Science in the Enlightenment is a problem too. Every historian who tries to put his finger on the factual effects of Enlightened progress in 18th Century life is, or ought to be, baffled by the result: the Enlightenment seems to evaporate on local level and in daily life. Some changes are very clear, such as the ubiquitous output of a mushrooming printing press. Other changes are equally clear, but are social: the learned societies become intellectual meeting points outside university or court life. Censorship eases a bit and social barriers become slightly blurred. In every respect life for all becomes more free, but within Old Regime’s social barriers. Modernity is in the air, and that’s exactly where most of it stays.
Jonathan Israel spent 48 pages of his 3000 pages Enlightenment volumes on ‘physico-theology’, which is the present day description of how and why mainstream 18th Century scholars did science and technique. They wanted to understand nature, and hence glorify God’s design. In this often empirical process, advocated by Francis Bacon, revolutionary things were discovered. But the Royal Academy’s star Isaac Newton was most proud of his proof of the Bible’s truth; also he was an avid alchemist. To most historians who sell the Enlightenment as our Modernity’s big bang physico-theology and its local variants Newtonianism, Leibnitzism, and Matérialisme are very hard to fit in. That Israel nearly left it out is no coincidence. Yet, to most 18th Century philosophes physic-theology was what Enlightenment was all about: to be finally able to prove a posteriori via Nature’s Perfect Design the existence of God, and as a spin off to theorize a priori how Nature worked and, hence, that Man could imitate Nature and could become angels’ equal via technological breakthroughs. Fortunes were spent on research and testing in Royal Academies, royal learned societies and private institutes, such as the renown Teyler Institute in Haarlem. Overwhelming new insights were generously communicated via the Republic of Letters, but scholars’ correspondences show that most theories were very hard to prove, and that most proofs were impossible to reproduce because of the absence of the correct equipment and raw materials. The many magnificent collections were still ordered as Medieval cabinets: crocodiles to represent wisdom, nautilus shells revelling God’s grace, and rare metals for alchemist purposes. The great difficulties and immense costs to reproduce new scientific discoveries such as controlled electricity and chemistry, meant that very little was actually put into commercial use. Enlightenment’s daily life didn’t change much between 1680 and 1780, and it didn’t change much between 1780 and 1820 either –in that sense to think of the 18th Century as the Long Century seems quite appropriate.
The water-powered mills, James Watt’s crude steam engines, the cast iron blowing cylinders, ‘Spinning Jenny’, and the round the clock industrialization of textile and iron production fed by Wales’ coal-mines had shattering consequences for the landless peasants of the British Midlands. From rural nothing to industrial something in the 1760ies the rough fabrication gained Apocalyptic characteristics devouring thousands of children and adults and maiming many more. But this coarse capitalism, murderous mechanisation and coalescing social dearth happened in mid-England only, and in its cannibalistic qualities was not much different from the clearance of the Highlands in the same period. According to the renown Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm the First Industrial Revolution started in Britain around 1780 and was not present in normal, everyday life until sixty years later in 1840 –and Hobsbawm had strong political reasons to claim otherwise. Nicholas Crafts (LSE; Warwick) does not perceive a First Industrial Revolution at all –only a gradual process of social change and modest growth in the production of cotton and iron.
The sheer absence of modernizing industrialization in the 18th Century despite the dogma of ‘the First Industrial Revolution’ drove many economic historians into a further past for an explanation: metallurgy and shaft mining using Savery’s steam pump around 1700 –Europe’s real jump started a century sooner!
The finding that Europe’s unique moment of modernity did not happen during the Enlightenment, but much later, is crucial.
I’m convinced that the only reason why we, wrongfully, speak of a First Industrial Revolution is because there was a ‘Second’ –the real Industrial Revolution, Europe’s Modernity Moment, nearly a century later.
The eighty years between British Enlightenment’s dank industrialization and Industrial Revolution’s boom is commonly called ‘the transition period’ in which the First Revolution ‘evolved’ into the Second. These descriptions are, of course, teleological and misleading: as if what happened nearly one hundred years later was the logical result of an evolution set in one hundred years earlier. In fact anything could have happened. After all, until the 1840ies European Restoration culture raced into the direction of censoring rule by divine right. With Enlightenment’s philosophers dead and ‘reason’ discredited, physico-theology could have become just another scholarly supernova in a series of intellectual outbursts, which never delivered a unique modernity comparable to ours. The examples of earlier Enlightenments with equal intellectual and material opportunities are undisputed: the scholarly centres of the ancient Greek and Hellenistic world –Athens, Syracuse and Alexandria; the scholarly centre of 6th and 7th Century Kerala in India with brilliant astronomers and mathematicians Arybhata, Varahamihira, and Brahmagupta; and 8th and 9th Century Baghdad with its Bait al- Hikmah, or House of Wisdom –an Islamic think tank with limitless financial resources. As for mechanics, Bacon, whose unrelenting empiricism stood at Enlightenment’s ignition, said that three inventions marked modernity’s beginning: gunpowder, the magnetic compass, and printing on paper. They all originated in China. Enlightenment’s output outshone all previous and concurrent epicentres of philosophical and scientific knowledge, but it functioned with and within comparable restraints. Immanuel Kant’s renown ‘translation’ of Horace’s “sapere aude” –‘Dare to be wise’ or ‘Dare to know’– wraps up Enlightenment’s paradox pretty nicely: “Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, but obey”. ‘Sapere aude’ causes “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage” but his reasoning must accept the limits which are set by the wise prince –in Kant’s case Frederick II of Prussia (Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? (Berlin, 1784)). Often Kant’s definition of Aufklärung is presented as ‘subversive’, but I don’t think it was: except for some lone wolves such as Spinoza the Enlightenment was part and parcel of Old Regime’s social, political and religious horizontal and vertical constraints.
What happened in mid-19th Century Europe was not ‘transition’ or ‘evolvement’, but an unexpected and unique evolutionary jump into something which had never existed before.
The big bang of West-European and East-American industrialization and innovation in the late 1840ies would obliterate any Old World’s paradigm within a very few years. Until the 1840ies competing civilizations and empires such as Ottoman Turkey, China and Japan could still counter Europe’s power. But Japan was opened up by US’ steam navy in 1854 while China and Turkey sank into utter insignificance. If the Industrial Revolution needs a symbolic trigger the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, London of Summer 1851 might be an option. Six million Brits, a third of the population, paid the steep entrance fee to witness Great Britain’s proficiency and the wonders of modernity: the complete industrial process of cotton making; controlled electricity; controlled chemistry; high tech steam power; electric telegraphs; photography; the fax; an automatic voting machine. All displayed under a gigantic glass-steel dome lit by gas lights, then already ubiquitous in London. The millions of visitors were transported by inter-city railways, built since the early 1840ies by railroad workers who never returned to their rural lifestyles, but stayed in the new and gigantic coal-driven factories in the mushrooming cities. In mid-19th Century Great-Britain, West-Europe and East-America man reinvented himself and outstripped Nature at last. Belgium in the mid-1840ies, France in the late 1840ies, US and Sweden in the 1860ies, Germany in the 1870ies, like a tsunami industrialization and capitalism swept away the stifling traditions and cleared the horizon for new, unique visions of a free and prosperous future for all.
Until the 1980ies historians saw technical innovation as Industrial Revolution’s sole motor. Since then many more explanations were added such as the rise of the financial markets; the demographic explosion and colonial expansion; the British legal system; the absence of trade barriers in Great-Britain; and Weber’s century-old interpretation of “Protestant working ethos”. But like I stated earlier, circumstances such as these only partially explain why the Industrial Revolution happened in mid-19th Century West-Europe and not in early 19th Century China or India, which had accomplished societies too. I think that the Industrial Revolution could only happen in Great-Britain, West Europe and East-Coast America because it was part and parcel of the sweeping democratic movements of the 1830ies and 1840ies, which in 50 countries on the Continent resulted in the democratic revolutions of 1848. Surely, most of these revolutions were crushed, but the idea of a constitutional democracy as the only proper way to govern a state could no longer be quelled. In France, Denmark and the Netherlands Restoration and its absolutism belonged to the past. Belgium, independent from the Netherlands since 1831, strongly reaffirmed its parliamentarian polity. In Great- Britain the Chartists pressed for democratic reform and the Great Reform Act of 1832 raised the male electorate’s percentage from approximately 2% to 10%; a meagre figure still, but as a statement of democracy as the nation’s fundament a quantum leap.
Europe’s mid-19th Century democratic movement differed fundamentally from what had happened fifty years earlier. Liberté, fraternité and egalité only lasted for a year and then perverted into regicide, terror and the battle cry of the conquering French Revolutionary Army. Mirroring the events in other French protectorates the Netherlands’ democratic experiments between 1796 and 1798 were first discredited and then quashed by Napoleon’s mania. Europe’s demand of the 1830ies and 1840ies for democratic representation aligned with US’ successful experiment in real life time, which proved that without hereditary rule responsible and taxpaying men could elect capable men to govern a competing, constitutional and secular state. The US showed that free and entrepreneurial men did create their own future –shaped and controlled their own fate, regardless of risks and status. In 1792 in England Thomas Paine had been tried in absentia with the death penalty for seditious libel against the Crown after publishing The Rights of Man (London, 1791) in which he (in collaboration with Thomas Jefferson) defended French Revolution’s democratic claims of Summer 1791. Forty years later Great-Britain witnessed the Great Reform Act, and again fifteen years later West-Europe understood that a constitutional monarchy within a solid democratic and national framework was actually normal.
It was this radical change of the 1840ies which handed men the revolutionary worldview that life was not how tradition curbed it, but what they made it, and that they had the natural right to control and capitalize it.
I do not think that it was coincidental that Industrial Revolution’s bang coincided with Europe’s democratic boom. I think that the Industrial Revolution, Europe’s Modern Moment, could take off in the late 1840ies, and not earlier or somewhere else, because in every West- European nation intellectuals and businessmen understood that they not only could control politically, but also economically by lifting the already amassed British technology to ground- breaking and unseen scientific and industrial heights, and profit from it. This unique synergy unleashed Europe’s talent and, hence, shaped the world’s modernity. Clearly, hereditary aristocratic rule in France and the German states regained control within a few years, which for France, I think, explains the industrial collapse of the late 1850ies and 1860ies. After eliminating France’s Second Republic in 1851 Napoleon III started an exhaustive series of foreign wars while repressing the newly formed French middle class. Only in the 1870ies France’s industrial production sped up again –coinciding with, I think, the successful Third Republic. In Bismarck’s Germany democratic representation never made it. Entrepreneurial activity and industrial research remained top down managed, and never bottom up liberated. In consequence Germany’s Industrial Revolution remained focussed on heavy industry, steel and coal, in the Ruhr-area, and never reached the awesome level of astonishing innovation and commercial exploitation the French, British and American middle class mastered in their secular and democratic world. Daston remarked that our modern mathematics, which includes a proper, God-free, understanding of ‘risk’ and ‘random’, could only come into existence in a “different world”. From steam ships to Darwin’s Origins of Species, from telephone to airplane, that revolutionary different world came into being during 19th Century’s second half when the people of every West-European nation democratically took control of their own destiny and conquered the earth –only to hurl themselves into the trenches of Nationalism’s doom.
I claim that ‘democracy’ was the crucial component of Industrial Revolution’s miraculous concoction. And I don’t mean democracy as an idea, but as 19th Century’s real life experience: a frequently elected parliamentarian government in a constitution that guarded rights such as freedom of print, freedom of congregation, and equality before the law. A democracy that endorsed criticasters to start their own electable political party, such as Catholics, communists and socialists; that boosted the organization of unions; and helped establishing universities and higher technical education to train the nation’s talent –any talent. A rapidly expanding democratic realm in which before the 1890ies universal suffrage of adult men became the norm. The democratic reality of a gaining prosperous middle class which was free to vote, to be electable, to co-decide over the public sphere and planning of city and nation, to be free to start any business, to be free to explore and exploit –that was the real catalyst of Industrial Revolution’s incessant innovation. And I think it remained crucial when in the 1920ies an ever increasing modernity and economy had become normal and universal suffrage in Europe, the Commonwealth and US now included women too. Which was, by the way, the next evolutionary and uniquely new in human history.
In contrast to the US and Commonwealth Australia and Canada, in Europe democracy was repeatedly ravaged. First World War’s suicidal Nationalism and Imperial Germany’s near win in October 1914; the challenge of Fascism and horrors of Nazism; the terror of Soviet Communism in East-Europe until 1990 –they nearly destroyed Europe’s development and ruinously halted it compared to US’ exponential modernization. But also, and excluding Switzerland, West-Europe’s democracy has always been ambiguous. After all, too much of it, like referenda, might jeopardize a desired result and endanger settled society. Illustrative, I always think it’s startling that the prominent Dutch liberal party Democraten 1966 (D66), which was established by freethinking journalist Hans van Mierlo during 1960ies’ flower power boom to demand direct democracy and referenda, do not think democracy and referenda such a good idea when questions concerning the European Union arise.
But even though democracy never truly penetrated Europe’s DNA and always was carefully balanced by an unelected bureaucracy and/or relics of aristocratic and monarchic power, after 1945 it was the second best a man could get –causing since the 1950ies the Second Industrial Revolution and First Digital Revolution, which we’re experiencing still. That is: which the US is innovating, South-Korea is exploiting and India and China are manufacturing. All European statistical bureaus show that since 2000 in the EU innovation has slumped only to grind to a halt in 2008. The Digital Revolution happens in US’ Silicon Valley, and is eagerly picked up in Asia. The future is no longer made in Europe, but elsewhere.
So, why did modernity start in Europe –because of 1830ies-40ies freedom’s revolutions, which socially opened talent’s sluices to limitless and commercial innovation: the freedom to enterprise and capitalize. Democracy in social and national context was vital for the creation of the Industrial Revolution and vital for the rebirth of our modernity after Second World War’s ruin. But, how much democracy is needed to make the formula work? Does our unique modernity stop if the democratic end-control of a people is removed? Or is Europe’s modernity, its innovation and economic supremacy, in perpetual motion, no matter what? Is the future still ours or has our moment passed?