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How We Got There
two huge, successive waves of dispossessed rural populations rose over the cities of the world, flooding the urban fabric and swelling it to breaking point. It was the first of these waves, at the end of the eighteenth and in the early nineteenth centuries, that shaped the urban fabric that we know. The recent and much bigger one that billowed up at the half-century has not subsided: we are still floundering in it and cannot yet read its modalities or estimate its impact accurately. It has transformed Cairo and Moscow, Bombay, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, SÃ£o Paulo-but most of all Mexico.
Any account of the response to those two waves must take into account the forces that brought about the first one. I am writing this not because I am a revivalist or historicist, but because the past is all we know.
What the shrewd Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter1 wrote fifty years ago or more about economic life is also true of the urban fabric:
. . . only detailed historic knowledge can definitively answer most of the questions of individual causation and mechanism. . . . Contemporaneous facts or even historic facts covering the last quarter or half a century are perfectly inadequate. For no phenomenon of an essentially historic nature can be expected to reveal itself unless it is studied over a long interval.
The first of these two waves hit British cities first and then French ones, spreading to the rest of Europe-and then the world beyond. What resulted in England and France was very different, though there were many parallels. The French monarchy had for two centuries (but especially in the reign of Louis XIV) managed to concentrate the landed nobility around the court by a system of favor and intrigue so that Paris became a center of political and economic power as well as of culture. The newly urbanized nobility were seen-notably by Voltaire-as the civilizing leaven of the capital. Other brilliant and influential writers such as Rousseau hated the city, and Paris in particular. As a young man, Rousseau had arrived there from Turin, the small, neat handsome capital of the dukes of Savoy, and the dirt and squalor he encountered in the Paris suburbs set him against the big city for good. He only went there, if one is to believe his Confessions, to earn enough money to allow himself long absences.2
Voltaire, despite the Parisian triumphs of his last years, did not think of it as his preferred city either: he found the values of the old and urbane aristocracy too constricting. As Rousseau admired Turin, so Voltaire admired London as the model of a truly meritocratic city. And he was right, since even the pre-Hanoverian English crown never succeeded in establishing a powerful centralizing court, though the Stuart kings tried, and one of them, Charles I, lost his head in the process. Their failure was clearly represented by the ramshackle modesty of the palaces at Whitehall and Saint James's, which were never aggrandized, despite plans to do so and reconstruction after fires. This was the great age
of European palace building when very modest sovereigns indeed, like the prince-bishops of WÃ?rzburg, built themselves residences the British Empire would never equal-not even in the nineteenth century. British magnates, on the other hand, did build themselves palaces grander than the king's, as the duke of Marlborough did at Blenheim, the earl of Carlisle at Castle Howard, or the earl of Leicester at Holkham. Meanwhile, Charles II's attempt in the 1670s to build his own Versailles on borrowed French money, an out-of-London palace at Winchester, was frustrated by Parliament.
The Whitehall court of the Hanoverian Georges-who took over England in 1715 but had rather grander quarters in Hannover which they retained-was too skimped and mean to have any political or cultural hold over status-seeking British magnates, who were themselves riled by a newly rich banking class that was aggressively buying titles and climbing through intermarriage. Landowners were therefore thrown back on the resources of their mismanaged estates, where they were irked by their dwindling incomes, which they attempted to bolster-usually unsuccessfully and sometimes disastrously-in various financial speculations of which the South Sea Bubble of 1720-21 was merely the most notorious. The more intelligent among them realized that the husbanding of their neglected estates might throw off a much better income. In increasing numbers they became enthusiastic farmers, and much ingenuity and capital were applied to improvement. Two noblemen were leading reformers: Charles Townshend and Thomas Coke (great-nephew of his namesake, the builder of Holkham). Lord Townshend (1674-1738), who had been ambassador to Holland, is associated with the refinement of crop rotation, a skill he first learned from the Dutch. On withdrawing from administration, he devoted himself to the cultivating of his extensive but rather neglected lands by developing root crops-swedes (rutabagas), beets, turnips (he was even nicknamed Turnip Townshend)-and promoting the selective breeding of cattle.
Improved breeding of farm animals had already been practiced in Holland-which, being land hungry, had the most advanced agriculture in Europe-and in Germany, though it would not become systematic until Gregor Mendel published the results of his genetic experiments in 1865. Yet the new supply of root crops in Britain provided excellent cattle fodder in the winter, as did clover (which Townshend also grew as part of his crop rotation), and thus prevented the usual large-scale slaughtering of farm animals in the autumn. Two generations later, Thomas Coke vastly improved cattle, sheep, and pig breeds; he also managed to fertilize the light and sandy soil of his unpromising Norfolk estate to produce wheat instead of the rye that had been grown there previously.
Jethro Tull, a Berkshire gentleman-farmer, introduced even more radical reforms: he devised the first semi-mechanical, horse-driven sowing drill and an analogous hoe. Accepted slowly, his inventions were soon well known in Europe and improved. Voltaire had used them on his farm at Ferney on the Swiss border. Independently, a new form of plow seems to have been developed by a number of manufacturers in western Europe: a Dutch form, adapted in Yorkshire, became the most advanced type until the revolutionary development of steel plows at the beginning of the nineteenth century; it required only a horse or two to draw it, instead of the several oxen that were used to draw the old square ones.
The changes in tillage revolutionized animal husbandry: cattle were no longer bred to be brawny for drawing power, but smaller-boned and smaller-headed for meat; sheep were also bred more for meat than for wool. Imported fibers took over from homegrown, especially Australian wool, but above all cotton-imported first from Egypt and India, and later from the United States. Export trade was irreversibly transformed as cotton, the primary raw material of the textile industry, replaced wool which had, since the Middle Ages, been the most important British
Other factors led to changes in the scale of agriculture, especially in Britain. Until then most land in Europe had been under strip cultivation, each owner farming a number of (sometimes widely separated) strips. Commons were shared by several owners or tenants, which furnished pasturage as well as fuel and hunting rights.
"There was nothing particularly English about this: a traveller met with it from Andalusia to Siberia . . . on the Loire and on the plains
of Moscow," wrote a Scots agricultural expert and landholder soon
after 1800.3 Enclosure gradually "privatized" open lands-waste and heath-first in Britain, but increasingly all over Europe. Such measures deprived the rural poor not only of the fish and game on which they had relied for their protein intake but also of cooking fuel. Their troubles were further exacerbated by the British Game and Night Poaching laws that sharpened and extended the ancient "Laws of the Forest." The same land produced bigger yields while requiring fewer hands, but enclosure required parliamentary sanction to be legal. Between 1714 and 1730, an act a year passed through Parliament, and they snowballed quickly; in the decade 1750-60 there were 156 such acts; twenty years on, between 1770 and 1780, 642. After a slight falling off, 906 were passed from 1800 to 1810, when legislation was simplified and the pace increased. An analogous development occurred in France before the Revolution. Some of the French nobility, first humbled and then impoverished by the domination of the increasingly centralized and increasingly powerful court of Louis XIV at Versailles (though partially emancipated during the minority of Louis XV), turned to the English gentleman (or even magnate) farmer for a role model. But French laws that had allowed free grazing on common lands were not withdrawn until the royal edicts issued after 1764; they established the legal procedure for the enclosures which-as in Britain-benefited the large-scale landowners.
Enclosures raised yields, but they also depressed and impoverished some of the rural population. If some economists are to be believed, the rural population in parts of Britain was reduced to a bread-and-cheese diet in the second half of the eighteenth century. Historians do not always agree about the effect of enclosures on welfare, though some sharp observers at the time reported the evils it brought with it. The radical Tory propagandist William Cobbett (who was perhaps the most explicit, brilliant, and the most widely read) insisted on the negative effect of the new agriculture on the rural poor as well as on the landscape. Many writers of the time echoed his sentiment:
Inclosure came & evry path was stopt
Each tyrant fixt his sign where pads was found.
To hint a trespass now who crossd the ground
Justice is made to speak as they command . . .
Inclosure thou'rt a curse upon the land,
And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence planned . . .
Or briefly and more vehemently:
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labours rights and left the poor a slave.
So the Northamptonshire farmer-poet, John Clare, himself the son of a farm laborer and an admirer of Cobbett.4
Others, such as the economist and traveler Arthur Young (much admired by King George III), took a more nuanced view, though as a firm advocate of enclosures, he was not worried by the pauperizing of the rural population:
"Everyone but an idiot knows that the lowest classes must be kept poor or they will never be industrious," he wrote; but after 1800 he, too, became a violent enemy of enclosures and one of the few articulate protesters against it.5
Protests were violent. The removing of boundaries on the newly enclosed commons became a capital offense-one of the many economic "crimes" punished by death in Britain. For all that, the areas of variegated strip, divided by grass verges and interspersed with hazel and fruit trees, were soon replaced by broader, hawthorn-hedged, squarish rectangles and wide, open pasturage, with occasional oak, ash, and elms. The appearance of the countryside changed gradually but completely, and on this ground the English fox hunt developed. By the time one of Oscar Wilde's characters expressed his distaste for "the English Gentleman galloping after a fox-the unspeakable in full pursuit of the
uneatable," he was deriding a commonplace.6 Within three or four generations, this enclosed, "rolling" landscape came to be perceived as "traditionally" English-and the great agricultural depression of the first decades of the nineteenth century, with its attendant disturbances, arson, cattle- and sheep-stealing and -maiming, the hangings and the transportations that paid for it, was largely forgotten. The resulting landscape was seen as quintessentially picturesque.
The much more conservative French landowners were slower to adopt agricultural reforms, and that is why analogous developments proceeded more gradually and rather differently in France and southern Europe. In any case, France lacked large-scale cattle farming, which provided the British farmers with abundant manure. There were recurrent famines, one of which was the immediate cause of the 1789 events. The redistribution of church property after the Revolution-though it did not benefit the poorest farmers-did put more land under the plow. Still, the largely victorious fight against the laws of mortmain (which had allowed the accumulation of large estates as church property) had occupied Enlightenment agricultural reformers in southern Europe and profited the very same yeoman class, franc-tenanciers, which enclosures had impoverished in Britain.
All over Europe food production still remained the largest and most labor- and capital-absorbing activity well into the nineteenth century. But in Britain agricultural employment declined sharply. It occupied only a quarter of the working population by 1850; this had gone down to a tenth by 1900, and was a mere 5 percent by 1950. In France the agricultural population was still at 45 percent by 1900 and had only fallen to 30 percent by 1950; in Russia agricultural employment went from 85 percent to 80 percent between 1850 and 1900, down to 45 percent by 1950. The forecast and warning that the poet and essayist Oliver Goldsmith had made about 1750 that:
. . . a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroy'd, can never be supplied.7
was fulfilled very fast.
Inevitably, such economic changes and such laws separated the peasant (where the term was still applicable) from his obligations as well as his privileges, and turned him into a wage earner. Inevitably, too, they caused hardship, often famine and always resentment, and reduced the numbers of those working the land. By the middle of the nineteenth century farming had become a manufacturing industry.
The very word "industry," which in Latin had signified diligence, energy, and purposefulness, and was treated as an aspect of the virtue prudence, had come in the eighteenth century to indicate a group of people who applied themselves to some form of production. "Arts, manufactures, and commerce [are] the industry of towns . . . agriculture, the industry of the country," says Adam Smith.8 By the mid-nineteenth century the meaning changed again: it was used almost exclusively for mechanized manufacture, such as cloth production-and gave its name to the revolution about which I have been writing in this chapter. The term "manu-facture," too, changed sense. From its original "hand-working" it came to mean factory production by the mid-nineteenth century. The word "industry" was not applied to all forms of energetic and nonproductive moneymaking (as in "service" industry-advertising, tourism, etc.) until the late twentieth century.9
During the seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth much fiscal and productive activity continued to be based on the economics of special groups, on wealth being a by-product or the companion of power; and like power, it needed to be protected and guarded, so that trade was sometimes regarded as a kind of warfare. The economic thinkers of the mid-eighteenth century separated their discipline gradually from politics: the first chair of political economy was established (in Naples) in 1755. Political economy, they thought, should be studied
as part of the natural order, and it could be understood in much the
same way as biology or physiology. The leading economic doctrine of the time, that of a group of scientists and politicians known as the
Physiocrats, is sometimes summed up in the slogan laissez-faire, laissez-passer;10 free trade was best, because that was nature's way.