The Master Builder Tradition – What Happened? IV

Industrialism is often perceived simply as being concerned with the development of machinery, but that is only one aspect of a far larger technical revolution. Other writers have characterized the industrial revolution period as one of “new modes of exploiting energy”, and the transformations that resulted, say moving from wood to coal to oil. This is also a superficial assessment when considering technical civilization as a whole.

Jacques Ellul defines the word technique in a very particular and revealing way:

The term technique, as I use it, does not mean machines, technology, or this or that procedure for attaining an end. In our technological society, technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity. Its characteristics are new; the technique of the present has no common measure with that of the past. This definition is not a theoretical construct. It is arrived at by examining each activity and observing the facts of what modern man calls ‘technique’ in general, as well as by investigating the different areas in which specialists declare they have technique.

Thus, technique spans not simply developments in machinery, but developments in social relations, political structures, systematization of laws, economic phenomena, and so forth, and was not an isolated fact in society but it related to every factor in the life of modern man. I accept Ellul’s definition since it helps to clarify the scope and depth of the phenomenon of industrialism and it’s effects upon both society and the individual.

So, as I mentioned above, classifying the industrial revolution as a matter of this or that form of energy exploitation, or this or that development in machinery, falls woefully short. Others have similarly rejected these sorts of classifications – one writer, Norman Wiener, states that there has only been one industrial revolution, consisting in the replacement of human muscle as a source of energy, and a second revolution in the making (at that point in time) whose sole object is the replacement of the human brain. We are today in the middle of that revolution.

The industrial revolution resulted not from the simple exploitation of coal, and the development of steam power, but from a change of attitude on the part of the whole western civilization. This begs a very important question: Why, after such slow progress for centuries, did such an explosion of technical progress take place in a span of 150 years? How did this become possible at that juncture of history, something which had not seemed possible before?

After all, the ancient Greeks knew that machines could be used. The ancient Romans innovated in several technological realms like transportation and hydrology, but these inventions did not transform society nearly to the extent we saw in the 18th and 19th centuries. Leonardo da Vinci invented a great variety of new machines and useful devices, (like the alarm clock, the silk winder, double-hulled ships, the universal joint, conical gears) and drew machines for flying, warfare and so forth that were never realized – yet why did none of his inventions and improvements find widespread application and use?

Somehow the atmosphere at the middle of the 18th century was conducive to technological development, in at least in its preliminary phase – the 19th century is the period in which things really took off. Ellul posits that the transformation of civilization at that juncture in history can be explained by the “conjunction in time of five phenomena”:

1) the fruition of a long technical experience
2) population expansion
3) the plasticity of the social milieu
4) the suitability of the economic environment
5) the appearance of clear technical intention

Let’s look at these in brief.

For the first, in the period from 1000 A.D. to 1750 there was in effect a slow fermentation of ideas and technical methods, many of which had no immediate consequence or use. Every tool the carpenter uses today is the product of a long series of development and is the result of tools which served to make it. Japanese carpenter tools reached their zenith in the late 19th century when un-employed swordsmiths brought their advanced techniques to bear upon the tool forging process. The continuity of development of any tool, represents an incubation of sorts, an incubation consisting of millions of accumulated experiments, and was the preparation for a decisive moment of formulation.

The second factor, population expansion, was equally necessary. The growth of population entails a growth of needs which cannot be satisfied except by technical development, AND population increase also offers favorable grounds for research and technical growth by furnishing both the necessary market and the human capital required to develop the technique.

The third, plasticity of social milieu, refers to the disappearance of social taboos and of natural social groups. Of all the factors that made favorable the seismic shift that was the industrial revolution, this factor was perhaps the most decisive, according to Ellul. The taboos which disappeared relate to taboos in Christianity and other sociological taboos. The popular mentality created by Christianity, particularly during the 17th century, was that the natural order must not be tampered with and anything new must be submitted to a moral judgment — which meant an unfavorable pre-judgment in the vast majority of cases.

Sociological taboos related to the conviction, through most of Western history, that a natural hierarchy of man exists and must not be tampered with. Thus the position of nobility and clergy, and especially the King, were beyond reproach or question. The natural hierarchy operated against the practice of mechanical arts, which would only bring improvements to the lower classes. And since the lower classes also believed in the natural hierarchy, they could only be submissive or passive and did not try to better their lot. Belief in this artificial hierarchy and it’s sacred character thus stood in the way of technique.

Further, the very structure of society, arranged upon the basis of natural social groups, guilds and groups formed upon the basis of collective interest (like Universities, the Parliament, Hospitals, and so forth) were all distinct from one another and independent. As Ellul puts it,

The individual found livelihood, patronage, security, and intellectual and moral satisfactions in collectives that were strong enough to answer all his needs but limited enough not to make him feel submerged or lost

If a person’s position is fairly stable socially he does not try to gratify imaginary needs; if the position of a person in society is a balanced one, even if it is one of poverty, they will oppose any innovation which might threaten that balance. Thus the existence of natural groups impedes the propagation of technical invention. In particular reference to the mechanical arts, like carpentry, Guilds served as repositories of techniques, however the structure of the guild itself meant that exterior diffusion of those techniques (which entails the crossing of a sociological frontier to from new social bonds) is extremely difficult. Moreover, the Guilds themselves were in fact secretive about technique, even internally, and only after a long period of apprenticeship would the ‘secrets’ be fully revealed to the acolyte. Thus, division of society into closely constituted groups like guilds is an obstacle to the development of inventions. This is also true of religious groups. The diffusion of every technique tends to be checked by such social divisions.

The obstacles presented by religious and social taboos disappeared largely at the time of the French Revolution in 1789 (in England a similar event took place when Cromwell executed Charles I). The overthrow of the corrupt French royal family was followed shortly by the creation of new religions/sects, the affirmation of materialism, a struggle against the clergy (given their former alliance with the French nobility), and, at the same time, a systematic campaign waged against the old order of natural groups, including the guilds, the religious orders, and the Universities. The old idea of liberty of groups was supplanted by a new idea of the liberty of the individual. There was also a struggle to undermine the family unit, by new revolutionary laws governing inheritance, divorce, and paternal authority, the effects of which became permanent in time. All of these radical shifts and break-ups, the very atomization of society, of the established order, created the social plasticity that Ellul talks about.

The break up of the natural groups and the overthrow of the established order led to an enormous displacement of people at beginning of the 19th century, to quote Ellul once again:

To uproot men from their surroundings, from the rural districts and from family and friends, in order to crowd them into cities too small for them; to squeeze thousands into unfit lodgings and unhealthy places of work; to create a new environment within the framework of a new human condition (it is too often overlooked that the proletariat is the creation of the industrial machine) — all this was possible only when the individual was completely isolated. It was conceivable only when he literally had no environment, no family, and was not part of a group able to resist economic pressure; when he had almost no way of life left

Without the anchor of the social group, the individual is left with only the state, which by default becomes the highest order and all-powerful. The plastic society produced by the factors leading to the supremacy of the state was perfectly malleable and incredibly flexible, a highly favorable development that allowed industrialism to proceed without hindrance.

The fourth factor, suitability of the economic environment, means that for technological progress to take place, the economic system must have suitable traits in place. These traits, in fact, are somewhat contradictory of one another: they must be both stable and in flux. What this means is that the foundations of economic life must be stable enough so that primary technical research can be devoted to well-defined objectives and situations, AND, at the same time the economic milieu must be capable of change and adaptation so that technical inventions can be absorbed into the economy. This was in fact the condition of the late 18th century.

Finally, the fifth condition, clear technical intent, was also present in this key period of human social development. Siegfried Gideon, in his work “Mechanization Takes Command” (1948) makes this comment about the period of 1750 to 1850 in the US:

Invention was a part of the normal course of life. Everyone invented. Every entrepreneur dreamed of more rapid and economical means of fabrication. The work was done unconsciously and anonymously. Nowhere else and never before was the number of inventions per capita as great as in America in the ’60’s of that century.

The shift to a general movement in favor of technique was industrial self-interest (that is, what we call today, special interest), which, for the sake of efficiency (=$$$), demanded a search for the “one best way to do the work”. This special interest was not simply confined to mere machinery, or any other single area of endeavor – it was widespread. State interest became conscious, as it were, following the French revolution, and the same could be said for the US following the revolutionary war. In France, the state developed political and industrial technique, then military and judicial technique, as control of these aspects of technique led the state to have a dominant position in respect to enemies both within and without. After the state, it was the powerful interests within the state, the bourgoisie, who soon discovered that great deal of profit could be extracted from consciously-developed improvements in technique. These bourgoisie soon created improved financial techniques, which in turn ‘helped’, to put it mildly, the development of the modern state. As Ellul puts it,

At the beginning of the 19th century, they saw the possibilities of drawing huge profits from this system, especially as they were favored by the crumbling “of morals and religion” and felt themselves free, in spite of the idealistic smokescreen they raised, to exploit individuals. This class put the interests of technique before the interests of individuals, who had to be sacrificed in order that technique might progress.

Since the bourgoisie made money from their developments of technique, it was only a natural extension that developing technique became one of their primary objectives. Industrialization, led by these bourgoisie first occurred and became most widespread in England, as capitalism was more highly developed there and the wealthy elites more at liberty to do as they pleased, than in most other places.

Of course, as I mentioned in a previous posting about the Luddites (Luddite Dreams), the self-interested goals of the wealthy, wonderfully promising as it must have appeared to them, was not enough to carry the whole of society along with it in the early 19th century. Resisters like the Luddites were still smashing machines as late as 1848. The workers were not quite ready to go along for the ride yet because their standards of living had not risen with the, er, big boats – there was in fact a considerable loss of equilibrium from their lives as a result of all the newly-wrought changes to society. The masses were not, as it were, exactly intoxicated with the results in the early period of the industrial revolution, and thus split society to a great extent: the power of the state and the wealth of the bourgoisie were for it; the masses were against.

This situation was to change however as a prodigious upheaval was to take place between 1850 and 1914 which convinced everyone of the excellence of a technical movement that could produce such marvels and alter human life. That period, 1850 to 1914, shall be the focus of the next piece in this thread, where I will also shift attention from the general to the specific, and begin looking particularly at changes to the way of the carpenter in the US, and the resulting end of a proud building tradition.

–> on to part V

Anything to add?