by Deborah Liebart, first appeared on DisputatioMagistrorum. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.2647743
Paraphrasing Tolstoï, Paul Bairoch, in Mythes et paradoxes de l’histoire économique writes that « economic history is a deaf person who answers questions that no economist has ever asked him« .
If, etymologically, revolution means « return to the starting point”, (the image of the seasonal cycle, of the circle which constantly loops up), the Grand dictionnaire encyclopédique Larousse gives, in the 1960s, this definition: « a revolution is an abrupt and violent change in the political and social structure of a state, which occurs when a group revolts against the ruling authorities, takes power and manages to keep it…
Based on the same model, the « industrial revolution » (R.I.) has in its terminological identity this same idea of suddenness.
When did the concept change?
The Copernican revolution of the De revolutionibus of 1543, this reversal of the representation of the world of Ptolemy during the sixteenth and eighteenth century, the transition from the geocentric system to the heliocentric system, has profoundly transformed both the scientific perception of knowledge and the nature of society itself by the questioning of the existence of God by the Enlightenment philosophy, even if Giordano Bruno had been condemned to the pyre, that Tycho Brahé had tried to reconcile science and religion at the end of the sixteenth century, that Galileo had been obliged to abjure before the Inquisition, that Descartes, impressed by the condemnation of Galileo, had renounced to publish the Treaty of the World and Light in 1632 in which he defended heliocentrism, but leads him to rethink his entire system by turning away from scholasticism to write the Discourse of the Method in 1637, emphasising the concept of universal doubt…
No doubt that questioning the divine order and consequently the order of the world physical and social, has contributed to this deviation from a circular revolution to a revolution as an important moment of rupture and to its contemporary definition of a major event redrawing the world. The industrial revolution is part of this contemporary definition.
If the economic division of time varies schematically from cycles of 15 to 25 years in the Kuznets theory, to cycles of 50 or 60 years with Kondratiev, the Schumpeterian and then neoschumpeterian theories insist on the fundamental aspect of a « key moment » that shifts the economy in a new technical and / or technological dimension.
This theory, the most widely accepted by economists is the most commonly used today by the economic organizations in charge, at the world level.
Neo-Schumpeterian methodology is based on longer cycles. It analyzes technologies, their interrelations, their diffusion and their impact on innovation choices, and the organizational and managerial transformations generated within companies.
This model of understanding, developed through an interdisciplinary work, a dialogue between economists and historians of the economy, undermines Kondratiev’s concept of « long waves » in favor of the study of productive structural changes, distributive, communicative… by inscribing the economic phenomenon in the three Braudel periods of history, schematically: event, conjuncture, structure.
The « creative destruction » of innovation (about 20-30 years) is one of the schumpeterian “key concept”. It causes a large competitive industrial selection supported by the financial sector, which resulting in a major financial bubble that breaks out and leads to a period of recession during which the State regains control through regulations thus leading to a more harmonious deployment.
Schumpeter (Theory of economic evolution, 1912), considers as causes of R.I various factors:
• the manufacture of a new product
• the introduction of a new production method or new means of transport
• setting up a new organization
• Opening or creating a new market, new opportunities to absorb production
• the discovery or use of new raw materials.
Although new combinations have been uncovered since, especially in the financial and social fields, these Schumpeterian factors summarize what is a « RI » based on innovation in the dominant post-Schumpeterian economic literature. A technological revolution is a combination of innovations, products, materials, energy, infrastructure and structural models.
Theoretically, innovation can be destructive of value, in particular by the obsolescence of certain economic sectors that it generates, while at the same time allowing the development of new markets and the creation of new value.
What qualifies the phenomenon is a rapid, brutal change, resulting in a multitude of events in all areas of society, both scientific, technical and socio-political.
The concept of R.I., as a brutal event, would it be a myth regarding History?
Caron (1987) highlights the fact that « the current technical civilization derives from that of the eighteenth century, at the end of a series of sequences that borrow their causality from the system of social relations that modern civilization has produced. This evolution took place without a break: the technical systems engender each other without discontinuity”.
Questioning the transformation of the ecosystem over a longer period, as a “breeding ground” in which appear the « R.I » (by differentiating situation and event) is necessary in order to understand these central moments of history.
Successive crises have forced historians and some economists to question the relevance of the concept of « R.I » as a « spontaneous event ».
When, in the 19th century, economists founded this notion of « RI », they were evolving in the system of their time: a perception of common progress, an idea to consider the productive progression continues self-regulated by the law of the supply and of demand, which is intellectually situated in the logical liberal economic filiation of « laissez-faire and laissez-passer » theorised by Gournais, and of the invisible Smithian hand in the eighteenth century.
In the nineteenth century, Marxist and Fourierist theories, Blanc and Lafargue theories, as well as the positivist philosophy legitimizing science by industry and placing it at the heart of economic theory, are in fact part of intellectual filiation of the Enlightenment, and to a certain extent, for certain authors, a cultural and political impregnation of Physiocratic School and smithian theory.
One can clearly see the importance of the epistemology of disciplines on their ways of perceiving, conceiving, thinking economics, reading cycles and evidences.
The current focus on the event as described in the traditional media, as a brutal break in historical times, undermines the centuries-old constitution of the development of techniques as well as the borrowing of each generation from the previous ones and makes us forget that the English Revolution, for example, has first developed slowly, as the industry took ownership of new production tools.
By focusing on the decontextualized event, we reduce the contradictions that make up the process.
… in conclusion, today…
While it is clear that today’s world is embarking on a major new economic transformation guided by the contribution of new technologies, it remains to be seen whether these technical changes will have a strong overall fundamental impact in the managerial, social and political domains… and even more in philosophical and ethical terms concerning the relation of the human to work, to leisure, to otherness … Industrial revolution or new cycle? While the human was preparing to be replaced by the machine, the Tesla experiment seemed demonstrate, a year ago already, the limits of an automation pushed to the extreme.
…to be continued…