Ideas of Decline

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980 by Martin Wiener
    Cambridge, 217 pp, £9.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 521 23418 2
  • Peaceful Conquest: The Industrialisation of Europe, 1760-1970 by Sidney Pollard
    Oxford, 451 pp, £7.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 19 877093 6

With a titular allusion to Max Weber’s famous essay on the rise of capitalism, Martin Wiener discusses the bewildering question of Britain’s current economic stagnation, retardation, ‘de-industrialisation’ or decline – the word chosen depends upon how the magnitude and finitude of the situation are assessed. Wiener prefers ‘decline’, since he traces the present worrying business posture of Britain back to the later 19th century. Demonstrating a nice eye for the right quotation and example, he has put together lengthy excerpts and a long list of statements from an exceptionally varied range of sources to argue that cultural even more than economic factors account for Britain’s secular slide. Wiener is too careful a scholar to believe that historical causes can be neatly compartmentalised. As he says, culture and economics cannot be separated: but heuristically he has selected culture as the operative variable. He briefly defines culture as the outlook and mentality of the élites who influence the values of the rest of society.

What precisely was that culture or belief system which, about one hundred years after the take-off into industrialism, diverted the world’s first factory economy from its logical historical course? Wiener’s general answer is one that has already found its way into innumerable articles and books, plays and novels. Britain provides an example of incomplete industrial combustion. The switchover to a wholly industrial culture of energy and profit was never achieved because of the success registered by landed society in creating an irresistible way of life. The English aristocracy had sweetness it not light. They set an example of high consumption and gracious living and spent lavishly in a fully public manner. They were adaptable, even amphibious (to use Sir Lewis Namier’s phrase), moving easily between town and country, centre and periphery. Potential rivals were de-fanged, seduced, by a policy of relative social acceptance. New fortunes were allowed a share of political power. Newcomers were admitted into the ancient universities and the public schools and thereby invited to join in the task of governing. All the ravishing institutions of Europe’s most successful aristocracy were made available for emulation: the club, the country house, the boarding-school, the career in government, banking or finance. Conspicuous consumption rather than deferred gratification, leisure rather than work, good form rather than the undisguised pursuit of self-interest were the boundaries of a tried and tested value system. Why toil in the counting-house? ‘Lat Austyn have his swynk to hym reserved!’ The aristocratic ideal was particularly attractive because, if necessary, it could be acquired on the cheap: Sheffield plate for sterling, a semi-detached house in the suburbs for a cottage or vicarage in the country (and stockbroker Tudor or Lutyens for the real thing), Lancing and Oundle for Eton or Rugby. A gig could be rented if not owned, and the household staff could be trimmed to fit the size of the purse. Even the Nobodies like Mr Pooter could aspire to villadom. The ideal was the gentleman in one definition, someone without visible means of support. Imitation and room at the top eventually produced that trade-off which Harold Perkin memorably called the ‘viable class society’, class without ruinous conflict. The Victorian compromise, Wiener asserts, lasted right up to the present. And so the work ethic was washed down in a bumper of roses and wine.

In outline this is of course a deeply familiar story. Wiener – to his credit, it must be said – is an unusually scrupulous historian. In an age of data overload, where shopworn arguments are circulated as if they were fresh stock and references given almost as if they had never before been used, he meticulously and generously provides credits and attributions. His intentions are absolutely clear. His purpose is not to offer an essentially new kind of explanation for England’s economic shortcomings, but to collect widely scattered observations on the gentrification of the English middle classes and bring them together in a single, concentrated argument illuminating the success of an anti-entrepreneurial ethic. This he has certainly done, in a handsomely packaged presentation. His book is a fine general introduction to the subject, an entirely pleasurable summary. Chapter Five on ‘The “English Way of Life”?’ is especially in interesting and entertaining, and Chapter Seven on industrialism has highly valuable detail. For a short book, much ground is covered. The common reader will enjoy its clarity and comprehension. Nevertheless, loading the dice in one particular way, even with appropriate warning, does make the argument vulnerable and open to a number of qualifications and objections.

The first objection has to do with method. The practice of compiling numerous quotations and extracts, either from the periods under review or from present-day ‘authorities’, is rather a positivistic mode of illuminating the English élite mentality. Many of the references are wonderful, but their overall integration into the main line of the argument is rather too polished. There is no space or time allotted for explication de texte, for a close reading of sources for underlying ambiguities, tensions, or clues as to other possible meanings in the culture under analysis. To take an example, there is the quick allusion to Dickens’s Dingley Dell romanticism – but the work cited is the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood. To emphasise the retardataire nature of English culture, Wiener states that Dickens’s ‘fictional world led from the Old England of John Bull and stage-coaches through the feverish new urban and industrial society to end in a cathedral town among public school men’. This is preceded by a quotation from Angus Wilson on Drood which does not really help the discussion, for the point surely is not that the cathedral town and public school are being opposed to urban and industrial England, but that anomalies and mysteries exist in supposedly benign environments. The evil Jasper is, after all, a clergyman and public school master. Wiener’s method of presentation doesn’t accommodate conflicts and uncertainties in Victorian culture.

A similar tendency to force the central thesis through surface description can be found in the distinction made on pages 132 and 133, where he says that graduates entering industry in the early 20th century did so out of necessity, not choice, since more attractive careers in the liberal professions were closed to them. There is some evidence to support this view: but the situation is a constant one in all cultures and not an altogether convincing demonstration of a singular British attitude. Career choices are always determined by circumstances.

Another instance of how tightening the central argument closes it to further inquiry can be found in Wiener’s pro forma remarks on the Classical curriculum in English schools and universities. The studs of Greek and Latin is usually presented as evidence of an antiscience and anti-technology bias in the culture. Contemporaries did, it is true, fight the battle of the books from time to time. But this hardly gets at the complete story. Ever since the 18th century Greek and Latin were as much affected by the revolution in knowledge that characterised European education as, let us say, theology and physiology. They were influenced and transformed by the spirit of science and scientific method, by comparative anthropology and history, by archaeology and by German Platonic scholarship. Continually regenerated, they remained exciting and living bodies of learning. It is also useful to remember that the Neo-Classical movement of the early 19th century thought of itself as ‘radical’ and ‘modern’ and not as a throwback to purer times. As an instrument of élite education, Classics would not have survived without showing itself to be flexible – a ‘field’ capable of change like any other. When using curriculum as evidence for deeply-seated cultural attitudes, it is important to move beyond the subject to the spirit and way in which it is taught and the values it is made to carry.

A plausible argument is further attenuated by the conscious decision to let statements made by businessmen or others about business, and by present-day observers pursuing instrumental ends, stand for an analysis of former business practice. This often imparts a second-hand character to Wiener’s discussion, leaving the impression that the author is following the pack too eagerly and overlooking subtleties and confusion in the cultural historical record. Some of the facts of British economic life deserve more space than they generally receive here, especially those that illuminate the decision-making process at work. As some economic historians have pointed out, the reluctance to innovate is not necessarily a sign of entrepreneurial weakness. The costs of innovation, or other problems associated with its introduction, might and did lead managers to reject new and untried solutions to problems that were being successfully coped with by older methods. Relative factor prices in the English coal industry and in spinning may have delayed the introduction of machine mining or ring spindles for higher yarn counts, but there is no evidence, even counterfactual evidence, that such introductions would have been beneficial, as Kirby has recently shown.[*] In the long run, certain management decisions may prove unfortunate, but in and of themselves they do not establish the existence of built-in resistance to change.

In view of the current gloom which is thoroughly captured in Wiener’s account, it is sound historical practice to call attention to the bright spots in Britain’s economic record. Armaments, advanced textile machinery, heavy machine tools, bicycles, to give only a few examples, were vigorous industries, certainly up to 1914. Soap, pharmaceuticals, parts of the food industry have a good performance record. The old standby services of banking, shipping and insurance have been deservedly praised, and in the emerging chainstore industry of the later 19th century British entrepreneurs were strong leaders. Even the much-maligned economic performance of the 1930s showed signs of imagination. New growth industries, those that emerged just before the First World War and those that developed as a consequence of it, showed a buoyant economy capable of technological ingenuity. Since 1945, the record has been particularly impressive, although it is unfashionable to say so, especially when one considers the heavy commitment to a comprehensive programme of social services requiring high effective rates of taxation. The British standard of living today is better than at any point in the past. Nor is the educational record as one-sided as it can be made to seem. Wiener is certainly aware of Michael Sanderson’s seminal work on the relationship between the universities and industry, which argues strong fruitful connections between the two, depending upon the period and the type of institution, but still inclines to the view that cross-fertilisation was less thorough in Britain than elsewhere. He admits that all the evidence is not yet in. I caution patience. The French case, for example, does not seem that dissimilar from the British, at least around the turn of the century.

No one today seriously disputes the conclusion that as the terms of world trade became more competitive in the imperial period, a small trading country like Britain, heavily dependent on overseas sources of food and raw materials, was bound to lose the position of economic leadership acquired under the very different circumstances of an early lead in a non-competitive, de facto free-trade environment. The real issue is the usual historical one of hindsight and perspective, of allowing the present to manipulate one’s understanding of the past. The highly volatile international economic environment of the present, where even the industrial giants are experiencing plant deterioration, problems of quality control and an agonisingly slow response time, should not be allowed to determine the dimensions of historical understanding. Otherwise we are back in Victorian England, with Matthew Arnold finding signs of millennial chaos in the trampling of flowers and climbing of trees in Hyde Park.

It is not that Wiener is unaware of these or similar objections, or that he does not in general appreciate the structural peculiarities of the British economy in the 19th century, with its base in the small family-type firm with low capital needs and high vulnerability in the market. He is a knowledgeable historian. But his desire to put the case for gentrification in the strongest terms minimises structural difficulties, underplays rational decision-making in specific business contexts, or treats economic problems as if they can or could have been easily overcome by a change in mind-set. The failure to effect a turn-around in Britain’s industrial fortunes is very nearly converted into wilfulness and snobbery, the result of the ‘imprint of the old aristocracy’ upon ‘bourgeois culture’. Against this it is almost tempting to hypothesise that, rather than a decline in entrepreneurial spirit following a heroic phase of embourgeoisement, the aristocratic model of the gentleman-capitalist prevailed from the start, and that the phenomenon has been obscured by the very success of Britain’s early industrial lead – a success precisely attributable to the business climates in existence at the time. Max Weber’s ideal-type puritan storing up pleasure for the future was conceivably a rarity.

Ultimately, a proper evaluation of Britain’s economic record requires a degree of comparison. Sidney Pollard’s bravura comparative study of the stages of economic growth in Eastern and Western Europe is not in any sense an answer to Wiener. On several occasions he alludes to ‘stagnation’ in the British economy, but this is not intended to be a conclusion deriving from his argument and materials. Still, without distorting his discussion, it is possible to use it for further reflection on the issue of Britain’s decline.

Pollard’s tone is essentially neutral. There is perhaps less explicit commitment to a particular social or economic viewpoint in this book than in his early writings. He follows the process of industrial transformation in Europe in order to understand its patterning, and spends little time in deploring its mishaps, errors and wrong turnings. He alludes to the social costs of industrialism and briefly mentions some of the unfortunate consequences of European imperial statecraft: but being primarily interested in economic diffusion, he does not dwell on these. His object is to set out some reflections and theses on the growth of industrialism in Europe ‘seen as a single, and not a repetitive, process’. He takes demand factors as given in order to concentrate on supply – the transfer of resources, technology, trading practices etc. Above all – and this is the centre of his study – he divides Europe into regions not nations, regarding political frontiers as, at most, a nuisance in the first decades of the spread of industrial technology.

Several major ideas co-ordinate an immensely complex discussion. The first is that around 1760 Britain and what Pollard calls ‘inner Europe’, the salient occupying the north-west corner opposite the British Isles, were culturally, socially and economically similar. Within each European country, in fact, there were islands of enterprise bearing a closer resemblance to one another than to the civil units of which they were legally a part. The Sambre and Meuse valleys in Belgium, for instance, were similar to South Wales in economic structure and tradition (a classic example, incidentally). This is important, for it indicates how receptive sections of the Continent were to the leading sectors of British economic activity. Thus parts of France could and did expand with remarkable speed in the 1830s, 1850s and 1890s. Conversely, German industrial growth was far from uniform. In the middle of the 19th century there were areas with insufficient industrial capital and severe food shortages. After 1870, industrial success could be found in parts of the Baltic, the Ukraine, Poland, north-west Austria, northern Italy and Catalonian Spain. By contrast, southern Ireland, the centre and southwestern quarter of France, and the Scottish Highlands, exhibited many of the same features as the less economically advanced regions of Europe, such as the Italian South and Corsica. New technology jumped unreceptive regions in search of more amenable environments, leaving Europe with a dartboard pattern of industrial settlement.

A second general point, usually stressed in the British example, was the dynamic role of the local town in responding to distant markets by organising cottage industry. Capital cities, as centres of conspicuous consumption, were less useful for this purpose and also tended to overwhelm continguous areas. Thirdly, Pollard calls attention to the relative unimportance of government in promoting industrial activity in its earliest phases. Indeed, he refers to the positive mischief that state intervention could produce as logical paths of industrial advance were interdicted by the narrow aims and gratification of states and courts. Sometimes, as in the case of certain national railway systems, technology was used that was economically dysfunctional. Fourthly, border or frontier areas, being the points of immediate contact between economic cultures, were the means by which new practice gained admission into less developed areas.

After 1870 the picture changed. The emergence of the nation state meant that issues of political, diplomatic, military, even moral and racial superiority were put before mainly economic ones. The European states altered the pattern of industrial vitality that had prevailed since the mid-18th century by reclaiming, so to speak, regions within their legal borders hitherto receptive to independent and creative example. Neo-mercantilism spread throughout Europe with dubious – in fact, harmful – results. By the late 1930s, ‘the complex, sensitive, and economical system of inter-European trade [had been turned] into the atavism of a barter economy.’ From this perspective the division of Europe after the Second World War into two separate areas, each, however, integrated with itself, has permitted a partial return to the pattern of industrial settlement established before 1870. As before, regional advances have a tendency to outstrip national performance, although open communication within each of the two Europes allows for the possibility of general economic acceleration. Pollard is careful to warn, however, that history does not move in large cycles, for certain changes, notably a much superior technology and less detrimental forms of government intervention, prevent a simple recurrence of the past. There is also, he insists, no ‘historical lesson’ for non-European countries anxious to industrialise by following a single, successful economic model, for none exists. The events of the past are unique and unrepeatable, the result of countless individual decisions. And even though the logic of industrial development will continue, its exact course and social costs are unknowable and unpredictable. If this is an unsettling, it is not necessarily a despairing conclusion. If history has any use as a guide to future policy, it is by emphasising the total, interconnected context in which decisions have been and will be taken. No single part of a historical change is separate from another, and ‘wrong’ decisions taken in the past may, to some extent, be ‘right’ ones for the future. So much, then, for the commonplace that those who ignore the errors of the past are destined to repeat them in the future.

The idea of a decline, of a long-term process of decay whose origins can be spotted, and whose consequences can be arrested by timely and decisive shifts in policy, is not consistent with a view of history which stresses the countless possibilities of response available to a culture, or, as one might have to say, to the sub-cultures gathered together in the nation state, especially it they are capable of leaping boundaries. If the British economic experience can in some measure be evaluated in the light of the regional terms proposed by Pollard, then the symptoms of the ‘British disease’ are localised and less virulent. Furthermore, other forms of comparison between European entrepreneurs and cultural élites might reveal historical similarities that will make the British situation appear less determined, less inevitable. Certainly another kind of look at the problems of economic history might establish the importance of the British political system to such industrial successes as the kingdom has enjoyed. The Victorian emphasis on the training of statesmen and civil servants, which Wiener cites as more conducive to a technocratic than to an entrepreneurial outlook, might very well have provided precisely the kind of political system essential for the safeguarding and stabilising of economic interests. A different kind of government mentality might have engendered an atmosphere of reckless buccaneering or risk-taking.

Such debating, however, is itself further evidence of the highly inconclusive character of current discussion on the state of Britain, past and present, and discussion is likely to remain inconclusive as long as the scale of current problems produces a constant search for a single dominant causal explanation. Modern scholarship is no more immune from the urge to simplify than other areas of cultural life. Admitting the philosophical (should it be metaphysical?) possibility that past and present are linked, mechanically or organically, in some recoverable way, it is also necessary to insist that the closer the historian looks at the past, the less obvious are the linkages to the present. They begin to take on the form of appearance rather than reality. In all fairness, however, choosing between Bishop Berkeley and John Locke has never been easy.

[*] The Decline of British Economic Power since 1870 by M.W. Kirby. Allen and Unwin, 216 pp., £10, April, 0 04 942169 7.