On how the English revolutionary ideology of improvement took its time

During a recent conversation that Patrick Crozier and I recorded (although as always Patrick did all the button-pushing and editing), about how the Industrial Revolution came about, Patrick asked a question that I didn’t answer at the time but which I think I can now answer, at least in broad brush strokes.

My thesis was and is that the Industrial Revolution was and is the English Revolution. It was an ideological event, sparked by mass literacy, just as the French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions were. (See all my Emmanuel Todd postings.) Patrick pointed out that, unlike those three very political revolutions, the English Revolution, if that’s what it was, sure took its time to mutate into the Industrial Revolution. The political bit of the English Revolution happened in the seventeenth century, but the big impact of the industrial bit of the English Revolution didn’t achieve lift-off until late in the eighteenth century.

At the time, I just said yes, hm, I’ll have to think about that. But now I have, and I think the answer is not that difficult to supply.

The three very political revolutions were successful, not in the sense they accomplished much that was good, but in the lesser sense that they did at least achieve political dominance, after which they did their best to improve things but ended up doing mostly their worst. They were all very destructive in their impact. And this all happened very quickly. Destruction and catastrophe doesn’t take very long to happen.

But the English Revolution stalled politically. The political bit of it ended in a draw, with the old monarchical and aristocratic institutions changing quite radically, but not being destroyed. And so, having failed to make the big breakthrough in the manner of the French, Russian and Chinese ideological breakthroughs, the English Revolution turned its attention to peaceful progress. To “improvement”, to use the word the English ideologists themselves used.

And, improvement takes time. As the English eighteenth century unfolded, presided over by a rather contentious and corrupt mixture of aristocrats and well-connected capitalists, the ideologists of improvement started to achieve actual improvements, step by inventive step. They were creative rather than destructive, and creativity takes time. I say “started”, but in truth they merely somewhat accelerated a process of step-by-step invention and innovation that had already got under way.

And that’s my answer, for the time being. Destruction happens quickly, and the quicker it happens the more it “succeeds”. Creativity, aka actual improvement, takes far longer.

This ideology of improvement spread, way beyond England, first to America, and subsequently to the whole then Germany, and now everyone. And the world outside Britain and America realised they couldn’t beat the damn Anglos with only their own atavistic and destructive methods, adorned by mere political rhetoric. To hold their own against the Anglosphere, they realised that they would have to copy it. So, they did. And the English ideology of constant improvement now rules the world. We now all live, with ever greater ease and comfort and contentment, in that world.

The English Revolution is, on the whole, not understood by modern educated people. Insofar as the typical Educated Modern has a theory of how all this happened, it is that the English achieved their industrial revolution pretty much by accident. In other words it wasn’t a “revolution” at all, because there were no revolutionaries in the usual sense. Selfish go-getters achieved a mass economic breakthrough that was neither anticipated nor even wanted in each of their individual, selfish little plans. Adam Smith, basically. But the English Revolution, which was and is the global industrial revolution, was an ideological event as well as a merely economic event. Modern educated people cannot see this, because that would involve realising that here was a gang of starry-eyed ideologists and idealists and altruists, with a radical and ludicrously optimistic plan for transforming the lives of all humans everywhere for the better, making omelettes and breaking eggs with relentless single-mindedness. And their plan ended up being triumphantly, fabulously, world transformingly successful. Educated Moderns just don’t have a mental box in which to place events like this. Ideologists always fail, always cause havoc. Even most ideologists nowadays proclaim that their alleged creative miracles, in the radiant future that they proclaim, must be preceded by a phase of destructiveness, during which they destroy all the human barriers to their vision, and of course the rest of us assume that this is all that they will ever accomplish.

But the English Revolution was not like that. It was a Revolution, but a Revolution which only began by being destructive. That part of it failed, in that the political regime that it tried to overthrow was merely modified somewhat. So instead, the English Revolution turned its collective mind towards creativity, and in that it succeeded, beyond its wildest dreams.

To any commenters who want to say it, let me say it first. I know that I haven’t proved, or even really argued, the above proclamation. I have simply proclaimed it. But although I haven’t proved it, I am nevertheless right about all this.

4 thoughts on “On how the English revolutionary ideology of improvement took its time”

  1. You deserve a response from me because I’m probably more familiar with your ideas than anyone else. Unfortunately, I am finding it very difficult to come up with a coherent response. So I am going to have to give you an incoherent response and hope it makes some sense.

    Were the ideologists of “improvement” the main intellectual force behind the English Revolution? They (well, Lilburne) were there but the little I know about the outbreak of the English Civil War suggests that it was largely a religious dispute. And wasn’t Lilburne locked up by Cromwell? Would he (Cromwell) have done that if he agreed with Lilburne on “improvement”. Maybe it was some other dispute.

    We are sure that they were proposing a recognisably libertarian agenda aren’t we?

    Did the English Revolution stall politically? By 1650 there was no monarchy. England was a republic. As I understand it, it was a radical regime. At least by English standards. And then they fucked it up. All pretty normal for revolutions. Could you argue that the 1690 compromise was also pretty normal? Lots of people thinking, “It’s not perfect but I really don’t want to back to what we had before.” Is that perhaps what Frenchmen thought in 1820 or Chinese in 2000?

    Did the other revolutions fail? Short term: yes. But long term? Let’s take the French. 25 years of destruction but at some point later it began to industrialise. China had 30 years of chaos before sorting themselves out.

    Russia I know less about. Yes, I know the Soviet Union was a disaster. But my guess things have got a lot better over the last 30 years, Putin or no Putin.

    Could it be argued that all of these revolutions followed a similar course? Chaos and destruction followed by exhaustion followed by political compromise followed by improvement.

    I think we ought to add the German Revolution. This tends to get forgotten because it happened in the aftermath of the end of the First World War and it took a while for the Revolutionary to get into power. But it seems to follow a similar path.

    Oh hang about, it doesn’t. Germany had had its industrial revolution long before it had its political revolution. That’s weird.

  2. So basically Patrick: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. I suspect there are basic psychological and systemic forces underpinning why human progress proceeds that way. Cognitive bias and availability bias reinforce the thesis for most. Some are disadvantaged by the status quo and some intellectually see its shortcomings. To promulgate an alternative sufficiently well that a revolution occurs requires expressing it in simple memes that can spread and to promise significant enough hope of improvement to overcome fear of the repressive forces of the thesis. Inevitably since human society is the most complex of systems the antithesis is an oversimplification and an overpromise. Hence when reality bites the circumstances are set for a compromise since cognitive bias on both sides has been disrupted, the thesis holders by the propaganda of the antithesis promulgators, and the antithesis adherents by the disillusionment of at least partial failure.

  3. And coming back to Brian’s initial point the fundamental, qualitatively different characteristic of a free society is that it enables many more, smaller, less violent thesis, antithesis, synthesis cycles to occur across many political and economic fields simultaneously.

  4. The “German Revolution” is not the Nazis. It is the religious turmoil of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And this German “revolution” was the first revolution, because Germany arrived first at mass literacy.

    Nazism was the German reaction to the “imposed improvement” by the German state and plutocracy of the mid to late nineteenth century, and then to defeat in war. The Nazi global version of industrialisation (a world ruled by “Aryans”) was then defeated, by the Anglosphere/Russia alliance.

    The German, French, Russian and Chinese revolutions, were all sparked (in that order) by first generation mass literacy. Nazism was something else again. I omitted the German “revolution” from my list, because that would require an explanatory digression I wanted to avoid in this posting. It’s still not called that.

    The post revolutionary economic upsurge that happened in England (and Scotland and the USA) was the consequence of the English revolutionary ideology, which was self-consciously adopted by Scotland against its natural instincts, rather like West Germany did after WW2. Something vaguely similar applies to France, in the form of the legal transformation brought about by the destruction of monarchical politics, but the improvement in France after 1820 was as much a rejection of the French revolutionary creed and the copying of “Englishism” (see e.g. Napoleon III who was a strong Anglophile). Russian revolutionary ideology had to be rejected for the economy to make any headway. China is now doing something rather similar to Nazi Germany.

    But as of now, “improvement” still rules.

    I prefer “improvement” to “libertarianism” to describe the English ideology. Improvement is how the English ideologists described their own ideas. “Liberty” was all part of how you achieved that, but the point was to make life materially better.

    The public sector was also swept up in the English improvement movement. Another way to “improve” was to make publicly funded government better (e.g. by civil service exams rather than aristocratic ownership of public offices) and by improvements in public infrastructure, like giant sewage systems in cities. Even the railways required Acts of Parliament as well as “liberty” and technological innovation.

    I realise this is all very broad brush, but world history can only be done thus.

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