Although economic, political, and social structures had been changing for at least a century prior, the Industrial Revolution did have a tremendous and far-reaching impact on reconfiguring socioeconomic classes. Industrial capitalism shifted the centers of economic power to the private sector, and economic systems became far more decentralized than ever before due to the emergence of market capitalism. The new economic regime necessitated new political institutions, which in turn transformed social structures. Nineteenth century social formations included a leisure class known as the bourgeoisie and the working class, known as the proletariat, while the new political ideologies that supported capitalism included liberalism and socialism.
Prior to the Enlightenment, European social, economic and political institutions were dependent on Church authority (Burke, n.d.). The French Revolution was a harbinger of the new social and political institutions like liberalism and socialism. Monarchic rule was a thing of the past; once the seeds of democracy were planted, it was impossible to prevent the reaping of social, economic, and political revolution. Thus, monarchs were perceived as â€œinexorable and cruel tyrants,â€ rather than as inevitable and necessary constraints on human life (Burke, n.d., p. 137). Centralization of wealth and power in church and kingdom had prevailed for centuries. Colonization of the New World opened up free enterprise in ways that liberalized markets and stripped power from the old institutions.
Furthermore, Enlightenment philosophies inspired ordinary citizens to divert their allegiances from church and monarch towards free enterprise. Rousseau (n.d.) declared, â€œman is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,â€ a cry to revolution (p. 181). Rousseau also called into question how political systems and governments arise out of necessity, but governments are only legitimate when the people freely and voluntarily legitimize those in positions of power. Simmel (1971) also points out how the zeitgeist of the nineteenth century was the struggle between freedom and liberty on the one hand, and social order on the other. Sieyes (n.d.) points out the ways the Third Estateâ€”the masses, the majority of peopleâ€”started to perform the essential social, political, and economic services that had previously rested wholly within the power of the nobility and church. The empowerment of the Third Estate would not have been possible without the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution also changed social norms. Dickensâ€™s A Christmas Carol is only one example of how the literature of the Victorian era reflected trends towards socialist ethics. The proletariat, the working classes, became more keenly aware of how the owners of the means of production were exploiting their labor by placing arbitrary values on their wages. Nowhere was the philosophy of socialism and communism explained more cogently and rationally than in The Communist Manifesto. Marx and Engels had their finger on the pulse of the social, cultural, and political revolutions taking place throughout Europe. Marx viewed the changes as being evolutionary in nature: as a progression from one type of government to another. Imperialism gave way to capitalism, which in turn would give way to socialism.
Industrial capitalism helped dismantle the most familiar political and economic institutions that had prevailed in Europe. Although sometimes tumultuous, the changes taking place in European society enabled the rise of the working classes to protest labor exploitation. The eliteâ€”the bourgeoisieâ€”no longer claimed religious authority but merely wielded power due to their economic privilege. As a result, the proletariat empowered themselves to create new systems of self-governance, ranging from republican democracies to democratic socialist states that kept the welfare of the people in mind.
Burke, E. (n.d.). Reflections on the revolution in France.
Dickens, C. (n.d.). A Christmas Carol.
Marx, K. & Engels, F. (n.d.). The Communist Manifesto.
Rousseau, J.J. (n.d.). Subject of the first book. In The Social Contract.
Sieyes, E.J. (n.d.). What is the third estate?
Simmel, D.N. (1971). The metropolis and mental life. On Individuality and Social Norms.
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