Facing industrial-strength problems in an industrial-driven society

Is a greater quantity of mediocre goods really worth the transformation of the nature of work? Does it make people better or happier?

(Image: Bill Oxford/Unsplash.com)

Behind many of the confusions of the present day—political, cultural, moral, and religious—lies the problem of industrial society.

By “industrial society” I mean a society in which major social functions like government, education, and economic activity are carried on through large organizations and networks aided by up-to-date technology and coordinated through markets and supposedly neutral expertise.

People have been complaining about it ever since it began, but we can’t seem to do without it because it’s so effective. If we got rid of it we’d all starve, die in the next epidemic, or get conquered by someone who kept it. Or so it seems.

Adam Smith and then Karl Marx watched it develop and admired its productivity, but had concerns. Smith worried about its stultifying effect on workers and doubted the public spirit of those who influence it. Marx hated it, and predicted people would eventually get fed up and overthrow or radically transform it. The outcome, he claimed, would be utopia. Instead, it was an incomparably worse form of the same thing.

Novelists exposed its seamy side. Artists and designers complained about its effect on taste. Poets who lived like beatniks dreamed of more romantic ages in which people lived like saints, artists, and aristocrats. And popes, ordinary Catholics, and reformers of all kinds proposed ways to transform it or at least alleviate the problems it created.

But what were those problems?

People who take an economic view of things point to poverty and the exploitation of workers. And it’s true that industrialization initially concentrated poverty in urban slums, and produced great fortunes that made severe poverty seem more shocking.

But was poverty less common or less severe before industrialization? It doesn’t seem so, given the rise in population that followed it. And since the system increases production, and employers have to compete for workers, it seems that the more industry grows the higher wages would go. And that’s the way things turned out.

So poverty isn’t the problem. Inequality is more of an issue. People have very different productivity in a technological system, some reap enormous profits by market participation, and those who are well-placed in large networks and organizations are likely to divert wealth to themselves. But inequalities are always with us, and they don’t make a decent life impossible. I can live happily and well without being pope, president, or tycoon. And it is possible to mitigate equality somewhat while retaining industrial society.

The real problem with industrialism is the one Emerson complained about: “things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” Large systems that integrate complex machinery, the latest technology, and rigorously formalized procedures are extremely effective at realizing particular goals, whether the goal is producing food, clothing, and shelter, traveling to the moon, or destroying the enemy in war.

But they eliminate the human element. Workers lose individuality, choice, and craftsmanship. And what is produced loses the human touch. If someone is making shoes he’s no longer making the best shoe he can for a particular customer he knows personally, using his skill to fit the customer’s taste, pocketbook, and foot. Instead, he’s tending a machine that repeatedly performs one part of the process of producing a shoe. And the shoe won’t be for anyone in particular. Instead, it’ll be designed for the average foot, and made no better than needed for maximum profit.

The outcome is that shoes and other goods become much cheaper and more plentiful. People, most likely including the shoemaker himself, have a lot more of them. But is a greater quantity of mediocre goods really worth the transformation of the nature of work? Does it make people better or happier?

Maybe it’s worth it when survival is at stake. Famines are horrible, and industrial agriculture, with machinery, chemical fertilizer, insecticides, and hybrid seeds, produces a lot of food. India, which had been subject to famine, increased annual wheat production from 10 million tons in the 1960s to 73 million in 2006 by making farming more industrial. And industrial medicine, with anesthesia, antibiotics, and an ever-growing array of technological interventions into the human body, saves a lot of lives.

Even so, industrialism is dehumanizing and to all appearances can’t stop being so. It has greatly contributed to the current abolition of history, culture, religion, and even human nature as socially-recognized realities. After all, what do faith, ancestral heritage, or the distinction between man and woman have to do with a chemical plant, computer network, financial system, or code of government regulations? And if the latter are the things we live by, why bother with irrelevancies?

It’s not clear what to do about the situation. It will be extremely unpleasant if—as seems quite possible—social or environmental degradation ultimately bring industrial civilization to an end. People would be happier and better if instead we could live once again in a non-industrial world of craftsmen, small farmers, and domestic economy, with technology controlled so that it becomes an adjunct to those things. That’s the sort of thing G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc had in mind with their distributism. But distributism has never gone much of anywhere, even though a great many people love the idea and some have tried to put it in practice.

The Amish have managed something of the sort with their Ordnung, their system of order, which they modify somewhat from time to time to take into account practical demands while maintaining a small-scale, local, and domestic economy. Thus, for example, they allow gasoline engines and electric generators for particular purposes to keep agriculture economic while forbidding their general use and so making truly industrial agriculture impossible.

But vanishingly few become Amish. The temptation to make things just a bit more efficient, comfortable, and entertaining is too strong for people to take on such a strong communal discipline. There is also the problem that they don’t have a complete self-sufficient way of life. They rely, for example, on the larger society for protection and for everything that requires training beyond the eighth grade.

Others have proposed solutions that seem even more demanding. In The End of the Modern World, written in Germany not long after the Second World War, Fr. Romano Guardini gave a relentlessly bleak description of the new age then arriving that lines up pretty well with current realities. His response was to call for heroes who combine the total devotion of the saint to the Faith with the absolute independence of the stoic from external circumstances. But I don’t see many people like that in the Church. Quite the contrary: our weaknesses, vanities, compromises, and self-indulgences seem only to get worse.

Maybe that’s just me. But it’s evident that the optimistic reading of the modern world that became general with the Second Vatican Council hasn’t worked out. Liberal society is falling into tyranny and madness, and the Church is shot through with mediocrity, corruption, and sometimes even what seems apostasy.

Nonetheless, human nature and needs remain the same. These cannot be fulfilled in what society is becoming, so something will change.

But what? Some propose a “Benedict Option,” which sounds to many like a new ghetto Catholicism. For my own part I’ve worried that our radically cosmopolitan society will go the way of the radically cosmopolitan society of the Middle East, and dissolve into walled enclaves inhabited by inward-turning and mutually intolerant groups that eventually take on an ethno-religious quality. Very likely the two possibilities are the same as a practical matter, viewed from different perspectives.

But the future’s not ours to see. For today I can’t help but think that the way forward will have to include a renewed emphasis on Catholic tradition and identity, together with something like the course sketched out by Fr. Guardini. We may not be up to carrying the latter effort very far, but we can only do our best. He considered that course specifically masculine—people today might call it “manning up”—and thought women would have to evolve their own complementary approach. As always, they will speak for themselves. For the rest, though, we will need to trust a great deal in Providence. We certainly will not be able to solve our problems unaided.

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About James Kalb 136 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).


  1. There are few Amish converts but many Amish and the Amish are increasing faster than any other denomination in North America. They’re far from vanishing.

  2. In the mid-20th century, Cardinal Danielou suggested that our current “atheism is no more than a transitional phase, a momentary crisis, located as it is between the paganism of the rural civilizations of yesterday and paganism of the industrial civilization of tomorrow.” And, what does the future industrial paganism look like?

    Is it a self-limiting, industrialized consumer culture perched precariously on its less-than-infinite and depleted resource base, constricted into pockets of technocratic opulence surrounded by ecocide and geographic genocide, as is warned/speculated in Laudato Si?

    AND, then, that reopens the door to Pachamama, polygon tribalism, globe-wide “identity-politics” and an Abu Dhabi “pluralism” of religions—all milling around a smartphone campfire of “human fraternity” (probably an app)?
    Or, do we remember—irreducibly—what it truly means that: “Christ the Lord. . .by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to himself [!] and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22)?

    Surely, in their 1967ish and self-amputating “autonomy,” the Land O’ Lakes illuminati crowd has figured out what THIS looks like on the ground.

    • I just finished reading Cardinal Danielou’s book (I think the one you are referencing), Prayer as a Political Problem. It is out of print and the only copy I could find was an interlibrary loan, so I typed it up to keep for reference. Startling book, and I think your reference here is perfect. Cheers!

  3. Thank you Mr. Kalb, for the breadth and depth and persistence of your observations.

    And thank you CWR, for “giving voice” to writers like Mr. Kalb.

  4. A large part of the problem is the mistaken belief in Keynesian economics that consumers must pay more for less by inflating the currency so that producers can accumulate savings to finance new capital formation. This presumably “creates jobs” which — since wages and welfare are the only source of income for most people in Keynesianism — ensures that most people not only should not own capital, they must not own capital; Keynes even called for the “euthanasia of the rentier” — the small investor who uses his or her capital income for consumption instead of reinvesting it.

    The bottom line of Keynesian economics is that because a wealth and income gap is essential to finance new capital, people must be satisfied with lower quality goods at a higher price, and immense waste is encouraged along with consumerism to generate more and more savings for the rich so they can presumably provide the rest of us with jobs and welfare.

    The idea that everyone can be a capital owner and produce with both labor and capital only what is actually wanted or needed for consumption (Say’s Law of Markets, that Keynes ridiculed) is alien to Keynesians. They MUST have wasteful production to provide jobs and to generate savings. They reject self-liquidating capital investment by means of which everyone can own capital on the same terms as the rich.

    • If your are going to get in economics, suggest you start reading and learning about Austrain Economics. More specifically spend some time reading Hayek, you could also take in a little bit of Uncle Milton Friedman. The useful part of both of these economists for Catholics as that their approach in the end focuses on the individual and I will dare to say the Catholic principle of subsideriarity.

      • The Austrians (von Hayek, von Mises) and Chicago/Monetarist (Fisher, Simons, Friedman) share with Keynes adherence to “the Currency Principle” derived from Ricardo through McCullough. Most simply put, the Currency Principle is that the quantity of money determines the level of economic activity. Adherents of the Currency Principle reject the idea of self-liquidating capital credit as a matter of course, automatically assuming that it is impossible to finance new capital formation without first restricting consumption and accumulating money savings.

        My position is based on “the Banking Principle” of Smith, Say, Thornton, Moulton, and Kelso) derived from Smith’s first principle of economics: “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.” Most simply put, the Banking Principle is that the level of economic activity determines the quantity of money; it is tied in with the “real bills” doctrine on which commercial/mercantile/central banking is based. That is, instead of relying on past reductions in consumption to finance new capital (mortgage financing), the Banking Principle includes the possibility of financing with future increases in production monetized by issuing bills of exchange. That is why the first principle of finance is to know the difference between a mortgage (past savings) and a bill of exchange (future savings).

        The Banking Principle is actually closer to the natural law principles underlying Catholic social teaching and thus the twin principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. To compare or critique my position based on the Banking Principle with the economic systems based on the Currency Principle is to try and mix apples and oranges.

        • Think you need to reread Hayek. Suggest you start with the Road to Serfdom, then the Fatal Conceit. The only contibution from Keynes was the multiplier effect derived from the equation Y=A +bY. Friedman from his work along with Anna Schwatz in their 1963 work on US Monetary History, in effect, showed (1). The Great Depression was caused by a descrease in the Money Supply (MS) and (2) the Keynes multiplier effect doesn’t work unless MS is increased. BTW the Friedman Schwatz work laid the ground work for the massive MS increase in 2009 that avoided the Recession from becoming a Depression

          • Mike, Didn’t you shoot yourself in the foot by bringing up the massive money supply increase in 2009 as if it was a permanent solution? How are taxpayers going to pay off the offsetting national debt?

  5. Is Progress Regress? As for Keynesian economics: Lasting cars and shoes are great. What is not great is antiquated production, whereas cars that break down sooner are developed yearly with advanced technologies that contribute to all manufacture and the economy. Similar with Author Kalb’s shoes [perhaps not the ones he wears]. New Balance for example are excellent. Insofar as the great salvific push to award everyone with a house. The Center for American Progress faults the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA for the 2008 Housing Crisis; eliminating the Community Reinvestment Act, CRA; and scrapping government-sponsored enterprises. Whereas conservatives blame the Fannie Mays etc for provision of loans the marginalized couldn’t repay. We could opt Benedictine and return to medieval Europe’s monastic centered communities, in which life was simple hard work and prayer, dutifully when the bells rang. But then someone invented a better axle, a better forge, loom. God created Man with a creative mind that brought us to where we are technologically. Industrialization is a conceptual ogre. It’s how men have handled innovation and all the complexities attached that correspond to loss of faith. Man freely chooses good or evil. Where would the world be if the US suddenly decided to live en masse like the Amish? The Benedictines of old? Personally I would love it, but reality wins out.

    • Great play on words (!): “lasting…shoes.” (Wikipedia: “A last is a mechanical form shaped like a human foot. It is used by shoemakers and cordwainers in the manufacture and repair of shoes.”)

      As for Keynesian economics, the criticism is that he took a special case (the Depression) and turned it into a family-indifferent “GENERAL Theory of Employment, Interest and Money,” 1936). Ergo, the permanent hand of economic aggregates and thus the state, and routine deficit spending shoved onto the next generation. And, of the future, Keynes, who in early life was homosexual and who after marriage had no children to worry about, simply said “in the long run we are all dead.”

      Conservative critic Hazlitt wrote of Keynes: “Here is the General Theory in a nutshell, with its transvaluation of values [Nietzsche!]. The great virtue is consumption, extravagance, improvidence. The great vice is saving, thrift and ‘financial prudence’.”

  6. Quality is a secondary consideration. However, bad products which are not made well are to be decried.

    “So poverty isn’t the problem. Inequality is more of an issue. People have very different productivity in a technological system, some reap enormous profits by market participation, and those who are well-placed in large networks and organizations are likely to divert wealth to themselves. But inequalities are always with us, and they don’t make a decent life impossible. I can live happily and well without being pope, president, or tycoon. And it is possible to mitigate equality somewhat while retaining industrial society.”

    Note I think that you meant “to mitigate inequality.”

    Inequality in wealth itself isn’t a problem provided that those with less are still able to meet their needs, but inequality of bargaining power is. You may not want to be at the top, but if those at the top exercise undue influence and violate a person’s NATURAL RIGHT to employment, then there are problems created. This type of inequality has come about through unjust “laws” (e.g. at-will employment) and isn’t inherent in industrial society.

    “Famines are horrible, and industrial agriculture, with machinery, chemical fertilizer, insecticides, and hybrid seeds, produces a lot of food. India, which had been subject to famine, increased annual wheat production from 10 million tons in the 1960s to 73 million in 2006 by making farming more industrial.”

    I am not convinced that mechanized agriculture is the answer. Granted that it may save labor and thus make food cheaper, there are new understandings of agriculture which point to better alternatives.

    One is the practice of regenerative agriculture which includes such methods as holistic planned grazing, cover crops, and increasing crop diversity. There are a number of farmers who have managed to “outperform” their more “industrial” neighbors even though they have reduced the amount of chemicals used. There are also concerns regarding soil erosion and decreased plant mineral content of which at least the first is a consequence of industrial agriculture.

  7. “Inequality in wealth itself isn’t a problem provided that those with less are still able to meet their needs, but inequality of bargaining power is” (Shawn). Perfectly correct. By nature men have degrees of competency for different levels of production. The myth of contemporary socialism is equal wage, an extreme egalitarian concept that denies that natural law hierarchy. Pope Francis falls into this category when he recommended a basic global wage. Those who are more gifted and who offer greater effort deserve a complementary wage. Extreme Socialist egalitarianism rewards unjustly and suffocates incentive. In a religious order community extreme egalitarianism is fine in context of mutual agreement. In the reality of the secular world as is, the vast majority ho struggle for a good life, Christ’s example to law enforcers is the rule, Be satisfied with your wage. Whatever Christ says however the is contextualized within Justice, which accommodates unions and rightful compromise. “Inequality of bargaining power”, as you correctly state is the basic issue of a just economic society. What is the just median between excess [which many unions are guilty of] and defect [the powerlessness of the marginalized]. If anything provides an coherent response it’s the social encyclicals of Leo XIII and those following in particular John Paul II.

    • Who is Our Brother’s Keeper, Virginia Catholic Conference. In addition Govt, despite hard nosed Republican ideology also has obligation to protect the traditional family from predatory Capitalism. “If solidarity calls us to act for the common good, the question then becomes how we act to help our neighbors in need. The principle of subsidiarity, from the Latin word subsidium—to help or assist—is our guide to putting solidarity into action. In basic terms, subsidiarity is the principle that, as John Paul II writes in Centesimus Annus. We are our brother’s keeper. Drawing on God’s question to Cain in Genesis, ‘where is your brother?’ John Paul II, in his encyclical Sollicitudo rei Socialis, uses the principle of solidarity—a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good—to remind us of our Christian call not just to be compassionate to our brothers and sisters in need, but to act to alleviate the suffering of our neighbors” (Virginia Catholic Conference).

  8. I opted for the Benidict option 28 years ago when I moved our family from L.A. County to a small city of 150,000 with a Catholic population of 70%. My friends and relatives thought I was crazy, But because this small city is so isolated and insular from the big urban centers my kids grew up proud to be Catholics and felt fully a part of their local community and of the world in general. Today the same friends and relatives who criticized me in the 1990’s in hindsight see my wisdom and are stunned about how faithful my young adult children to Catholicism while their kids dabble in anarchy, LGBTQ, addiction to alcohol, pot and video games and an overall feeling of malaise and hopelessness; a life of low skill work, fast food, video games and social networking. No time or talk of love, family, community, civility and least of all God for this generation. But my kids are becoming adults and they are moving into the land of Mob mentality and we pray all the time that their Faith continues to resonate in their lives, (In the name of the Holy Spirit).

  9. “You cannot serve two masters. For, you will either hate the one and love the other. Or else, you will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

    Fixation on economic theory or the industrialization of society, trying to fix things – or searching for that elusive, “If we could only…”

    … man, I would like to jump into these words and live in them: Spend no time worrying about what you will eat or what you will drink or what you will wear … seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added to you.

    My life would be a whole bunch better if I had more and more faith. If I believed more and more the priest that tells me through Communion’s consecrated bread and wine, “The body of Christ has been given for me … the blood of Christ has been shed for me – for the remission of my sins,” my assurance of salvation would abound through faith in truth of these very words.

    All this worry about future would subside and I would actually be obedient to my Lord, seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness in my often seemingly mundane, futile, or even miserable days.

  10. The United States is now the number one Food Import Dependent nation, 133 billion$ in food imports the US relies on to feed the people. With South America up in Smoke burning of the rain forests to attain land (stolen for the native people) to gain this production, with chemicals with no control or limit to their usages.
    In very recent time ((major world power)) has purchased a large sector of the United States Grain storage and procurement in the USA, with very interesting reactions in the grain markets.. The family farm has been noted in all of history as the back bone of a nation, yet now on the verge of extension in the United States.. If the farms prosper, the cities prosper, if the farms go, the cities go.
    If we are to write a formula for starvation, the US currently is well on the way..
    Monopolization of the food distribution sector, to a minute few, yet its well recognized they are not obligated to maintain existence in regions, if its, not in profitable.. Free enterprize.
    Yet the US government is spending a Trillion dollars a year, to destroy farms, food production in Yemen, to starve the people to death, Genocide. So maybe its Gods wrath, the family farm is eliminated, in the USA…
    Liberalism, no, Greed, for a few. Starvation to near all.

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