Random COVID-19 Thoughts

I’ve been spending the past week dying of COVID-19.

Okay, it probably was the standard flu. Even so, it was surreal to watch the entire world being brought to its knees by pandemic disease while you’re on your sickbed feeling like you are literally dying. It really makes one rethink their priorities.

Meanwhile the presidential contest has degenerated into a race between a functional illiterate versus an actual dementia patient.

At least this will finally demonstrate to all Americans what a ridiculous farce the Presidential race is. As I always say, the first step to reform is for people to quit believing in the status quo.

It also demonstrates to Americans how much the political parties and the media are there not to facilitate the people’s will, but to subvert it. The Democratic Party has fought much harder against Bernie Sanders and his campaign than it has against Donald Trump and his supporters.

Anyway, I don’t quite know what to say that hasn’t already been said. So here are just some random thoughts.

Neoliberal globalization has been dealt a serious blow. Outsourcing all your manufacturing and being dependent on supply chains stretching across the world was a bad idea that many have been warning about for a long time. Finally we are able to see why.

Opinion: Moving Our Pharmaceutical Factories Overseas Was A Huge Mistake (Buzzfeed)

Furthermore, the downsides to the whole Neoliberal project of shrinking the state are becoming increasingly apparent.

The stock market meltdown shows the absolute folly of trusting everything to gamblers’ bets the anarchic Market.

The fact that we have entered a quasi-feudal society again is becoming clear. I saw a good Twitter post. The headline was “Amazon and Gates Foundation may team up to deliver Coronavirus test kits to Seattle homes.”

To this, someone commented, “How do you find out who your feudal lord is if you don’t live in Seattle?” Someone replied “Somebody needs to put up findmyfeudallord.com in a hurry.”

Of course, this is supposedly in jest, but it’s no joke! We are entering the era of Neofeudalism just as climate change and pandemics continue to bite. This is what happens when you shrink the state and allow everything to be controlled by private power in the name of empowering the Market.

For context, here is good Stack Exchange conversation on Feudalism: https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/14997/has-feudalism-been-a-programmed-event-for-nations-in-the-past

People are increasingly cognizant that they are already living in a feudal society. And the only candidate willing or able to reverse this trend has been apparently dealt with by the mainstream media and the Party establishment. This only guarantees that all the urgent social problems will continue to fester and get worse, with no real solutions for another four years.

Is this the beginning of the end for Neoliberalism? Is COVID-19 the thing that finally shows just how bankrupt a philosophy it is?

Will America learn anything from this? If history is a guide, probably not.

How does one write about collapse when it’s happening all around you in real time? Just read the headlines!

Anyway, I find myself unable to type anything or formulate thoughts for some reason today, so I’ll leave it there. Perhaps the flu has permanently scrambled my brain. I’ll outsource my thoughts to this column, which sum them up pretty well: There are things that scare me more than Donald Trump (Medium)

Back before I got deathly ill and could stay wake more than a few hours a day, I was writing a long series of posts debunking all the ridiculous Federal Reserve conspiracy theories. Since it’s mostly written, I’ll probably roll that out soon. I don’t know if I’ll be able to finish it, though.

Of Course Billionaires Shouldn’t Exist

There’s apparently a row over whether billionaires should exist. That is, whether or not billionaires should be a thing in our society.

What a stupid question. Of course billionaires shouldn’t exist! But the reason has nothing to do with Socialism.

Rather, under a properly-functioning free-market capitalist system, billionaires shouldn’t exist. And that would have also been the opinion of the “Classical Liberals” so favored by the Right these days: Adam Smith, David Ricardo. Thomas Malthus, John Stuart Mill, and so on.

Billionaires are a sign of market failure.

Let me say that again: billionaires are a form of market failure! You cannot simultaneously be both pro-Market and pro-billionaire.

I’m amazed at how few people get this!

In a truly competitive market, excess profits would be competed away. Someone would come along and undercut outsize profits. That’s exactly how the Classical Liberals assumed free markets would work. In this, they saw markets as instruments of greater equality, not inequality, and certainly not as a way to construct a new and improved aristocracy even more powerful than the old one.

The Classical Liberals wrote in opposition to the main power centers of their day: aristocratic government and chartered monopolies like the East India Company. They didn’t see the purpose of their writings as defending privilege and power. One can dispute the end results, but that was not their goal. Quite the contrary. The idea that a single, solitary individuals would possess more wealth than the kings and pharaohs of old under a functioning free market system would have been unthinkable to them.

In their time, much of the national wealth was monopolized by a landed aristocracy who gained their wealth through disproportionate ownership of the country’s productive land. The other major source of wealth came from large joint-stock companies that were granted royal monopolies due to their political connections. Yet another source of unearned wealth came from the holders of bonds (gilts)—essentially loaning money to the state and getting the government’s tax revenues funneled to them via interest payments.

Classical English Liberals felt that competitive markets would do away with a good portion of the unearned and unproductive wealth common in Great Britain at the time. They believed that “free and open” markets would channel wealth and activity to more productive ends. That is, they would break up large pools of wealth and unproductive money. The kind of obscene fortunes that they saw in their day would no longer be possible thanks to competition, they assumed, and that British society would become more equal than it was under landed aristocracy, not less. We can dispute their logic (and I have issues with it), but I think we can safely say that this is what they believed, rightly or wrongly.

An inherent part of their conception of free markets is the possibility of failure. Unproductive or inefficient businesses would be competed away, they assumed, and the fortunes earned through such activities would disappear. But that is not the case today. Billionaires have so much money they can literally never lose it! That’s not capitalism, that’s aristocracy. I read recently that someone like Bill Gates literally cannot give away money to his pet causes fast enough to reduce his fortune even if he tried. In fact, he’s grown wealthier even while giving away billions.

The important point about [Adam] Smith’s system, on the other hand, is that it precluded steep inequalities not out of a normative concern with equality but by virtue of the design that aimed to maximize wealth. Once we put the building blocks of his system together, concentration of wealth simply cannot emerge.

In Smith, profits should be low and labor wages high, legislation in favor of the worker is “always just and equitable,” land should be distributed widely and evenly, inheritance laws should partition fortunes, taxation can be high if it is equitable, and the science of the legislator is necessary to thwart rentiers and manipulators.

Political theorists and economists have highlighted some of these points, but the counterfactual “what would the distribution of wealth be if all the building blocks were ever in place?” has not been posed. Doing so encourages us to question why steep inequality is accepted as a fact, instead of a pathology that the market economy was not supposed to generate in the first place.

Contrary to popular and academic belief, Adam Smith did not accept inequality as a necessary trade-off for a more prosperous economy (LSE Blogs)

Yet today the people who call themselves the heirs to “Classical English Liberals” emphatically defend the existence of billionaires and extreme inequality at every turn. Such people are not pro-market or pro-capitalism as they like to portray themselves; they are simply pro-wealth, or—to use a less complementary term—bootlickers. They are not defending capitalism or Markets; what they really are defending is oligarchy, power, privilege, and hierarchy. As Corey Robin opined, “The priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power,” with all the soaring rhetoric about markets and freedom being just a smokescreen and a cover for defending hierarchies and power imbalances. Their defense of billionaires is proof positive of this. This is true of presidential candidates as well.

The existence of obscene fortunes and extreme inequality are not a sign of capitalism’s success; they are a sign of capitalism’s failure.

This is pointed out by Chris Dillow:

“I don’t think anyone in this country should be a billionaire” said Labour’s Lloyd Russell-Moyle yesterday, at which the BBC’s Emma Barnett took umbrage. The exchange is curious, because from one perspective it should be conservative supporters of a free market who don’t want there to be billionaires.

I say so because in a healthy market economy there should be almost no extremely wealthy people simply because profits should be bid away by competition. In the textbook case of perfect competition there are no super-normal profits, and in the more realistic case of Schumpeterian creative destruction, high profits should be competed away quickly.

From this perspective, every billionaire is a market failure – a sign that competition has failed. The Duke of Westminster is rich because there’s a monopoly of prime land in central London. Would Ineos’ Jim Ratcliffe be so rich if pollution were properly priced, or if his firm faced more competition?

The Right’s Mega-Rich Problem (Stumbling and Mumbling)

How is this rectified? How do they square their supposed love of fair competition and free and open markets with the presence of outsize fortunes?

They don’t.

And the sad thing is how many people buy into their nonsense. Everyone seems to think that a defense of billionaires is a defense of capitalism.

It’s not. It’s the opposite.

What is a billionaire?

Billionaires are only made possible through monopolies and tollbooths. Period. And such monopolies are more possible than ever before thanks to technology.

This is argued by Matt Stoller, an expert on monopolies, in a post entitled, What Is A Billionaire?:

Most people think a billionaire is someone with a lot of money, a sort of Scrooge McDuck who goes swimming in a pool of gold coins. And why wouldn’t we? The name billionaire has the word billion contained within it, so clearly it means having a net worth of at least ten figures. And in a sense, that is technically true. But if you look at the top ranks of the Bloomberg billionaire index, you’ll notice that nearly all of the leaders are people who own a corporation with substantial amounts of market power in one or more markets.

Billionaires use market power to extract revenue the way that a tollbooth operator does.
If you want to drive on a road, you have to pay for the privilege. It costs the tollbooth operator nothing, he/she just has a strategic chokepoint for extraction. Billionaire Warren Buffett, for instance, has such a ‘tollbooth’ strategy for investing, though he uses the term ‘moat’ because it sounds charming and quirky rather than rapacious.

Put another way, the Bloomberg billionaire index isn’t a list of the most important Scrooge McDuck’s, it’s a list of the biggest tollbooth operators in the world.

What he’s saying is that one becomes a billionaire only by short-circuiting the competitive market economy. Then their profits cannot be competed away. Only by gaming the system can one “earn” over a billion dollars. No one person is that valuable.

Stoller goes on to elucidate the operational tactics used by both Bill Gates and by his predecessor John D. Rockefeller, and finds that even though the industries are radically different, the techniques of short-circuiting and circumventing market competition are the same. Whether it’s horizontal and vertical integration, or using market influence to price out rivals, or exclusive contracts, the techniques are the same regardless of industry or time period:

In 1976 and 1980, Congress allowed the copyrighting of software. IBM had been under aggressive antitrust investigation and litigation since 1967, so when it built a personal computer, it outsourced the operating system – MS-DOS – to Gates’s company and allowed Gates to license it to other equipment makers. (Gates’s upbringing didn’t hurt; the CEO of IBM at the the time knew his mother.) Such a relationship with a vendor was a shocking change for IBM, which had traditionally made everything in-house or tightly controlled its suppliers. But IBM treated Microsoft differently, transferring large amounts of programming knowledge to the small corporation. IBM also did this with the microprocessor company Intel, which IBM protected from Japanese competition.

And yet, in 1982, the Department of Justice dropped the antitrust suit against IBM, signaling a new pro-concentration framework. Bill Baxter, Reagan’s antitrust chief, did not want to bring monopolization suits, and did not. The new fast-growing technology space of personal computers would be a monopolized industry. But it would not be monopolized by IBM, which had kept control of the computing industry since the 1950s, because IBM’s corporate structure was now skittish about the raw use of power. And it would not be monopolized by AT&T, which was kept out of the computing industry by a 1956 consent decree that lasted until 1984. Gates, in many ways, had a greenfield, an environment friendly to monopoly but one in which all the old monopolists had been cleared out by antitrust actions.

In the case of Amazon, even though it theoretically has competition, through vertical and horizontal integration it can effectively control online e-commerce to a large degree. The result is a fortune greater than that of entire nation-states controlled by a single individual. One hardly imagines that Adam Smith would approve.

I read an interesting concept, and I forget where it came from. It was that networks are natural monopolies. This explains things like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, etc. It’s entirely possible that the online world, due to features inherent in the technology, simply cannot be regulated by normal competition the way the market for goods and services can. Yet all our theories pretend that it can. It’s delusional.

Under these scenarios,’ profits’ are really a form of tribute (or perhaps plunder). In fact, we really shouldn’t even use the word ‘profits’ to describe them (just like we shouldn’t use ‘trade’ to describe global wage arbitrage).

And there are many more examples of competition being limited by deliberate legal policy. Much of Microsoft’s profits come from the fact that other people can’t copy their software—which they’ve arbitrarily labeled “piracy”—without facing legal repercussions enforced by the state and its legal system. In that sense, outsized fortunes are a consequence of laws, and not a feature inherent to technology:

…inequality is not in fact driven by technology, it is driven by our policy on technology, specifically patent and copyright monopolies. These forms of protection do not stem from the technology, they are policies created by a Congress which is disproportionately controlled by billionaires.

If the importance of these government granted monopolies is not clear, ask yourself how rich Bill Gates would be if any start-up computer manufacturer could produce millions of computers with Windows and other Microsoft software and not send the company a penny. The same story holds true with most other types of technology. The billionaires get rich from it, not because of the technology but because the government will arrest people who use it without the patent or copyright holder’s permission.

This point is central to the debate on the value of billionaires. If we could get the same or better technological progress without making some people ridiculously rich, then we certainly don’t need billionaires. But in any discussion of the merits of billionaires, it is important to understand that they got their wealth because we wrote rules that allowed it. Their immense wealth was not a natural result of the development of technology.

Farhad Manjoo promotes billionaire ideology in proposal to get rid of billionaires (Dean Baker, Real World Economic Review)

Baker has also pointed out that outsized salaries in many fields are determined by limiting competition though things like wildly expensive education and licensing requirements, which are ultimately determined by the government. Doctors and lawyers do not have compete against the wage rates in India or China thanks to the legal system, for example. Everyone else, however, is required to compete against the entire world for jobs.

On a global level, most billionaires are not the result of “hard work” or doing things beneficial for their society:

The vast majority of the world’s billionaires have not become rich through anything approaching ‘productive’ investment. Oxfam has showed that, approximately one third of global billionaire wealth comes from inheritance, whilst another third comes from ‘crony connections to government and monopoly’.

Why on Earth Shouldn’t People Be Able to Be Billionaires? (Novara Media)

And the monopolies that allow billionaires to exist are not good for the economy as a whole. In fact, they are highly detrimental, as Chris Dillow further points out:

What’s more, monopoly pricing is a form of tax – a tax which often falls upon other, smaller businesses…In this sense, not only are billionaires a symptom of an absence of a healthy competitive economy, but they are also a cause of it: their taxes on other firms restrict growth and entrepreneurship…

Tories are wrong, therefore, to portray attacks on the mega-rich as the politics of envy. It’s not. The existence of billionaires is a sign and cause of a dysfunctional economy…

In fact, logically, it is rightists who should be most concerned by the concentration of wealth. We lefties can point to it as evidence that the system is rigged. But Tories should worry that it undermines the legitimacy of the existing order not only because people don’t like inequality, but because it slows down economic growth and so encourages demands for change.

Furthermore, their existence is detrimental politically:

Controlling society’s wealth effectively gives the wealthy the right to plan economic activity. Billionaires – and the people who manage their money – determine which governments can access borrowing, which companies deserve to grow, and which ideas should be researched. This gives them an immense amount of political, as well as economic, power – allowing billionaires to provide favours to those politicians who helped them get rich in the first place.

Ultimately, the monopolisation of society’s resources by a tiny, closed-off elite means that most of society’s resources are used for dirty, unsustainable and unproductive speculation.

Why on Earth Shouldn’t People Be Able to Be Billionaires? (Novara Media)

In fact, the proliferation of billionaires in the developed world has accompanied a period of slow growth and stagnation, not rapid growth. As has been pointed out ad nauseum, yet still fails to sink in, America’s fastest period of growth came when there were fewer billionaires and tax rates ranged from 50 to 90 percent. There is no evidence that the proliferation of billionaires has benefited society as whole. And now, billionaires are attempting to buy political offices outright, making a joke of democracy.

People defending billionaires are only defending raw power, not capitalism, not democracy, and certainly not free markets.

Stoller concludes:

[Billionaires] are not people with a bunch of dollar bills stacked to the moon, they are (largely) men with a strategic position of power protected by public laws and rules. They aren’t better or smarter than anyone else, they are simply politically adept and in the right place at the right time. There’s no reason we have to enable such people to run our culture. At the end of the day, tollbooths are nothing but bottlenecks on a road on which we would otherwise travel faster and more freely.

What is a Billionaire? (Matt Stoller)

So, should there be billionaires? The answer is no. And you should believe that if you consider yourself a libertarian free marketeer or a democratic socialist. Anyone asserting anything else is just a bootlicker or a toady.


Here’s a good piece explaining how billionaires are basically mad kings:

…one of civilization’s great challenges stems from millionaire rhyming with billionaire. In holding them in the same linguistic corner of our minds, we conflate them, yet they’re so mathematically distinct as to be unrelated. A millionaire can, with some dedicated carelessness, lose those millions. Billionaires can be as profligate and eccentric as they wish, can acquire, without making a dent, all the homes and jets and islands and causes and thoroughbreds and Van Goghs and submarines and weird Beatles memorabilia they please. Unless they’re engaging in fraud or making extremely large and risky investments, they’re simply no match for the mathematical and economic forces—the compounding of interest, the long-term imperatives of markets—that make money beget more money. They can do pretty much whatever they want in this life, and therein lies the distinction. A millionaire enjoys a profoundly lucky economic condition. A billionaire is an existential state.

This helps explain the cosmic reverence draped over so many billionaires, their most banal notions about innovation and vision repackaged as inspirational memes, their insights on markets and customers spun into best sellers. Their extravagances are so over the top as to inspire legend more often than revolution…

The Gospel of Wealth According to Marc Benioff (Wired)

One of the most potent demonstrations that the modern-day rich are mad kings, comes form the story of Adam Neumann of WeWork. This is the impression I got from the Behind the Bastards podcast on Neumann: The Idiot Who Made, and Destoryed, WeWork (Podtail)

Counting Jeff Bezos’s fortune using 1 grain of rice = $100,000 from r/nextfuckinglevel

The Disingenuous Arguments Against Universal Health Care

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!

Fun Facts

Vegetarianism is such an old concept that up until 1850, vegetarians were called Pythagorean because the cult of Pythagoras was entirely vegetarian.

Rio averages 24 shootouts per day. Large hours-long gun battles often don’t even make the headlines.

A Quarter of the World’s Pigs Died Last Year in China

Indian housewives hold 11% of the world’s gold. This is more than the reserves of USA, IMF, Switzerland, and Germany put together.

The World’s 500 Richest People Increased Their Wealth by $1.2 Trillion in 2019

CEOs make more in first week of January than average salary

Meth use is up sixfold, and fentanyl use has quadrupled in U.S. in last 6 years.

More and more Americans are drinking themselves to death. A new study finds there were around 72,000 alcohol-related deaths among people over the age of 16 in 2017—more than double the number of similar deaths recorded two decades earlier.

The number of Americans drinking themselves to death has more than doubled over the last two decades

The US suicide rate has risen 40% over 17 years, with blue-collar workers at highest risk.

The healthcare industry’s bureaucratic administrative costs set Americans back $812 billion in 2017, or just under $2,500 per person.

34 percent of all U.S. costs related to ‘doctor visits, hospitals, long-term care and health insurance’ essentially came from paperwork.

An estimated eight million people in the U.S. have started a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for their own or a member of their household’s healthcare costs.

The poorest 20% of Americans spend a third of their income on health care.

1990’s most obese state (Mississippi) had at the time a lower rate of obesity than what the least obese state (Colorado) had by 2010

Exposure to toxic chemicals, especially flame retardants and pesticides, resulted in more than a million cases of intellectual disability in the United States between 2001 and 2016.

The number of drug-associated deaths in 2016 was 2.2 times bigger than previously recorded, adding more than 60,000 deaths onto the currently accepted figure.

New hospital-based data show that homelessness is increasing, despite official estimates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that state a substantial decrease in homelessness. HUD’s numbers, which are the primary driver of public policy, may be seriously flawed.

The share of job vacancies requiring a bachelor’s degree increased by more than 60 percent between 2007 and 2019, with faster growth in professional occupations and high-wage cities.

US drinking water is a “toxic soup” of “forever chemicals.”

Humanity Has Killed 83% of All Wild Mammals and Half of All Plants.

In 2019, more Americans went to the library than to the movies.

Roughly a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form

America sacrificed 3.7 million jobs as a result of US-China trade deficits since China joined the WTO in 2001, with 3/4 of the losses taking place in manufacturing positions.

Wisconsin has lost 818 dairy farms, or 10% of its dairy farms. In the last decade, the state has lost 44% of the farms.

Thirty percent of student debtors are enrolled in Income-driven repayment plans

US student debt is larger than the whole economy of Belgium

Stay in school kids:

The definition of Irony (screencap from Vox):

Making Architecture Work Again

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.

New executive order could make classical architecture “the preferred and default style” for America’s public buildings (Archinect)

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.

Rome’s Fascist-Era EUR District in the Heart of the Eternal City (Skyrise Cities)

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.

Fascist Architecture (Wikipedia)

The fascists actually preferred a form of stripped classicism and architectural rationalism rather than the pure classical Greco-Roman style that is invoked by the new executive order. Interestingly, one of the major influences on fascist architecture was the prominent Franco-American architect Paul Cret, who designed, among many other things, the Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington D.C.

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.

Ruin Value (Wikipedia) Where I live in the Postindustrial Midwest, a good portion of the buildings are ruins already. Detroit, once one of the richest cities in the world, is famous for them, with entire books published about them.

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.

“Classical” Architecture Is Just One Way Tyrants Build in Their Own Image (Slate)

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.

New executive order could make classical architecture “the preferred and default style” for America’s public buildings (Archinect)

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.

How the Alt-Right Infiltrated Architecture Twitter — And Turned Notre-Dame Into a Political Lightning Rod (Mel Magazine)

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.

‘Just Plain Ugly’: Proposed Executive Order Takes Aim At Modern Architecture (NPR)

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.

America’s Favorite Architecture (Wikipedia)

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.

What Armenians should know about life in America (Likewise A Blog). See also: Why suburbia sucks

That gives me an opportunity to post this important post, which I have struggled to find a place for:

The Rise of the Architectural Cult (Nikos Salingaros)

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…

Building Bad (Inference Review)

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.

Additionally, criticism of modern architecture is hardly an exclusively right-wing reactionary position. For example, this article, Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture, appears in the journal Current Affairs, a notable Left-wing publication.

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.

Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture (Current Affairs)

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.

A Healing Place (Current Affairs)

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.

Critics speak out over the draft federal architecture mandate (The Architects Newspaper)

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:

See ancient Rome brought to life through SketchUp and Lumion


For 13 years, this photographer has been building an incredible 3D digital model of Athens (BoingBoing)

The Origin of the Factory 4

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!

And then that profound loss of freedom was covered up by retconning history.

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.

Are Bosses Dictators? (The New Yorker)

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.’”

How Slavery Inspired Modern Business Management (Boston Review)

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.

In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation (New York Times)

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.

The Origin of the Factory 3

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.

The plight of late industrializers: what if peasants do not want to move to cities? (globalinequality)

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)

The Origin of the Factory 2

Metals: The Money Factory

One of the first industries to be heavily automated and mechanized was metal production. This was by necessity.

Markets called forth more demand for silver, which called for more production, which called for more production of coins, in a kind of feedback loop.

In South America mines were often high up in the mountains where the air was thinner. That meant that traditional smelting techniques would not work. The Incas, however, has a device known as a guayra, or wind oven. At one point, fifteen thousand of these, produced by Incan craftsmen, were in use by the Spaniards.

To deal with the labor shortage here, the Spanish viceroy adopted the Incan mita system, or corvée labor. Villages were forced to supply labor to the Spanish in place of the Inca rulers. And unlike the Inca, that labor was not involved in things like building, it was used in mining silver ore.

To extract the ore, a new technique was discovered in Mexico. This was the application of mercury to crushed rock in order to more efficiently extract the ore. This required the crushing of massive amounts of rock. To accomplish this on an industrial scale, the Spanish turned to water power:

In order to crush the massive amounts of rock extracted from the giant mountain, the workers used Eurasian technology to build hydraulic wheels and install them at the base of the mountain. Within the first century of mining in Potosí, the workers built 132 such ore-crushing wheels.

To supply energy to turn these wheels in the virtual desert conditions of the high plateau, the Spanish forced thousands of Indians to excavate a series of thirty artificial lakes in the surrounding mountains to capture the small amounts of rain in the area as well as snow that melted and ran off from the higher elevations in the summer. Canals carried the water, which then cascaded down a series of sluices to turn the wheels.

The churning wheels crushed the rock into a fine gravel, and the energy from the waterwheels also powered a series of giant hammers that pounded the gravel into a fine sand the consistency of flour. The “flour” became pasta when the Indians walked on it and mixed it with mercury. IG p. 50

Mechanization did not stop there. The silver was then transported to the Case de Moneda, or house of money. In the past, coins had been struck by using manual dyes and hammer blows by skilled craftsmen on blank slugs of metal. But the massive amounts of silver meant that this hand-production of coins by skilled labor would not suffice. Instead, just like the ore production, waterwheels were pressed into service to automate the striking of vast amounts of silver coins. However, these wheels often ended up being powered by human and animal labor due to the shortage of water:

The innovators of Potosí adapted an indoor version of the waterwheel to supply extra power. Because of the lack of water, men and animals propelled the wheel by trudging in an eternal circle. This closely resembled the threshing mills used in many Old World areas that lacked running water.

The wheels in the mint, however, turned a series of wooden gears up to eight feet in diameter as well as much smaller wheels. When all of the wheels moved in concert, they produced a whopping blow of a hammer much like the hammer used at the base of the mountain to pulverize the ore. Because of the scarcity of wood, craftsmen substituted the more abundant metals for machine parts wherever and whenever practical. IG, p. 51

When the silver was shipped back to Europe, they needed ways to secure the money from pirates, as well as from the people shipping it. To do this, locksmiths devised all sort of new techniques to secure the money in the form of safes and locks.

From extracting the ore and pulverizing it on to minting coins and transporting them, the traditional Old World technology that had sufficed since the days of the ancient Phoenician mines or the mines of Solomon failed to meet the new situation.

The Spanish learned little about metallurgy from the Indians, although in many regards Indian technology was equal to and in some ways superior to European technologies. But the great new magnitude of the mining enterprise in America demanded new techniques in order to produce silver at a rate that the Indians had never before attained.

So much new information about mining developed in these years that in 1640 Barba published his Art of Metals, summarizing this new knowledge and thereby building the foundation for a modern metallurgy that became increasingly important wit the development of industrialization. IG, p. 52

And so, metal provided an example of mechanized mass production. These mechanical techniques using waterwheels will come to play an essential role in the first factories which arrive in other parts of Europe, including the village of Kahl. The Spanish back in Europe tended to not expand this mechanization of industry, because with the silver they could buy whatever they wanted from the rest of Europe. In addition, commerce was seen as unfitting for a noble to engage in, unlike in England. This is why the industrial revolution never took off in Spain. However, the Spanish silver provided a commercial stimulus to the rest of Europe.

Sugar: The First Factories

Sugar cane was not a New World product–it originated in Southeast Asia. It was cultivated widely in India and entered Europe through trading with the Arab world. Sugar is, in fact, an Arabic loan word—sukkar—from the Persian shakar (via the Sanskrit sharkara). Sugar had been introduced into Europe probably during the Crusades. Back then, instead of causing diseases and tooth decay, sugar was considered medicinal. But it very, very rare.

Rather than trade for sugar through the Arab world, it would be useful for Europe to produce its own sugar. But sugar is a tropical plant; like cotton, it does not grow in European soil or temperature conditions.

Before they colonized the New Wold, Europeans occupied and took over the neighboring islands in the Atlantic in a sort of dress rehearsal for the full-scale colonization that was to follow. While England used Ireland for this purpose, the Portuguese settled on the island of Madeira and the Azores and grew sugar there, along with island of São Tomé off the coast of Africa. The Spanish colonized the Canary Islands and planted sugar on Gran Canaria and Tenerife.

When Columbus landed in the Caribbean, he found the ideal spot for growing sugar cane. In fact, sugar was introduced into the Caribbean by Columbus himself from São Tomé on his second voyage (his father-in-law owned a plantation). Before long, the Caribbean became Europe’s sugar daddy:

We all know the appeal of sugar in our candies, cookies, cakes, and coffees, but we’ve lost an appreciation of the critical role it played in the European diet. Sugar did more than furnish calories and sweetness; it make possible storing fruits and vegetables throughout the year.

There were only three ways to keep food before artificial refrigeration: salting it, preserving it, or drying it. Sugar was the essential ingredient for preserves. Before a nineteenth-century German chemist showed how to extract sugar from beets, people had to import it from those tropical areas where sugarcane flourished. Its desirability and rarity did for the islands of the West Indies what oil later did for the Middle East: it gave them a monopoly of a commodity whose demand continued to climb for two centuries.

The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, p. 63

There a few characteristics about sugar, however, that make it quite different from standard agricultural crops such as wheat, rice, corn or tobacco. For one, the sugar has to be harvested right away, because the sucrose in the cane immediately starts to decay after it is cut. Also, as a tropical plant, it does not grow annually the way cereals do. It takes a year and half from planting to harvesting the crop. That meant that the traditional seasonal timing of agricultural labor disappeared; instead sugar became a year-round crop. Labor on a sugar plantation became divorced from the rhythm of the seasons which had dictated the schedules in agrarian societies, including in Europe.

Also, sugar has to be heavily processed in labor-intensive ways to extract the raw material for granulated sugar—pounding, boiling, etc. The only way all this could work is to centralize everything in a massive operation where everything took place immediately in a sort of assembly line process: harvesting, collecting, boiling, pounding, processing, and shipping.

The only way to really deal with all this is via plantations; no “yeoman farmers” here. Eric Wolf describes the plantation model, while also noting its similarity to military organization:

A plantation can be defined formally as a capital-using unit employing a large labor force under close managerial supervision to produce a crop for sale. The labor force usually works in labor gangs that carry out the repetitive and physically demanding tasks under the watchful eye of foremen who enforce the required sequence and synchronization of tasks.

Plantations tend to be large in size, achieving economies of scale by devoting as much of their resources as possible to the cultivation of a single crop. Large-scale production requires large-scale processing. The bulk product must be moved from the fields to a processing center: the processed crop must be stored until it can be taken to market.

It aim is to produce one or two crops for the markets. That specialization is a source at once of its strength and of its weakness. The organization can respond to increases in market demand; but it is highly vulnerable to economic downturns.

Plantation agriculture therefore takes on something of the order and drill of an army, which led Edgar T. Thompson to characterize it as “military” agriculture.

The combined functions of organizational control, processing and storage create the plantation center, which becomes a post of command, walled off from the surrounding fields and workers’ barracks.

Once again, the labor shortage came to bite. Unlike in Potosí, there was no mita system, and the native Taino population had a nasty habit (from the Spanish standpoint) of either running off, or, more likely, dying from imported European diseases. Where would the labor come from to plant, harvest and manufacture the sugar crop, especially since demand for it seemed to be insatiable?

Slavery, obviously, combined with large amounts of European bonded labor. If you fell into debt in Europe during this period, you might very well find yourself on a sugar plantation somewhere in the Caribbean.

And it was here in the Caribbean where the first factories were born:

Sugar cane, Saccharum officinarum, has the peculiarly problematic characteristic that its sucrose starts to decay immediately after the cane is harvested. This required the farmers to press the sweet juice from the cane as soon as possible after cutting the cane. Shipping the cane for processing to a nearby urban area, let alone all the way to Europe, was was done with cotton, would destroy the product. Each plantation needed its own sugar mill to grind the cane and to boil the residue down to a crystalline brown sugar.

The plantation functioned more like what we today think of as a factory than like a traditional European farm or manor. . . Since the sugar cane took one and a half years to mature, the plantation operators had to break the traditional cycle of seasons characteristic of European agriculture. Because of the need to process the cane immediately after harvesting, the harvesting had to be staggered so that too much cane came ripe at the same moment. This made sugar cane culture even for field workers a continuous rather than a seasonal or sporadic activity.

Stanley Mintz describes the sugar plantations as a “synthesis of field and factory” in a form that was “quite unlike anything known in mainland Europe at the time.” The cane had to be crushed, and then go through the stages of reduction, clarification, molding, and crystallization in a carefully synchronized and very exact procedure involving mills, giant furnaces, and boiling cauldrons. This highly skilled part of the work required about 10 percent of the total workers of a plantation. Mintz describes this as “the closest thing to industry that was typical of the seventeenth century.” Even though the final refining of sugar into a white substance was completed in England, the plantations of the Caribbean were essentially sugar factories…

The close connection of sugar-cane plantations to factories is seen even in the nomenclature. In Portuguese, sugar mills are called eghenos de assucar, which means “engines of sugar.” Even in English the term sugar mill emphasizes the industrial rather than the agricultural aspect of the enterprise. IG pp. 52-53

And nothing would go to waste: the mills often had a distillery on hand to make rum and molasses. Sugar, syrup, molasses, and rum all came out of the mills from a single agricultural input—sugar cane. One is reminded of later oil refineries, which produced all sorts of distillates from petroleum. Gasoline, which came to predominate, was originally a waste product from the production of kerosene for lamps. In fact, modern sugar processing facilities do look like oil refineries.
The idea that sugar production was the first rollout of the factory system is also echoed by Kenneth Pomeranz. In the book The World That Trade Created, he titles one of his chapters, Sweet Industry: The First Factory:

Already in the seventeenth century, sugar plantations involved perhaps two hundred slaves and freemen, with a mill, boiling house, curing house, distillery for rum, and storehouse. This involved not only some of the most sophisticated technology of the era, and a large workforce, but also investment of several thousand pounds.

True, nine-tenths of the workforce were field hands engaged in brute labor. But the 10 percent in the crushing, boiling, and distilling plants were very much specialized labor. More importantly, the scale, complexity, and social organization of the sugar mills made them into the first factories.

Time was a ruthless master in the sugar production process. Once harvested, cane had to be rushed to the mill to prevent the loss of sugar content. In the mills, especially the larger ones, close care of temperature was necessary. The boilers’ fires had to be constantly stoked; the liquid sugar had to be moved from kettle to kettle without permitting unwanted crystallization, while running off the sediment at the right time. Then the sugar had to be quickly brought to the curing house where the molasses was run off. Sugarcane produced various qualities of sugar, as well as molasses and rum. The closer to attention to production, the better the final product and the greater the returns…

This led to sugar mills becoming the first factories ruled by the discipline of industrial time. The specialized work gangs had to coordinate their efforts: cane had to be quickly cut when mature; carters had to carry it to the mill; the hungry crushers were constantly fed cane; the leftover cane, the bagasse, was carried to the boiling room to stoke the fire.

The time exigencies of the production process meant that slaves had to work together as so many part of a well-oiled machine. Efficiency and slavery, labor saving and labor intensification were combined…

Sugar, which we think of as a leisure and pleasure product, an import from the balmy Caribbean lands of mañana, was actually the first industrial product and a cruel master to the hundreds of thousands of slaves who labored to turn out sweet delights. Marx observed that “the veiled slavery of the wage-workers of Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the New World.” He could have added that the factories of the Caribbean were holding a mirror in which Europe could see its industrial future.

The World That Trade Created, pp. 227-228

It was regularized product produced for the market, made by a series of steps in a sort of assembly line fashion, involving large amounts both skilled and unskilled labor under strict supervision, who were slaves to the clock. And it required large amount of upfront expenses to get going. Yep, sounds like a factory to me.

Because it was so very labor-intensive and involved so much upfront investment in equipment and technology, sugar was at first very expensive. So why did it become so popular, then? Well, it turns out it’s addictive. Very addictive.

People often jokingly compare it to another white powder that did originate in the New World-cocaine. The thing is, it’s no joke. Studies have shown that sugar is nearly as biologically addictive as cocaine. Sugar activates the mesolimbic dopamine system, causing a similar dopamine hit as various addictive drugs. Quitting sugar can cause cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

With the industrialization of the food supply in the twentieth century, food companies used this fact to add sweeteners to all their products, ushering in an epidemic of diabetes, obesity, and dental caries.

This leads back to a point I’ve emphasized before: it tends to be the use and procurement of psychoactive and addictive substances that drives social change throughout human history, going all the way back to alcohol.

When sugar first arrived on the tables of the European upper class, it was used as a sculptural medium. As Braudel reports, “On 18 October 1513, the king of Portugal offered the Pope a lifesize sugar effigy of himself, surrounded by twelve cardinals and three hundred candles, one and a half metres high – all made by a long-suffering confectioner” (p. 191).

The Factory System comes to Europe

It may have begun with slaves and bonded labor on the islands of the Caribbean, but it didn’t stay there.

Fernand Braudel introduced a four-fold classification of European manufacturing developed by historian Hubert Bourgin in 1924 (pp. 298-302):

Category A: Tiny family workshops, countless in number and grouped in ‘clusters’, each with a mater tradesman, two or three journeymen and one or two apprentices, a family in itself.

Category B: Workshops which were scattered, but connected to each other–‘dispersed factories’.

Category C: Concentrated manufacture.

Category D: Factories equipped with machinery, using the additional energy sources of running water and steam.

He notes:

So there are the four categories, four types of production in roughly chronological order, although ‘while they followed one upon the other, these different structures did not immediately replace each other’…There certainly was no natural and logical transition from the manufactory to the factory. p. 302

England had been a major center for wool since the Middle Ages. Tudor kings increasingly pursued what we would today call an “industrial policy” in an attempt to make England a producer of the finished product rather than just raw materials for the continent. The investments in cloth production came just in time to be increasingly used for the production of cotton instead of wool, as cotton began pouring in from the New World. Sea Island cotton was particularly desirable.

The techniques first developed on the island plantations of the Caribbean increasingly were imported back into Europe. Instead of sugar, it was first put to use as a way to weave the huge amounts of cotton that were arriving from the Americas into cotton cloth. Since cloth production became the major factory industry back in the Old World, it was cloth production that became mechanized first and fastest, despite deep resistance from labor. The mechanization of cloth production is well-known by now: the power loom, the spinning Jenny, etc.

Eric Wolf discusses the inherent limitations of cottage industry (Braudel’s Category B above), and why it increasingly led to the expanding use of factories (categories C and D):

The advent of the factory was a consequence of the limitations of the putting out system.

That system, in which a merchant entrepreneur furnished raw materials to have them processed in many small household establishments, encountered serious difficulties in sustaining and expanding the scale and scope of operations. It therefore set limits on the accumulation of capital.

There were limits to the intensity and duration of labor where producers worked in scattered and unsupervisable economic units. This was especially true as long as industrial operations supplanted agricultural tasks, such that work in the fields could take precedence over work on spinning wheel and loom. Similarly, religious activities, kinship events, and recreation could, and did, interfere with work intensity and procedures.

Furthermore, the merchant had little defense against pilfering and embezzlement of raw materials by the dispersed workers and little control over quality of output–both problems that grew increasingly serious in the course of the eighteenth century.

The lack of synchronization among the different steps in the sequence of production added to the cost of transportation: when spinning was slow, the merchant-coordinator had to go in search of spinners to feed the looms; when spinning had improved through innovations, merchants had to go in search of hand-loom weavers. There were delays in processing and deliveries, which slowed the turnover time of capital and left customers dissatisfied.

Ever-rising large-scale trade thus encountered the limitations of a productive system divided into innumerable small-scale workshop units, “unsupervised and unsupervisable”. The answer to this contradiction was the establishment of the capitalist factory. Wolf, pp. 274-275

The factory had no such limitations. All of the operations were now located “under one roof” and could be supervised accordingly. Now workers could labor practically non-stop to supply products to the expanding market. The similarities between slavery and wage slavery were not accidental—quite the contrary:

Just as the plantations consisted of a small nucleus of slave barracks clustered around central warehouses and the production area, the European factory clustered workers’ houses around a centralized manufacturing site. This new spatial arrangement replaced the traditional organization of manufacturing in Europe in which individual craftsmen worked in individual workshops or homes.

The new European factory modeled itself on the American plantation. The centralization of workers obviated the need for costly transportation to distribute raw materials to scattered households and workshops and to pick up finished goods. Centralization also helped the owners impose uniformity of work and production on industrial laborers much as the plantation owners had already done with the African and Indian slaves. IG pp. 54-55

Categories C and D increasingly became increasingly prominent. But these manufacturing techniques did not develop out of what had come before. Rather, they were competitors to it, and soon came to supplant the other types of fabrication:

Some people erroneously assume that the European factory grew naturally out of the traditional European craft system as some sort of inevitable cultural evolution. As Peter Kropotkin pointed out quite decisively, the factory system competed with the craft system and did not derive from it. He showed how the Swiss watchmakers doggedly resisted the sale of machine-made watches and how the Lyon silk workers fought adamantly against manufactured silks.

The technology of mass production of goods completely contradicted the principles of the craft tradition, which relied on the apprentice working first toward journeyman and then craftsman status. Kropotkin pointed out that that in contrast to that tradition, the factory system depended on unskilled labor that even a child could and often did perform.

In the end he realized that the crafts would continue only as a source of goods for the aristocracy while factory goods would be for working-class people. Kropotkin decried the unnecessary centralization and urbanization of industrialization and strongly advocated a highly industrialized but decentralized mode of production instead. This he felt would be much more in keeping with both the agricultural and craft heritage of European manufacturing history. Kropotkin did not explain the origins of this alien mode of production—the alien factory which bore so little resemblance to anything else then existent in European society. IG p. 55

Since plantations had been staffed and run by slaves, would the new factories use slave labor as well? This was actually tried in parts of the the New World when the factory system was expanded to other industries besides sugar. But in the end it failed because it turns out that it is cheaper to rent your slaves instead of buying them:

The slave factory system failed in past because the owners could not compete with the much cheaper goods manufactured in New England and Europe. The capitalist system relied on paid laborers to run the factories, and these proved much cheaper than slave laborers. Factory owners had to pay only the one person, often a child, in the family who worked, and had to pay for only as many years as the worker actually produced. Slavery proved too expensive a system to operate in a factory. IG p. 56

Seen from this standpoint, it was the development of an alternative—and more efficient—means of worker control and labor exploitation that led to the demise of slavery, and not noble humanitarian sentiment as is often claimed, i.e. “the better angels of our nature.”

The workers themselves were forced into the factories by the Enclosure Movement. As fields became enclosed and agricultural techniques improved, yeoman farming became less and less of a viable way of life, and the deracinated farmers and agricultural workers poured into metastasizing cities and became the grist for the first Industrial Revolution. Just like the Indians of the New world, however, the destruction of what had been a stable, convivial way of life led to grief, culture shock, and very often, mass deaths, something subsequent history has deliberately swept under the rug in its efforts to validate and normalize capitalism as a “natural” way of life.

Wage labor, while it had always existed to some extent, now became a way of life for most lower-class people as workers became dependent upon factory wages to buy their food and clothing instead of producing it themselves. Those unable to earn money were originally given outdoor relief, but that was soon replaced by workhouses, creating a mass market for labor for the first time in the early 1800s.

As Polanyi noted, the mechanization of production was a necessary catalyst for the creation of Market Society, where custom, sociability and morals were swept aside in favor of theoretically self-regulating forces of supply and demand. This emerging system was defended by intellectuals who never had to set foot in a factory (and still is today).

But the change was traumatic. Agricultural workers were used to working in time with the seasons, having copious time off, and social drinking. They were not used to having every move they made watched, being slaves to a clock, and harsh worker “discipline.” Factory owners themselves acknowledged that they were fighting a war against basic human nature—a war they subsequently won. Eric Wolf writes:

The early British textile factories were faced, however, with a general unwillingness on the part of the potential laboring class to enter into factory employment. Above all, they resisted the unrelenting labor and discipline of the factories, so much at odds with earlier habits and with older customs of sociability and of autonomous labor.

Many early factories were modeled on penal workhouses and prisons, and indeed were manned by involuntary pauper apprentices. The identification of the factory with forced penal labor also meant that former artisans or laborers in cottage industry felt a loss in social status in moving from the relative self-determination of the cottage producer to the servitude of the industrial worker. Indeed, “as long as there was some measure of freedom of choice between cottage and factory the workmen preferred the cottage.” p. 276

The role of state power in establishing the factory system has been covered up by the inherent libertarian biases of the “science” of economics. In economics curricula, history has been eliminated in favor of abstract theorizing and mathematization of idealized utopian markets.

Return to Kahl

To round out the chapter, Weatherford returns to his exemplar village of Kahl in Bavaria. European mills were often located on waterways. This not only facilitated the transport of grain, but also allowed mills to take advantage of water power, as was the case in Kahl.

As long as Europe depended primarily on wool for clothing, peasants could spin it and weave it with simple home technology. The bottleneck in cloth manufacture was the amount of wool that the land was capable for producing, not the ability of the weavers to make cloth. Since the number of sheep determined the amount of wool for weaving, peasants lacked incentives to develop machines or more efficient ways to make clothing.

This situation changed with the massive influx of cotton from America. Suddenly, the peasants and the weavers had more fiber than they could weave. They lacked the labor to process so much fiber. Europe desperately needed more energy than it had in human and animal power, and the most readily available source for creating new energy lay in the waterwheels already in place throughout the continent. Thus were born the first textile factories. IG p. 43

As Weatherford documents, the mills were utilized less and less as the peasant diet increasingly switched from cereals to potatoes, which, unlike grain, did not require milling. The mills—powered by water—were then put to other uses. As the factory system expanded and machines became utilized more and more, it made sense to locate factories in what had previously been grain processing mills. Water power now drove the machines of weaving such as the spinning mule.

The citizens of Kahl increasingly abandoned their farms and fields and went to work in the factories producing goods for distant markets:

Early in the nineteenth century, after Kahl recovered from the disasters of the Napoleonic conquests, imaginative entrepreneurs discovered new uses for the mills of Kahl. The mills offered a great source of energy, and this energy could be applied to other purposes than the mere grinding of grains or pressing of oils; the energy could be harnessed to power looms to make cloth.

Gradually the mills throughout the area were converted into small factories producing textiles, matches, electrical fuses, and felt, and eventually they were renovated to produce electricity, felt-making machines, and more complex electrical equipment… IG p. 42

Of course, if the peasants abandoned their fields, they would nevertheless still have to eat. Where would the food come from?

Increasingly, food was imported from the vast breadbaskets of North America and the Russian plains. This freed up the agricultural workers to become factory workers. In fact, the agricultural revolution was a prerequisite to the industrial revolution, something a lot of historians miss completely.

Of course, with plentiful supplies of grain flooding into Europe from abroad, the price of grain dropped. Large landholders advocated for price supports to keep the price high enough so that they could earn a living; industrialists, on the other hand, wanted it cheap so they could pay their workers less. In England, this took the form of debates over the Corn Laws. This was fundamentally a power conflict between the old landowning aristocracy and the rising industrialist class.

There’s a fascinating story in how the Industrial Revolution was also made possible by a food revolution. That included foodstuffs from the New World and the expansion of arable lands that conquest and colonialism engendered. It also featured improved agricultural techniques in Europe as well. But that’s a story for another time.

In the end, the industrialists won out. The price of grain dropped too low for small European farmers to make a living, so they threw in the towel and moved to the city. This led to mass poverty and overcrowding. These individuals and families became the proletariat of the first Industrial Revolution, a time of wrenching social change, similar to today, where the average worker was thrown under the bus with little to no resources to fall back on and told to fend for him or herself. Like today, living standards went down and the death rate went up.

With the invention of an efficient steam engine in the late 1700s by James Watt, heat engines could then be harnessed to factories which were located far away from wind and water power. Thus out of the factory system and mechanization of labor is born the industrial revolution based around fossil fuels that we are familiar with:

Soon the manufacturing in Kahl surpassed the capacity of the waterwheels to supply power, and the villagers began excavating local deposits of low-quality brown coal to produce electricity and thus increase the power available to them. After they exhausted the coal veins, the village switched to nuclear power to generate electricity. Throughout this process the emergent industries stimulated the development of collateral businesses such as construction and thus heightened the demand for lumber, stone, brick, sand, gravel, cement and other raw materials.

The industrialization of Kahl illustrated in miniature the process that occurred throughout England, Germany, and the other European nations. America supplied the raw materials for the revolution, and the sugar-cane plantations of the Caribbean and mines and mints of Mexico and the Andes supplied the prototypes for the first factories.

This initiated the industrial revolution in Europe; later in the nineteenth century a new stage based on coal and its derivatives replaced the first stage. This in time was superseded by the oil revolution when petroleum products became not only major sources of fuel but the source of may new raw materials, such as dyes, plastics, synthetic fibers, and a side array of chemicals. p. 57

Finally, there was a nuclear power plant, financed by the Versuchsatomkraftwerk Kahl GmbH. In a little more than a century the wooden water wheel had been replaced by the nuclear reactor. All this began with the adoption of the potato, but obviously the process involved many more factors than the mere potato, since the Peruvians have had potatoes for thousands of years but still do not have atomic energy. p. 42

But it all began with the need of European colonizers the New World to deal with a chronic labor shortage and to create products for export that were labor intensive to produce. So it was the New World that pioneered the factory system. Kenneth Pomeranz sums it up:

When we think of the first factories, we usually think of Europe, particularly England. After all, factories were the definition of “modern: and Europe was the leader in modernization. We assume that they were first built in Europe, where capital, machines, and labor combined to create ever-more efficient and productive methods. European ingenuity and entrepreneurship together with previously accumulated capital and budding markets led to the industrialization that was the secret of Europe’s centuries long domination of the world economy.

According to this story, the globe was divided between industrial Europe, and later the United States, and the agrarian exporting rest of the world. With this international specialization of labor, the agricultural countries only belatedly industrialized.

In fact, there is good reason to turn this version on its head: the first factories arose in the colonial, export-oriented world. p. 226

So to answer the original question of why the industrial revolution happened when and where it did, the reason is because it was Western European powers who established colonies in far-flung locations including the Caribbean, Brazil (the center of sugar production), and the American South. It was Europe that has an insatiable appetite for exotic products like sugar and cotton. Thus it was the Europeans who developed the mechanization processes and brutal worker coercion to produce those products to cope with the shortage of labor in the New World, as well of the lack of competing social arrangements as was the case in Europe. It was the development of this harsh system, and its importation back into Western Europe–especially in the area of cloth production–that were the necessary prerequisites for everything that followed–mechanization, marketization and fossil fuel power. This unique series of circumstances was only present in Western Europe thanks to its invasion and colonization of the tropics after 1500.

Those techniques of worker control never went away. The means of controlling workers developed linearly into the conditions almost all of us labor under to this very day. We’ll take a look at that next time, after a brief detour though industrialization’s effect on urban life.

(Braudel quotes are from The Wheels of Commerce, Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century Volume 2) Eric Wolf quotes are from Europe and the People Without History.

The Origin of the Factory 1

There has been an ongoing debate over what the industrial revolution was, and whether it required the introduction of fossil fuels.

On first glance, it may seem like, of course fossil fuels were required. How else could the vast amount of output of the industrial revolution be achieved?

Not so, say those who argue the opposite. The argue that the industrial revolution was well under way long before fossil fuels entered the picture.

Rather, the industrial revolution was really all about the reorganization, intensification, and mechanization of human labor, they say. During the industrial revolution, labor was transformed into something closer to what we know today—large amounts of people toiling under the same roof, each doing their own specialized part of the production process instead of individually crafting things from scratch. Deskilling, specialization, routinization, mechanization, and harsh worker “discipline”—these were all aspects of the Industrial Revolution’s reorganization of working life that did not require the introduction of fossil fuels.

Similarly the use of machines first kicked off with human and animal power, and then later moved to water and wind. It was only after centuries of this when steam engines replaced them and fossil fuels became the prime energy mover. By the time fossil-fuel-powered engines came along, the argument goes, they merely had to be plugged in to system that had already been put into place.

In large measure, they have the timeline right. The reorganization, routinization, deskilling and mechanization of labor did indeed precede the steam engine. Early factories were established before the large-scale harnessing of fossil fuels, and output did go up a great deal.

In this case, it’s helpful to distinguish, as some historians do, several industrial revolutions. How it’s divided up varies depending on the historian. But generally, a distinction is made between the birth of the factory system; the mass utilization of coal and steam engines; the use of gasoline and the internal combustion engine; and the harnessing of electricity and the application of scientific research and engineering methods to the creation of new products.

But the question remains, where did this reorganization of labor first originate?

The New World Path to Industrialization

It turns out that it originated in the New World. From there, it spread to the Europe.

That’s the contention in a book called Indian Givers by Jack Weatherford. Weatherford is best known for his series of books about Genghis Khan and the Mongols. But before he wrote those, his specialty was Native American history, and he wrote several books about the topic.

Chapter Two of Indian Givers is called “The American Indian Path Towards Industrialization.” At first glance, it might seem odd to talk about an “American Indian path to Industrialization,” as the American Indians were less, not more, technologically advanced then the European invaders (with some notable exceptions).

But it was a combination of circumstances caused by the exploitation of New World resources, as well as the discovery of new resources that played the critical role. As he puts it,

“Without European technology and organization, the industrial revolution would never have started in America; without American precious metals and methods of processing, the industrial revolution would never have happened in Europe.” p. 58

Weatherford uses as his illustration the village of Kahl in Germany. For a long time a small farming village, it industrialized during the great rolling industrialization of the nineteenth century. Today, alongside quaint village houses, fenced farm fields, and abandoned mills, sit factories, ports, railroads, truck depots, and even a nuclear power plant! What changed, and why did it change so rapidly in just the last couple of centuries?

Farm life in Kahl remained much the same regardless of whether the village was inhabited by Celts, the Chatten, the Romans, or the Franks. A peasant would probably have felt equally at home farming in the Kahl of 700 B.C. or A.D. 1700.

In this time the basic subsistence pattern of agriculture—the crops grown, the animals used, and the tools for growing and processing them—remained basically unaltered. The houses of the peasants from the two eras differed little, the peasants moved around by the same modes of transportation, and they ate roughly the same meals.

Suddenly in the last few centuries, life changed radically after millennia of great technological stability. The peasants stopped working in the fields and started to work in factories. They illuminated their houses and other buildings with electricity, and they replaced their horses with bicycles, tractors and trucks. They altered their diet, and the way they built their homes and educated their children. Within a few generations, virtually every aspect of life changed… IG pp. 40-41

Weatherford asks a question you hear often today: why did technologically advanced and sophisticated ancient cultures not break through to have their own industrial revolution? Why did it take (from our standpoint) so long? If we don’t require fossil fuel power or steam engines to have an industrial revolution, as we saw above, then what was stopping them?

After thousands of years of agricultural life, this sudden leap into the industrialized world seems difficult to explain. Why had the Greeks, with so much mathematical and philosophical learning and such outstanding architectural techniques, not been able to make and use machines? Why were the Romans, with all of their technical and practical knowledge of engineering and their vast array of engines of war, not industrialized? Why could the people of the Renaissance, who demonstrated their mechanical wizardry by making elaborate toys, not make the leap into machine production? What happened to the world in the 1700s and 1800s to make it industrialize after thousands of static years of technological stability? Indian Givers, p. 41

Weatherford’s answer is that the encounter with the New World was the catalyst. This was the missing piece from all earlier eras of world history.

Why was this the case? Well, this was simply based on the fact that the New World had a chronic shortage of labor. The Old World did not.

In fact, it’s highly unlikely that such a shortage would ever have transpired in the old civilizational centers of Eurasia. They also would have not been developed sui generis by people in the New World.

No, it took an invasion to do that. An invasion combined with a labor shortage.

In fact, the Old World had a surfeit of labor throughout most of history. That surfeit of labor would end up becoming the labor stock for the first industrial revolution.

But first, the factory system had to be invented.

Labor shortage

Unlike the Old World, the New World suffered from chronic and persistent shortage of labor.

There was a vast pool of resources just sitting around that needed processing, but the people who lived there kept inconveniently dying just when the exploiters needed them the most.

So, the conquerors were forced by necessity to come up with new ways of organizing labor due to the chronic shortage. Because of the labor shortage, Europeans in the New World developed all sorts of new and novel techniques to extract the maximum amount of labor out of their limited workforce—by and large enslaved Indians and Africans, with indentured workers (bonded labor) thrown into the mix.

In this case, necessity was the mother of invention. History shows that things typically aren’t invented until there’s some sort of pressing need for it.

You might say the New World products were the tinder, and the labor shortage was the spark.

The Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries promised vast resources—gold, silver, and furs, as well as the seemingly inexhaustible potential for crops of tobacco, sugarcane, rice, coffee, indigo, and hundreds of other plants. But a major obstacle constantly slowed the extraction of both the metals and agricultural treasures from the ground: the persistent shortage of labor.

The Spanish quickly impressed the Indians into slave labor, but in some areas, such as the Caribbean islands and Central America, the Indians died very quickly from diseases, malnutrition, overwork, or simple culture shock and grief. In other cases the natives lacked sufficient experience in agriculture or mining to be acculturated into the new Spanish system as workers.

No matter how many slaves the British and Dutch shipped to America, the plantation and mine owners demanded more laborers. Because of the lack of sufficient manpower, the Americans improvised whole new mechanical technologies to help tap the natural resources and potential wealth. IG, p. 49

Back in the days of cottage industries, artisanal production, and small, individual workshops, it was unlikely that anyone would have seen a need to scale up their operations very much, or dramatically increase their output, as there would not have been enough customers to buy their products even if they were to do so.

With the introduction of vast new amounts of silver into the Old World, and the marketization of society it engendered, suddenly not only was there a huge amount of new products, but there was also the money with which to buy them! This catalyzed a self-sustaining feedback loop—more money demanded more products, which made more money, which was invested into higher output of products. The New World produced not only the products, but also the money with which to buy the products. Supply really did create its own demand:

At the time of the discovery of the Americas, Europe had only about $200 million worth of gold and silver, approximately $2 per person. By 1600 the supply of precious metals had increased approximately eightfold. The Mexican mint alone coined $2 billion worth of silver prices of eight.

The silver coins flowing through Europe at first promised to strengthen the feudal order, but in the end they forged whole new classes and changed the fortunes of many countries. The new coins helped to wash away the old aristocratic order in which money games could be played only by the privileged few; massively larger amounts of money opened up new games to new people.

Even though all the gold and silver went into Spain, it did not stay there. From Spain the money spread throughout Europe. The Hapsburg monarch Charles V occupied his throne both as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and as the king of Spain; this facilitated the spread of the money from Spain to the Hapsburg holdings in the Spanish Netherlands and across Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the Italian states. Three-fifths of the bullion entering Spain from America immediately left Spain to pay debts, mostly those incurred by the profligate monarchy…

Precious metals from the Americas superseded land as the basis for wealth, power and prestige. For the first time there was enough of some commodity other than land to provide a greater and more consistent standard by which wealth might be measured. This easily transported and easily used means of wealth prepared the way for the new merchant and capitalist class that would soon dominate the whole world…

The tremendous volume of new currency influenced the economy of all Europe. For example, in Naples there wee only 700,000 ducats in circulation and in savings in 1570. In less than two centuries, by 1751, there were eighteen million ducats. These eighteen million ducts, moreover, could be used many times in a year for various types of transactions. The total number of ducats used in buying and selling would be approximately 288 million.

Similarly, in France, which received its wealth from the New World much later than Spain, approximately 120 million francs circulated in 1670, but by 1770 there were two billion in circulation, a fifteenfold increase in a century. IG, pp. 14-16

Not only did they ship over products from the New World like cotton, tobacco and coffee, but they also shipped over the means to buy those same products in the form of silver and gold bullion.

There was tremendous bounty in the New World, it was true, yet New World goods needed a lot of work to process, that is, they were labor intensive. Where would the labor to do all this work come from?

Slavery, obviously. But even slaves can only do so much. Plus, they’re expensive. You’ve got to ship them over from Africa, buy them, feed and clothe them, and so forth. The same is true for bonded labor. Plus, unlike artisans, you’re not dealing with skilled labor here. You’re dealing with simply warm bodies, ripped from their culture and with little to no training in what they are about to do.

So, to minimize the number of slaves you needed to buy (and the bonded labor you need to indenture), and to dumb down the process enough so that they could easily be put to work, you need to maximize labor output and simplify your tasks. And thus the idea of capitalist efficiency was born—maximizing productive output with the absolute minimum of labor input.

In order to do that, you need to reorganize labor and use machines to the greatest extent possible. This is why this process began in the Americas, rather than in the Old World. In particular, it began in the sugar mills of the Americas—large ,extensive operations designed to grow and harvest sugarcane and turn it into the raw material to be shipped back to Europe and sold for profit.

Even though most of the labor was unskilled, you still needed a small class of skilled laborers for supervision, as well as to direct the more precise industrial processes. So you end up with a balance of about 90 percent unskilled labor versus 10 percent skilled labor in the sugar mills, very similar to that in the earliest factories.

And another key ingredient was the impetus to mass production that New World crops gave to European markets. All sort of new products were discovered during the Columbian exchange-tobacco, chocolate, cotton, dyes, rubber, sisal, etc. These were combined with products already known to Europeans but that Europeans were unable to produce themselves because they required a tropical clime—things like like coffee, sugar and cotton, especially.

While cotton was previously known to Europeans, it turns out that cotton was domesticated independently by natives in the New World, and their cotton was of much higher quality than that in the Old World. The strands were longer, smoother, and silkier; so silky, in fact, that Europeans mistook some Indian cotton garments for silk! Cotton cloaks were used as a high-denomination currency in Mesoamerica, alongside lower-denomination cacao beans.

Some Old World types of cotton had been grown in India and the Near East for centuries, but only very small quantities of it ever reached Europe. This cotton was not only expensive, but weak and difficult to weave because of its short strands.

Asiatic cottons, Gossypium herbaceum and G. arboreum, had a strand length of only about half an inch, but American upland cotton, G. hirtutum, usually grew a full inch or more. Meanshile, G. barbodense, the tropical American cotton that became best known as Sea Island cotton (from the plantations that grew it on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia), could grow to two and a half inches.

In Europe the short strands of the Old World cotton served primarily for padding jerkins under the coats of mail worn in battle. In time the uses of cotton expanded to the making of fustian, which was a coarse material built on a warp of stronger flax and a woof of Old World cotton. Not until American cotton arrived in England, however, did the phrase “cotton cloth” appear in English; the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest date for it is 1552.

The long-strand cotton of the American Indians so surpassed in quality the puny cotton of the Old World that the Spaniards mistook the American cloth for silk and interpreted its abundance as yet further proof that these new lands lay close to China.

For thousands of years before the European conquest of America the Indians had been using this carefully developed cotton to weave some of the finest textiles in the world. Many remnants of these early cloths survive to the present day, their colors and designs intact, after several thousand years in the desert burials of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. IG, pp. 42-42

I’m not going to go deep into the history of New World products or foods. Instead, I’d like to take a look at how the labor shortage forced the Europeans to automate many of the processes they used with enslaved New World labor, and how this led to the development of the factory system in Europe. In particular, we’ll look at two critical New World industries: mining and sugar production.

Job Quantity versus Quality

A few posts ago, I put forward the idea that a decline in the workforce population may be what’s behind today’s low headline unemployment rate.

Supporters of Trump tout the low unemployment rate as if his policies had something to do with it, rather than demographics. Or they may tout decreased immigration, which actually started before he was elected, due to the shrinking disparity in economic conditions between the U.S. and Mexico (Mexico getting better, U.S. getting worse).

It’s an enduring paradox: on the one hand, politicians consistently claim that they cannot “interfere” in the “natural” workings of the free market economy when times are hard—they can only sit by and watch helplessly as it does it’s thing and wait it out. But when things are going well while they are in office, they take all the credit for it and insist it was 100% percent their policies that created the current conditions, and not the the fact that the market is cyclical.

In other words, it’s mainly down to luck.

But a decline in the unemployment rate does not tell the whole story.

There are two other important factors to consider here. One is the workforce participation rate. The unemployment rate might be lower because less and less people are counted as being actively in the labor market. That is, they become “unpersons.”

The other is the quality of the jobs created. We could create hundreds of thousands of new jobs as human footstools that pay sub-starvation wages and call it a great success because the unemployment rate went down.

Until now, all I’ve ever heard is the headline number of jobs created and the unemployment rate. But what I never heard in any of those discussions in the media was what kinds of jobs were created. Full or part time? Well-paid or not? Benefits? Are we just creating more bartender jobs while middle class jobs continue to disappear?

To the extent commentators did dive into the stats, in fact, the scenario above was in evidence: more and more jobs in low-wage service and retail, less and less in professional occupations across the board. What use is it in creating more and more dead-end McJobs that people can’t afford to live on?

This explains why even though the headline unemployment rate is low, there is tepid wage growth (which we covered last time). It also explains why so many people are struggling and unhappy with their circumstances even while hearing rosy statistics constantly blasted at them from the corporate media. It simply doesn’t comport with their lived reality. Under the current system, if you get even $1.00 a week from a “job” you’re considered “employed” and removed from the unemployment statistics. Hooray!

In fact, all the evidence indicated that the number of “good” jobs continues to shrink, which means that the competition for them is as fierce as ever, despite the overall growth rate in job numbers. “Opportunity hoarding” is still endemic among the elite upper classes in the U.S. And all of this may be due to structural factors in the U.S. economy, which are only going to get much worse in the years ahead.

1. Workforce participation rate.

You probably already know the trend here. Since the 1960’s the trend has been for ever-less men to be in the workforce. Meanwhile the number of women steadily increased from the late 1960s onward.

The number of women entering the workforce offset the men leaving it, such that the overall workforce participation rate across the entire population grew over time. As sort of Great Displacement, as it were.

U.S. Labor Force Participation Rates
Click to enlarge

Then it started reversing after about 2000 or so. We hit peak employment, and rates across the board started to fall for both genders after 2008. There was also a trend of older workers continuing to work, likely because of the switch from guaranteed pensions to the 401K scam where you provide for your own retirement out of your shrinking discretionary income.

Source. Click to enlarge.

The latest data has the workforce participation rate hovering around where it has bottomed out around 2012, with no signs of recovery. In fact, it is projected by the BLS to fall even further in the years ahead.

Source. Click to enlarge.

The bottom line is that there are historically less people working than in recent times, which skews the statistics, although not by a tremendous amount. The workforce participation rate is expected to shrink: more people will be permanently excluded from the musical chairs game going forward, especially men.

2. Job Quality

At long last, there is finally a discussion not just on the overall number of jobs, but on what type of jobs are being created.

A “Job Quality Index” has been created by Gallup, et. al. to go along with the unemployment rate. And what it has found is that the vast, vast, majority of jobs in the United States are fucking horrible.

That comports with what I have seen. While I have observed an enormous amount of “help wanted” signs of late, all of them are in establishments like fast-food franchises, restaurants, hotels, dry cleaners, mechanics yards, bus drivers, and so forth. These were disproportionately the jobs that were taken by illegal immigrants in the past several decades. Jobs that actually allow you to get ahead and have decent benefits are just as hard to procure as ever. This distorts the unemployment rate.

At the same time, the costs for the very basics of life—so called “nondiscretionary spending”—continue to skyrocket. Costs for housing, especially where jobs are plentiful, are escalating beyond people’s ability to pay for them, leading to an increase in the number of homeless people with jobs. And education is more and more out of reach for the average person, having risen 19 times faster than average family incomes since 1980. Access to many professional occupations is now only available to the fortunate few who chose their parents correctly. So much for social mobility and the “American Dream.”

What this has led to is widespread and dire poverty, even in the face of low unemployment numbers. This is why so many people react with incredulity, and even anger, when the rosy statistics are thrown in their face to argue that things have never been better, and if you’re struggling it’s only down to your own fault.

And a paper by the Brooking Institutions recently found that nearly half of Americans have poverty-level wages:

According to a Brookings Institution analysis, unemployment may be down, but there aren’t enough good jobs to go around.

They say 44% of American workers are employed in low-wage jobs that pay median annual wages of $18,000.

The report says their median hourly wages are $10.22. That’s higher than the federal minimum wage which sits at $7.25. The minimum wage in Louisiana is also $7.25.

That’s nearly half of the American workforce who don’t make what’s considered a living wage. According to MIT, a living wage for a single person in Louisiana is $11.28. The poverty wage for a single adult with two children is $9.99.

This isn’t just a problem for workers who are young or inexperienced, according to the report. The low-wage workforce is primarily made up of post-college age adults and older Americans.

56% of them are ages 25-50. 19% of them are ages 51-65.

23% of low-wage workers have an associate’s degree or more. Add in the number of workers who are in school or have some college education and that number jumps to 48%.

Job Quality Index data appears to back up the analysis. It assesses job quality in the United States and measures the “direction and degree of change in high-to-low job composition.”

While the JQI chart shows increases and declines in job quality since its inception in 1990, the trend has generally been a downward one.

According to the index, job quality has declined by 14.3% since 1990. The index most recently began to trend upward in 2012 but started to drop again in 2017. You can see it here.

Most workers appear to feel it. A CBS report in October said 6 in 10 workers rate their job quality as “mediocre to bad.”

Report: Nearly half of American workers have low-wage jobs (KNOE)

A study conducted by the Brookings Institute found that 53 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 (or 44 percent of the workforce) yearly earn a median average of $18,000 (or $10.22 per hour). What this means is that a large section of our society can’t afford even small mistakes, let alone major emergencies. It only takes one bad move or shock for a low-wage worker to be irrevocably thrown into a catastrophe. CBS’s post about the Brookings report appeared the day after it aired the 60 Minutes episode on Seattle’s homeless crisis.

What 60 Minutes Missed: 44 Percent of U.S. Workers Earn $18,000 Per Year (The Stranger)

…the working class can’t thrive on low unemployment rates alone. For the median job-seeker in Trump’s America, the odds may be good, but the good jobs are an oddity. Amid all the encouraging signs in Friday’s jobs report, wage growth remained bizarrely tepid. In a labor market as tight as this one, conventional economic models would predict a bidding war between understaffed employers, and thus, accelerating wage growth. And yet, even as the unemployment rate has fallen in 2019, the pace of wage gains has actually slowed.

A lot of factors have contributed to this textbook-defying state of affairs. But an excellent new Washington Post feature on the disappearance of administrative assistant jobs illustrates some of the most essential ones.

Contrary to Andrew Yang’s grim prophecies, automation is not rendering vast swathes of the public unemployable. What technology and trade have done, however, is displace millions of Americans from their middle-class jobs, and send them hurtling down the income ladder into less remunerative occupations. And while some dimensions of this development have inspired widespread political attention (if not meaningful political action), others have gone all but unmentioned.

The plight of the downwardly mobile manufacturing worker is familiar to most Americans. But that of the displaced administrative assistant is less so. And yet, they are two sides of the same story: Since 2000, the U.S. economy has shed 2.9 million jobs in (disproportionately male) production occupations, and 2.1 million in (disproportionately female) administrative and office-support roles.

As the Post notes, such clerical jobs have been for non-college-educated women what manufacturing employment once was for non-college-educated men — a route to lifelong economic security. But as administrative assistant roles have been off-shored, automated, or — at the C-suite level — refashioned into elite positions staffed by lawyers and MBAs, that path to prosperity has been foreclosed to millions of working-class women. For middle-aged workers who had built careers in the field, this has meant sudden and harrowing downward mobility.

According to the Urban Institute, more than half of all workers over 50 in the U.S. eventually lose their jobs involuntarily, and 90 percent of those workers get consigned to lower-paying work for the rest of their careers. Meanwhile, for the typical millennial non-college-educated worker, our ascendant “barbell economy” (which concentrates job growth at the top and bottom of the income ladder) doesn’t even provide ephemeral opportunities for middle-class employment.

Critically, this is not because our society has no use for blue and pink-collar labor: Of the ten occupations expected to add the most jobs to the U.S. economy over the next decade, six are “low-skill” roles that pay less than $27,000 a year. This trend would be alarming enough in a world where America didn’t have an extortion racket for a health-care system, runaway inflation in its higher education sector, and housing markets beset by artificial scarcity. In the world we actually live in, the collapse of middle-income job opportunities has coincided with a meteoric rise in the costs of middle-class life…

Gallup’s headline finding is that, as measured by its index, only 40 percent of Americans currently have “good” jobs. But a more telling (and less ambiguous) finding from its survey may be this: While 59 percent of U.S. workers say their wages have increased over the past five years, no more than 37 percent say any other key marker of job quality has improved over that period. In fact, roughly as many workers say their job’s non-cash benefits have gotten worse in recent years (21 percent) as say they’ve gotten better (23 percent). Meanwhile, majorities report no gains in their job’s sense of purpose, enjoyability, or the stability and predictability of its wages — all factors that respondents rated as being more important to job quality than overall pay…

Jobs, Jobs Everywhere, But Most of Them Kind of Suck (NYmag)

…Right now the JQI is just shy of 81, which implies that there are 81 high-quality jobs for every 100 low-quality ones. While that’s a slight improvement from early 2012—the JQI’s 30-year nadir—it’s still way down from 2006, the eve of the housing market crash, when the economy regularly supported about 90 good jobs per 100 lousy ones.

Or, in plainer English, the US labor market is nowhere near fully recovered from the Great Recession. In fact, the long-term trend in the balance of jobs paints a more ominous picture.

“The problem is that quality of the stock of jobs on offer has been deteriorating for the last 30 years,” says Dan Alpert, an investment banker and Cornell Law School professor who helped create the index. (Along with Alpert, the index is built and maintained by researchers at Cornell University Law School, the Coalition for a Prosperous America, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity.) The “whole story” told by the index, he adds, is “the devaluation of American labor.”

The prevalence of low-quality jobs suggests that there’s still a lot of slack in the labor market—meaning, people could be working more or using their skills more fully than they currently are. This is pretty much the opposite conclusion you’d draw from the ultra-low unemployment rate, robust job creation numbers, and other conventional headline data.

The great American labor paradox: Plentiful jobs, most of them bad (Quartz)


The conclusion to be drawn is that the unemployment rate has very little—if it ever did—to deal with what the labor market is actually like for Americans. In order for it to get better, it will take a much more activist approach, rather than simply letting the market decide, or even actively suppressing labor movements (as has been the case historically). So don’t let the statistics blindside you to what’s really going on, because I suspect that’s going to be a major effort by politicians and the media over the next year. Don’t be fooled!