The Middle Class – The Industrial Revolution


The last post I explored the rise of the talented, educated professional and how their roots were in the guild system. This time, I will start with the industrial revolution, and how that upended the rising of that middle class.

The Industrial Revolution

While the shift from craft based manufacture of goods was well underway in the mid 18th century, the trend accelerated mightily with the development and commercialization of the steam engine.

{A whole book or series of books on the use of steam motive power to drive machines that wove, milled, pressed, etc. Very germane to the topic, but obvious in hindsight, it will be ignored for this brief treatment}

This accelerated the distributed, craft production of textiles, weapons, and other goods to industrial centers. It also gave rise to the concept of mass production, with interchangeable parts, and efficiencies never before seen.

Clearly, this brought the underclass, the former “serf” or tenant farmer into high population centers. It was the rise of “labor” as a class. But labor was about as powerful as the former tenant farmers.

That said, the number and variety of professions that gained power increased. Lawyers to handle the contracts and disputes between parties (think land owner, and factory owner). Bankers also arise in prominence. They were not new, but instead of being the grease that allowed the merchants and traders flexibility, and provided capital to the monarchs for their expansion tendencies (aka Wars of conquest), they now provided financing for the building of factories and other means of production.

The biggest increase though was the industrialist. Their power being the ability to turn raw materials into finished goods. The wealth they accumulated was truly staggering, and with it they began to approach the level of power of the noble classes.

Still, through much of the 19th century, the middle class was comprised of the educated professions, or those who had the financial resources to claw out power from the nobility.

The role of religion in the rise of the middle class

One thing that is not immediately obvious in the rise of the middle class was the importance of religion to the cohesiveness of the movement.

Where the formal church and clergy has long been tied to the establishment and maintenance of the power of the nobility over the vast hoards of the serfs, the middle class adopted the new protestant reformation as their own.

This is the origin of the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic”, and a central thread that pulled the burgeoning middle class together as a movement.

What is Missing?

We are now at the opening of the 20th century, and what is notably absent from the “middle class”?

One has merely to read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” to realize that the lower class had merely shifted their lot from subsistence farming land that they don’t own to toiling long hard hours at machines owned by an industrialist to make goods for a barely subsistence wage, living in deplorable conditions almost unimaginable today.

Labor, with no power, and little leverage, lived a hardscrabble life with little chance to change their lot in life.

That was about to change, and that will be the next topic in this thread.

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By geoffand


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February 2015

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