Many years ago, on a train trip from New York City to Philadelphia, a friend (a city girl, actually) remarked to me, as we passed through the Jersey industrial swamps, that she would happily cancel the Industrial Revolution, supposing only that modern dental technique could be rescued for the benefit of a restored pastoral society.

My guess is that similar thoughts have occurred, at some time or another, to all but the most slavish adherents of industrial-technological culture—Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, or Andrew Carnegie, perhaps; or, in our own time, Bill Gates and Donald Trump.  Critics of industrialism, like William Blake and John Ruskin, are inevitably vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy and ingratitude; most of all, their objections are dismissed as irrelevant.  Industrialism, the technocrats argue, is the inevitable result of Western natural and economic science.  Moreover, its benefits can be proved to outweigh its sometimes admitted liabilities.  Would any one of us, they demand, honestly and truly wish to go without central heat and modern plumbing, rapid and efficient transportation almost everywhere in the world, instant global communication, the mass production of goods, mass affluence, a level of medical care that seems, to the layman, almost miraculous—an all-round standard of living, in short, that was unimaginable for the thousands upon thousands of generations of human beings who had the infinite misfortune to have been born before the late-18th century?  The question, they add, is, in any event, entirely academic, and therefore futile.  The Industrial Revolution in the Western world happened, and it happened because it had to happen.  And yet, doubt remains.  Nearly every enlightened person today will agree that industrially processed food, or “junk food,” is bad for us; also that the large majority prefer it to real food.  Granted that industrial society is what people want, has industrialism improved both civilization and the human race itself?  Finally, is industrialism really a sustainable phenomenon—humanly, as well as environmentally, speaking?

The Industrial Revolution may indeed have been, in a certain sense, “inevitable,” whatever historical application the word may in fact possess.  But it is valid, in another sense, to see it as the result of deliberate human choice taken in the face of temptation.  Claude Polin sees industrialism as hedonism, defined by the dictionary as “the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life.”  While industry is almost as old as humanity itself, industrialism implies industrial activity on a large, and largely organized, scale.  Industrialism thus defined has been properly traced to the latter half of the 18th century, when Western thought was characteristically skeptical, materialistic, and utilitarian.  Enlightenment philosophy, joined with 18th-century science, provided fertile ground for a developing revolution against the divine nature, the natural world, human nature, and, finally, human beings themselves.

This idea was brought home forcefully to me by a reading of William Cobbett’s A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland (first published in London in 1824).  The book, which must surely be one of the most compelling historical polemics ever written, leaves the reader to wonder how Cobbett, a Radical Tory and nonconformist, could have remained a Protestant after writing it.  (Stuart Reid’s explanation is that he wasn’t much of a Christian in any event.)  William Cobbett argues that Henry VIII’s expropriation of the Catholic Church’s land and other ecclesiastical property wrecked the balanced structure of society that had made and maintained England as the most prosperous and contented country in Europe, and within a handful of years introduced pauperism where it had never before been known.  Centuries earlier, the English kings had granted a portion of their lands to the bishops, monks, and other clergy, who held it in trust and worked it to produce the wealth from which the local and the itinerant poor, as well as the ecclesiastical tenants, were supported.  In destroying this venerable system, the king and his Protestant successors destroyed the whole of rural England and drove tens of thousands of dispossessed countrymen into the towns and cities, where in time they became fodder for the new satanic mills.  One could argue, I suppose, that the owners of the newfangled mills and factories proved the saviors of these displaced people, by putting them to work.  The answer to this objection is that industrialism in Britain continued, while vastly extending, the social and economic destruction the Reformation had begun.  Once the delicate, socially reciprocal, and harmonious relationships among town and country, the crown and the landed aristocracy and gentry, and the Church had been disrupted, it could not be recreated—not, anyway, under the industrial system, promoted in part by the public debt (made possible by the founding of the Bank of England in 1694) that also enabled the Protestant monarchy to wage war against Catholic states on the Continent.

The criminal confiscations by a preindustrial English monarch anticipated the destructive effects that a secularizing Industrial Revolution was to have—first upon the Western nations, in time upon human societies everywhere.  Before Henry, a flourishing English society had been maintained, as I have said, by an economic and political system based on widespread landholding or tenancy, of which the Church, with the support and actual encouragement of the monarchy, was both an integral part and an underwriter, by means of the parish system and the monasteries from whose wealth the indigent were supported.  “The main body of the people,” Cobbett argued, “had the Church to protect them in Catholic times.”  When the Reformation wrecked this system, landholding tended increasingly to monopoly exercised by the great nobles thus enriched by the king, and the English peasantry became, for the first time in history, a sort of commodity.

“Commodity,” indeed, is the basic principle of industrialism, which regards everything—nature, nature’s resources, and humanity itself—as a cornucopia of mixed, interrelated commodities.  Industrialism’s aim is to exploit this cornucopia to the point of exhaustion.  To industrialism, nothing is sacred.  Industrialism is inherently atheistic—thus its hedonism.  This is what permits industrialism to live comfortably with itself, despite its conscious awareness of being inherently expansionist, and with enough self-knowledge to understand that industrial society has two choices: endless growth or death.  (The ideology of the cancer cell, Edward Abbey once said.)  Industrialism destroys traditional social complexity, which it vastly oversimplifies by reducing social roles to those of producer, consumer, and manager.  Thus it leaves no real role in society for charitable relief, for which the Church once had a recognized institutional responsibility.  In its place, central government assumes the official role of benefactor and protector of the poor.  But, in an industrial society, government’s primary function and purpose is the promotion of industry; a secondary aim is to create a proletariat dependent in every way upon itself.  In both cases, the result is the commodification of its citizens and workers, who become increasingly one and the same thing.  “What is the object of government?” asked William Cobbett.  “To cause men to live happily.”  Enthusiasts for industrial democracy will tell you that their system has created a wider, deeper, and more real happiness than was ever known on earth before.  They neglect to add that this is actually only the happiness of a bigger and better pig.

Industrialism has two ultimate tendencies.  One is to subdue nature and exhaust it, while ruining it as a home for man, as well as for the thousands upon thousands of other species that industrial activity has driven to extinction, not least through the explosive growth of the human species that industrialism has made possible.  The other is to subdue and exploit man, while progressively marginalizing him in the workplace and in society as a whole by mechanization, and finally replacing him altogether with robotic labor.  As current unemployment figures relating to the so-called jobless recovery show, we have already reached a stage in history where people of average and subaverage intelligence, and with only the most basic skills, have become not only unemployable but unnecessary in every way to postmodern society—save, of course, as consumers.  As it is impossible for consumers, lacking the wages to pay for consumption, to consume, and since wages presuppose useful and gainful employment, this displaced class will need to become consumers-on-the-dole if it is to continue to perform one of its two critical functions in modern society.  (The other, of course, is to provide the electoral fodder by which demagogic politicians contrive to have themselves voted into office.)

The nihilism of industrialism is exposed by its carelessly cheerful recognition that it is a beast that cannot bridle itself, short of committing suicide, like a runaway horse.  Even so, moral condemnation cannot answer here.  Every person alive on the planet these past 200 years has benefited indubitably from industrial society—just as he has, with equal certainty, suffered from it, whether he knows it or not.  (Mostly likely, he is entirely, and happily, unaware of the fact.)  Industrialism was inevitable in this sense only: To the most active and intelligent portion of the most active and intelligent species on earth (which also happens to be imbued with the divine spark), the daemonic urge to create something like our industrial system is wholly natural.  For this reason, the question of whether men should have created industrialism is a meaningless one, the kind of modern question-putting Chesterton deplored.  The proposition, however, that industrialism, in both human and natural terms, is patently unsustainable, and that its eventual collapse is therefore guaranteed, demands serious consideration.  History offers no solutions, including democracy in the political world and industrialism in the economic and organizational one.  In every area of human endeavor, certain things may indeed prove workable—for a little while.  For a wise man, there is comfort in the fact that, while he has responsibility for his condition, his fate, his is not the whole responsibility, but rather a very small portion of it.  For the fool, there is only anger, frustration, and the mental illness produced by the burden of moral indignation and self-righteousness of the sort that bad political philosophers, politicians, and journalists suffer from.  It is hardly reasonable to demand, and expect, that we humans should control our fate.  We do have the uniquely human obligation to make the attempt to understand it.  And right understanding can never be an irrelevance—a waste of our humanly precious time.