. The inhabited world is covered with giant glass skyscrapers, factories, museums of contemporary art, concert halls, university buildings, and houses. In Making Dystopia, James Stevens Curl argues that the preferred style in which many new buildings are created is ill adapted to the human senses, generating a permanent condition of stress from our environment.
Curl has several goals in this scholarly, well-documented book:
Demonstrate that contemporary architectural culture, with ideological origins in the 1920s, has created a dystopian environment for users.
Explain how a tiny group was able to impose on the world an architecture of abstraction that is, as Curl sees it, devoid of sense.
Show that three key figures—Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—insisted upon the global homogenization of architecture and ignored local conditions of climate, culture, and evolved traditions.
Document how biological aspects of architecture necessary for healing environments, such as ornamentation, the human scale, a sense of enclosure, positive tactile qualities, and complex color harmonies, were expunged.
Examine the historical, political, and psychological reasons why people have accepted shaping our environment in this manner.
Why would architects in the 1920s turn their backs on vital mechanisms for connecting humans to the world, necessary to ensure long-term mental and physical health? It is certainly true that the neurological mechanisms for relating to our environment were unknown back then. Curl argues, in addition, that a small group of architects sought to achieve fame by promoting a novelty that turned out to be counterintuitive and dangerous. He devotes roughly the first 200 pages of his book to documenting how this agenda was implemented.
Curl also addresses topics such as the science of design, cults and substitute religions, and how totalitarian systems arise. The book starts as architectural history and becomes an indictment of a movement. The contemporary built environment, dictated primarily by style, lacks key geometrical features that human biology craves. Scientists, who should have been the first to notice this discrepancy, unwisely or naively left the shaping of our world in the hands of the architects.
The Rise of the Architectural Cult. Do read the whole thing-it’s worth it. As someone who has actually been through an architectural education program, I can attest to the cultist nature of architectural instruction (complete with sleep deprivation).
In a follow-up letter to the review, Curl himself writes:
Modernism in architecture, for the first time in the history of the world, succeeded in imposing one manner of building globally, no matter what the climatic conditions, local requirements, and skills available. It ignored context completely, because the past was of no value to its perpetrators. When drawing boards and T squares were consigned to oblivion, practitioners programmed computers to produce structures that conformed to the latest fad, such as Derrida-inspired deconstructivism—a topic on which Saligaros has written intelligently and with devastating accuracy—and curvy parametricism. Buildings became stratospherically costly and alien to humanity, considering neither environmental nor human needs. One can hear very clearly the sibilance of banknotes cascading into grasping paws, the oily squelch of palms being greased, the click of computer keys as eyewatering sums are transferred from one account to another, and the dim murmurings of hagiographers, critics, and journalists as they establish a consensus of approval for the inexcusable (and presumably gain materially for so doing).
Architecture, a public art, matters to us all. Questioning its qualities should not be the preserve of a small coterie of self-appointed professionals, propped up by pseudoscience and browbeating any dissent. Real scientists should start to examine the claims of starchitects and their followers—probing, dissecting, and then demolishing the pretensions, obfuscatory language, and arrogant disregard of everything except celebrity and money that are characteristics of this group. Since the modernist movement gained control, chaos has been produced where once was order. That state of affairs is revealed in my book…
I’m reasonably confident in saying that Salingaros’ criticism (and Curl’s) is not based in white supremacy. So It’s important to note, if there is any doubt, that criticism of modern architecture does not make you a white supremacist! That’s not what I’m saying. Not at all.
The fact is, contemporary architecture gives most regular humans the heebie-jeebies. Try telling that to architects and their acolytes, though, and you’ll get an earful about why your feeling is misguided, the product of some embarrassing misconception about architectural principles. One defense, typically, is that these eyesores are, in reality, incredible feats of engineering. After all, “blobitecture”—which, we regret to say, is a real school of contemporary architecture—is created using complicated computer-driven algorithms! You may think the ensuing blob-structure looks like a tentacled turd, or a crumpled kleenex, but that’s because you don’t have an architect’s trained eye.
Another thing you will often hear from design-school types is that contemporary architecture is honest. It doesn’t rely on the forms and usages of the past, and it is not interested in coddling you and your dumb feelings. Wake up, sheeple! Your boss hates you, and your bloodsucking landlord too, and your government fully intends to grind you between its gears. That’s the world we live in! Get used to it! Fans of Brutalism—the blocky-industrial-concrete school of architecture—are quick to emphasize that these buildings tell it like it is, as if this somehow excused the fact that they look, at best, dreary, and, at worst, like the headquarters of some kind of post-apocalyptic totalitarian dictatorship.
Current Affairs’ founder and publisher (and co-author of the above piece), Nathan J. Robinson, is the author of a recently published a book entitled Why You Should be a Socialist. So, again, hardly a right-wing reactionary. In another piece, The Power of Anarchist Analysis, he writes of contemporary architecture:
It’s funny, it seems like this should be a comparatively uncontroversial one, but I get the most hate mail when I write about architecture, which only encourages me (as a stubborn anarchist) to be more provocative. To me, it is obvious that something has gone deeply and troublingly wrong with built spaces. They are not just undemocratic but they also do not provide feelings of aesthetic bliss. Architectural consensus is actually more rigid than the consensus you’ll find almost anywhere else. If you try building something like this or this or this you will be laughed at. There is a dogma that buildings must look “like their time,” which is used to mean “you must design things that look like the things that are currently designed.” A minimalist aesthetic is enforced and nobody is allowed to produce anything that looks like it could have been erected before 1945. You only very rarely see truly interesting new experiments (like New Andean architecture in Bolivia).
The Power of Anarchist Analysis (Current Affairs). Unfortunately, I find his examples of “good” architecture to be rather treacly (Thomas Kincade meets The Hobbit). But the point still stands.
He also recently wrote a piece critical of contemporary healthcare architecture.
Why are hospitals so unpleasant? I mean, yes, obviously, they’re full of sick people and much that is painful takes place in them. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? Hospitals are harsh places. The lighting is harsh. The bureaucracy is confusing. The furniture is uncomfortable. There are often few windows. They are not beautiful places. They are certainly not welcoming.
It appears that hatred of modern and contemporary architecture is the only thing that the left and the right can agree on.
So we architects have accomplished something, it seems.
We separate church and state, as John Michael Greer has pointed out numerous times, not to protect the state, but to protect religion. In the same way, a separation between the government and architecture should be observed to protect architecture. Sure, the profession has stumbled. But the answer is not top-down control, or the establishment of a singular “official style” determined by the government. Nor does the answer necessarily have to be backward-looking classicism, or any historical style.
The answer should be rediscovering the timeless values of design. That’s not the exclusive property of any single style. And while it may make sense to have stylistic restrictions in a city like Paris, imposing them over the whole of the United States, with all its diversity, is foolhardy. It will mire the United States endlessly in nostalgia, forever trying to invoke its past glories while it deteriorates in real time.
Now, I have no problem with classical architecture. But I do have a problem with the government telling us how to build. I am against the politicization of architecture. This is America. It goes against our values. As Moynihan’s statement aptly put it, “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government and not vice versa.” Whatever the failings of contemporary architecture—and, as I have noted, there are many—this principle should be maintained. I am 100% with the AIA on this.
And, I must note, it’s amusing to see all the “anti-statist” Libertarians suddenly embracing this. Apparently, top-down imposition from the Federal government is okay as long as it is in cultural matters and not economic ones. If government dictates something that they agree with, suddenly Libertarians reveal themselves as closet statists.
Finally, to condemn all contemporary architecture with such a broad brush is the provenance of absolutist thinking. Look, we’ve moved beyond Brutalism. We don’t worship at the altar of the International Style anymore—contemporary modern architecture embraces location and context . It learns from the past. A lot of contemporary modernism has incorporated principles of form, space order, and proportion once again, along with comfortably incorporating modern building materials and techniques. It’s just not noticed as often by the general public. Just like we notice car wrecks and shocking news stories, we are hard-wired to pay disproportionate attention to ugly buildings, and ignore all the instances of good ones. For example, Santiago Calatrava’s art museum has become one of the most beloved spaces in my city, drawing tourists from all over the world. Bare-bones budgets and a penny-pinching mentality are far bigger threats to architectural beauty than architects are; something we often fail to properly acknowledge.
There must be some sort of middle ground that allows us to point out the failings of modern architecture without embracing some kind of nostalgic European ethno-nationalism. Some sort of middle-ground between dismissing all our critics as unqualified philistines, and believing that Modernism is a vast Marxist conspiracy to exterminate an imaginary Christian West.
But in these extreme times, I doubt it.
For some enjoyment of actual classical architecture, check these out:
This is a reconstruction of ancient Rome that was done in a software called Lumion. I became aware of this program while looking for a good rendering engine:
We’ve been talking over the past few weeks about how the factory system was born on the sugar plantations of the West Indies, and how that system was gradually imported back into Europe, becoming the basis for the industrial revolution.
The dramatic glut of raw materials flooding into Europe called forth means of mechanization and intensification of production that were simply not called for before. This was accompanied by a population explosion, and a vast increase in the money supply—first through silver and then through paper.
While the Caribbean plantations depended on slavery, this was not viable in Europe. Instead wage labor increasingly became the norm, eroding the independence and moral economy of the yeoman peasantry. The landed aristocracy became displaced by an ascending aristocracy of industrialists and financiers. Noblesse oblige was supplanted by maximizing profit.
Because of the nature of factory production, economic activity became much more concentrated in urban areas than it had been before. This caused a vast flood of people into industrial cities, which led to the characteristics we mistakenly attribute to ALL historical urban areas: overcrowding, pollution, filth, disease, social maladies, etc. Certain industrial cities in Western Europe became super-sized almost overnight.
I’d like to conclude by noting that this method of working has never gone away. All of the subsequent reorganization of labor was based on the labor intensification methods originally developed under slavery, which were then directly to applied factory production.
That’s right, the methods we all labor under today were originally all developed to organize and manage slaves.
In essence, we are still industrial workers today. Now, you may say, ‘Hold on, that’s not right! I’m not an industrial worker; I work in IT, or healthcare, or finance, or construction, or whatever…’ But it doesn’t matter what industry you ostensibly work in, we are all laboring under the same industrial system developed on those plantations centuries ago.
The factory system is the basis for all modern work. Selling our precious time on earth in exchange for for money is the way all of us need to make a living nowadays (except the lucky few born rich, or who own sufficient income-generating assets).
So too, is submitting yourself to harsh worker “discipline.” Our bosses basically exert a level of control over us that even the most sociopathic dictators in history were never able to accomplish. We accept this state of affairs because, we are told, it is “only” within the confines of work life. We accept that “freedom” is only something to be experienced outside of the walls of the office park or cubicle. And because we are free to theoretically choose a new master at any time, we told that we have historically unprecedented “freedom.”
Yet that’s not even a fraction of the amount of freedom people enjoyed in ancient times. Everyone except slaves, that is.
That’s why it’s called wage slavery.
There were institutional barriers in the past to be sure—serfs, for example, couldn’t leave their place of residence. But there was no direct supervision of everything one did on a daily basis. There was no one looking over your shoulder. There was no one telling you to work harder, work faster, or else. There was no one telling you to not show up drunk or to pee in a cup. There was no one telling you when to go to the bathroom (something even slaves did not have to endure). That is only a modern phenomenon! Our ancestors experienced a level of freedom and autonomy that we can only dream of in our modern world.
And yet Capital-L Liberalism portrays itself as the epitome of freedom! What a fucking con!
In a post I wrote several years ago, Modern Work Patterns Make No Sense, I pointed out that keeping employees noses to the grindstone was necessitated by the introduction of machines in production: every minute those machines were not running was theoretically a loss of profit. That led to a time-centric, intensive work pattern that did not exist before. Prior to that, there was no such thing as a “weekend,” and many languages still do not have a word for it. I quoted historian Emma Griffin on the In Our Time podcast:
“…Traditionally people are paid for making things according to how much is made. So a shoemaker gets paid for his shoes when he’s made his shoes and is not really paid for his time—he’s paid for what he actually accomplishes. In the factories that logic doesn’t really work because the employers have spent money invested in very expensive machinery, and that means they’ve got to keep the machines running all through the week, as long as possible. So they’ve got to get workers to the factory early in the morning, they’ve got to get them working intensively throughout the day, staying until late into the evening. And that’s a very different kind of working pattern that’s being introduced. So instead of people dovetailing working at home with managing a cotton garden or something, now they’re going into the factories. And it’s the beginning of modern working patterns that we’re familiar with, where we’re effectively paid for our time rather than what we manage to get done.”
And this system persists today, despite us living in an age where machines make practically everything we need, and increasingly provide services as well (or allow us to provide our own services). I pointed out that we still stubbornly retain this archaic work pattern, despite it’s inefficiency, and despite the extreme stresses it places on individuals:
As Emma Griffin points out, those work patterns make sense when you work in a factory where every second the machine isn’t running it’s a loss of profit. This is also why agricultural societies have always been more leisurely than industrial ones—working harder won’t make the plants grow any faster, after all; once the land you’ve got is seeded and watered, it’s several months minimum before you harvest your crop with little to do but pull weeds and wait. By contrast, a machine never gets tired, and you will give out before it does, hence the Stakhanovite working hours of the early Industrial Revolution (only ameliorated by brutal strikes where workers often sacrificed their lives in a hail of government-sponsored gunfire).
But in case you haven’t noticed, not a lot of people are working in factories anymore.Yet, bizarrely, the entire structure of society is designed as if we do! We all get into our cars and head to work at the exact same time every day (causing epic traffic jams), and file home at the exact same time (causing yet another traffic jam). We all work Monday-Friday (with a few exceptions). During that time we’re chained to a desk for eight hours regardless of what we actually accomplish. It doesn’t matter if there’s four hours of work to do or forty – we’re parked there whether we like it or not. But there is no spinning machine, no power loom, no drill press, no drop forger. No machine at all except sometimes a computer which can go anywhere and work anytime
What’s more, the coercive aspect of work has never gone away. It’s just accepted as “normal” even though it’s historically novel. Of course, as social beings embedded in webs of relationships, it’s not like we ever had true absolute freedom (or would even want such a thing if we could have it). But being forced to have work extracted from you for hours upon hours a day, every single day, for our entire life with only a couple of days to ourselves—that was something new and unusual. Employers became a kind of “private government” that dictates every aspect of over a third of your waking life:
In “Private Government,” [Elizabeth] Anderson explores a striking American contradiction. On the one hand, we are a freedom-obsessed society, wary of government intrusion into our private lives; on the other, we allow ourselves to be tyrannized by our bosses, who enjoy broad powers of micromanagement and coercion. Anderson believes that many American workers are constrained by rules that would be “unconstitutional for democratic states to impose on citizens who are not convicts or in the military.” She estimates that more than half are “subject to dictatorship at work.” In “Private Government,” she asks whether this might be a failure of our political system—a betrayal of America’s democratic promise.
That similarity between the level of control employers have and the control governments have over convicts and prisoners is echoed by Lewis Mumford in describing the foundation of the factory system (see the previous post on “the minimum of life”):
The quintessence of this minimum of life was achieved in the prison. Indeed, one might without much exaggeration say that housing reform was preceded by prison reform, as John Howard preceded Shaftesbury; and the prisons embodied most of the negative improvements that were introduced for the benefit of free citizens of the non-criminal classes, in the factories and tenements. The factory maintained the coercion of the prison: the enforced silence, the repetitive routine, the lockstep, the constant surveillance of the foreman or jailer: often enough a formidable prison wall would be around the structure, too; and the new housing quarters, with their closely calculated number of cubic feet of air and square feet of window space, cut off from sight of grass and flowers by the dusty paved courts and the dustier streets, could not have been more adequately designed if the sole object of the building were punishment.
The speculative spread of the industrial town meant the growth and spread of a dreary prison environment. The reward an honest man got for a faithful day’s labor was not measurably different from that which a more erring member of society got as punishment: indeed, the “freedom” of the first was another name for anxiety and insecurity and fearful humiliation. A minimum of life: malnutrition at every level. Mumford; The Culture of Cities, pp. 179-180
You would think this idea would be obvious to everyone. We are bossed around and told what to do almost every moment of the day as a very basic condition of our existence! If you don’t like it, you can go starve or be homeless. And this is portrayed as “freedom.”
In America, this shift occurred somewhat later than in Europe. The transition occurred from 1890 to the 1920’s—only 100 short years ago; an eyeblink in historical time. The handicraft, artisan, and the agrarian household economy all perished and were by-and-large absorbed within large bureaucratic corporations. The traumatic effects are still being felt today. William Grieder describes the change in his mammoth history of the Federal Reserve, Secrets of the Temple:
By 1900, only four in ten American workers were still on farms. A few decades earlier, the figure had been eight in ten. The economic dimensions of America’s transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society, the rapid and dramatic shift of population from rural to urban, were well understood. The emotional transaction was not. It left a deep cultural imprint of contradictory memory and emotion, still visible in popular values, a painful nostalgia for something that was lost and also a sense of liberation from old burdens.
Everything changed, even the language. In the Populist era, when the grassroots speakers appealed to the “producing classes,” they were speaking of farmers and factory workers, individuals who made things with their own hands, the “bone and sinew of the nation” in Andrew Jackson’s rhetoric. In twentieth-century usage, “producers” were no longer people; the term now meant those anonymous corporate enterprises that controlled most output, distinguished from their employees, the “workers.” In 1900, a rural census taker in Pennsylvania innocently listed all of the farmers in his district as “unemployed,” since all of them worked for themselves, not for someone else. p. 287
With loss, however, there was also reward. Millions of American families willingly traded roles in life: they ceased to be the independent yeomanry of American tradition, self-reliant and proud and skillful in the practical arts of self-sufficiency. They became, instead, employees and consumers. They went to work for someone else, usually a corporation, and their labor produced wages—pieces of paper in place of the “real things” of country life. The energies of individual expression, once devoted to daily survival, were diverted instead to consuming—buying things and using them, things made by others in some distant place.
Both new roles—consumer and employee—made people more dependent on the abstractions of the money system than they had been as self-sufficient farmers, producing real goods. Money belonged to the city and its complexities. Country people, as they were drawn closer to the ancient mystery, were uncomfortable confronting money. Money was the everyday symbol of what they had given up. Grieder; Secrets of the Temple, p. 288
It’s no wonder than that right-wing authoritarian movements always invoke a “back to the land” ethos that portrays a nostalgic and idyllic version of rural life as the thing they hearken back to, and demonize cosmopolitan city-dwellers and their deviant lifestyles as the source of all the nation’s problems. From Maoism, to Hiter’s fascism, to modern European right-wing parties (Poland, Hungary) to Putinism, to Trumpism, it’s been a consistent feature since the rise of the factory system. So, too, is a deep distrust of money and finance (even when the authoritarian leaders themselves are in the metaphorical bed with the bankers and financiers).
The connection between industrial work and slavery was even more illuminated with the coming of the “scientific management” techniques of industrial engineering, with its time and material studies. This article goes into great detail about how the methods of industrial engineering in the twentieth century came directly out of the supervision of slaves in the American South. They were then applied to nominally “free” industrial workers in the industrial North.
In a sense, scientific management replicated slavery’s extractive techniques while jettisoning the institution itself…Writing in 1918, historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips acknowledged the parallels between scientific management and slavery. As Daniel Joseph Singal notes, when Phillips described the sophistication of southern management strategies, he liked to reference a series of articles in the Southern Planter by H. W. Vick, whose “analysis of stance and movement” resembled some of the most advanced industrial studies of his own time.
Perhaps Phillips’s own rosy views of slavery enabled him to see these connections. One of the most influential historians of slavery, his work was infused with racial bias. He famously characterized slavery as a kind of “school” for the enslaved, and his descriptions of the interactions between planters and their slaves bear striking similarities to the ways Taylor described the ideal interactions between managers and workers.
In 1911, during the many months of congressional hearings on scientific management, Taylor attempted to distance his system from that of slavery by describing it as a school for workers who did not know how to work: this “is not nigger driving; this is kindness; this is teaching; this is doing what I would like mighty well to have done to me if I were a boy trying to learn how to do something. This is not a case of cracking a whip over a man and saying, ‘Damn you, get there.’”
This brutality is still observed daily in the warehouses of Amazon, where the taskmaster is often an algorithm, even more inhuman and impersonal than a slave driver, and not subject to pity.
And this article from the New York Times makes the case that the unique brutality and sociopathy of the American style of Capitalism comes directly out of the slavery system used on the plantations of Dixie. The techniques of the plantation economy—particularly the techniques to squeeze the maximum amount of labor out of one’s employees—were applied directly to Northern industrial workers. These techniques then inserted themselves into industrial capitalism more broadly (e.g. office work), which lead to the particularly vicious exploitation and lack of worker rights seen in modern-day America’s brutal version of winner-take-all capitalism (ironically justified in the name of “freedom”):
Perhaps you’re reading this at work, maybe at a multinational corporation that runs like a soft-purring engine. You report to someone, and someone reports to you. Everything is tracked, recorded and analyzed, via vertical reporting systems, double-entry record-keeping and precise quantification. Data seems to hold sway over every operation. It feels like a cutting-edge approach to management, but many of these techniques that we now take for granted were developed by and for large plantations.
When an accountant depreciates an asset to save on taxes or when a midlevel manager spends an afternoon filling in rows and columns on an Excel spreadsheet, they are repeating business procedures whose roots twist back to slave-labor camps. And yet, despite this, “slavery plays almost no role in histories of management,” notes the historian Caitlin Rosenthal in her book “Accounting for Slavery.” Since the 1977 publication of Alfred Chandler’s classic study, “The Visible Hand,” historians have tended to connect the development of modern business practices to the 19th-century railroad industry, viewing plantation slavery as precapitalistic, even primitive. It’s a more comforting origin story, one that protects the idea that America’s economic ascendancy developed not because of, but in spite of, millions of black people toiling on plantations. But management techniques used by 19th-century corporations were implemented during the previous century by plantation owners.
Planters aggressively expanded their operations to capitalize on economies of scale inherent to cotton growing, buying more enslaved workers, investing in large gins and presses and experimenting with different seed varieties. To do so, they developed complicated workplace hierarchies that combined a central office, made up of owners and lawyers in charge of capital allocation and long-term strategy, with several divisional units, responsible for different operations. Rosenthal writes of one plantation where the owner supervised a top lawyer, who supervised another lawyer, who supervised an overseer, who supervised three bookkeepers, who supervised 16 enslaved head drivers and specialists (like bricklayers), who supervised hundreds of enslaved workers. Everyone was accountable to someone else, and plantations pumped out not just cotton bales but volumes of data about how each bale was produced. This organizational form was very advanced for its time, displaying a level of hierarchal complexity equaled only by large government structures, like that of the British Royal Navy.
Like today’s titans of industry, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort out of each worker. So they paid close attention to inputs and outputs by developing precise systems of record-keeping. Meticulous bookkeepers and overseers were just as important to the productivity of a slave-labor camp as field hands. Plantation entrepreneurs developed spreadsheets, like Thomas Affleck’s “Plantation Record and Account Book,” which ran into eight editions circulated until the Civil War. Affleck’s book was a one-stop-shop accounting manual, complete with rows and columns that tracked per-worker productivity. This book “was really at the cutting edge of the informational technologies available to businesses during this period,” Rosenthal told me. “I have never found anything remotely as complex as Affleck’s book for free labor.” Enslavers used the book to determine end-of-the-year balances, tallying expenses and revenues and noting the causes of their biggest gains and losses. They quantified capital costs on their land, tools and enslaved workforces, applying Affleck’s recommended interest rate. Perhaps most remarkable, they also developed ways to calculate depreciation, a breakthrough in modern management procedures, by assessing the market value of enslaved workers over their life spans. Values generally peaked between the prime ages of 20 and 40 but were individually adjusted up or down based on sex, strength and temperament: people reduced to data points…
The uncompromising pursuit of measurement and scientific accounting displayed in slave plantations predates industrialism. Northern factories would not begin adopting these techniques until decades after the Emancipation Proclamation. As the large slave-labor camps grew increasingly efficient, enslaved black people became America’s first modern workers, their productivity increasing at an astonishing pace. During the 60 years leading up to the Civil War, the daily amount of cotton picked per enslaved worker increased 2.3 percent a year. That means that in 1862, the average enslaved fieldworker picked not 25 percent or 50 percent as much but 400 percent as much cotton than his or her counterpart did in 1801.
Today, we’ve completely capitulated to this system; unable to imagine anything beyond it. But it might be helpful to know where and when it started, and how it became the norm we all live under. It might also help to remember that there was once a time when we didn’t all live this way, and that was for most of human history.
Before I move on to the final part, I just want to make a quick point about how the process of industrialization contributed to our overly grim views of the past, especially with regards to cities.
Typically, when you hear discussions about what city life was like the far distant past, here is what you hear:
Super-crowded. Filthy. Stinky. Excrement and garbage piled up in the streets. Water swimming with disease. Narrow streets. Ten people to a room. Dark. Rats everywhere. Nobody bathed.
Basically, people shitting in their own nests. This is especially true with respect to medieval times, according to the stereotypical view.
The irony is, all of these stereotypes actually come from the early Industrial Period! In the medieval period before 1500, the population was much too small and too rural for any of this cartoonish picture to be true. Medieval cities were not hyper-dense or exceptionally filthy. There was not rubbish in the streets. People did not live crowded into dank cellars. Construction techniques forbade buildings over 4-5 stories high in most cases, apart from cathedrals and some government buildings. More to the point, there was simply no logical reason to crowd people together in this manner.
That came much later thanks to industrialization.
In his book The Culture of Cities (1938), Lewis Mumford wrote lyrically about the medieval city and how pleasant it must have been for the inhabitants. He concluded:
In sum: as far as usable open spaces go, the medieval city had as its foundation and through most of its existence a far higher standard for the mass of the population than any later form of town, down the the first romantic suburbs of the nineteenth century. p. 44; (emphasis in the original)
The size limitations on the medieval city, as well as the practical limitations of transporting sufficient food and goods to the medieval city, capped the size at a reasonable number of people. When that was exceeded, new cities were formed rather than engendering urban gigantism or sprawl:
As long as the simple wooden palisade or masonry wall sufficed for military protection, the wall was no real obstacle to town extension. Technically, it was a simple matter to tear down the wall and extend the city’s boundaries once the inner spaces had been filled up. Florence, for example, enlarged her wall circuit for the second time in 1172, and not more than a century later built a third circuit that enclosed a still greater area. This was common practice in the growing towns up to the sixteenth century.
The limitations on the medieval town’s growth were rather of a different nature: limitations of water supply and local produce: limitations by municipal ordinance and by guild regulations which prevented the uncontrolled settlement of outsiders: limitations of transport and communications which were overcome only in the advanced eotechnic* cities that had waterways instead of roadways for traffic, such as Venice.
For practical reasons alone, the limitations of horizontal expansion were speedily reached. In the early centuries of city development, between the eleventh and the fourteenth, as in the seventeenth in New England, the surplus population was cared for by building new cities, sometimes close by, but nevertheless an independent and self-sufficient unit. The medieval city did not break through its walls and stretch over the countryside as an amorphous blob.
At all events, the facts are plain. The typical medieval town ranged in size from three or four hundred, which was frequently the size of a fully privileged municipality in Germany, to forty thousand, which was the size of London in the fourteenth century: the hundred thousand achieved earlier by Paris and Venice was highly exceptional.
Toward the close of the period, Nürnberg, a thriving place, had in 1450 about twenty thousand inhabitants, while Basel had around eight thousand. Even on the fine soils of the lowlands, supported by the technically advanced and capitalistically exploited textile industries, the same thing holds: in 1412 Ypres had only 10,736 inhabitants, and Louvain and Brussels, in the middle of the same century, had between 25,000 and 40,000. As for Germany, town life was concentrated in some 150 large cities, of which the largest did not have more than 35,000 inhabitants.
All these statistics, it is true, date from the century after the Black Death, which in some provinces carried off half the population; but even if one doubles the figures the towns themselves, in terms of modern population massings, were numerically small. In Italy alone, partly because of the early rise of capitalism there, do these figures have to be increased. The phenomena of overcrowding and overbuilding—as well as indefinite suburban expansion—did not come until the capacity for building new cities had, for reasons to be discussed in the next chapter, greatly diminished. pp. 58-60
So the overcrowding and squalid conditions that we associate with cities were not characteristics of the city throughout history. They were characteristic of a very particular period in history: the early modern period when the factories came to Europe. This was then retconned back into the past. Then it gets uncritically repeated until it’s the thing that “everybody knows” is true.
One of the reasons America is so anti-urban in its outlook is that many of its major cities were established during the industrial revolution. In fact, they were established expressly because of the industrial revolution—they were located on canals, waterways, near coal and mineral deposits, etc. Later, the railroads would be the main driver of urban locations as the country spread westward. Thus, all of America’s cities expanded due to industrialization, unlike the great cities of the ancient world. This made them historically unique.
This gave Americans the perception that cities were—indeed, that they had to be—filthy, overcrowded and disease-ridden slums where the air was thick with soot.
But that was a consequence of the city becoming the center of the factory system; before that, cities were fairly livable. After that, they became the hellscapes of critics’ imaginations (“dark Satanic mills”). The enclosure movement dealt the final death blow to the rural way of life, and desperate women and children flooded into the cities to find work. In the early days of the factory system, women and children were actually the most desirable workers from the capitalist perspective—recall that it was women who had done much of the weaving in the home during the days of the putting out system. Women and children could be paid less, and the children’s small stature meant that they could go all sort of places grown men couldn’t get to (plus their tiny bellies required less food).
The thing is, people fled to cities that were nowhere near big enough to accommodate them. They changed too fast! And this is still true today. Houses don’t just magically spring up in response to people moving to an area; they take a long time to finance and to build, and someone has to pay for them. That someone is not likely to be recent arrivals, who probably have little else besides the shirts on their backs. “The Market” will not solve the housing crisis today any more than it did back then.
This mismatch between cities that were designed for a relatively small number of inhabitants and the nearly-overnight metastization of cities due to the factory system was the cause of so much misery and desperation. Add the filth and soot pouring out of coal-fired power plants thanks to steam power and you’ve got the vision of the city that supposedly existed for all of time but was really a product of the nineteenth century: overcrowding, squalor, inequality, misery, disease, poverty, pollution, and premature death.
Mumford terms this “the insensate industrial town,” and he described it as a vision of urbanity that cared only about production, and not human needs or livability, in contrast to earlier urban forms, such as those of the Middle Ages. In the chapter with that title, he describes what happened when the factory system arrived in Western Europe from the sugar plantations of South America and the West Indies:
In the first stage of the factory system in England, water power was all-important: hence the woolen industry tended to spread through the valleys of Yorkshire, where such power was abundant. Even in the Manchester region the cotton manufacturers were often attracted at first to the open country by cheap land for their huge plants, a docile working population, and easy access to power: so, too, in New England.
It took the better part of a century before all the agents of agglomeration were developed in equal degree: before the advantages offered industry in the towns counterbalanced the lure of independent organization in separate factory villages, sufficient to make the former the prevailing mode. Once these agents played into each other’s hands, the attractive power of the city became irresistible; and the cities came to absorb an ever larger share of the natural increase in population.
By the end of the eighteenth century most of the necessary conditions were satisfied in London, Paris and Berin: hence the ability to pile people into these throbbing centers was limited now only by the human tolerance for an obnoxious environment.
Unfortunately, on this score, human being show qualities that remarkable resemble those of the pig: give a swine a clean sty on hard ground with plenty of sunlight, and they will keep it remarkable clean: pit them in the midst of muck and putrescence underground, and they will accommodate themselves to these conditions. When starvation and homelessness are the alternatives, there is apparently no horror to which defeated men and women will not adapt themselves and endure.
Apart from the incentive of profit, industry itself, from the beginning of the nineteenth century onward, became an active factor in urban agglomeration. Eotechnic* industry has, in the nature of things, been decentralized: wind power and water power caused its spread along the coast lines and rapid-flowing rivers; the unit of production was necessarily limited in size, and only in a minor degree was there any advantage in the concentration of a single industry or plant. Despite occasional large munitions factories and textile plants, the small workshop was the typical unit.
The use of Watt’s steam engine as a prime mover in the seventeen-eighties changed all this. Steam worked most efficiently in big concentrated unit, with the parts of the plant no more than a quarter of a mile from the power-center: every spinning machine or loom had to tap power form the belts and shafts worked by the central steam engine. The more units within a given area, the more efficient was the source of power: hence the tendency toward gigantism in textile factories, which covered a large area and were usually five stories high.
Big factories, such as those developed in Manchester from the eighteen-twenties onward—repeated it in New Bedford and Fall River—could utilize the latest instruments of power production, whereas the smaller factories were at a technical disadvantage. A single factory might employ two hundred and fifty hands. A dozen such factories, with all the necessary instruments and services, were already the nucleus of a considerable town. p. 158
This is why population became so concentrated. But we weren’t ready for it. Cities hadn’t been designed just to shove in the maximum amount of people in a tight space, as we saw from Mumford’s description of the human-scaled medieval city, above. The infrastructure simply wasn’t there.
And, as Mumford notes, once the railroads were added to the mix, this further increased the concentration of the county’s population in a few urban centers, mainly in lowlands where coal could be easily shipped. This also explains why no industrial cities are found in Europe’s mountainous regions, which remained fairly pristine:
If the steam factory, producing for the world market, was the first factor that tended to increase the area of urban congestion, the new railroad transportation system, after 1830, greatly abetted it. Power was concentrated in the coal fields. Where coal could be mined or stored or obtained by cheap means of transportation, industry could produce regularly throughout the year without stoppages through seasonal failure of power. In a business system based upon time-contracts and time-payments, this regularity was highly important.
Coal and iron exercised a gravitational pull on many subsidiary and accessory industries: first by means of the canal, and after 1830, through the new railroads. A direct connection with the mining areas was a prime condition of urban concentration: to this day the chief commodity carried by railroads is coal for heat and power.
The dirt roads, the sail power, the horse-power of the eotechnic* transportation system had favored a dispersal or population: within the region, there were many points of dual advantage. But the relative weakness of the steam locomotive, which could not easily climb a grade steeper than two feet in a hundred, tended to concentrate the new industrial centers on the coalbeds and in the connecting valleys: the Lille district in France, the Meresburg and Ruhr districts in Germany, the Black Country of England, the Allegheny-Great Lakes region and the Eastern Coastal Plain region in the United States. p. 159
Thus, industrialization was the driver of urban gigantism. And everything in the new industrial town was subordinate to production and profit. In a sense, the entire city became a plantation writ large:
The factory became the nucleus of the new urban organism. Every other detail of life was subordinate to it. Even the utilities, such as the water supply and the minimum of governmental buildings that were necessary for a town’s existence often, if they had not been built by an earlier generation, entered belatedly: an afterthought. It was not merely art and religion that were treated by the utilitarian as mere embellishments: intelligent administration was in the same category. p. 161
The overcrowded, dirty, filthy city teeming with paupers happened during this era, not before. The next hundred years were a reaction to this state of affairs. And it was not the “natural” working of capitalism that ameliorated such conditions, it was aggressive pushback from the ground up, even to the point of workers risking their lives. Mumford notes of these conditions:
In both the old and the new quarters a pitch of foulness and filth was reached that the lowest serf’s cottage scarcely achieved in medieval Europe. It is almost impossible to enumerate objectively the bare details of this housing without being suspected of perverse exaggeration. But those who speak glibly of urban improvements during this period, or of the alleged rise in the standards of living, fight shy of the actual facts: they generously impute to the town as a whole benefits which only the more favored middle class minority enjoyed; and they read into the original conditions those improvements which three generations of active legislation and massive sanitary engineering have finally brought about. pp. 164-165
After describing the horrors of the industrial town in painstaking detail, and backed up by numerous facts and figures (which I encourage everyone to read), Mumford concludes:
Considering this new urban area on its lowest physical terms, without reference to its social facilities or its culture, it is plain that never before in recorded history had such vast masses of people lived in such a savagely deteriorated environment. The galley slaves of the Orient, the wretched prisoners in the Athenian silver mines, the depressed proletariat in the insulae of Rome—these classes had known, no doubt, a similar foulness; but never before had it so universally been accepted as normal—normal and inevitable.
The point becomes all the more appalling when one realizes, not only the absolute unfitness of this environment for human life, but its extraordinary quantitative multiplication. In 1850 there were but six towns with over one hundred thousand population in the United States, and but five in Germany. By 1900 there were thirty-six such places in the United States and thirty-three in Germany. (pp. 197-198)
This horror was then retconned onto the past in order that people forget what life in cities was once like.
Today, of course, “dirty” industries have mostly been outsourced to developing countries with lax environmental laws and dirt-cheap labor. Much of that labor comes from the exact same source as it did in the 1800s in Europe and America—farmers displaced from their rural land and thrown onto their own devices to make a living. This allows us to wash our hands of the whole situation.
And, remarkably, this is touted by Neoliberals as the main evidence for progress! Neoliberals have enthusiastically praised sweatshop labor:
[Steven] Pinker uses an argument that is frequently used to defend sweatshop labor: “The appropriate standard in considering the plight of the poor in industrializing countries is the set of alternatives available to them and when they live,” he writes. This is what gets you articles like “the feminist side of sweatshops” and Nick Kristof’s defense of sweatshops as a “dream,” because “in the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom.” If working in a sweatshop is better than the presently-existing alternatives in a given place, then it is Good.
But that’s not true: The women who worked in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory may have taken the best jobs they could get, but that doesn’t mean their working conditions weren’t outrageous. Sweatshops are bad because there is no reason the world has to have sweatshops in it. Adding strong labor protections to trade agreements is a perfectly feasible thing, it’s just that hardly anybody with political or economic power cares much about the rights and well-being of people in other countries.
Perhaps here we have a key to the essential human achievement of the new urban culture: it worked out a minimum of life. There have been periods in the past that exhibited greater animal ferocity, gashing or burning the flesh of people who had sinned against the prevailing moral code or theological beliefs. But the nineteenth century, smugly conscious of its new humanitarian principles, converted such outright brutalities into a slow quiet process of attrition and inanation. A minimum of schooling: a minimum of rest: a minimum of cleanliness: a minimum of shelter. A gray pall of negative virtue hung over the urban improvements of the period, and it highest boast was the expansion of these minimum conditions and these negative gains…
In the routine of Coketown’s life, what respite existed from the monotony of subdivided occupation: from the warped, one-sided attempt to drive human energies into a single channel: mechanical production: financial gain? after his weekly spree into the tavern or the brothel, the worker returned to the factory or mine more cheated, more defeated, more empty of life, than ever. pp. 179-180
We, today, are all the children of this warped environment. We just think it’s normal.
In fact, industrialization always requires concentrated violence (direct or indirect) and centralized state action to clear the peasantry from the land; there is nothing “voluntary” about it, as this post from Branko Milanovic shows. He notes that historically in places where the peasantry was not forcibly removed from their ancestral lands, they did not voluntarily form an industrial proletariat. These countries did not industrialize as rapidly, indicating that moving to the factories in overcrowded cities was not done by “choice” (emphasis mine):
In a society where 90 percent of the population lives in the countryside and all farmers cultivate their own (small) landholding, and there is no landlessness, how do you industrialize?
All the contemporary evidence points to the fact that peasants were not at all keen to move to cities and work for a wage. Since there was no landlessness very few people were pushed by poverty to look for city jobs. Political parties which strongly (and understandably) represented peasantry further limited mobility of labor by guaranteeing homestead (3.5 ha of land, house, cattle and the implements) which could not be alienated, neither in the case of default on the loan nor in the case of overdue taxes.
This situation was very typical for the late industrializers in South-East Europe. Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia were all overwhelmingly agricultural with small peasant landholdings and no landlessness. All displayed slow or arrested capitalist development and half-hearted urbanization. The reason was simple: farmers had no incentive to move from being self-employed to being hired labor. And who would prefer to switch from being one’s own boss and dependent perhaps only on the elements to become a hired hand, working six days a week all year round, in “satanic mills”?
The issue is noted by Francis Fukuyama (among others) in “Political Order and Political Decay”. He explains slow industrial development in Greece (and he could have readily added Serbia and Bulgaria) by political clientelism which in his views stemmed from premature democratization, that is, before programmatic and not clientilistic political parties could be formed. But he fails to see the economic origin of the problem: lack of incentive to move to cities.
The question is, how do you industrialize under such conditions? Reluctance of peasants, whenever they had their own land, to become industrial workers has been discussed (Gerschenkron, Polanyi). In England they had to be literally chased from land through enclosures; in France, the process was much more overdrawn and took a century; in Germany, Poland and Hungary, large estates owned by nobility and consequent landlessness did the job. In Russia, it was bloody and occurred through forced collectivization…
The process whereby agricultural economies industrialized was wrenching. The displacement and unhappiness of the population dragged into industrial centers through either empty stomachs or outright terror was incomparable in its human costs to today’s similar transfer of labor from manufacturing to services (or to unemployment). The transformation in the underlying economic structure is never easy but it seems to me that the one from the fresh air and freedom of own farm to being a cog in a huge soiled machine of industrialization was the most painful.
While it may be the case that today’s transfer “from manufacturing to services (or unemployment)” may not be as wrenching as the original extermination of the old peasantry according to Milanovic, it is almost as assuredly leading to another age of mass die-off.
But I guess according to Neoliberals’ omelette ethics, that’s just the price of progress.
Next time we’ll look at the fact that the factory system never went away (even if manufacturing did) and how we all work under its dictates.
* The term eotechnic comes from Mumford’s division of technological society into three historical phases in his previous book, Technics and Society (1934):
Looking back over the last thousand years, one can divide the development of the machine and the machine civilization into three successive but over-lapping and interpenetrating phases: eotechnic, paleotechnic, neotechnic…While each of these phases roughly represents a period of human history, it is characterized even more significantly by the fact that it forms a technological complex…Speaking in terms of power and characteristic materials, the eotechnic phase is a water-and-wood-complex: the paleotechnic phase is a coal-and-iron complex, and the neotechnic phase is an electricity-and-alloy complex. (pp. 109-110; emphasis in original)