October 25, 2013

Review: Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution

Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution
Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution by Emma Griffin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good, and thought-provoking, but with a couple of holes

(It's really 3.5, and I may move it down to 3, since Goodreads, like the Amazon who has majority ownership in it, doesn't allow half-star ratings.)

A very interesting revisionist look at the lives of the working class in the Industrial Revolution.

Griffin, while acknowledging that some aspects of said people's lives worsened, primarily in the matter of child labor, that, on the whole, on average, it brought betterment even before Victorian-era social reforms.

As part of this, she says that some problems associated with the IR, such as irregular/seasonal unemployment, actually carry over from pre-IR, or maybe proto-IR, times and that the IR itself did not worsen them and may have ameliorated them.

Where does she get these ideas? Diares, some eventually published as pamphlets, booklets or books, from working men, and even a few working women, of this era.

As far as those direct benefits?

Griffin lists:
1. More money;
2. More sexual freedom (primarily for men);
3. More literacy;
4. More religious freedom and empowerment.

More money is obvious.

The sexual freedom connects in part to that, in part to increased geographic mobility and shortening or ending of formal apprentice periods. Result? More premarital sex, even premarital pregnancies. In what would certainly shock the virtue and mythmaking of modern American religious conservatives, by 1800, about 1/3 of British brides were pregnant at their weddings. Add in those who had already given birth to that "ill-conceived" child, illegitimate births that parish registries didn't record, the occasional "founding" that fell between the record-keeping cracks, and the occasional, or bit more than occasional, abortion, and half of 1800-period British women got pregnant before marriage.

More literacy? That came from occasional night schools some women taught at home, reading schools of various sorts founded by congregations in the Methodist movement (and eventual denomination), and guilds and other workingmen's groups forming their own educational support programs. The result? In part, those diaries, booklets, etc., some of which ran to 25,000 or more words when published.

Religious and social freedom? It in part came from the Great Awakening, which hit Europe as well as America, producing Methodism in England and Pietism in Germany. At the same time, Griffin argues that a bit more money for workers in the IR, and a bit more self-awareness, led workers to help fuel the Great Awakening, by being more literate, including on bible study, and challenging Anglican vicars.

It's indeed an interesting read. I'm still not fully convinced. It's true that the working class's lot may have risen compared to its past. But, Griffin dodges a couple of issues.

First, directly related to that, she doesn't address whether or not income inequality rose during the IR, if so, how much, and whether we shouldn't weigh that in the balance against the reported benefits.

Second, per stereotypes of dirty London and its coal-driven smog, she ignores environmental issues related to the IR, and how much more those affected the working class than the upper class. As part of that failure, she doesn't address life expectancy issues. (My bits of Googling tell me that child mortality in Britain declined throughout the 1700s, but adult mortality remained unchanged. I can't find any breakouts by economic class, at least with a brief search.)

The lack of data issue cuts other ways, too. Griffin indicates that the IR seemed to give the working class more money. But, again, we're not given any data. I don't know how much is available, but there has to be some.

Finally, there's a philosophical issue. A logical issue, to be  more precise. A logical fallacy issue, to be more precise yet.

It's called "survivorship bias." In other words, we don't know how representative these diarists are of the British working class as a whole.

In other words, it's a good anecdotal people's history. But, it's not more than that.

The diary-based writing keeps this book near four stars. But, per what I just said, it's not quite there.

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