Great Britain & the Industrial Revolution
In his celebrated book Industry & Empire Eric Hobsbawn (1998:13) affirms: “The Industrial Revolution points out the deepest transformation experienced by human life in the history of the world, registered in written documents. During a short period this revolution coincided with the story of just one country, Great Britain. Upon it, or rather around it, an entire world economy was built, that allowed it to temporarily reach an influence and power previously unknown by any State of its dimensions”. It is in that historical moment when Great Britain emerges as the first great industrial State-nation in the world, a fact that raises the threshold of power to almost unreachable levels for the other States and that turns England into the greatsubordinating State of the international system:
There is a moment in universal history in which Great Britain can be described as the only workshop in the world, its only mass importer and exporter, its only imperialistic power, almost its only foreign investor; and for that same reason its only naval force and the only country with its own world policy. (Hobsbawm, 1998: 37)
Having completed the Industrial Revolution before any other State, Great Britain automatically elevated the threshold of power. As a logical consequence, from that moment on all other States of the international system that might desire to maintain their respective autonomies were obliged to carry out their own industrial revolution. To not become subordinated, all the States in the international system had to quickly industrialize. During the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century France had been the main rival of England, as much in politics as in economy. Until the mid-17th century, “France was richer than Great Britain, though its riches were more poorly distributed, and the peasants in particular found themselves overwhelmed with very steep taxes, in favor of a landowner class that was practically inactive. Until the Industrial Revolution, French industry had been ahead of that of the English in the employment of complicated machinery and in the development of large factories. But the weight of the prolonged wars weighed heavily on the French economic system and hindered post-war France from assimilating or applying new production techniques based on vapor energy, until far after its establishment in Great Britain” (Cole, 1985: 83). France clearly emerged impoverished from the wars of Napoleon. Nevertheless, it preserved its traditional supremacy in the silk industry, its possessed an industrial bourgeoisiewith a marvelous talent for production of small quantities of articles of high quality, good taste and sky high prices.1 What’s more, the country provided for its own needs, in agricultural material, in such a way that it reached a certain degree of prosperity and a great capacity of accumulation of capital, as soon as the effects of war wore off. Nevertheless, “Politically and economically France was poorly equipped to rival with Great Britain in the global market. Its coal stores were small.
[…] In those circumstances the ancient causes of rivalry between France and Great Britain tended to disappear for the most part. French and British industries had been developed following different lines, and it was improbable that the French would be able to effectively threaten English industry with its new production systems in the world market” (Cole, 1986: 84). To this acute observation of Cole’s it must be added that, despite the fact that France had institutions that were ideally apt for capitalistic development, despite the fact that the ingenious and inventiveness of its businessmen were unparalleled in Europe, despite the fact that Paris was and international financial center just as important as London, despite the fact that France possessed great capital reserves that it exported to the entire continent; the French business sector did not invest in national industry: “The prudent French businessman preferred to manufacture luxury products rather than products of mass consumption; the prudent financier preferred to promote industries abroad rather that in his own country” (Hobsbawm, 2006: 183). This explanation of this radical paradox, according to Eric Hobsbowm, in which “private initiative and economic progress only go hand in hand when the one provides benefits to the other that are higher than other forms of business. In France it did not happen as such, though through France the economic growth of other countries was fertilized” (183). Without and effective State impulse that would promote the development of an important industry, without a pro-industrial economic policy, without a financial policy that would channel credit towards the foundational industries, France was barely able to reach the present threshold of power (set by Great Britain) at a level high enough so as to not become a subordinated State, but it was absolutely incapable of challenging the English worldwide hegemony. Incredibly, the cause of this handicap was none other than neglect, on behalf of the French State, of that necessary State impulse to orient its policy and economy towards levels similar to those of Great Britain. From the different paths taken by the bourgeoisie and the French State in the orientation of its activities emerges the incapacity of arguing over world supremacy with Great Britain.2