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What Do Lessons from the Industrial Revolution Have to Tell Us Today?

 A historical reversal of direction underway?


The nineteenth-century influenced the social-political and economic development of human life on earth in vibrant living color. Not! The nineteenth-century industrial revolution produced dreary over-crowded unsanitary conditions for human life, at its best.

While eleventh-century walls raised humanity out of fighting for survival to living for prosperity, the nineteenth-century steam power saved hours in production labor and sank humanity into a dank swamp of pollution and over-population. Even the baroque city, which Lewis Mumford detested for its hollow core, had its saving graces. If most of the population in a baroque city lived in squalor, the wealthy still created a healthy balanced living style for themselves, not so in the industrial revolution. The idea of a healthy relationship between humanity and nature was erased in the cities during the industrial revolution.

There is no more horrifying depiction of living conditions and environmental destruction during peacetime than in the chapter of The Culture of the Cities that Lewis Mumford titled THE INSENSATE INDUSTRIAL TOWN. “ One might almost measure the “prosperity” of the paleotechnic community by the size of its scrapheaps and junkpiles”, writes Mumford and later quotes Sir Patrick Geddes by describing the cities of the Industrial Revolution as “Slum, semi-slum, and super-slum”, encompassing the conditions in which all classes lived. Mumford derides Frederick Engles for suggesting that the nineteenth-century social problems could be solved by seizing the property of the upper classes for use by the proletariat when he writes: “But above all the suggestion was extremely naive because it did not perceive that the standards embodied in the more pretentious residences were below those which were desirable for human life. In other words, even this revolutionary critic was apparently unaware of the fact that the upper-class quarters were, more often than not, intolerable super-slums.

Mumford tells the history of cities from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century in minute detail, bringing to life the conditions under which people lived in each era, including sanitation, privacy, and access to fresh air, clean water, sunlight, and open spaces. In a recurring pattern, the history of cities is determined by technological innovation, development, and exploitation by capitalism leading to overcrowded cities with decreased access to the benefits of nature and large disparities in wealth redistribution.

The Saving Grace of Nineteenth-Century Was Incomplete Central Management

In the nineteenth century, the government had not yet solidified into complete central management from the federal to the municipal, as is more often than not the case today as wealth redistribution is used to advance a singular vision and mission at every level of society.

And so, as Mumford tells the story of the cities across the century, along the way, he recognizes the exception to the ordinary.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries certain fresh city forms came into existence ; they were characteristic of neither medieval nor baroque civilization. And these types, which are not “transitional” since they led only in their own direction, have more significance for us today than do the classic specimens of the period.
javier-m unsplash

Amsterdam is one such example, cited by Munford, for its well-planned waterways and consciousness of sunlight in its architectural design. Mumford describes Amsterdam as “a unified organism, not an abstract geometrical figure. “

The New England Town

Mumford also noted the exception to limitless population growth in the seventeenth-century New England town with its community design organized around a commons where the town hall and other meeting houses were situated, surrounded by residential buildings that included back yards large enough to grow gardens and apple orchards, while in the front, Main Street was lined with trees. As the cities grew more and more crowded, The New England Town was prescient about limiting population growth:

..the New England town during this period ceased to grow beyond the possibility of socializing and assimilating its members : when near crowding, a new congregation would move off under a special pastor, erect a new meeting house, form a new village, lay out fresh fields. Hiving off to new centers discouraged congestion in the old ones ; and the further act of dividing the land among the members of the community in terms of family need, as well as wealth and rank, gave a rough equality to the members, or at least guaranteed them a basic minimum of existence….A democratic polity-and the most healthy and comely of urban environments : a typical contrast to the despotic order of the dominant baroque city. To describe it is almost to define everything that the absolute order was not.
Pemaquid, Maine mackenzie-andersen-unsplash

How the historical character of a New England town was destroyed by an ill-placed roundabout in Boothbay Maine in the 21st century.

Meanwhile, in Europe, as cities were becoming methodically mechanized, the countryside was rejuvenated. The rural landscape was becoming more harmonized as scattered strips of fields were brought together. Wild forests became parks and the hand-industries left over-regulated towns and moved to the open air and freedom of rural communities. It was during the baroque era that the stone villages in the Cotswolds in England-Burford and Bibury, were built. Architect and furniture designer Ernest Gimson (1864–1919), founded the Cotswolds School. The Cotswolds School gathered artists wanting to live a simpler life and used traditional furniture-making hand techniques in their workshops. During the second half of the 19th-century, John Ruskin, a writer and art expert, and William Morris, a designer, poet, and novelist gave birth to the Arts and Crafts movement.

The progressive ideas of the times anchored authority and economic power in big cities, but as Mumford notes “The ruin of the balanced region, with a multitude of small cities and villages connected by a network of canals and roads, and amply supplied with water and wind power, has been little noted in political history”

History is most often told as the tale of dominant cultural forces. Mumford doesn’t add a new classification for this type of autonomous development. Mumford’s categories are dominants, recessives, mutants, survivors, and I am adding the independents. It is worthwhile to consider the impact of Independents as a history of its own, existing in every era. Independents, by definition, do not have a noticeable effect on mainstream movements in their own time, but they have an effect, as Mumford opines, over time, their significance grows stronger.

The New Migration: Urban to Rural

In the twenty-first century, coronavirus is a harbinger of unexpected intervention bringing on a new migration from the cities to rural communities. Given the symbiotic relationship between big business and big government, as one changes so must the other. Remote work heralds a new and permanent change in a corporate culture that is decentralizing and means fewer jobs to concentrate en masse in corporate welfare trade-offs as well as the possibility of attracting a well-to-do class of independents creating a new horizon in economic and rural development. In the cities, a less populated landscape and more unoccupied spaces will define the future as society ‘returns to normal” after coronavirus. Such marked cultural change is both unnerving and exciting.

A Watershed Moment Underway?

Hywel Williams, writing in the introduction to The History of Capitalism (2015) refers to the “determinist approach (that)was part of a fashionable consensus in Western historiography during the mid to late twentieth century.”

The deterministic approach in the USA was enacted as The United States Intergovernmental Cooperation Act Public Law 90–577 in 1968, as a design to centrally manage the economy of the entire Union from the federal to the municipal level, using the lure of redistributed wealth as its instrument. This grew into a cultural gestalt that generated a universal sameness everywhere, with Silicone Valley as the model unit to be replicated across the developed world. Even rural politicians sought to imitate cities by building business parks as if city blocks were dropped from the sky into a disassociated rural landscape. Towns serve as business hubs with less traveling distance between home and work, and there are plenty of stand-alone locations in natural surroundings but the “forward-thinking” politicians sold the business parks to the taxpayers at the expense of the surrounding communities, often continuing to subsidize the parks for decades on end. For no particular reason, other than perhaps the creation of tax-subsidized zones, business parks were sold as an economic development asset, with an apparent plan to transform historical rural towns into suburban bedroom communities for commuting workers, despite growing concerns about the effect of carbon emissions on global warming.

In 2015 Hywel Williams projected that the era of central management was already devolving through the natural process of thought, which soon grows tired of worn concepts and yearns to evolve beyond them:

Ideas that once seemed original and daring have a habit of turning into orthodoxies. And orthodoxies breed, in turn, a counter-reaction. The attempt to reduce historical experience to a series of socio-economic laws can now be dismissed as a dingy little episode in the history of ideas. Historical writing in our time has re-embraced narrative and chronology, the biographies of individual personalities, the unpredictability of events, and speculative thought that is inspired by the imagination rather than being determined by its context The History of Capitalism

The old guard will surely try to maintain the centrally managed society and will use all the tools at its disposal to maintain it, but in these very changing times, there is reason to stop, pause, look, and listen to the beat of other drums. Imagine a tapestry of independent rhythms, responding to the multi-level changes occurring around the world. Everything is changing. It takes time to process the new day that is dawning. Breathe.

Originally published at on March 22, 2021.


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