09 August 2007

The Rise of the Industrial Revolution

A fascinating article in the New York Times that previews what sounds like an even more fascinating book by University of California at Davis economic historian, Gregory Clark, called A Farewell to Alms. Clark builds a case for the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in England based on the idea that during the period from about 1200 to 1800, those who were relatively affluent in the middle ages tended to have more children than those who were relatively poorer. Consequently,
Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” he concluded.

As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.

Another significant change in behavior, Dr. Clark argues, was an increase in people’s preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.

“Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving,” Dr. Clark writes.
He goes on to argue that there may be a genetic, or evolutionary component to these changes.
The middle-class values needed for productivity could have been transmitted either culturally or genetically. But in some passages, he seems to lean toward evolution as the explanation. “Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial Revolution, man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern economic world,” he writes. And, “The triumph of capitalism in the modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or rationality.”
Of course, this last bit is considered somewhat controversial by more conventional economists and some others.

What is fascinating to me is the way that Clark's argument can be interpreted through Valence Theory. In hunter/gatherer and primarily agrarian societies, the dominant valences would likely be Economic and Ecological, although knowledge itself plays a large part in both. However, the competitive nature of foraging societies would tend to minimize the extent of Knowledge valence relationships in favour of individual survival. On the other hand, with increasing family sizes among those who were more affluent, the other valences tend to emerge, namely Socio-psychological and Identity, with Economic valence also taking on more reciprocal characteristics. If Clark's argument is correct, that the peasant class tended to die out quicker and their occupations were taken over by those from relatively upper classes, it is also likely that these individuals brought with them their socialization - these more enhanced valence relationships. Working more in concert with others could have enabled Industrial Age values to emerge, consistent with Gregory Clark's explanation.

As a(n attempt at a) more generalized explanation of organization, it's nice to see that Valence Theory is at least not inconsistent with one of the more interesting emerging theories of the Industrial Age, as well as being a fairly good explanation of organization in our Ubiquitously Connected and Pervasively Proximate - UCaPP - world.

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