The industrial society, when it was finally established in some pockets of the world, was found to be just the opposite of the agrarian society in very fundamental ways.
Five crucial features of the industrial society separated it from the agrarian world and had implications for the emergence of the nationalism.
One, it was a society based on perpetual growth – both economic and cognitive, the two being interrelated. Cognitive growth in the realm of technology, though not confined to it, directly fed into economic growth and the latter, in turn facilitated investments for technological updating.
Changes had occurred in the agrarian world, but it was never a rule. The industrial society showed a tremendous commitment to continuous change and growth. The idea of progress was born for the first time. Technology and economy got linked to each other in a manner in which they were not in the pre-modern times.
A constantly growing society would not allow any stable barriers of rank, status and caste. The two are indeed incompatible. Social structures, which had taken their permanence for granted in the agrarian world, would find it impossible to resist the hurricane of industrialism.
Two, it was literate society. Literacy in the agrarian world was confined to the exclusive high-culture, in other words to the king, priest and the scholar. The common man did not feted literacy and did not have it or had it at a very elementary level which could easily be impacted by his family or the community. Industrial society, on the other hand, cannot survive without universal literacy. There are in fact many reasons why it has to be so.
One, industrial economy requires greater participation in the running of the economy by a much larger section of the population. These participants, drawn from very different cultural backgrounds and involved in very different tasks assigned to them, must be able to communicate with each other in order to ensure the running of the economy and the system.
Drawn as they are from different cultural settings, they cannot communicate in their old idioms. They have to communicate in some standardized idiom in which all of them have to be trained. This is an enormous task and can no longer be performed by the traditional agencies (family, guild, community etc).
Traditional agencies, rooted in their own cultural contexts, cannot, in any case, impart context-free education. Such training can only be imparted uniformly to all citizens by an agency as large as the State.
In other words, education which was a cottage industry in the agrarian world must now become full- fledged, impersonal and organized modern industry to turn out neat, uniform human product out of the raw material of an uprooted anonymous mass population.
As a result, people start resembling each other culturally and share the same language in which they have all been taught. The language at school may initially be different from the language at home, but gradually, in about a generation’s time, the language at school also becomes the language at home.
The Hungarian peasant only initially speaks two languages – the local dialect at home and its refined and comprehensive version at school. Gradually, within a generation or so, the latter replaces the dialect at home also.
This process helps in the creation of a seamless, culturally uniform, internally standardized society and thus fulfills a major precondition for nationalism. Two, the new system also demands that these trained men should be able to perform diverse tasks suited to the requirements of a constantly growing economy.
They should therefore be ready to shift occupationally. Only a generic educational training, imparted by a large centralized agency, can ensure that men are competent and qualified to undertake newer tasks. The paradox of the industrial age is that it is a system based on specialism but the specialism in the industrial age is very general.
Every man is a specialist. Every man is trained to be a specialist. One half of this training is generic (based on language, cognition and a common conceptual currency); the other half is specific and must be different for different tasks (like doctors, managers, engineers, computer personnel etc.) Now anyone required to shift occupationally can be trained specifically for that task because he has already received the generic training.
This enables people to move occupationally across generations and sometimes within the span of a single generation. This provides the industrial society a certain mobility, which also facilitates the nationalist project. Three, an industrial society is one in which work is not manual but semantic. It does not any longer (certainly in mature industrial societies) consist of ploughing, reaping, threshing, but rather of handling machines and pushing buttons.
In the pre-modern world work consisted of the application of the human muscle over matter with the help of elementary technology based on wind and water – all this changes with the arrival of modern technology. A qualified worker in an industrial economy is one who must know which button to press, how to operate the machines, and if possible, to fix minor errors.
In other words modern workers have to manipulate not things but meanings and messages. All these qualifications require literacy imparted in a standardized medium. The image of a worker, just uprooted from his village and pushed straight into industry is rapidly becoming archaic. A worker is not inherently suited to the tasks of the modern economy; he needs to be trained (which implies literacy) to perform his tasks suitably and satisfactorily Modern economy does not just need a worker; it needs a skilled worker.
A part of the skill is also the ability to perform different tasks, as and when the need arises. Imparting standardized context free education to such a vast number is a monumental task and cannot be performed by the agencies which had been doing it for century’s namely kin, local unit, county, guild.
It can only be provided by a modern national education system, ‘a pyramid at whose base are primarily schools, staffed by teachers trained at secondary schools, staffed by University trained teachers, led by the products of advanced graduate schools. Only the state can maintain and look after such a huge structure or delegate it to one of its agencies.
The implications of such a literate society are various; emergence of nationalism is only one of them. It creates internally standardized and homogeneous cultural communities. This is just what nationalism needs.
The third, fourth and fifth features of the industrial society are actually an extension of the first and the second (i.e. literate society, committed to perpetual growth). It is mobile society; it is an egalitarian society; and it is a society with a shared high-culture and not exclusive as it was in the agrarian world.