The common critique of industrialization is that the industrial capitalist economic model lends itself to materialism and consumerism. There is much evidence to support these claims. Especially in America, the increased wealth created by industrial capitalism has fueled rampant consumption of cheap industrial goods. In some segments of the educated middle class, a blanket rejection of industrialization has become a part of mainstream thought. Critiques of industrial society are hardly a new phenomenon. Much “modern” art was itself a critique of the changes brought about by modern industrial capitalism.
With the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s, the anti-industrial mindset captured the imagination of a generation. When the counterculture looked around at the problems of the day, it quite logically placed the blame on the prevailing political economic system. Instead of looking to reform the faulty system they saw, however, the many young people saw it as incurably corrupt. They looked to form a new society that would reject all of the faulty values that had created the one they lived in. Modern Western Civilization was out, and non-Western pre-Modern was in.
The 1960s counterculture has grown up and they now comprise the elite class in our intellectual, academic, and artistic institutions. In the institutions that the counterculturalists oversee, the anti-industrial mindset has become the accepted position. While countercultural critiques served an important and vital function in challenging unjust and unsustainable systems, the usefulness of the countercultural mode is questionable, now that it is mainstream.
The anti-industrial critique is enticing. It is not, however, the only position one can take as an anti-consumerist or anti-materialist. In his 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness”, Bertrand Russell offers quite a nice pro-industrialization anti-materialist argument. He turns his gaze towards society (British society, in his case) and questions the relatively uncontested societal value of hard work. We should work less not more, Russell says in defiance of those who claim idle hands are the devils hands. Increased leisure time will allow individuals to pursue their passions and interests, and allow them to develop as human beings. So far, this looks at a standard anti-industrial argument. Russell takes the reader in a different direction, though, when he asks how a society might be organized to increase the possibility for leisure.
Industrialization is, at its essence, the process of rationalizing production. What was once a labor intensive task in pre-industrial society, is now simple and efficient in the industrial economy. By rationalizing the means of production, people can create the necessities of life in less time, thus leaving them with more time to pursue their interests. Perhaps the best example of this is agriculture. Today a farmer can produce enough food for upwards of 100 people. In Russell’s day, farmers produced less than half of that.