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Why Did We Choose to Industrialize? Montreal, 1819–1849 by Robert C.H. Sweeny (review)
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Why Did We Choose to Industrialize? Montreal, 1819–1849. Robert C.H. Sweeny. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015. Pp. 435, $39.95

The momentous changes of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when living standards finally increased beyond those dictated by Malthusian pressures, represent the greatest break in human history. Examining how certain societies transformed themselves (or failed to) is thus one of the most fascinating ventures historians can undertake. It is that venture, focused on the case of Montreal, which Robert Sweeny undertakes in this book.

The book assembles years of meticulous research on urban-rural relations and on the urban dwellers of the city. In the process, Sweeny offers numerous comments about the craft of being a historian interlaced with personal stories of how certain research products came about. This unique approach makes for a pleasant read. The most interesting sections concern the monthly banking data during the 1820s and the detailed treatment of the census, maps, and city directories of Montreal in order to obtain a wide treatment of socio-economic realities.

There are three main takeaways from the book. The first is that the staple thesis is a poor contender to explain industrialization (see Chapters 2 and 3 dealing with colonial states and internal dynamics). The second is that there was path dependency in Montreal’s development. Decisions made by individuals early in the nineteenth century in Montreal established patterns of social and economic interactions that would sustain themselves. The third is that properly evaluating sources lead us to see that earlier decisions were being rationalized and justified by those who produced those sources. This reinforced an emerging order. In essence, those who pushed for Montreal’s industrialization rejected the ancien régime and the moral economy that governed relations prior to industrialization and created self-reinforcing rationales for the new order they advanced. Put simply, the old order was progressively swept aside to make way for a new (liberal) [End Page 178] order, and then narratives were created to justify the inequalities that emerged in the new order.

There is much to commend in the way the book is presented and in the wealth of the data provided. Nonetheless, two criticisms must be made. The first relates to the premise of the book. The question contained in the title, Why Did We Choose to Industrialize?, is misleading. It assumes that there was industrialization. This is empirically questionable. Industrialization is associated with rising living standards. Few signs of this are to be found in Montreal. Evidence regarding wages suggests relative stagnation in real terms. The same is observed using anthropometric data as a proxy for the biological standard of living; in fact, there seems to be a decline in stature throughout the period. Data regarding agricultural production suggest a stagnation up to 1850. The best evidence of improvement in living standards is provided by Gilles Paquet and Jean-Pierre Wallot (Québec moderne, 1760–1840: Essai d’histoire économique et sociale, Hurtubise, 2007) who used probate records, which have numerous flaws, to find a growth rate of per capita wealth ranging from 0.37 per cent and 0.92 per cent per year between the 1790s and 1830s. These figures are well below those for the industrializing English world. The sustained rise of living standards in Quebec and Montreal seem to have started in the 1870s or 1880s–well beyond Sweeny’s time window–and this was at a slower pace than elsewhere in Canada. It would have been more proper to ask the question why Montreal (and Quebec) did not industrialize.

The second problem is with the motivation of the book. At the beginning of the book, Sweeny establishes his goal to oppose the rise of “neo-liberalism.” The word “neo-liberal” is blended with the concept of “rational choice” as if both were one and the same. They are not. Those accused of being “neo-liberal” (a mantle still unclaimed by cliometricians or economists) are those “who privilege the individual over the social and the collective” (9). They do no such thing. What they do is insist on studying individuals within their communities. Most economic...