The Impact of Industrialization on the Family

I have been fascinated with Allan Carlson’s body of work for the last few months (you can see a book review I did of his latest book here) and have recently begun reading his book From Cottage to Work Station: The Family’s Search for Social Harmony in the Industrial Age. What’s noteworthy about Carlson is that he is arguing for a pre-modern conception of the family, one that might strike some readers as radically “conservative” and even fundamentalist in nature. Yet Carlson typically critiques industrial capitalism as the primary opponent of the traditional family, even being willing to employ Marxist arguments at times. Carlson is not himself a Marxist, of course, but he is willing to cut to the heart of the issue, and that typically involves an exploration of the notions of capital and the exploitation of labor. Here is a summary which will show you what I mean:

Industrialization tore asunder this settled, family-oriented European world. In historian John Demos’ words: “Family life was wrenched apart form the world of work—a veritable sea-change in social history.” The goods produced by factories using a division of labor rapidly displaced household-produced commodities such as cloth, shoes, and candles. The unique demands of the new machines, the construction of factories, and the need for labor discipline further severed the workplace form the home. In the new economic order, family living quickly ceased to have a dominant productive side. Family units tended to reorganize as places for shared consumption and shelter. Through legal changes abolishing the protections of rural tradition and guild privileges, labor became a commodity governed for the first time by a national, and eventually an international market. The reciprocal, complementary tasks of husbands and wives in household production were quickly leveled, and questions grew about gender roles in the new order. Older children, too, could forego the obedience demanded by lineage and birth and sell their own labor to manufacturers. In the industrial milieu, the inward-looking, autonomous, cooperative family changed into a collection of individuals in potential, and often real, competition with each other. As residual dependents, infants and small children had no immediate prospects for individual economic gain; the market mechanism left their fate uncertain. ~From Cottage to Work Station 2

Carlson goes on to explain that many have been happy to say that America avoided this revolution, since it was always “modern” from its inception. This is not the case, however, Carlson says. Indeed, America also reckoned with the rage against the machine, fighting back in important ways until the early part of the 20th century. Then it gave up the fight, and we subsequently saw the social revolution which is so familiar to us today.

 

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3 thoughts on “The Impact of Industrialization on the Family

  1. I’ve been reading various works by Ivan Illich lately, and he often speaks- somewhat cryptically, unfortunately – of the need to use our high technology differently than we do, such that it actually serves the human rather than reshaping it. In light of Carlson’s remarks cited above, what directions do you think we need to go to find solutions to these social and cultural problems brought on by industrial capitalism?

  2. Are you familiar with Christopher Lasch? He worked the same groove as Carlson — a dialectical, even semi-Marxist critique of modern liberalism. He wasn’t afraid to employ Freud, either.

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