Industrial Scales


Artwork at the Grenze, the former E/W Germany border, near Meiningen

I gave a short lecture to my History 147 class at Tacoma Community College on Thursday. The subject was an overview of what the U.S. was like in and around 1800. I would have liked to assign Crèvecouer (or at least selections) as the first reading for a history class centered on the 19th century, but alas, I cannot assign a whole book (or even a chunk of one) per week. The reading just wouldn’t get done. Also, half my class had taken me for History 146, the 17th and 18th centuries, so I needed to give context to everyone without going over familiar territory (to my great satisfaction, information had successfully moved from short term to long term memory in most of the familiar faces). Fundamentally, the line drawn along the edge of the 19th century—the Early American Republic—by many historians is between pre-industrial America and industrial America.


Cottage Industry in the late 18th century



Industrial spinning in the 19th century


Industrial spinning in the early 20th century. Photo by Lewis Hine.


Textile mill in the 21st century. Most of the work is still done by women. The scale is not radically larger than in the early 20th century.

The Second Industrial Revolution began in the end of the 18th century and continued until the end of the 20th. Worldwide, however, no period of time is more marked by Industrialization as the 19th century. The one patent, the one invention in America that so changed everything was of course the Cotton Gin, invented by Eli Whitney in 1793. The Gin made cotton into the worldwide staple that it still is today, and it fundamentally altered work and labor as it had been understood for centuries. Even worse, the machine gave slavery a fresh breath of air, tearing the U.S. apart within 70 years of its invention. The Cotton Gin was an industrial invention, which changed the scale on which labor was performed in the United States.


Before the Gin, labor (including slave labor) in the U.S. preceded at the pace of agriculture and on the scale of a cottage industry. Machines speeded up and rendered efficient motions that had been performed on the scale of communities and at the speed of one human’s hands. Formerly organic work became divisible into repetitive tasks. Machines set the pace, and the machines could always be speeded up. To use Marxist language, the result was labor being alienated from the worker. The product became the focal point of economic consideration, not the man or woman who did the labor. Suddenly, skills were less important than mere numbers. Industrialization was the birth of the unskilled worker, the cog who could be replaced when worn out, just like any other gear in the machine. “Labor saving” machines only seem to create savings on paying for labor. Ergonomics were rarely taken into consideration, and work became more and divided until all the six needed was pulling a lever.

Scale, however, is what I am trying to convey to my students. Oxford defines industrial scale as “very large.” Yes, but the venerable dictionary also allows the definition of “a lot” for the scale of decimation, literally “removal of a tenth.” Decimation is historically connected the Roman army and the penalty for cowardice. Decimations penalized the entire army in a “democratic” fashion, by executing every tenth man. 10 percent is not “a lot,” so the terror of decimation was not its scale but rather the wanton and indiscriminate way in which it chose its victims. Culpability never entered into the equation. Culpability is a concept coeval with individualism. Rounding up the usual suspects has far more historical precedent than worrying about guilt or innocence. Consider it caste control. The last time it was used was supposedly in the Soviet Army, at the siege of Leningrad.

Decimation only denotes a catastrophe of numbers if one inverts its arithmetic to mean 90 percent, but my guess is that 100 percent of the people who use “decimate” to mean crush in near entirety have no idea that the words they truly seek are destroy, devastate, obliterate, demolish, overwhelm, and other synonyms. Similarly, an event that takes place on a “industrial scale” has a specific historical connection, and again, its scary arithmetic lies not in numbers but rather in its literal inhumanity. Machines do not feel. treating humans like machines, and then raising that to a social ideal, is the basis of fascism.

People who live in big cities like New York or LA or Chicago might be disappointed if they ever encountered anything on an industrial scale. To the masses in Times Square, a 19th-century factory (even a 20th-century floor) would seem puny. We measure things on a post-industrial scale, a global scale. Good, old fashioned industrialization would disappoint anyone who has interacted with the Internet and traveled on bullet trains. Brutalist architecture, including Albert Speer’s unimaginative Nazi monoliths, is industrial scale. The HMS Titanic was industrial scale, and most modern cruise ships would dwarf it. Compared to the human form, these examples are huge, but they only stun when compared to what had come before. Today, industrial is rather diminutive.


RMS Olympic had the same props as the Titanic

Industrial scale is frightening, however. The Civil War was war on an industrial scale. The same can be said for World War I. The bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed far more people per weapon than anything else before or since. Nuclear war is post-industrial war. The Holocaust was industrial killing. There was process, order, dispassion, clockwork: efficiency. Industry requires human interaction to make a product, those interchangeable cogs that keep the machinery running. When there were no more people to murder, Chelmno, Belzec, and Sobibor closed. There was no more need for their product. Post-industrial is also, uncoincidentally, post-human.

Two centuries of industrialization have been disastrous because human life in an industrial regime became normalized. Rather than huge, industrial means disproportionate to human life, disproportionate to human needs. Industrial is inherently devastating to natural processes, be that of sleep cycles, environmental systems, or the long health of joints and lungs and hearts and minds. Repetition is useful, but bodies are not machines, neither is the environment. Natural systems are efficient, but efficiency is amoral. Anything on the industrial scale is inherently amoral; the farther the core measure or any human-designed system is removed from its conscionable locus—the human being—the more immoral it becomes. Using the industrial ideal as a basis for social interactions is, at its base, fascist.




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