Industrial epigoni

December 9 2013

There are certain alarming indications […] that England in our day is paying her penalty for the perilous honour of having been the first country to achieve the Industrial Revolution.

In our day the country that gave birth to the Industrial System of production is a by-word for its technological conservatism; and its arch-conservatives are not the surviving representatives of the pre-industrial dispensation in those rare patches of the English country-side that have contrived to resist the penetrating and pervasive influence of a latter-day English world of mines and mills. On the contrary, they are the colliers and the textile-manufacturers whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers were the pioneers in the discovery of our modern industrial technique. These pioneers led the way in the Industrial Revolution not only for England but for the World; and it is evidently just for this reason that the epigoni are now making themselves notorious for an êthos which is the exact antithesis of the adventurous, experimental, adaptable, creative spirit that made the pioneers’ fortune. The epigoni cannot believe that all is not “for the best” in a technique which gave its inventors a virtual monopoly of the world market for industrial products for the greater part of a century; and even the belief that they are still living “in the best of all possible worlds” for British manufacturers dies singularly hard in the face of a growing array of increasingly successful foreign competitors. It is now more than half a century since Germany and the United States – relieved, by the outcome of the wars of 1861-71, from their former handicaps of geographical disunity and political preoccupation – first entered the lists of the industrial tournament and threw down the gauntlet to Great Britain; and since the war of 1914-18 the ranks of Great Britain’s industrial competitors have been joined by Japan, who was an alter orbis, unacquainted with any form of Western technique, until “the eighteen-sixties”, and even by France, who missed her opportunity, at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of making the inventions which Great Britain then invented, and winning the rewards which Great Britain duly won, because she then allowed Napoleon to recall her from a new industrial adventure to the old enterprise – already proved barren by a series of abortive essays – of establishing a political hegemony over Europe by military force. Yet even this formidable and ubiquitous competition with which the ci-devant “Workshop of the World” is now confronted has not led the British manufacturer to overhaul the technique by which his ancestors once made an easy conquest of a virgin world market; and a fortiori it has not led him to adopt the technique through which his ancestors’ English monopoly has been successfully disputed by his own foreign competitors.

These German, American, and Japanese poachers upon old English industrial preserves have had to face the problem of forcing an entry into a field already occupied by the English pioneers; and they have solved it by working out new kinds of technique which the Englishman had never thought of – or needed to think of – before their intrusion upon the scene: for instance, the technique of co-ordinating under a single management all the successive economic processes from the production of the raw materials to the marketing of the manufactured product, and the technique of procuring an unprecedentedly intimate and effective co-operation between the producer and the financier and between a nationally organized industry and the national Government. Like the English pioneers in their heyday, the present foreign competitors of the English epigoni have been free from the handicap of inheriting an older technique with a record of past efficacity which invites its present possessors to continue to bow down and worship it; and so, like the English pioneers, they have been free to make creative inventions. It is the English epigoni – in contrast to both their English predecessors and their foreign contemporaries – who are captivated by the idolization of an ephemeral technique; and the seriousness of the handicap can be gauged by the plight in which our English industry finds itself to-day.

In this light we can see that Great Britain is suffering doubly from her success, since 1914, in avoiding both the two calamities of invasion and inflation which have overtaken France and Germany respectively. It is not only that these two industrial competitors of hers have been positively strengthened by the stimulus of blows to which they have effectively responded. From the English point of view it is perhaps even more serious that Great Britain herself, in escaping these blows, has lost a golden opportunity of relieving herself from the incubus of her own industrial past. She might have faced an industrially rejuvenated France and Germany with less cause for apprehension if only the same stroke of Fortune which has reinvigorated them had at the same time shattered the British idol of an obsolete pioneer technique.

In other words, she failed to develop a coherent industrial policy. Her later industrialists were amateurs who did not fully understand or respect the craftsman and engineer. They were ignorant of science. The class system widened the gulf between them and their workforces.

The complacent “idolization of an ephemeral technique” is one of many forms of idolatry that Toynbee considers.

Correlli Barnett is a historian of, inter alia, Britain’s industrial decline. Pride and Fall sequence (the last paragraph but one is not a summary of its arguments):

The Collapse of British Power, Methuen, 1972

The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation, Macmillan, 1986

The Lost Victory: British Dreams, British Realities, 1945-50, Macmillan, 1995

The Verdict of Peace: Britain Between Her Yesterday and the Future, Macmillan, 2001

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939

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