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  • The Industrial Revolution: The State, Knowledge and Global Trade by William J Ashworth
  • Jeff Horn (bio)
The Industrial Revolution: The State, Knowledge and Global Trade. By William J Ashworth. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017. Pp.352. Paperback $21.99.

This is a smart, combative book that fills an important niche in our understanding of the Industrial Revolution. William J. Ashworth challenges the notion that it was Britain's unique culture that allowed scientific knowledge to become an open access "public good" that provided the impetus for modern economic growth. Borrowing Andre Wakefield's memorable phrase, he terms this "leading consensus in mainstream Western economics" "Disney history" (p. 244). Instead, Ashworth argues convincingly that "what really set eighteenth-century Britain apart was the peculiar strength and distinctive policies of its state, born primarily of war" (p. 245).

Twelve chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue lay out a powerful interpretation focused on the role of the British government in developing technical knowledge and industrial experience. He also shows how the regulation of trade generated the surpluses that enabled Britain to build a relatively effective and efficient fiscal-military state. Ashworth emphasizes the need for a long-term global view that recognizes Britain's debt to other countries and parts of the world as well as a recognition of the importance of illiberal policies in nurturing industrialization. As a summary of both his own and others' contributions to disputing a direct and preeminent place of scientific knowledge in industrialization championed by Joel Mokyr and Margaret C. Jacob, among others, Ashworth's book succeeds admirably.

Ashworth's under-appreciated monograph on the excise tax and its role in regulating industry, generating income, and spreading knowledge has contributed much to this book, as has the work of Leonard Rosenband. Ashworth has, however, also read widely and deeply in the economic and technological literatures and has marshalled additional evidence that gives both weight and texture, taking this work beyond a typical textbook-style account. He considers the international market for textiles especially with the European continent and South Asia, but with reference to China and the Atlantic world, including Africa. I would have liked greater consideration of the implications of Joseph Inikori's groundbreaking study (Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England, Cambridge University Press, 2009): namely, the question of how much weight should be given to Britain's involvement with slavery and the slave trade in funding its fiscal-military state and the Industrial Revolution; but Ashworth's account undermines many assumptions about British "superiority" in the eighteenth century (see Inikori).

The heart of the book (chapters 5–7) explores "State Protection and Industrial Development," "The State as Arbiter of Production," and "Balancing Tax and Industry: The Regulation of Domestic Manufactures," [End Page 967] respectively. These three chapters demonstrate decisively how profoundly the British state was engaged in supporting the technical elements of manufacturing and turning a relative weakness in the mid-seventeenth century to a decisive advantage 125 years later. In manufacturing category after category, Ashworth shows the key role of foreign experts in improving English production and how important the tariff barriers and export subsidies offered by the state were in protecting old industries and developing new ones. Nor, he reiterates, was scientific knowledge directly responsible for any of the industrial breakthroughs of the era, a well-known but frequently ignored element of the argument about the importance of the knowledge economy. Ashworth also makes frequent comparisons to government action in other countries, especially France, to show that what the British were doing was different only in specific means, not in its goals or depth. In fact, Ashworth's work points to the greater role of the British state in industrial development than its industrial rivals, at least until the early nineteenth century, when the island nation's advantages were in place.

Ashworth explicitly adopts a Thompsonian approach to considering the lived experience and culture of laborers during early industrialization (pp. 201–07). However, Ashworth, unlike E. P. Thompson, downplays the fiscal-military state's repression of workers and their culture. Nor is Ashworth's account of the mechanisms of political economy involved in the nineteenth-century switch from protectionism to...


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pp. 967-968
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