Book Review: A Striking Coincidence
Although written by a man who lived too early to have studied Marx (and who, in addition, stated, he was no economist, and merely wished to learn from the public men of his day) the following analysis of the causes of the misery following upon the close of the Napoleonic wars is as applicable in its main points to-day as when written over a hundred years ago.
“I said the cause of this apparently unaccountable distress seemed to me to be the new extraordinary changes which had occurred during so long a war, when men and materials had been for a quarter of a century in such urgent demand, to support the waste of our armies and navies upon so extensive a scale for so long a period. All things had attained to war prices, and these had been so long maintained, that they appeared to the present generation the natural state of business and public affairs. The want of hands and materials, with the lavish expenditure, created a demand for and gave great encouragement to new mechanical inventions and chemical discoveries, to supersede manual labour in supplying the materials required for warlike purposes, and these, direct and indirect, were innumerable. The war was a great and most extravagant customer to farmers, manufacturers, and other producers of wealth, and many during this period became very wealthy. The expenditure of the last year of the war for this country alone was one hundred and thirty millions sterling, or an excess of eighty millions of pounds sterling over the peace expenditure. And on the day on which peace was signed, this great customer of the producers died, and prices fell as the demand diminished, until the prime cost of the articles required for war could not be obtained. The barns and farmyards were full, warehouses loaded, and such was our artificial state of society that this very superabundance of wealth was the sole cause of the existing distress. Burn the stock in the farmyards and warehouses, and prosperity would immediately recommence in the same manner as if the war had continued. This want of demand at remunerating prices compelled the master producers to consider what they could do to diminish the amount of their productions and the cost of producing until these surplus stocks could be taken off the market. To effect these results, every economy in producing was resorted to, and men, being more expensive machines for producing than mechanical and chemical invention and discoveries, so extensively brought into action during the war, the men were discharged, and the machines were made to supersede them, while the numbers unemployed were increased by the discharge of men from the Army and Navy.
Hence the great distress for want of work among all classes whose labour was so much in demand while the war continued. This increase of mechanical and chemical power was continually diminishing the demand for and value of manual labour, and would continue to do so, and would effect great changes throughout society. For the new power created by these new inventions and discoveries was already enormous, and was superseding manual power.“—Robert Owen (page 171, “Life of Robert Owen,” Bohn’s Popular Library.)