I’ve recently been reading some of the work of Eric Hobsbawm, focusing on the Industrial Revolution in Britain and its causes.
Now, there’s an idea which is widespread both among ardent defenders of capitalism and among many of its Marxist and Marxist-inspired critics, that the industrial revolution, and the worldwide technological transformation which it initiated, is intimately involved with capitalism – we have capitalism ‘to thank’ for it. Mostly this is presented as a good thing, and I would overall concur with that analysis, although the environmental consequences have not been brilliant.
What Hobsbawm argues, though, is that while the industrial revolution emerged along with the growth and strengthening of British capitalism, and while the two were certainly connected, capitalism was not actually a very ‘fertile’ ground for industrial revolution, because profit-oriented production tends to be actually quite conservative. He writes:
“It is often assumed that an economy of private enterprise has an automatic bias towards innovation, but this is not so. It has a bias only towards profit. It will revolutionise manufactures only if greater profits are to be made in this way than otherwise. But in pre-industrial societies this is hardly ever the case.