We take for granted that industrialisation and moving off the farm has improved human welfare but that is not true in all places, nor in all times. In Britain Industrialisation was synonymous with land enclosure: pushing feudal tenants off land they had previously had the right to use. Enclosure was done not to grow more food but to make more profit, and the people who were displaced flooded into England’s cities, where they were compelled by the real prospect of starvation and death to work in the new factories. These factory workers lived worse than they had as tenant farmers and serfs. They worked more hours, had less food, died younger, and during their lives suffered more from disease because of the horrible sanitation of European cities at the time.
In Mexico, after NAFTA, small farmers lost their farms because they could not compete with subsidized American agriculture. They flooded into Mexican cities, or they headed north to America to work as illegal immigrants. Again, though in some cases they earned more money, the vast majority of them were worse off than when they lived on the farms, and Mexicans as a whole suffered because after American interests bought Mexico’s food industry, the price of food soared, and the quality of that food dropped.
After World War II Americans flooded from the farms into the new cities. For this generation, the GI generation, it was a straight upgrade: their lives were better. They worked less hours, they had more food, they had access to power and indoor plumbing, and good jobs with good pay. If you weren’t black, the 1950s and 1960s are looked back on as the heyday of American prosperity. Why? The first generation had to be treated well because they had options: they could go back to the family farm. So their jobs, and their lives as consumers had to be clearly superior to being on a farm. But today, the family farms are gone.
– From ‘The Disposable Economy’ by Ian Welsh, somewhat paraphrased.