Consumption

What we must do is to transform our Empire and our people, make the empire like the countries of Europe and our people like the peoples of Europe.

Inoue Kaoru

Will the West, which takes its great invention, democracy, more seriously than the Word of God, come out against this coup that has brought an end to democracy in Kars? … Or are we to conclude that democracy, freedom and human rights don’t matter, that all the West wants is for the rest of the world to imitate it like monkeys? Can the West endure any democracy achieved by enemies who in no way resemble them?

Orhan Pamuk

THE BIRTH OF THE CONSUMER SOCIETY

In 1909, inspired by a visit to Japan, the French-Jewish banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn* set out to create an album of colour photographs of people from every corner of the world. The aim, Kahn said, was ‘To put into effect a sort of photographic inventory of the surface of the globe as inhabited and developed by Man at the beginning of the twentieth century.’ Created with the newly invented autochrome process, the 72,000 photographs and 100 hours of film in Kahn’s ‘archives of the planet’ show a dazzling variety of costumes and fashions from more than fifty different countries: dirt-poor peasants in the Gaeltacht, dishevelled conscripts in Bulgaria, forbidding chieftains in Arabia, stark-naked warriors in Dahomey, garlanded maharajas in India, come-hither priestesses in Indo-China and strangely stolid-looking cowboys in the Wild West.1 In those days, to an extent that seems astonishing today, we were what we wore.

Today, a century later, Kahn’s project would be more or less pointless, because these days most people around the world dress in much the same way: the same jeans, the same sneakers, the same T-shirts. There are just a very few places where people hold out against the giant sartorial blending machine. One of them is rural Peru. In the mountains of the Andes, the Quechua women still wear their brightly coloured dresses and shawls and their little felt hats, pinned at jaunty angles and decorated with their tribal insignia. Except that these are not traditional Quechua clothes at all. The dresses, shawls and hats are in fact of Andalusian origin and were imposed by the Spanish Viceroy Francisco de Toledo in 1572, in the wake of Túpac Amaru’s defeat. Authentically traditional Andean female attire consisted of a tunic (the anacu), secured at the waist by a sash (the chumpi), over which was worn a mantle (the lliclla), which was fastened with a tupu pin. What Quechua women wear nowadays is a combination of these earlier garments with the clothes they were ordered to wear by their Spanish masters. The bowler hats popular among Bolivian women came later, when British workers arrived to build that country’s first railways.2 The current fashion among Andean men for American casual clothing is thus merely the latest chapter in a long history of sartorial Westernization.

What is it about our clothes that other people seem unable to resist? Is dressing like us about wanting to be like us? Clearly, this is about more than just clothes. It is about embracing an entire popular culture that extends through music and movies, to say nothing of soft drinks and fast food. That popular culture carries with it a subtle message. It is about freedom – the right to dress or drink or eat as you please (even if that turns out to be like everybody else). It is about democracy – because only those consumer products that people really like get made. And, of course, it is about capitalism – because corporations have to make a profit by selling the stuff. But clothing is at the heart of the process of Westernization for one very simple reason. That great economic transformation which economic historians long ago named the Industrial Revolution – that quantum leap in material standards of living for a rising share of humanity – had its origins in the manufacture of textiles. It was partly a miracle of mass production brought about by a wave of technological innovation, which had its origin in the earlier Scientific Revolution (see Chapter 2). But the Industrial Revolution would not have begun in Britain and spread to the rest of West without the simultaneous development of a dynamic consumer society, characterized by an almost infinitely elastic demand for cheap clothes. The magic of industrialization, though it was something contemporary critics generally overlooked, was that the worker was at one and the same time a consumer. The ‘wage slave’ also went shopping; the lowliest proletarian had more than one shirt, and aspired to have more than two.

The consumer society is so all-pervasive today that it is easy to assume it has always existed. Yet in reality it is one of the more recent innovations that propelled the West ahead of the Rest. Its most striking characteristic is its seemingly irresistible appeal. Unlike modern medicine, which (as we saw in the previous chapter) was often imposed by force on Western colonies, the consumer society is a killer application the rest of the world has generally yearned to download. Even those social orders explicitly intended to be anti-capitalist – most obviously the various derivatives of the doctrine of Karl Marx – have been unable to exclude it. The result is one of the greatest paradoxes of modern history: that an economic system designed to offer infinite choice to the individual has ended up homogenizing humanity.

The Industrial Revolution is often misrepresented as if a broad range of technological innovations simultaneously transformed multiple economic activities. This was not the case. The first phase of industrialization was firmly concentrated on textiles. The archetypal factory was a cotton mill, like the Anchor Mill in Paisley, which still stands today as a monument to Scotland’s industrial heyday.*

What exactly happened? One simple answer is that at some point in the nineteenth century British economic output per person, which had already begun to accelerate in the seventeenth century, took off like a rocket. Because of the extreme difficulty of retrospectively calculating anachronistic measures such as gross domestic product or national income, scholars differ about the precise timing. One authoritative estimate is that the average annual rate of growth of per-capita national income rose from below 0.2 per cent between 1760 and 1800 to 0.52 per cent between 1800 and 1830 and to 1.98 per cent between 1830 and 1870.3 All these figures are miserably low by twenty-first-century standards. Nevertheless the effect was revolutionary. No such sustained acceleration in economic growth had happened before; nor did it stop. On the contrary, even faster growth meant that the average Briton in 1960 was nearly six times richer than his great-grandfather had been in 1860.4 Especially striking was the speed with which the British labour force left agriculture for other sectors (not only manufacturing but also services). As early as 1850 little more than a fifth of the active population in Britain was engaged in farming, at a time when the figure was closer to 45 per cent even in the Low Countries. By 1880 fewer than one in seven Britons worked on the land; by 1910 it was one in eleven.5 Aggregate growth figures mask the dramatic nature of this change. Though it was spread over decades, the Industrial Revolution was highly localized. In Gloucestershire, for example, it was barely visible. In Lancashire it was unmissable – though swathed in smog. The Highlands of Scotland were untouched; that was why the Victorians learned to love what had struck Dr Johnson’s generation as merely a grim wasteland. Glasgow, by contrast, was transformed by trade and industry into the ‘Second City’ of the British Empire, its smokestacks out-reeking its famously malodorous rival Edinburgh.

The Industrial Revolution has been characterized as a ‘wave of gadgets’.6 Certainly, it was technological innovation that explained much of the decisive increase in the productivity of land, labour and capital (the so-called factors of production). The second and third of these increased in quantity in the nineteenth century,* but it was the qualitative improvement that really mattered – the fact that total output exceeded the combined increments of workers and mills. In terms of supply, then, the Industrial Revolution was a hunt for efficiency. James Hargreaves’s spinning jenny (1766), Richard Arkwright’s water frame (1769), Samuel Crompton’s mule (1779), Edmund Cartwright’s steam-powered loom (1787) and Richard Roberts’s self-acting mule (1830): these were all ways of making more thread or cloth per man-hour. The spinning jenny, for example, allowed a single worker simultaneously to spin cotton yarn with eight spindles. Thanks to these innovations, the unit price of British cotton manufactures declined by approximately 90 per cent between the mid-1790s and 1830.7 The same applied to the other key breakthroughs in iron production and steam-power generation. James Neilson’s blast furnace, patented in 1828, hugely improved the coke-smelting process invented by Abraham Darby in 1709. Iron output at Darby’s Coalbrookdale furnace leapt from 81 tons a year in 1709 to 4,632 in 1850. Likewise, Thomas Newcomen’s 1705 steam engine was of little practical use; but James Watt’s addition of a separate condenser greatly improved it, and Richard Trevithick’s high-pressure version was better still. Newcomen’s engine had burned 45 pounds of coal to produce a single horsepower hour. A late nineteenth-century steam engine could do the same with less than 1 pound.8 By 1870 Britain’s steam engines together were generating 4 million horsepower, equivalent to the work of 40 million men. Feeding such a large human workforce would have required three times Britain’s entire wheat output.9 None of this was as intellectually profound as the big scientific breakthroughs of the seventeenth century, though Boulton’s and Watt’s membership of the Birmingham Lunar Society, which also counted the pioneering chemist Joseph Priestley among its luminaries, shows how close the connections were between the two revolutions.10 Rather, it was a cumulative, evolutionary process of improvement characterized by tinkering, sometimes carried out by men with minimal scientific education. The spirit of the age had got off its cavalry charger and was now to be found toiling in the workshop of Boulton & Watt’s Soho Manufactory. Innovation, personified by the dour Watt, and entrepreneurship, personified by the ebullient Boulton: that was the quintessential partnership at the heart of the Industrial Revolution.

‘I sell here, Sir,’ Boulton told James Boswell in 1776, ‘what all the world desires to have – POWER.’11 But what for? The Industrial Revolution would have been pointless if it had consisted only of a massive increase in the quantity of cloth, iron and mechanical power that could be produced in a year. Equally important was the rapid development and spread of a consumer society that actually wanted more of these things.12 If technological innovation spurred the supply side, the demand side of the Industrial Revolution was driven by the seemingly insatiable appetite human beings have for clothes. Nothing did more to stimulate that appetite than the large-scale import of Indian cloth by the East India Company, beginning in the seventeenth century. (Imports of Chinese porcelain had a similar effect on the demand for crockery.)13 Housewives wanted these things and adjusted their behaviour and budgets accordingly.14 Entrepreneurs sought to use new technology to imitate imported goods and then displace them.15

Cotton was indeed the king of the British economic miracle. The textile sector accounted for around a tenth of British national income, and cotton manufacturing achieved much the most rapid increases in efficiency. The factories of Manchester and the workshops of Oldham became the focal point of the transformation. The striking thing is that a very large share of British cotton production was not for domestic consumption. In the mid-1780s cotton exports were only around 6 per cent of total British exports. By the mid-1830s, the proportion had risen to 48 per cent, the bulk of it to continental Europe.16 Historians used to argue about which came first in Britain, the technological wave or the consumer society. On the continent, there is no doubt. Europeans acquired a taste for cheap factory-made cloth well before they learned how to produce it themselves.

Why did Britain industrialize first? The consumer society was not significantly more advanced than in other North-west European states. The level and dissemination of scientific knowledge was not notably superior. There had been impressive advances in other sectors of the British economy during the eighteenth century, for example in agriculture, banking and commerce, but it is not immediately obvious why these would trigger a surge of productivity-enhancing investment in cotton, iron and steam production. It has been suggested that the explanation for Britain’s early industrialization must lie in the realm of politics or of law. The common law, for example, is said to have encouraged the forming of corporations and offered creditors better protection than continental systems like those derived from Napoleon’s civil law code.17 Institutional advantages certainly helped Britain to pull ahead of other would-be empires in the seventeenth and especially the eighteenth century, as we have seen. But it not at all clear why the doctrine of the sovereignty of parliament or the evolution of the common law would have provided Boulton and Watt with stronger incentives than their unsung counterparts on the continent.

It is possible that eighteenth-century tariffs erected against Indian calicoes gave British manufacturers some advantage, just as similar protectionist policies would later nurture the infant industries of the United States against British competition.18 David Ricardo’s doctrine of comparative advantage* was not the sole reason why cotton exports from Britain soared in the first half of the nineteenth century. Aside from that, the case seems unconvincing that British (or, for that matter, American) political or legal institutions were more favourable to industrial development than Dutch, French or German.19 In the eyes of contemporaries, the state of the British political and legal systems in the key decades of industrial take-off was the very reverse of favourable to fledgling industry. ‘Old Corruption’ was how the radical polemicist William Cobbett characterized the way parliament, the Crown and the City interacted. In Bleak House (1852–3) Charles Dickens portrayed the Court of Chancery as a grotesquely inefficient hindrance to the resolution of property disputes, while in Little Dorrit (1855–7) the target of his satire was the ‘Circumlocution Office’, a government department dedicated to obstructing economic progress. Joint-stock companies remained illegal until the 1720 Bubble Act was repealed in 1824, while debtors’ prisons like the Marshalsea – so vividly depicted in Little Dorrit – continued to operate until the passage of the 1869 Bankruptcy Act. It is also worth remembering that much of the legislation passed by Victorian parliaments in connection with the textile industry was designed to limit the economic freedom of factory-owners, notably with respect to child labour.

Britain differed significantly from other North-west European countries in two ways that make the Industrial Revolution intelligible. The first was that labour was significantly dearer than on the continent – or indeed anywhere for which records exist. In the second half of the eighteenth century a Parisian worker’s real wages (in terms of silver adjusted for consumer prices) were just over half a Londoner’s. Real wages in Milan were 26 per cent of the London level.20 Wages in China and South India were even lower, and not only because of the higher productivity of Asian rice cultivation relative to European wheat production.21 The second reason was that coal in Britain was abundant, accessible and therefore significantly cheaper than on the other side of the English Channel. Between the 1820s and the 1860s, the annual output of British coal mines quadrupled; the price per ton fell by a quarter. Together, these differentials explain why British entrepreneurs were so much more motivated to pursue technological innovation than their continental counterparts. It made better sense in Britain than anywhere else to replace expensive men with machines fuelled by cheap coal.

Like the French Revolution before it, the British Industrial Revolution spread across Europe. But this was a peaceful conquest.22 The great innovators were largely unable to protect what would now be called their intellectual property rights. With remarkable speed, the new technology was therefore copied and replicated on the continent and across the Atlantic. The first true cotton mill, Richard Arkwright’s at Cromford in Derbyshire, was built in 1771. Within seven years a copy appeared in France. It took just three years for the French to copy Watt’s 1775 steam engine. By 1784 there were German versions of both, thanks in large measure to industrial espionage. The Americans, who had the advantage of being able to grow their own cotton as well as mine their own coal, were a little slower: the first cotton mill appeared in Bass River, Massachusetts, in 1788, the first steam engine in 1803.23 The Belgians, Dutch and Swiss were not far behind. The pattern was similar after the first steam locomotives began pulling carriages on the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825, though that innovation took a mere five years to cross the Atlantic, compared with twelve years to reach Germany and twenty-two to arrive in Switzerland.24 As the efficiency of the technology improved, so it became economically attractive even where labour was cheaper and coal scarcer. Between 1820 and 1913 the number of spindles in the world increased four times as fast as the world’s population, but the rate of increase was twice as fast abroad as in the United Kingdom. Such were the productivity gains – and the growth of demand – that the gross output of the world cotton industry rose three times as fast as total spindleage.25 As a result, between 1820 and 1870 a handful of North-west European and North American countries achieved British rates of growth; indeed, Belgium and the United States grew faster.

By the late nineteenth century, then, industrialization was in full swing in two broad bands: one stretching across the American North-east, with towns like Lowell, Massachusetts at its heart, and another extending from Glasgow to Warsaw and even as far as Moscow. In 1800 seven out of the world’s ten biggest cities had still been Asian, and Beijing had still exceeded London in size. By 1900, largely as a result of the Industrial Revolution, only one of the biggest was Asian; the rest were European or American.

The spread around the world of the British-style industrial city inspired some observers but dismayed others. Among the inspired was Charles Darwin who, as he acknowledged in On the Origin of Species (1859), had been ‘well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence’ by the experience of living through the Industrial Revolution. Much of Darwin’s account of natural selection could have applied equally well to the economic world of the mid-nineteenth-century textile business:

All organic beings are exposed to severe competition … As more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. Each organic being … has to struggle for life … As natural selection acts solely by accumulating slight, successive, favourable variations, it can produce no great or sudden modification … 26

In that sense, it might make more sense for historians to talk about an Industrial Evolution, in Darwin’s sense of the word. As the economists Thorstein Veblen and Joseph Schumpeter would later remark, nineteenth-century capitalism was an authentically Darwinian system, characterized by seemingly random mutation, occasional speciation and differential survival or, to use Schumpeter’s memorable phrase, ‘creative destruction’.27

Yet precisely the volatility of the more or less unregulated markets created by the Industrial Revolution caused consternation among many contemporaries. Until the major breakthroughs in public health described in the previous chapter, mortality rates in industrial cities were markedly worse than in the countryside. Moreover, the advent of a new and far from regular ‘business cycle’, marked by periodic crises of industrial over-production and financial panic, generally made a stronger impression on people than the gradual acceleration of the economy’s average growth rate. Though the Industrial Revolution manifestly improved life over the long run, in the short run it seemed to make things worse. One of William Blake’s illustrations for his preface to Milton featured, among other sombre images, a dark-skinned figure holding up a blood-soaked length of cotton yarn.* For the composer Richard Wagner, London was ‘Alberich’s dream come true – Nibelheim, world dominion, activity, work, everywhere the oppressive feeling of steam and fog’. Hellish images of the British factory inspired his depiction of the dwarf’s underground realm in Das Rheingold, as well as one of the leitmotifs of the entire Ring cycle, the insistent, staccato rhythm of multiple hammers:

image

Steeped in German literature and philosophy, the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle was the first to identify what seemed the fatal flaw of the industrial economy: that it reduced all social relations to what he called, in his essay Past and Present, ‘the cash nexus’:

the world has been rushing on with such fiery animation to get work and ever more work done, it has had no time to think of dividing the wages; and has merely left them to be scrambled for by the Law of the Stronger, law of Supply-and-demand, law of Laissez-faire, and other idle Laws and Un-laws. We call it a Society; and go about professing openly the totalest separation, isolation. Our life is not a mutual helpfulness; but rather, cloaked under due laws-of-war, named ‘fair competition’ and so forth, it is a mutual hostility. We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that Cash-payment is not the sole relation of human beings … [It] is not the sole nexus of man with man, – how far from it! Deep, far deeper than Supply-and-demand, are Laws, Obligations sacred as Man’s Life itself.28

That phrase – the ‘cash nexus’ – so much pleased the son of an apostate Jewish lawyer from the Rhineland that he and his co-author, the heir of a Wuppertal cotton mill-owner, purloined it for the outrageous ‘manifesto’ they published on the eve of the 1848 revolutions.

The founders of communism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, were just two of many radical critics of the industrial society, but it was their achievement to devise the first internally consistent blueprint for an alternative social order. Since this was the beginning of a schism within Western civilization that would last for nearly a century and a half, it is worth pausing to consider the origins of their theory. A mixture of Hegel’s philosophy, which represented the historical process as dialectical, and the political economy of Ricardo, which posited diminishing returns for capital and an ‘iron’ law of low wages, Marxism took Carlyle’s revulsion against the industrial economy and substituted a utopia for nostalgia.

Marx himself was an odious individual. An unkempt scrounger and a savage polemicist, he liked to boast that his wife was ‘née Baroness von Westphalen’, but nevertheless sired an illegitimate son by their maidservant. On the sole occasion when he applied for a job (as a railway clerk) he was rejected because his handwriting was so atrocious. He sought to play the stock market but was hopeless at it. For most of his life he therefore depended on handouts from Engels, for whom socialism was an evening hobby, along with fox-hunting and womanizing; his day job was running one of his father’s cotton factories in Manchester (the patent product of which was known as ‘Diamond Thread’). No man in history has bitten the hand that fed him with greater gusto than Marx bit the hand of King Cotton.

The essence of Marxism was the belief that the industrial economy was doomed to produce an intolerably unequal society divided between the bourgeoisie, the owners of capital, and a propertyless proletariat. Capitalism inexorably demanded the concentration of capital in ever fewer hands and the reduction of everyone else to wage slavery, which meant being paid only ‘that quantum of the means of subsistence which is absolutely requisite to keep the labourer in bare existence as a labourer’. In chapter 32 of the first tome of his scarcely readable Capital (1867), Marx prophesied the inevitable denouement:

Along with the constant decrease of the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class …

The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.

It is not unintentional that this passage has a Wagnerian quality, part Götterdämmerung, part Parsifal. But by the time the book was published the great composer had left the spirit of 1848 far behind. Instead it was Eugène Pottier’s song ‘The Internationale’ that became the anthem of Marxism. Set to music by Pierre De Geyter, it urged the ‘servile masses’ to put aside their religious ‘superstitions’ and national allegiances, and make war on the ‘thieves’ and their accomplices, the tyrants, generals, princes and peers.

Before identifying why they were wrong, we need to acknowledge what Marx and his disciples were right about. Inequality did increase as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Between 1780 and 1830 output per labourer in the UK grew over 25 per cent but wages rose barely 5 per cent. The proportion of national income going to the top percentile of the population rose from 25 per cent in 1801 to 35 per cent in 1848. In Paris in 1820, around 9 per cent of the population were classified as ‘proprietors and rentiers’ (living from their investments) and owned 41 per cent of recorded wealth. By 1911 their share had risen to 52 per cent. In Prussia, the share of income going to the top 5 per cent rose from 21 per cent in 1854 to 27 per cent in 1896 and to 43 per cent in 1913.29 Industrial societies, it seems clear, grew more unequal over the course of the nineteenth century. This had predictable consequences. In the Hamburg cholera epidemic of 1892, for example, the mortality rate for individuals with an income of less than 800 marks a year was thirteen times higher than that for individuals earning over 50,000 marks.30 It was not necessary to be a Marxist to be horrified by the inequality of industrial society. The Welsh-born factory-owner Robert Owen, who coined the term ‘socialism’ in 1817, envisaged an alternative economic model based on co-operative production and utopian villages like the ones he founded at Orbiston in Scotland and New Harmony, Indiana.31 Even the Irish aesthete and wit Oscar Wilde recognized the foundation of social misery on which the refined world of belles-lettres stood:

These are the poor; and amongst them there is no grace of manner, or charm of speech, or civilization … From their collective force Humanity gains much in material prosperity. But it is only the material result that it gains, and the man who is poor is in himself absolutely of no importance. He is merely the infinitesimal atom of a force that, so far from regarding him, crushes him: indeed, prefers him crushed, as in that case he is far more obedient … Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilization … [But] the fact is that civilization requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.32

Yet the revolution feared by Wilde and eagerly anticipated by Marx never materialized – at least, not where it was supposed to. The bouleversements of 1830 and 1848 were the results of short-run spikes in food prices and financial crises more than of social polarization.33 As agricultural productivity improved in Europe, as industrial employment increased and as the amplitude of the business cycle diminished, the risk of revolution declined. Instead of coalescing into an impoverished mass, the proletariat subdivided into ‘labour aristocracies’ with skills and a lumpenproletariat with vices. The former favoured strikes and collective bargaining over revolution and thereby secured higher real wages. The latter favoured gin. The respectable working class had their trade unions and working men’s clubs.34 The ruffians – ‘keelies’ in Glasgow – had the music hall and street fights.

The prescriptions of the Communist Manifesto were in any case singularly unappealing to the industrial workers they were aimed at. Marx and Engels called for the abolition of private property; the abolition of inheritance; the centralization of credit and communications; the state ownership of all factories and instruments of production; the creation of ‘industrial armies for agriculture’; the abolition of the distinction between town and country; the abolition of the family; ‘community of women’ (wife-swapping) and the abolition of all nationalities. By contrast, mid-nineteenth-century liberals wanted constitutional government, the freedoms of speech, press and assembly, wider political representation through electoral reform, free trade and, where it was lacking, national self-determination (‘Home Rule’). In the half-century after the upheaval of 1848 they got a good many of these things – enough, at any rate, to make the desperate remedies of Marx and Engels seem de trop. In 1850 only France, Greece and Switzerland had franchises in which more than a fifth of the population got to vote. By 1900 ten European countries did, and Britain and Sweden were not far below that threshold. Broader representation led to legislation that benefited lower-income groups; free trade in Britain meant cheap bread, and cheap bread plus rising nominal wages thanks to union pressure meant a significant gain in real terms for workers. Building labourers’ day wages in London doubled in real terms between 1848 and 1913. Broader representation also led to more progressive taxation. Britain led the way in 1842 when Sir Robert Peel introduced a peacetime income tax; by 1913 the standard rate was 14 pence in the pound (6 per cent). Prior to 1842 nearly all British revenue had come from the indirect taxation of consumption, via customs and excise duties, regressive taxes taking a proportionately smaller amount of your income the richer you are. By 1913 a third of revenue was coming from direct taxes on the relatively rich. In 1842 the central government had spent virtually nothing on education and the arts and sciences. In 1913 those items accounted for 10 per cent of expenditure. By then, Britain had followed Germany in introducing a state pension for the elderly.

Marx and Engels were wrong on two scores, then. First, their iron law of wages was a piece of nonsense. Wealth did indeed become highly concentrated under capitalism, and it stayed that way into the second quarter of the twentieth century. But income differentials began to narrow as real wages rose and taxation became less regressive. Capitalists understood what Marx missed: that workers were also consumers. It therefore made no sense to try to grind their wages down to subsistence levels. On the contrary, as the case of the United States was making increasingly clear, there was no bigger potential market for most capitalist enterprises than their own employees. Far from condemning the masses to ‘immiseration’, the mechanization of textile production created growing employment opportunities for Western workers – albeit at the expense of Indian spinners and weavers – and the decline in the prices of cotton and other goods meant that Western workers could buy more with their weekly wages. The impact is best captured by the exploding differential between Western and non-Western wages and living standards in this period. Even within the West the gap between the industrialized vanguard and the rural laggards widened dramatically. In early seventeenth-century London, an unskilled worker’s real wages (that is, adjusted for the cost of living) were not so different from what his counterpart earned in Milan. From the 1750s until the 1850s, however, Londoners pulled far ahead. At the peak of the great divergence within Europe, London real wages were six times those in Milan. With the industrialization of Northern Italy in the second half of the nineteenth century, the gap began to close, so that by the eve of the First World War it was closer to a ratio of 3:1. German and Dutch workers also benefited from industrialization, though even in 1913 they still lagged behind their English counterparts.35 Chinese workers, by contrast, did no such catching up. Where wages were highest, in the big cities of Beijing and Canton, building workers received the equivalent of around 3 grams of silver per day, with no upward movement in the eighteenth century and only a slight improvement in the nineteenth and early twentieth (to around 5–6 grams). There was some improvement for workers in Canton after 1900 but it was minimal; workers in Sichuan stayed dirt poor. London workers meanwhile saw their silver-equivalent wages rise from around 18 grams between 1800 and 1870 to 70 grams between 1900 and 1913. Allowing for the cost of maintaining a family, the standard of living of the average Chinese worker fell throughout the nineteenth century, most steeply during the Taiping Rebellion (see Chapter 6). True, subsistence was cheaper in China than in North-western Europe. It should also be remembered that Londoners and Berliners by that time enjoyed a far more variegated diet of bread, dairy products and meat, washed down with copious amounts of alcohol, whereas most East Asians were subsisting on milled rice and small grains. Nevertheless, it seems clear that by the second decade of the twentieth century the gap in living standards between London and Beijing was around six to one, compared with two to one in the eighteenth century.36

The second mistake Marx and Engels made was to underestimate the adaptive quality of the nineteenth-century state – particularly when it could legitimize itself as a nation-state.

In his Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx had famously called religion the ‘opium of the masses’. If so, then nationalism was the cocaine of the middle classes. On 17 March 1846 Venice’s Teatro La Fenice was the setting for the premiere of a new opera by the already celebrated Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. Technically, Verdi had in fact been born a Frenchman: his name at birth was formally registered as ‘Joseph Fortunin François Verdi’ because the village where he was born was then under Napoleonic rule, having been annexed to France along with the rest of the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza. Venice, too, had been conquered by the French, but was handed over to Austria in 1814. The unpopularity of the Habsburg military and bureaucracy explains the rowdy enthusiasm with which the predominantly Italian audience responded to the following lines:

Tardo per gli anni, e tremulo,

È il regnator d’Oriente;

Siede un imbelle giovine

Sul trono d’Occidente;

Tutto sarà disperso

Quand’io mi unisca a te …

Avrai tu l’universo,

Resti l’Italia a me.

(Aged and frail / Is the ruler of the Eastern Empire; / A young imbecile sits on the throne of the Western Empire; / All will be scattered / If you and I unite … / You can have the universe / But leave Italy to me.)

Sung to Attila by the Roman envoy Ezio following the sack of Rome, these words were a thinly veiled appeal to nationalist sentiment. They perfectly illustrate what nationalism always had over socialism. It had style.

Nationalism had its manifestos, to be sure. Another Giuseppe – Mazzini – was perhaps the nearest thing to a theoretician that nationalism produced. As he shrewdly observed in 1852, the Revolution ‘has assumed two forms; the question which all have agreed to call social, and the question of nationalities’. The Italian nationalists of the Risorgimento:

struggled … as do Poland, Germany, and Hungary, for country and liberty; for a word inscribed upon a banner, proclaiming to the world that they also live, think, love, and labour for the benefit of all. They speak the same language, they bear about them the impress of consanguinity, they kneel beside the same tombs, they glory in the same tradition; and they demand to associate freely, without obstacles, without foreign domination … 37

For Mazzini it was simple: ‘The map of Europe has to be remade.’ In the future, he argued, it would be neatly reordered as eleven nation-states. This was much easier said than done, however, which was why the preferred modes of nationalism were artistic or gymnastic rather than programmatic. Nationalism worked best in the demotic poetry of writers like the Greek Rigas Feraios (imageimage – ‘It’s better to have an hour as a free man than forty years of slavery and prison’), or in the stirring songs of the German student fraternities (Fest steht und treu die Wacht am Rhein – ‘The Guard on the Rhine stands firm and true’), or even on the sports field, where Scotland played England on St Andrew’s Day, 1872, in the world’s first international soccer match (result: 0–0). It was more problematic when political borders, linguistic borders and religious borders failed to coincide, as they did most obviously in the fatal triangle of territory between the Baltic, the Balkans and the Black Sea. Between 1830 and 1905 eight new states achieved either independence or unity: Greece (1830), Belgium (1830–39), Romania (1856), Italy (1859–71), Germany (1864–71), Bulgaria (1878), Serbia (1867–78) and Norway (1905). But the American Southerners failed in their bids for statehood, as did the Armenians, the Croats, the Czechs, the Irish, the Poles, the Slovaks, the Slovenes and the Ukrainians. The Hungarians, like the Scots, made do with the role of junior partners in dual monarchies with empires they helped to run. As for such ethno-linguistically distinct peoples as the Roma, Sinti, Kashubes, Sorbs, Wends, Vlachs, Székelys, Carpatho-Rusyns and Ladins, no one seriously thought them capable of political autonomy.

Success or failure in the nation-building game was ultimately about realpolitik. It suited Camillo Benso, conte di Cavour, to turn the rest of Italy into a colonial appendage of Piedmont-Sardinia, just as it suited Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, Count of Bismarck-Schönhausen, to preserve the prerogatives of the Prussian monarchy by making it the most powerful institution in a federal German Reich. ‘Never did I doubt,’ wrote Bismarck in his Reminiscences,

that the key to German politics was to be found in princes and dynasties, not in publicists, whether in parliament and the press, or on the barricades … The Gordian knot of German circumstance … could only be cut by the sword: it came to this, that the King of Prussia, conscious or unconscious, and with him the Prussian army, must be gained for the national cause, whether from the ‘Borussian’ point of view one regarded the hegemony of Prussia or from the national point of view the unification of Germany as the main object: both aims were co-extensive … The dynasties have at all times been stronger than press and parliament … In order that German patriotism should be active and effective, it needs as a rule to hang on the peg of dependence upon a dynasty … It is as a Prussian, a Hanoverian, a Württemberger, a Bavarian or a Hessian, rather than as a German, that [the German] is disposed to give unequivocal proof of patriotism.38

The transformation of the thirty-nine-state German Bund, which Austria dominated, into a twenty-five-state Reich, which Prussia dominated, was Bismarck’s masterstroke. What happened when Prussia defeated Austria and the other members of the German Confederation in 1866 is better regarded not as a war of unification, but as the North’s victory over the South in a German civil war, for the simple reason that so many German-speakers were excluded from the new Germany. Yet Bismarck’s victory was not complete until he had outmanoeuvred his Liberal opponents at home, first by introducing universal suffrage, which cost them seats in the new imperial diet (the Reichstag), then by splitting them over free trade in 1878. The price was to give the South Germans two powerful blocking positions: the Catholic Centre Party’s pivotal role in the lower house (Reichstag) and the South German states’ combined veto in the upper house (Bundesrat).

Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi – ‘If we want everything to stay as it is, everything will have to change.’ The most famous line in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s historical novel The Leopard (1958) is frequently cited to sum up the covertly conservative character of Italian unification. But the new nation-states were about more than just preserving the cherished privileges of Europe’s beleaguered landowning elites. Entities like Italy or Germany, composites of multiple statelets, offered all their citizens a host of benefits: economies of scale, network externalities, reduced transaction costs and the more efficient provision of key public goods like law and order, infrastructure and health. The new states could make Europe’s big industrial cities, the breeding grounds of both cholera and revolution, finally safe. Slum clearance, boulevards too wide to barricade, bigger churches, leafy parks, sports stadiums and above all more policemen – all these things transformed the capitals of Europe, not least Paris, which Baron Georges Haussmann completely recast for Napoleon III. All the new states had imposing façades; even defeated Austria lost little time in reinventing itself as ‘imperial-royal’ Austria-Hungary, its architectural identity set in stone around Vienna’s Ringstrasse.39 But behind the façades there was real substance. Schools were built, the better to drum standardized national languages into young heads. Barracks were erected, the better to train the high-school graduates to defend their fatherland. And railways were constructed in places where their profitability looked doubtful, the better to transport the troops to the border, should the need arise. Peasants became Frenchmen – or Germans, or Italians, or Serbs, depending where they happened to be born.

The paradox is that this age of nationalism coincided with a sustained standardization of modes of dress. Military uniforms, to be sure, continued to be nationally distinct so that, in the heat of battle, a poilu could be distinguished from a boche or a rosbif, even in silhouette. Yet the military innovations of the nineteenth century, which greatly improved the accuracy and power of artillery, as well as introducing smokeless gunpowder, necessitated a shift from the bright coats of the eighteenth and nineteenth century to altogether drabber uniforms. The British adopted khaki drill after the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War, an example later followed by the Americans and the Japanese. The Russians also chose khaki, but of a greyer shade, in 1908. The Italians opted for a grey-green; the Germans and Austrians for field grey and pike grey, respectively. As armies grew in size, too, economy dictated simplification. The face of battle grew plain.

Male civilians also renounced the dandyism of earlier generations. The suit as it had been conceived by Beau Brummell in the Regency era was itself a simplification relative to eighteenth-century fashions. The trend thereafter was inexorably towards bourgeois sobriety. The single-button penguin-like ‘Newmarket’ frock coat, now seen only at pretentious weddings, displaced Brummell’s dress coat and the double-breasted, high-collared coat favoured by Prince Albert. Waistcoats went from colourful Chinese silk to black or grey wool. Breeches yielded to long trousers, and stockings vanished from view, to be replaced by boring black socks. Shirts were uniformly white. Collars seemed to shrink until all that remained were a couple of celluloid chicken wings, wrapped in a necktie that was invariably black. Hats, too, shrank, until only the bowler remained. And hats, too, were black. It was as if a whole society was on its way to a wake.

Of course, there was a great deal more variety and complexity in the female attire of the Victorian period. And there was a different kind of uniformity among the overalled proletariat and the ragged-trousered poor. Nevertheless, the standardization of dress in the Victorian period – which ran the length and breadth of Europe and far beyond the eastern seaboard of the United States – remains a reality and a puzzle, at a time when nationalism was in the ascendant. ‘The Internationale’ existed, it seemed, but only at the level of the bourgeois dress code. The explanation, as might be expected in the industrial age, was mechanical.

The Singer sewing machine was born in 1850, when Isaac Merritt Singer moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and saw what was wrong with the machine they were making in Orson C. Phelps’s workshop. The needle had to be straight not curved. The shuttle needed to be transverse. And the whole thing had to be operated by foot, not by hand. Like Marx, Singer was not a nice man. He had a total of twenty-four children by five different women, one of whom brought an action for bigamy against him, forcing him to flee the United States. Like Marx – and like a disproportionate number of nineteenth- and twentieth-century entrepreneurs, especially in the clothing and cosmetics business* – Singer was of Jewish origin. And, like Marx, he changed the world – though, unlike Marx, for the better.

I. M. Singer & Company, later the Singer Manufacturing Company, completed the process of mechanizing clothes production that James Hargreaves had begun less than a century before. Now even the sewing together of pieces of cloth could be done by machine. The revolutionary nature of this breakthrough is easily overlooked by a generation that has never sewn on more than a couple of buttons. Singer was evidently a man who loved women; has any man done more for womankind in return? Thanks to Singer, the painstaking hours that had previously been needed to stitch the hem of a skirt became mere minutes – and then seconds. The history of the Singer sewing machine perfectly illustrates the evolutionary character of the Industrial Revolution, as one efficiency gain gave way to another. After the initial breakthrough, there was unceasing mutation: the Turtleback model (1856) was followed by the Grasshopper (1858), the New Family (1865) and the electric 99K (1880). By 1900 there were forty different models in production. By 1929 that had increased to 3,000.

Few nineteenth-century inventions travelled faster. From its New York headquarters at 458 (later 149) Broadway, Singer spread with astonishing speed to become one of the world’s first truly global brands, with manufacturing plants in Brazil, Canada, Germany, Russia and Scotland; at its peak, the Kilbowie factory at Clydebank covered a million square feet and employed 12,000 people. In 1904 global sales passed 1.3 million machines a year. By 1914 that figure had more than doubled. The brand logo – the ‘S’ wrapped around a sewing woman – was ubiquitous, to be seen even (according the firm’s advertising copywriters) on the summit of Mount Everest. In a rare concession to modernity, Mahatma Gandhi acknowledged that it was ‘one of the few useful things ever invented’ – praise indeed from the man who disdained even modern medicine.40

Singer exemplified the American advantage. Not only was the United States still attracting, as it always had, the world’s natural-born risk-takers. Now there were enough of them to constitute a truly unmatched internal market. Between 1870 and 1913 the United States overtook the United Kingdom. In 1820 there had been twice as many people in the UK as in the US. By 1913 it was the other way round. Between 1870 and 1913 the American growth rate was 80 per cent higher.41 Already by 1900 the US accounted for a larger share of world manufacturing output: 24 per cent to Britain’s 18 per cent.42 By 1913 even in per-capita terms the United States was the world’s number-one industrial economy.43 Perhaps more importantly, American productivity was poised to overtake British (though it would not actually do so until the 1920s).44 And, just as in the case of British industrialization, cotton and textiles were front and centre of America’s ‘gilded age’. In the years before the First World War, raw cotton from the South still accounted for 25 per cent of US exports.45 Most American cloth, however, was produced for domestic consumption. Britain’s net exports of cotton goods in 1910 were worth $453 million; those of the United States just $8.5 million. But perhaps the most surprising statistic of all is that the second-largest exporter of cotton goods by that time was a non-Western country – the first member of the Rest to work out how to compete successfully with the West. That country was Japan.46

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