Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Is Capitalism responsible for the deaths and privation experienced during the Industrial Revolution?


I recently had an opportunity to spend some time with a gentleman I will name "D".

It started with a chance meeting in a park. I started chatting. We had several common interests and stayed in touch by email.

We met a second time. He was a delight to converse with. Not just educated but smart.

One subject he can converse about and make understandable to the average Joe are the many ways that "hill peoples" are disenfranchised by the dominant culture, invariable flat-landers.

"Disenfranchised" by means of not having legal recourse in property disputes, not being allowed to own property or have access to enough property required to live in traditional ways. 

A typical scenario involves flat-landers invading the better valleys. The flat-landers have other sources of income. The flat-landers can get "official" deeds to the property and then have the police evict the people living there. Or the flat-landers get competing deeds and then contest the original tenant's deeds in court. Or the flat-landers gin up property taxes, taxes they can pay because they have other sources of income. The hill-people are evicted for not being able to pay the taxes and the flat-landers pick it up for peanuts (or palm oil or coffee or...)

Then the flat-landers chase the hill-people into ever-more marginal land and to ever-more abusive agricultural practices as they are forced to generate revenue to pay taxes.

That is when our conversation went sideways.

"D, one of the reasons that I like you is because you are sympathetic to Capitalism" I said.

He recoiled as if he had been bitten by a snake. "Where do you get that?"

"Capitalism is about private property. You just gave me ten minutes of reasons about why hill-people need the property rights that are core to Capitalism" I replied.

"I am not a Capitalist. Capitalism is a horrible system" he said.

I was flummoxed. "How do you figure?"

"Capitalism kills people" D said.

My mind was racing. I know there are people who can make a cogent case that our (the United States') healthcare system is irrational, expensive and has too many perverse incentives. I wondered if that was where he was going. I decided to ask.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"The Industrial Revolution, for instance" he offered. 

The conversation veered off from there. I wasn't going to argue a subject I hadn't looked into.

I think the topic of Capitalism Kills People (Industrial Revolution) is important because if D believes that Capitalism's outcomes during the Industrial Revolution are prime evidence of its shortcomings then it is probably a common belief among his entire demographic.

The Industrial Revolution

Is the proper comparison between mortality rates of a country (or economic system) that is in the throes of tectonic shift in production systems with a country that is plodding along steady-state?

Or is it more proper to compare various countries/systems centered around some keystone marker in the march toward industrialization? That marker could be some percentage (say 25%) of the economy being due to industry rather than agriculture. It could be some percentage of the population being urban vs. rural. It could be many, many markers.

Using that approach, one might compare England or Germany (Capitalist) circa 1850 with the USSR (Communist) and Japan (Militaristic/Feudal) circa 1930.

The death-toll for the USSR industrialization easily tops 3 million. That was the body count for the Ukrainian Holodomor where all food was stripped from Ukrainan kulaks (peasants). That food was exported to generate hard currency to purchase industrial tools from Western Europe. In other words, it was a hidden subsidy to the USSR Industrial Revolution.

Estimates for casualties of the Japanese Industrial Revolution vary wildly, but 6,000,000 is a defensible number based on the casualties in just China and Korea.

It is undeniable that the Industrial Revolution was a time of grinding poverty and privation for many people. However, the life expectancy continued to rise in England and Germany during the Industrial Revolution. I am not sure the same can be said of the regions controlled by Communists and Militaristic/Feudal societies during their Industrial Revolutions.

It is a sleight-of-hand to blame Capitalism for faults that are inherent in massive changes from agricultural to industrial modes of production. In fact, as the first countries to push through that frontier in a major way one would have expected the mortality rates and injustices to be much higher for England and Germany than for the USSR and Japan. After all, the USSR and Japan had a roadmap and it should have been easier and less traumatic.


  1. To begin with, it might be beneficial if we all stop using the word capitalism to describe a free market economy. As I understand it, Karl Marx coined the term, and he meant it as a pejorative against free enterprise.

    As for your friend, you might suggest to him that he puts his money where his mouth is. Ask him which of the modern conveniences he is willing to forego in order to stop supporting the evil profit mongering that is at the core of so-called capitalism.

    Nice house to live in? Electricity and clean water? Nice car to drive, and gasoline to fuel it? First World health care? Life saving pharmaceuticals? Ready access to relatively cheap, abundant, and nutritious food? Computers? Cell phones? Modern air travel? Anything and everything you might care to buy delivered to your door within 48 hours?

    A free market economy and the profit motive at its very core is what brought all these things into existence. Such a system, for all its perceived faults, is what makes our physical lives immeasurably more pleasant and comfortable. It also EXTENDS many of our lives well into our eighties, nineties, and beyond, when the average life expectancy a hundred years ago was about sixty.

    I know that you know these things, Joe. I put forth these thoughts simply as a mere starting point if you ever discuss this topic again with this individual.

    1. Thank you for that note about capitalism being Marx's term. That needs to be pointed out more often.

    2. FYI- the term "racist" was coined by Leon Trotsky, one of Joe Stalin's monkeys who helped him kill 30 million of his own people, as a part of his 'class struggle' meme with which the communists sought to take over the entire world. "Racism" is just a meme and a false premise to incite disharmony and hate.

  2. Seems to me that conflating capitalism with industrial revolution is an error.

    Communism dragged feudal Russian into the Industrial Revolution. At the price of murdering millions in order to consolidate control of resources.

    Capitalism was a disruptive, but inherently benign approach to bringing the West into the Industrial Revolution. It was disruptive to an agrarian society, sure. But that agrarian culture had a lot of people who chose to leave the countryside and come to cities to work in those factories. I suspect that they did so because they felt it was a step up from being a hired farmhand shoveling manure from pre-dawn till past dusk. And of course, as our industrialized society evolved and matured, it made its fair share of mistakes. Applied science, after all, was still in its infancy and what we didn't know about biology and chemistry filled volumes for the next century or so. But capitalism put a premium on better understanding what was going on, because who bore the costs when things went wrong? Everyone! Unlike in the Communism model of industrialization.

    1. While I agree with much of what you wrote, I think it should be noted that a series of laws were passed (known collectively as the Enclosure Acts) that favored the consolidation of land by the wealthy.

      There were interactions between the growth of industry and the consolidation of land. The growing textile industry made wool more valuable and lands suitable for the plow were taken out of the production of human-quality food and flipped to pasture.

      That tilted the table because it made it almost impossible for many of the people who lived in the countryside to eke out survival.

      The man living at the edge of a fen could no longer cut hay or go "eeling" to make a go of subsistence. Many would have jumped at a chance to shovel manure to stay where they were.

      Bonus link: https://www.fff.org/explore-freedom/article/enclosure-acts-industrial-revolution/

  3. Yep, mistakes have been made since day one. Have people died? No question. BUT, how many are alive today that wouldn't be otherwise?

  4. The number of casualties from the industrial revolution (if any) is miniscule compared to the numbers of men, women, and children murdered intentionally by communist leaders Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Castro, and others. And how much has the industrial revolution and the free enterprise system RAISED the standard of living for generations of people all around the world versus the way that communism has universally LOWERED the quality of life and standards of living for the millions of people under its oppressive yoke ? The difference is night and day.

  5. Now do the death toll due to the adoption of agriculture over nomadic living.

    But, the plus side of agriculture: beer.

  6. Paraphrasing Churchill, Capitalism is the worst form of any economy, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.

  7. How about the elite today who are instrumental in the fabrication of the Covid debacle who are profiting from buying up properties sold in foreclosure because of the loss of jobs and businesses. The flatlanders vs the hill people in another dimension!

  8. How about the elite today who are instrumental in the fabrication of the Covid debacle who are profiting from buying up properties sold in foreclosure because of the loss of jobs and businesses. The flatlanders vs the hill people in another dimension!