Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Never-Industrial City

Imagine this counterfactual. Suppose that Europe and the United States had never directly participated in the Industrial Revolution. There are craft industries, plenty of entrepreneurial capitalism, development of a modern division of labor, new technologies of transportation and communication, and maybe an industrialized food supply, but no Grossindustrie in the way it emerged in the nineteenth century, with big factories, large-scale manufacturing, or huge urban populations.

No. Instead, the major powers of Europe develop big industry in their colonies. After the French Revolution, no king or queen, president or parliament wants a concentrated proletariat right outside their front door. Many of the colonial societies already have highly efficient, organized societies; the remainder can easily be conscripted into manual labor, especially the less-dangerous women and children. And unlike at home, industrialized capitalism in the colonies can be supported with brutal force with considerably less clamor.

Europe and the United States draw on the large pools of labor, concentrated in the countrysides and established cities, the wealth of natural resources, the ability to ship and trade goods globally -- essentially an industrialized extension of their activities in the colonies prior to 1800. They reserve for themselves the manufacture of arms, luxury goods, and complex new implements of technology, trades befitting the most cultured and intelligent peoples of the world.

The easy joke here would be to say, "this sounds a lot like now." But stop and think about how much would be different. Europe and the U.S. would likely still be mostly agricultural. There would have been no revolutions of 1848, no Paris Commune, no Russian Revolution. Their analogues would have been in India, Cairo, and Mexico City. The West would have fought to the death to keep and control their colonies and proxy states, now home to vast wealth and investment. Canada, Australia, India, Ireland and Hong Kong would be granted home rule, but still be members of the British Empire. The Belgians, Germans, and Dutch would fight over sub-Saharan Africa. Mexico, aided by France, would have a violent revolution against Spain and become a major modern industrial power, with France and the U.S. as cautious partners and allies.

The huge waves of migration and industrialization would never have happened -- or they would have happened in Canada, Australia, India, China, Brazil, and the Middle East. Damascus would still produce steel; Iraq would be covered with railroads. All Middle Eastern nations, flush with oil wealth and industrial development, would grow and grow and grow, but the ultrareligious Wahhabist-Marxists among their young men would always be a danger. Western cities would have tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of residents, not millions. They would be narrowly cosmopolitan centers of government, learning, and commerce. Their power would eventually fade, especially as they lost their monopoly on tools of warfare, but they would remain economically, financially, and politically strong, having created the modern economy and virtually all of the institutions of global trade and cooperation.

Or it never could have happened, because of ____________________.

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