The Wonders of Modern Life Briefly Explained: An Anthropology of the Industrial Revolution

Image Source: Griffiths, Samuel, editor of “The London Iron Trade Exchange”


In ‘Capital,’ Marx defined two ways of creating a surplus from exploiting the labor of others. The first is the extraction of ‘absolute surplus value.’ Extracting absolute surplus value means profiting from the labor of others by making them work longer or harder or getting more of them to work. This economic model comes up against predictable limits: people die from overwork, you can’t get enough of them, they cost too much to keep healthy, and so on. The second way of creating a profit is to make improvements to the organisation of their tasks, and to introduce machinery to enable labor time to be more productive. This second way is called the extraction of ‘relative surplus value’ – and it is the prime motor of capital-ism. The profits available from this second way of doing things are dependent not upon absolutes like the number of workers or the availability of a resource but upon the entrepreneurs’ ability to innovate production, supply and distribution methods so that profits go up relative to other factors that remain constant or that might even be reduced. New methods or machinery, for example and as we all know, may mean less workers are needed.

By-the-way, I am annoyingly hyphenating the word capitalism throughout this piece in order to stress the fact that having ‘capital’ means one intentionally builds funds for making future investments in industry. Capital is not just money under the bed, it is profit that is specifically to be used to go back into the further production of wealth.

History as a Good Soldier

There is a single-frame cartoon I saw on the Internet a while ago which depicts a middle-aged couple in a bedroom in a medieval setting. One of them is looking out at the glorious sun rising over the hills and exclaims to the other, “Thank goodness! Look dear! At last the Reformation has arrived!”

This cartoon – which I find hilarious, but that could just be me – says everything I have ever wanted to say about the tendency we have to view ‘the past’ as if it is always waiting for ‘the future.’ This is a narrative of history that academics call ‘teleological’ – meaning that ‘the present’ is the ‘purpose’ of the history leading to it. But even though they have a term for it many academics lazily go along with the idea that history is something like a conscious spirit in society struggling for a higher good. It is no coincidence that this idea was expressed – in the midst of Europe’s technological irruption – by the philosopher Hegel, who argued that “the absolute rational final goal of the world” is the transcendent synthesis of “the plan of divine Providence” with reason. We are, it seems, locked into the progressivist notion that history, despite being a bumpy ride (Hegel suggested that it could be even regarded as a ‘slaughtering block’ of sacrifices for the future), is a narrative that ultimately shows how humans are becoming more intelligent. True there are the ‘grumpy’ folk who pine on myopically about the past of their youth being better than now, unaware that their parents also complained, and their parents before them… but generally most of us would still agree that today’s society is the peak of progress so far, only to be eclipsed by the next big technological shift. (Well, a lot of us suspect that instead of a future of flying cars we are now fast-tracked to ecological Armageddon, but that’s for another piece.)

The Reformation joke is premised on the fact that we tend to think of people in the past as just waiting for things to get better. In the same vein, we have the common idea that ‘people who lived in caves’ must have been simply desperate for improvements to their lives between being chased by sabre-toothed tigers. Something key to these interpretations of the past is that humans then are thought of as just like us now, as if we were suddenly transported back 100,000 years.

There are four problems with this view. The first is that if we think that ‘uncivilised’ humans struggled to survive, then how come they did so for at least 200,000 years before the rise of the first States?

The second problem is that if it was so hard for humans to survive without civilisation then how do other animals survive now? Is life for them really a daily unrelenting struggle? Maybe we might argue that they do not have the consciousness that would tell them that their lives are brutish and short… but then how did conscious humans cope with 200,000 years of the knowledge that their lives were terrible, and how do present day uncivilised tribes cope? These people must have been constantly beset by depression and suicide! Of course, they weren’t. And the only reason tribespeoples and Indigenous peoples of today suffer from depression and suicide is because they have been dragged into civilisation and have had everything they once had taken away. As Émile Durkheim noted in 1893, one of the gifts of modern civilisation is “the suicide of sadness.”

The third problem with this notion is that it mixes in unsavoury depictions of the past – such as in the ‘Middle Ages’ in Europe, and the beginnings of Industrialisation – as if it was always like this. In his book, ‘Better Angels,’ Steven Pinker, for example, snobbishly objects to the Middle Ages in Europe on the grounds that “habits of refinement, self-control, and consideration that are second nature to us had to be acquired”, and that people then, “were, in a word, gross.” How we all lol-ed at that clever quip during the university cocktail party. Although we can look back on aspects of the hardships of civilisations and be thankful that we don’t have to endure particular rigours now, should we paint the whole of the past in that way?

The fourth problem is that by looking at the past like this we are forced to logically conclude that all previous societies were a little misguided about things, or simply a bit stupid. The flip side of such a self-congratulatory view of our towering present-day ‘wisdom’ is a dangerously pejorative judgement of those ‘uncontacted tribes’ who live without civilisation. Think Bolsanaro.

The Mistake of Civilisation

Instead of viewing the story of humanity as a continuous narrative with progress as the underlying motor I would argue that there are two world-significant physical events that happened in the past that are crucial to understanding present-day human society. These events were both ‘misfortunes,’ as Étienne de La Boétie wrote in 1553 of the first one. The first was the emergence of hierarchy and exploitation that is expressed in the formation of a State or civilisation – an environment where people submit to ‘voluntary servitude,’ as La Boétie observed. The second was the emergence of capital-ism as the globally dominant economic form. It is this second one that I want to elaborate on.

We all probably have a vague idea of what capital-ism is: private – or State – ownership of the means of production, wage labor, money economy, alienation, ‘consumer society,’ supply and demand, and so on. But capital-ism did not always exist, something specific brought it into existence, and we can sense that capital-ism is different to all previous economic forms because of the remarkable phenomenon of the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly three hundred years ago the scene was set for going from handloom to power-loom weaving, to trains, cars, to splitting atoms, to computers, and smart phones.

The Industrial Revolution was NOT the natural culmination of five thousand years of the rise and fall of civilisations since Mesopotamia, it was NOT the result of a growing intelligence in humanity that enabled individuals to master what we call science and technology, it was the coming together of the weaving industry, dominated by work-ethic oriented Protestants; gold from the Americas; and the Atlantic Slave Trade.

But the key factor was the new profit-making strategy developed by the weaving entrepreneurs. These merchants set up efficient supply and distribution networks around the core productive unit of the woollen weaver who worked at home, and crucially they ensured their weavers had efficient handlooms to enable higher productivity. The gold and the slavery, and the Protestantism, only helped support the new economic method and ensure that it had the space and time to spread to other ventures and become universally successful. The new economic method was the extraction of ‘relative surplus value,’ as Marx termed it. The method fitted in perfectly with the emergent work ethic of the Protestant movement in Europe – and the gold and the slavery buoyed up the new environment until it was fully established. But it was the extraction of ‘relative surplus value’ – in a word, capital-ism – that ultimately and essentially triggered the Industrial Revolution.

Jairus Banaji in his book, ‘Theory as History,’ which examines agrarian societies prior to their being fully capital-ist, particularly in 19th century India, argues, as does Marx, that whether workers are slaves or peasants or hired labour is not the issue for defining a capital-ist enterprise – it is the fact that profits are used to generate even greater profits by investing in improved production methods, and that money is not left idle.

Mining Humanity

In capital-ism people became a special type of resource in an enterprise – one that can be eternally adapted to work at different rhythms, in new situations, with new machinery and processes – this happened because entrepreneurs realised that humans were adaptable and could learn new skills. The historian EP Thompson has written extensively, by the way, on worker resistance to the new forms of labor, and how these resistances were broken down by factory discipline. By the time the European working class emerged from the 19th century, even though many dreamed of a better world, they had all absorbed the work ethic promoted by the ruling classes. Slaves and newly colonized peoples – who had perhaps been warriors and suchlike in their previous lives – often simply died from the incessant work they were forced to do.

So, what about the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath? The social organization and astonishing technology we see in the world around us is less the invention of bright people who have been well-educated and more the product of the imperative to increase relative surplus value, the particularly capital-ist way of increasing profits. The appearance of the steam engine owes more to the strategy of acquiring relative surplus value than it does to the acclaimed genius of James Watt. The consequences of the emergence of the systematic acquisition of relative surplus value were increased monetary wealth for a whole class – who, crucially, knew that to stay rich they had to keep innovating and investing. The emergence of the ‘science’ we have today was not the culmination of eons of human ingenuity – it was the result of this same particular method of pursuing wealth, as it still is.

It was only during “the great watershed of the sixteenth century,” as Banaji writes, that it became apparent that capital-ist production had become the dominant economic mode in western Europe. It is only in a fully capital-ist mode of production that the whole of society is geared towards, as well as determined by, the raising of the relative productivity of each worker. This is the motive for technological innovation. It is why today, when capital-ism has become part of our very DNA, we witness a proliferation of James Watts’.

So, the enormous technological ‘achievements’ during and after the Industrial Revolution are not some magical culmination of human history – they are the specific result of a society that emerged by organising itself on the principle of being able to extract an infinite sum of profit from the ever-adaptable resource of the human being.


Anderson, S. 2009, The Two Lives of Narcisse Pelletier, in Pelletier: The Forgotten Castaway of Cape York, Stephanie Anderson (ed. and trans.), Melbourne Books, Australia.

Banaji, J. 2011, Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation, Haymarket Books, Chicago.

Boétie, É. de La, 2008 [1553], The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, Harry Kurz (trans.), Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn.

Durkheim, E. 1997 [1893], The Division of Labour in Society, W. D. Halls (trans.), The Free Press, New York.

Hegel, G. W. F. 2011, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Ruben Alvaredo (trans.), Wordbridge Publishing, Aalten.

Mandel, E. 1976, Introduction, in Capital, A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, Ben Fowkes (trans.), Penguin Books, London

Marx, K. 1976, Capital, A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, Ben Fowkes (trans.), Penguin Books, London

Pinker, S. 2012, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes, Penguin Books, New York.

Survival International,

Thompson, E. P. 1967, Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism, in Past and Present, No. 38. (Dec., 1967), pp. 56-97.

Weber, M. 2003 [1904-5/1920], The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Talcot Parsons (trans.), Dover Publications, New York.

Peter Harrison wrote ‘The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control,’ and co-authored ‘Nihilist Communism: A Critique of Optimism in the Far Left.’ For work Harrison drives a bus.  Email: