The Human Journey
The Axemaker's Gift

Turning Points in the Development of Contemporary Society


A report on The Axemaker’s Gift
Technology’s Capture and Control of Our Minds and Culture

Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1997

Pages 1234

Chapter 7: Root and Branch

In a single generation since the Scientific Revolution had culminated with Newton, science and technology were already giving us a radically new view of nature by suggesting that it could be “improved.” As the full force of the scientific revolution began to take effect, the cutting edge of innovation became sharper and more finely honed than ever before. The new axemaker gifts developed in the Royal Society laboratories were spreading into society, giving governments and institutions the power to change the world with unexpected speed and in unprecedented detail.

Plowing a field

At this time, society everywhere was primarily agricultural and life on the land had altered little since the first Levantine settlements twelve thousand years ago. The early Mediterranean scratch plough had given way to the late-Roman, northern-European wheeled version, with a coulter that cut the sod and to some extent turned it over, creating furrows that made heavy soils easier to drain. For centuries most inhabitants of agriculturally based economies had lived their lives by rote, at nature’s command. This ancient cycle and the lifestyle of the large majority of the population who lived on the land were both to be totally changed by a new axemaker gift.

In 1640, a book about new Dutch farming innovations was published. The book introduced new fodder grasses – sanfoin, clover, trefoil, and alfalfa – which put nitrogen back into the soil. New methods of crop rotation allowed much more land to be put into cultivation. These advances spread rapidly, with a resulting food surplus and population growth. In 1500, roughly 50% of the available land was cultivated; by 1700 it was 75%.

The new agricultural techniques made it possible to cultivate previously infertile or uneconomic land, which could now be made profitable enough to be cut up, cleared and then fenced for use. Enclosure was a more efficient way to use the land than the old-fashioned open field because it allowed more rational consolidation of property. The new-style farmers bought up strips of land from different owners, added newly enclosed areas, and assembled large, productive unified properties. These techniques were to have profound social effects because enclosure cut off the small cottager from his acres and the sharecropper from his common grazing rights.

Pile of money (capital)

The profits of the landowners resulted in capital being generated, with much of this used in buying up even more land. A financial revolution was the result. This revolution would further isolate and separate people and make it possible to use money to manipulate their behavior. Capital was an exciting new kind of tool because it’s potential for self-increase was apparently unlimited. John Locke provided inspiration for the institutions of the day by reconciling in a new and profitable way, the concepts of universal laws, dominion over nature, and profit. As he put it, “The great and chief end, therefore, of Men’s uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property.”

Capital was by now also generating major changes in social behavior as wages altered the nature of work and altered the relationship between worker and employer. Time and effort were increasingly measured not in terms of mutual responsibilities between employer and employee, but in terms of cash. As the system matured, it took the usual cut-and-control path. Manipulation of capital fragmented the production process, deskilling the workers, reducing them to units of production that could be more easily controlled. A new kind of life was created: mindless repetition of meaningless tasks set to the speed of a machine.

Smith’s mathematically expressed laws of production copied those of the earlier Scientific Revolution. According to his new “law,” to be applied by governments and institutions with increasing effectiveness, the stimulus for the division of labor was the extent of the market, and this in turn depended on the ease of exchange of goods for capital. Continued growth required an ever widening market in which transportation and financial instruments were essential tools.

Watt steam pumping engine
Watt’s steam pumping engine

To complete this new way of operating, a new means of production was needed. One that would be less dependent on skilled workers, was more controllable, and more mechanical. Steam power was the gift which made possible the execution of the new economy. It also made unskilled labor useful, which put large downward pressure on wages.

The Industrial Revolution that steam made possible would be the greatest of all axemaker triumphs so far in history, and it would change the entire world. The revolution began in the textile industries. The inventions of the day fed off of one another. The advanced spinning machine in 1769 automated the process of thread making. By 1812, there were 5 million spindles in England, with over 100,000 unskilled workers operating the new machines. By 1850 there were 250,000 steam powered looms in operation.

The interactions of industry and science spurred massive changes. Advances in gun manufacture led to the development of interchangeable parts. The implementation of these interchangeable parts in textile machines reduced the need for skilled workers to fix the machines. These tendencies moved workers more towards the status of interchangeable parts. The interactions of these inventions stimulated surprising discoveries. The pace of change was increasing rapidly.

Chapter 8: Class Act

Throughout history, mysterious axemaker knowledge always strengthened social conformity as at the same time it increasingly distanced the change-makers and their institutional masters from the general public whose lives they controlled. The sheer scale and number of new control systems generated by late-eighteenth-century technologists and entrepreneurs widened this gulf and imposed rigid conformity as never before. More and more the life of the worker was being molded to fit the needs of the machine and factory. The realization that this was the case was also starting to spread.

A magazine for English factory workers was published in 1828. This talked about how the policies and gifts of the axemakers had changed them. The industrial revolution had pulled people into the cities so fast that effective facilities to control them were lacking. The horrible conditions of the new urban poor led to riots. These uprisings, and the resulting draconian suppression, finalized the concept of ‘class’.

Portrait of Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine

Revolutionary works, such as that of Thomas Paine’s, were viewed with alarm by the establishment. New methods of control were needed. Propaganda, in many forms, was used heavily. The themes of discipline and submission to authority were heavily touted. The Evangelical Movement Moral Crusade was instrumental in this effort. Concurrently, more left-wing organizations were springing up. Worker cooperatives were forming, such as the London Cooperative Society in 1824. By 1831 over 500 such societies were in existence. One of the stated goals of some of these was to establish a community of property.

The establishment fought back against these trends in the schools and churches. Education took on the form of a production line. Literacy and numeracy were learned by rote – the bare minimum for factory work. The practice of writing was discouraged, to diminish the capacity for organized dissent. Sunday school was instituted in England in 1785, to clear the streets on Sundays. Members of the Evangelical movement infiltrated banking and political institutions to promote their solutions for social stability.

Robert Owen
Robert Owen

The left-wing offered alternatives, although they would ultimately prove to be as conformist as those offered by the establishment. In 1816, Robert Owen – in New Lanark, Scotland – modeled his factory as a community complete with shops, hospital, and a school. Part of Owen’s belief was that human progress would be impossible without first eliminating ignorance. Owen and his followers set up schools and institutions to teach the skills necessary for successful factory life. Many of their publications took forms similar to the religious propaganda of the establishment, but the hymns were not Christian, and the sermons were about social topics. While the Socialists offered to eliminate class distinctions, their emphasis was still on work, and the factory, as the center of modern life.

The new city-based industrial society cut off the people from nature, and from any regard for it, also removing from the new city dwellers any sense of native origin. The factory system also introduced cash wages, and these placed a premium on youth and vigor, and in doing so impaired or destroyed the authority of the old. The nature of urban communities changed as the middle classes left the city centers, not to return there until late in the twentieth century.

IBM clock
IBM time clock

The concept of time also changed for workers. Time sheets, time keepers, fines for lateness were introduced. William Temple advocated poor children being sent to work at the age of four to habituate them to the rhythm of the factory. Working life was chopped up and set in orderly sequence, dominated by the need to conform to the machine.

Against this raged the emerging and equally conformist alternate systems of Socialism and Communism. In 1884, the Social Democratic Foundation stood for social ownership of the means of production and exchange and saw the retention of political power by the working class as the essential means of achieving this end. In the late 1880’s the formation of major unions of the unskilled took place under socialist leadership, strengthening the connection between political activity and industrial organization that had been lacking in the early days. At the same time, the new Socialists embarked on a program of propaganda and education of their own.

These factions set up two opposing streams which would dominate the world for the next century.

In mid-eighteenth century, the axemakers had provided the means to change the shape of a tulip. Only three generations later their gifts were giving the West the means to change the shape of the planet. The cut-and-control approach to industrial production had also removed and separated most members of European society from their previous direct relationship with the land. Their cities were now dependent for survival on cash from a factory that was dependent on raw materials from the colonies. The community had been decomposed into “units of productive labor”.

Chapter 9: Doctor's Order

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek
Antoni van Leeuwenhoek was
the first to see bacteria

In what would be the axemakers’ most seductive gift, in return for obedience and conformity, they offered life. 18th century medicine would change the way we viewed ourselves and life once again. Previously, no real medicine, or tools for diagnosis existed. Each person was felt to be a unique entity, and the body, mind and personality were inseparable. However, the revolutionary wars in France had left so many sick and wounded that the case for effective general therapy had become an urgent social priority. By 1807, Paris hospitals held over 37,000 patients, many of them soldiers or peasants injured in the revolutionary wars.

Painting of a doctor and patient
The Doctor by Luke Fildes

With these wounded peasants began the modern reverence for the doctor of medicine, who from then on began to ignore his patient. Medicine was now free to move away from therapy and healing (what the patient wanted) to diagnosis and classification of disease (what the doctor wanted). Once again, the gulf between the expert and uninitiated would widen.

Stethoscope 1890
Stethoscope 1890

Medicine rapidly found ways to reduce data on the human body to many more subcategories. Thermometers had been in use for over a century, and a standard temperature defined. In 1816, the French doctor Theophile Laennec invented “indirect auscultation” to listen to the sounds of the chest. This gave way in 1829 to the stethoscope. These tools were able to identify emphysema, edema of the lungs, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Chemistry made urinalysis possible with the first test for albumen in 1833. Becquerel statistically averaged the components of urine in 1841 to derive definitions of “healthy” and “diseased” states. The microscope enabled Gabriel Andral to analyze blood into its constituent parts in 1841. Other inventions followed: the spirometer, ophthalmoscope, and laryngoscope. In 1868, Wunderlich introduced the “chart” – the state of the patient had been reduced to a set of numbers at the foot of the bed.

map of the distribution of cholera
Distribution of cholera

Cholera broke out in Britain in 1831. This primarily affected the poor and destitute. The population explosion allowed by the new agricultural techniques, and the move to urbanization spurred by rapid industrialization, had made conditions ripe for epidemic. Society was pushed towards anarchy. Riots broke out in London in 1832.

In 1842, a report commissioned by the British government of the conditions and causes of disease was published. This report so shocked Victorian society that it led to measures that would give public institutions unprecedented powers over the private life of the individual. What was so shocking was the depiction of the appalling conditions in the cities. The sewer and water arrangements were particularly bad. Overcrowding, of humans with humans, and of humans with animals, was rampant. Most shocking were depictions of the moral problems – frequent bastardies, prevalent incest, and children forced into begging and prostitution. The report suggested that reform was necessary if a revolution was to be avoided.

A more severe outbreak of Cholera appeared in 1848. This prompted the passage of the Public Health act. This act and the Nuisances Removal act gave the government new compulsory powers to control disease. Public health considerations were to bring direct state intervention in the private life of the individual. By 1866, the authorities had found that areas with filtered water had dramatically lowered incidences of cholera. The attempts at control through quantification by statistics and draconian social control seemed to have worked. The success set the pattern of future state intervention in cases of what was now to be defined as ‘matters of public concern’.

The epidemics and the social conditions that had made their effect so devastating, had both served to strengthen the grip of the state on the community at large. Now the institutionalizing of public health, aided by developments in medical technology, would strengthen it further.

Lister developed better microscopes from 1825 to 1830. The shape of blood corpuscles was determined in 1827. 1831 saw the observation of the cell nucleus and of bacteria. The formation of cells was observed in 1851. The cell came to be regarded as the basic unit of existence, and life was no more than the sum of cellular phenomena that could now be submitted to normal physical and chemical laws, according to Virchow in 1845.

Thanks to bacteriological techniques, diagnosis was now able to quit the hospital ward entirely. New laboratories sprung up, first in the large hospitals such as St. George’s in London and Bellevue in New York. Public laboratories soon followed. These public health laboratories brought the combined gifts of microscopes and bacteriology to the control of public health and did away with patient involvement. There were now a growing number of specialists and institutions, concerned with the disease and its behavior, for which patients provided little more than a source of material for study. The successes of these laboratories diverted attention away from the more diffuse problems of living conditions, and established a narrow bacteriological view of disease which would remain dominant for decades.

With Western medicine we have cut apart the human body in the same way as we have, through history, separated the axemaker from the non-axemaker, subject from god-king, communicant from priest, nation from nation, and people from land. We have dissected and divided up the world and its inhabitants so that they can be manipulated as economic and political units interchangeable with one another. In doing all this, we have cut out the individual in the same way as we have chopped up the planet, axing the single parts without regard for the whole. This process has brought us close to catastrophe.

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