The Rich Get Busy and the Poor Get Poorer

Gre­go­ry Clarke, an eco­nom­ic his­to­ri­an at UC Davis, offers an unusu­al take on the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion in his upcom­ing book, A Farewell to Alms. Most schol­ars argue that the chang­ing insti­tu­tions of industrialization–factories, cor­po­ra­tions, cities–worked togeth­er to drag us humans into the mod­ern world. Clarke turns that idea on its head.

As the New York Times put it in a recent review, Clarke “believes that the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion — the surge in eco­nom­ic growth that occurred first in Eng­land around 1800 — occurred because of a change in the nature of the human pop­u­la­tion. The change was one in which peo­ple grad­u­al­ly devel­oped the strange new behav­iors required to make a mod­ern econ­o­my work. The mid­dle-class val­ues of non­vi­o­lence, lit­er­a­cy, long work­ing hours and a will­ing­ness to save emerged only recent­ly in human his­to­ry.”

The most fas­ci­nat­ing part of the argu­ment is that, accord­ing to Clarke, these val­ues spread in part because the upper class­es were more suc­cess­ful at breed­ing and mak­ing sure their off­spring sur­vived to adult­hood. By exam­in­ing his­tor­i­cal wills and prop­er­ty exchange, Clarke deter­mined that “[t]he mod­ern pop­u­la­tion of the Eng­lish is large­ly descend­ed from the eco­nom­ic upper class­es of the Mid­dle Ages.” Gen­er­a­tions of ille­git­i­mate off­spring, prof­li­gate par­ents and non-inher­it­ing prog­e­ny sal­lied forth and mar­ried into the low­er class­es, bring­ing their cap­i­tal­ist ways with them.

If this the­o­ry holds up, it might shed some light on the rise of the Eng­lish nov­el. The great Vic­to­ri­an nov­el-writ­ers have traced uncan­ni­ly sim­i­lar process­es of social inter­min­gling and dis­per­sion, and it’s a tru­ism that almost every sto­ry piv­ots around an inher­i­tance. We might visu­al­ize the process as hun­dreds of char­ac­ters cir­cling a few well-guard­ed piles of mon­ey. Most of them end up set­tling for less, and most of the dra­ma and ten­sion in the plot arcs stem from these com­pro­mis­es. And, of course, the nov­els trace the spread of just the bour­geois virtues Clarke is research­ing.

Clarke’s work rais­es a dis­turb­ing larg­er ques­tion: is this a form of Dar­win­ian selec­tion at work? Is cap­i­tal­ism hav­ing an evo­lu­tion­ary impact on human progress? Or is that a ridicu­lous propo­si­tion? To see for your­self, you can check out the first cou­ple of chap­ters for free on Clarke’s web­site, here.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.