Assume you’re sitting in an apartment building in lower Manhattan. You’re sitting in a room built from materials grown, mined, forged, refined, or composited thousands of miles away by humans who came from all across the world to your city. The building itself is infested by networks of electrical cables, phone cables, network cables, coax, sewer pipes, water pipes, steam pipes, and crack pipes (or bongs, depending on how upscale your neighborhood is).
All of those pipes and cables run to junction points, from where they either connect to a broader system (or not, in the case of steam pipes) and from where they receive their supply of whatever commodity it is that they are designed to carry. The building itself is on a road, which connects the hub of your city to the hub of every other city on the continent. Each of those cities, themselves, is a centralized point to which raw materials are delivered and from which finished goods are exported, and they are also the major points at which the finished goods from other cities are consumed.
Looking at the Earth from space, you not only see this clustering effect on every part of the globe, you notice that it happens only in some places. Port cities. Crossroads. Support centers. Oh, certainly you get villages, towns, and even small cities pretty much everywhere, but nothing like happens now. The world, on every level, revolves like series of nested solar systems around a single point. It was not always thus—the industrial revolution made us this way.
The Way it Used to Be
Now, put yourself in an ancient dwelling. Looking around, you’ll notice a few differences. For one thing, there’s precious little going on inside the walls. No cable networks, and very few (if any) pipes. Everything you need you will carry into your house. Everything you want to get rid of, you will carry out. The building itself is made from locally sourced materials, whatever those may be. The furniture inside is stuff you’ve probably made yourself, or traded with a local craftsman to produce, but all of it is made by hand and at great expense.
Outside, there’s a road made of dirt worn down and packed from use or—if you’re near an important international route—several layers of gravel topped by cobblestones. The road led from your home to the nearest important center of commerce and government, and was passable by wagon and cart at least most of the year.
If you were in a city-state or a city in an empire, the local center of commerce would have felt eerily similar to the way a freshly gentrified walk-able city center feels today (albeit with more mud and smoke). Oh, there would be differences. Where you’d expect a car dealership you might find a wainwright, where you’d want a hardware store and a garage you’d find a blacksmith. The local ceramicist and weaver stand in for Bed Bath & Beyond, your coffee shop and fast food and bar and hotel (along with that late lamented cultural establishment, the whorehouse) would all be rolled into the tavern. The baker and the butcher and the candlestick maker and the herbalist would each have separate shops, but between them and the soap maker you could basically replace your local supermarket—and at least you’d still be able to find an apple store (well, more of a stand or a cart than a store, but hey, take what you can get). You’d even find a laundromat, a barber (i.e. blood-letter), a priest, and a sheriff in case anyone needed a dispute resolved. If you were in a large town or a city, you’d also find a mason, a carpenter and joiner, a scribe, and the occasional lawyer and accountant, along with a series of mills making cloth and yarn (from wool and flax) and flour (from whatever grain grows locally) and wooden household goods (for those who can’t afford ceramics), cheese and preserved meats, a charcoal foundry, an iron or copper foundry, and a tanner & leathersmith.
And all of these people will very likely ply their craft using tools that they or their neighbors have made by hand themselves from materials found within a five-to-fifty mile radius (except during high imperial ages when trade goods were cheap enough for the common man to afford the occasional one).
The world before progress and growth (which I introduced in the last chapter) was not a world without network effects. All human civilization beyond the barest and most remote hunter/gatherer cultures create and reinforce network effects. Humans are social creatures, and we like to congregate when given the chance. We’re attracted to similar kinds of things—clean water, good game, good farmland or graze land, the chance to unload our useless shit on some poor sucker who wants to give us some of his exotic possessions in return, and, of course, mating opportunities—so we congregate in (and fight over) those areas where such things are concentrated. Cities happen.
But most of history, even during the imperial eras, was not centralized in anything like the way we see today. Instead, a small village connected neighbors with one another, allowing each to trade their produce (at least, that which was not seized by a feudal lord when feudalism was in play) with one another to secure a more varied diet than they might have achieved on their own, and also to trade with craftsmen and tradesmen (blacksmiths, carpenters, potters, etc.) to obtain the necessities of life. Even when there was an emperor in Rome or Babylon or Vienna, or a King in London or Versailles or Prague, what centralization did occur did not have much in common with what we would recognize today.
Most of the world was functionally Balkanized even when formally united, and the most effective form of sociopolitical control (including repression) was not centralization, but subsidiarity.
Power was, in other words, devolved to the lowest practical level. This way of doing things had a number of advantages for people at both ends of the power lever:
For the imperial court, this allowed the rulers to harvest the benefits of running an empire (incredible power, kleptocratic levels of wealth, prestige) without being buried under paperwork forever and anon. If something could be handled effectively by your father, you’d get no ear from the Sheriff. If something could be handled by the local magistrate, the regional governor or lord would be annoyed if he ever heard about it. The Grand Poobah worried about the big picture, and the vassals worried about their own local patches, and so on down the chain. To violate the principle of subsidiarity wasn’t just a criminal offense (though it often was), it was unthinkable. Literally. It simply would (almost) never occur to anyone. Who in their right mind would want the King turning his all-powerful eye on you when he was in a bad mood? The very thought is so horrifying that it might make one lose one’s head.
For the hoi polloi outside of the cities, it meant that in an imperial situation, their government (such as it was) was conducted mostly on a local level. If the central authority should fall to invasion, the local government would continue with minimal disruption—oh, the imperial governor might get assassinated and a local put in his place, but the institutional structure was often quite stable and proof against little historical inconveniences like, for example, the Fall of Rome.
Most importantly for the maintenance of civilization, this division of powers allowed fairly complex civilization to persist through what we now call the Dark Age after the fall of Rome.
But, step by faltering step, the Industrial Revolution changed all of that.
The dream of universal conquest and central control has been in play since Nimrod (if not before). In The Republic, Plato wrote the seminal aspirational treatise for centralized control.
“The common man is obviously incapable of properly administering his own life, let alone a civilization,” he argued (I am heavily paraphrasing). “Therefore it should be left up to the best and the brightest, working under the guidance of a wise Philosopher King, to administer the functions of a civilization.”
In other words, a command economy powered by a technocracy. Like I said, it’s a very old dream among rulers and intellectuals alike (both of whom are more-than-usually motivated by a love for power).
But it is not enough for those who aspire to power to have a grand dream. Alexander had a grand dream, but he was unable, in the end, to make it real. Ditto for Genghis Khan. In the annals of human endeavor, conquest is far, far easier than administration. Civilizations are like sex in this way: it’s a lot easier to have an orgasm than it is to raise a child to self-sufficiency. The kinds of empires envisioned by those ancient rulers were, not to put too fine a point on it, impossible—but they wouldn’t stay that way forever.
The end of the Black Death brought out the hustle in everybody. When opportunity is laying around everywhere, someone is bound to notice and start doing something about it—and that’s precisely what more-or-less everybody did. No longer bound to the land, the former-serfs left for the villages. In short order, the quaint water wheels which powered the grain mills were combined with other simple machines like the lever and the bearing and the screw and the belt to form the trip cam, the gear, the pump, the escapement, and the ratchet. Together, these created machines.
Machines that spun wool into yarn without human intervention.
Machines that smashed rag into pulp to make paper.
Machines that fleshed leather.
Machines that printed currency and indulgences and wood-cut pictures and books.
Machines that smelted and forged and cast and tempered.
Machines that milled buttons and standardized parts.
Machines that wove, and carved.
The best water-flow to power the mills was in the highlands where the streams were small and fast. Raw materials went up, finished goods came down, material well-being went up, and prices went down. Steam could drive a turbine as well as water, so factories moved down into the flood plains by the ports so that they could access both ports and workers more easily.
Within a few generations people were leaving the farms and villages for the big city where they’d get paid cash for working in factories instead of being paid-in-kind for breaking their backs on the land or over a forge. It wasn’t glamorous work, and the workers often fell prey to organized crime and organized bosses, but it offered the hope of a better life than one’s family had “enjoyed” through time immemorial.
Where people concentrate, they form governments in order to adjudicate disputes and police the commons. The rise of megacities (what we would call “large towns”) caused a catastrophic series of plagues, which in turn drove governments to invent solutions to problems like sewage disposal and fresh water sanitation, and then eventually things like road maintenance, port administration, land usage, labor laws, etc.
Those governments then become levers by which one man might use the power of the state to beat down a neighbor or a competitor, and enrich himself and his friends, or buy and sell the favors of office-holders for purposes both petty and grand. Such corruption is documented as far back as written records survive—given that humans are inherently nepotistic, it would surprising if such things didn’t happen.
None of this is much different from what happened in the ancient world (the abundance of coal-powered factories aside)—at least, not on the surface. Underneath, however, a far different story was unfolding.
Ancient empires were limited by record keeping. The printing press fixed that.
They were limited by their ability to find records. But the explosion of books in the 15th and 16th centuries gave birth to a new breed of librarian who wielded the invention that now runs our entire world: the cross-index, which has made all information find-able.
They were limited by their ability to access outlying areas. Public works, paved roads, and railroads fixed that.
They were limited by the speed of communication. Carrying letters (and transferring money)by hand over dangerous roads in the pouches of couriers who were easy prey for brigands is not a secure way for government outposts to communicate. Sending a telegram, or a radiogram, or picking up a phone, or transmitting a file does, or putting a courier in disguise on an airplane with a diplomatic bag works much better.
The technological revolution made the old dream of a technocratic state possible—but that, in itself, didn’t make it desirable.
Something else, however, did.
The Machine Age
To make a single cast-iron pot, one must dig up bog iron, build a blast furnace and crucible, make a sand-and-wood mold, smelt the iron with alloying elements (carbon, silicon, and manganese), and pour the molten iron into the mold. Let it cool overnight, break the mold, polish up the result, rub with linseed oil, and cook your dinner in it.
In a sense, this is the ultimate in centralized production: everything you need, you make. As experiments in Utopian subsistence invariably demonstrate, it’s a desperately inefficient way to do things. Far more effective is the division of labor—specialization, expertise, and trade—a trick so effective that most social predatory species (humans, lions, wolves, hyenas, etc.) and many simply social species (gorillas, bonobos, many birds, and far too many others to catalog here) have discovered and rediscovered it since time immemorial.
So, back to our pot. This self-sufficient cast iron work, being incredibly labor-intensive, practically screams out for labor to be divided. If you wanted to make a living selling them, you’d have to build yourself a factory and find ways to automate and streamline the process at scale. You’d want to subcontract out any part of the process (like the mining) that you don’t absolutely have to do in-house. You’d concentrate on building a facility that can do as much as possible, as cheaply as possible, so your profit margins are as good as possible.
Banking, once mostly the province of monasteries. government counting houses, and loan sharks, springs up near the industrial base in order to insure against loss and provide financing for commercial and industrial build-out.
In other words, the first steps of industrialization appear to decentralize things. By enabling a greater division of labor, an already sophisticated trade network is supercharged and far-flung communities interact with one another like never before, forming webs of interdependence. The power of princes erodes, and the power of the producers and consumers (and, later, workers) comes to the fore in the form of moves towards the abolition of feudalism and the establishment of formal democratic governance slouching haltingly towards universal suffrage.
But all networks contain influence nodes with disproportionate power. In the industrial era, those disproportionately powerful nodes were the cities where manufacturing, trade, and finance happened. Under democratically-styled governance, voters in cities (who had never in their lives seen a farm) gained the power to exploit the countryside in ways that looked positively...feudal, but with a twist. In the feudal era and the Imperial eras, the agricultural land was usually owned by the gentry, and the gentry exercised considerable influence in the centers of power. The rulers not only knew where their food came from, they often had a hand (even if only a slave driver’s hand) in producing it, and they were very good at keeping the laws which governed the cities (but were ineffective for the country) safely behind the city walls. The decentralization of political suffrage wrought by the industrial revolution thus became a driving force for the centralization of political power—an irony we will see mirrored later on in this series—which forms one of the four major political fault lines that have rent the industrial world since the 17th century.
For all these reasons and more, once machine automation enters the picture, the incentive towards economic centralization becomes irresistible, and other forms of centralization begin to seem intuitively rational—and rationality itself, once the province of the scholastics and philosophers and other eccentrics, begins to seem…reasonable. Common sense. Culture drifts away from the metaphor of a garden or a crop and towards the metaphor of the machine that can be built, optimized, tweaked, and shaped to whatever ends the creators of the machine put their mind to. Social structure follows. And, as it does, wealth (for all classes) goes through the roof.
And, of course, the new wealth generated creates a new class of people—the middle class—who, having recently hauled themselves out of the gutter and installed themselves in the pantheon of the self-made, now consider themselves fit to rule (themselves, and nobody else; not their feudal “betters,” and certainly not the poor schmucks they left behind in the factories and on the farms). They prove their worth against one another through social competition in learning and taste, converging themselves on a narrow orthodoxy (the fashion of which changes once or twice a generation) which defines the good and proper way to think, and outside of which bounds live the heretic, the libertine, the deplorable, and the untouchable, all of whom are worthy objects of mercy and contempt.
Those whom technology has centralized, it has also equipped with the tools to organize society to their own ends. It has endowed those who master them with an imperative no less compelling, no less self-justifying, and no more solid than the divine right of kings and the white man’s burden.
Because of the underlying constraints of the world we found ourselves in, the existence of an industrial civilization necessitates the centralization (and, often, co-location) of administration, finance, production, education...and empire.
We will explore the meaning and effects of empire in the next installment: The Geopolitical Forces of Centralization.
In the meantime, I invite you to post any corrections or arguments in the comments, or send them directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.