By Neil Cosgrove
Both the mythology surrounding the origins of modern capitalism, and the moral complacency that passes for “sanity” in the complex societies capitalism has wrought, are called into question by Priya Satia’s Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution.
Conventional wisdom says the industrial revolution first occurred in 18th century Britain through a fortuitous combination of technological advances and differentiated labor, with both stimulated by a free, unfettered market for private goods. Indeed, contemporary American conservatives hail the benevolent nature of an “invisible hand” supposedly guiding such markets with a religious fervor rivalling what ancient Egyptians must have felt for their Sun God. If only governments would stop messing with those markets, they claim, then a millennium of general prosperity would come to pass.
Unfortunately, Satia’s deep dive into historical records, including archives dealing with the gun manufacturers of 18th century Birmingham and the English Midlands, helps us recognize the above narrative for the myth it has always been. Her evidence demonstrates how metals industry expansion, foundational to the broader revolution, was largely due to the almost continual warfare the British waged from 1688 to 1815. Primarily through its Ordinance Office, the government used its contracting power to transform the “small-workshop world of Birmingham” into an efficient conglomeration of artisans capable of producing millions of firearms a year.
“The British state forged conditions conducive to industrialization,” Satia writes. “It legally, bureaucratically, infrastructurally, and militarily penetrated its own territory; … stimulating demand, innovation, and experiments in industrial organization.” When it came to gun manufacture, the government was the primary market, a market that engaged the majority of metal workers. Moreover, government military contracts dominated other industries, such as textiles (for uniforms) and supply logistics. Britain from the Glorious Revolution to Waterloo was at the very least a “military-industrial society.”
As a result, mid-19th century observers discerned little qualitative difference between private and state manufactured products, thus challenging the now commonly held belief that private industry is invariably superior. The famous gun manufacturer Samuel Colt “acknowledged that government manufacture of guns had produced great improvement in tools and machines and that the private sector depended on the state.” Satia carefully notes that it is the state’s size and motivational power, rather than war itself, that is necessary to economic stimulation.
Since government plays such a dominant role, even in ostensibly capitalist economies that self-identify as “democratic,” individual citizens are confronted by moral choices as to how the state should employ its power to create prosperity. Ironically, some major Birmingham gun manufacturers were Quakers, a Christian sect known for its opposition to the use of military force and to the killing that inevitably results from such force. The Society of Friends appeared to tolerate its members’ involvement in the industry for most of the 18th century, perhaps because guns were so slow to load and inaccurate when fired that most deaths due to war, civil unrest, and private altercation still came via sword, bayonet, knife, cudgel and stone.
But as the technology of guns improved, so too did the number of deaths they produced. Finally, in 1795, Birmingham’s Friends gave one of their congregants, Samuel Galton, Jr., an ultimatum: get out of the gun business or be “disowned” by his church. Galton had no desire to abandon his lucrative enterprise, and so he mounted a defense Satia carefully delineates, one that strongly resonates during our own historic moment.
Galton made the all-too-familiar claim that how guns were used was not the responsibility of the manufacturer—guns at this time also functioned as trophies, currency, and symbols representing the defense of private property. A variety of artisans produced a guns’ numerous components—the locks, stocks, barrels and other parts. Should the grower of barley, the brewer of beer, the distiller, and the rum importer shoulder the blame for alcoholism’s evils, Galton mused.
Galton’s second line of argument hits even closer to home. Birmingham’s industries were so militarized that he would be hard-pressed to find any manufacturing endeavor that didn’t contribute to Britain’s war efforts. Additionally, Satia says Galton was well aware of the notion that an “invisible hand” controlled capitalist markets and inferred that “radical action” was not necessary, because “the system was always already in optimal equilibrium.” Individuals might choose to avoid a particular activity, but someone else would take it up, and the beat of modern capitalism would go on.
As a gunmaker, war, colonialism, and the slave trade contributed to your profits. As a Quaker, you could publicly oppose those activities, and go so far as to boycott the sugar imported from the West Indies. As a Quaker you could profit from gun manufacture, Galton suggested, while never firing a gun.
People like the Catonsville Nine, or the Plowshares Eight, have obviously reached different conclusions, choosing to act in direct opposition to the violence perpetrated by the state and its manufactured instruments. We are thankful to Satia for demonstrating both the militaristic origins of our industrialized world, and the moral dilemmas those origins have engendered.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of The NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.