Sunday, February 24, 2013

Dickens’ England

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is one of the most popular novelists in the English language—albeit these days that means films made of his books. He is not one of my favorites, although I think highly of Bleak House. “Bleak” is a good word for describing Dickens’ work. The dreary settings and the unjust society in which its polarized characters function—too evil, too pure—are perhaps associated with the city of London, but what Dickens reflected was the impact on an agricultural society of the industrial revolution.

The industrial revolution, in turn, reflects a major urbanization of a population and its concentrated employment in factories where machines are initially used, then become the center, then, eventually, displace people. And where machines could not be employed yet, the social methods of forcing people into factories took place nonetheless—as in the so-called “sweated industries” like making matchboxes and lace, industries in which people were paid by the piece.

Just 20 percent of England’s population lived in towns when the first British census was taken in 1801. By 1851, the proportion had rises to 51 percent, by 1881 66.7 percent. The United States lagged far behind England. Here census dates come from the year before: 1800 - 6.1 percent; 1850 - 15.3, 1880 - 39.6 percent.

The unregulated—call it phenomenon—of industrialization brought with it all sorts of ills, not least extraordinarily long working days, child labor, and all sorts of labor unrest, usually put down by armed forces; some people were usually killed. Dickens’ life was also the time of the Luddites. Attempts by labor to unionize were resisted with the Combination Acts (1799, 1800); they should’ve been called “Against Combination Acts”; these were repealed in 1824 as reform began to take hold. Then unionization expanded.

Very slow but eventually effective public reactions to industrialization gradually caused the evolution of the welfare state—which is, viewed in perspective, another concomitant of industrialization, call it its human face.

If now political efforts are mounting to roll back the welfare state in late-comer United States, it may be a symptom of the fact that industrialization is beginning to weaken—at least so far as people are involved, as producers. People are still needed as consumers, to be sure, but today’s reformers, who want to roll back all of the defenses societies have mounted against untrammeled industrialization, seem unaware that if vast masses of consumers are weakened, the machines will also, ultimately, have to stop producing.

Two hundred years of industrialization—now beginning a slow fade. Boy, oh, boy. It will take quite a long while yet before we’re all back to farming—or herding. The smart family will settle in Navajo land and there learn the herding life over several generations before the industrial sun finally sets for good.

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