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:
The Reason Sweatshops are Good for the Poor (Reason Magazine)
[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.
The World’s Most Annoying Man (Current Affairs)
Nathan Robinson is echoed by Lewis Mumford:
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.
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)