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What Engels’ (Least) Favorite Color Teaches about Capitalism

Blog Post | Manufacturing

What Engels’ (Least) Favorite Color Teaches about Capitalism

"Any one not Aniline"

Did you ever receive one of those 90s chain emails in your inbox? You know, the kind where you fill in your favorite band/animal/team/color/etc. and then send it to ten friends or else you’d have bad luck for the week?

I recently stumbled across a 19th century version, a “confession” filled out by Friedrich Engels, the original champagne socialist who is now best known for popularizing Karl Marx’s ideas.

Frederick Engels "Confession"

Little on the list is truly surprising. Engels wouldn’t be the first notorious womanizer (and accused rapist) to declare his love for women even while evincing a base misogyny.

But the answer that immediately caught my eye was Engels’ favorite color: “Any one not Aniline.” Now, if you’re an ordinary, well-adjusted denizen of the 21st century, odds are that you immediately considered opening a new tab to ask Google, “What color is aniline?”

There’s no need to click away. Aniline was mauve. And it is hard to overstate the extent to which various shades of the new purple swept the world of fashion in the 1850s and 1860s.

A mauve piece of silk dyed by Sir William Henry Perkin

That’s because aniline was the first commercially-scalable synthetic dye, invented at a time when chemists were unlocking the secrets of the universe by distilling, vaporizing, and generally futzing with every substance they could get their hands on.

Aniline was actually the product of a failed British attempt in 1856 to synthesize quinine in hopes of making anti-malarial treatments cheaper and easier to produce than the old way of grinding up the bark of a hard to acquire Amazonian tree. The result wouldn’t especially help imperialists expand their empires over mosquito-infested jungles, but it did produce a particularly vivid shade of purple.

The researcher, an eighteen year old college student named William Perkin, was also an amateur painter, and immediately saw the value of a cheap, easy to produce dye that was more durable than existing alternatives. Seeking capital investment, Perkin partnered with Robert Pullar, a Scottish dye entrepreneur who would later become a radical pro-free trade member of Parliament. By the end of the century, Perkin and Pullar owned a global network of synthetic dye factories that brought color to the masses.

This meant that purplish, pinkish, and reddish dyes were suddenly this cheap and widely available for the first time in human history. Tweaking the distillation process could produce mauveine, fuchsin, and safranin, which are the synthetic forerunners of the colors we call mauve, fuchsia/magenta, and saffron today. It may have been the single most significant moment in modern fashion history.

Prior to this, many of the dyes used for clothing and paint had to be ground up from natural ingredients. For instance, if you lived in 4th century Rome and wanted to wear purple clothing, you needed someone to find and grind up twelve thousand snails of a particular species that lived mostly in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Doing so would yield 1.4 grams of dye, which was barely enough to color the trim of a single piece of clothing. The cost of purple was thus astronomical; pound for pound, “Tyrian purple” was worth three times as much as pure gold! And purple dye was so hard to acquire, at any price, that sumptuary laws often prohibited anyone except royalty from wearing purple clothing.

But after 1856, the ability to synthesize aniline meant that purple hues were suddenly everywhere. What had once cost pounds of gold now cost mere pennies. Mauve was all the rage — people were contracting “mauve measles,” as British wags put it — a fact that would not have been lost on Engels’ when he wrote out his list in 1868 since his family fortune was tied up in textiles. (He properly capitalized “Aniline” since it was then still a proprietary product.)

When you see televised depictions of Victorian era fashion, like middle class women wearing acres of brightly-colored fabric, you are looking at a byproduct of the synthetic dyes revolution.

Purple Victorian era dress

And that wave of color cascaded step-by-step, class-by-class, down throughout society. Cheaper, more durable, and more vivid products abounded, from housepaints to wallpapers. Today, we take for granted the idea that color is near costless. It would strike a 21st century consumer as bizarre if they were told that a bright purple dress or mauve house paint would cost 10x (or 1000x) the price of one that was white.

Even so, the rise of synthetic purple sparked a sartorial reaction. Purple, as long as it was rare and inaccessible to the plebeians, was considered dignified, elegant, and noble. But once purple became commonplace, it was gauche and uncouth. A century later when cultural critic Paul Fussell summarized the ways that dress signified class status, he lumped purple in with polyester fibers and sports jerseys as markers of belonging to the grubby “proles.”

And that brings us back to Engels’ sneering response, “Any one but Aniline.” On the one hand, it’s not surprising that a textile manufacturer might be annoyed at the disruption to his existing (and profitable) supply chain. Engels was also a product of inherited wealth, and making fun of Aniline was common sport for his class at the time. A satirical Punch cartoon of 1877 featured a dilettante sniveling about a debutante, “She affects Aniline dyes, don’t you know! I weally couldn’t go down to suppah with a young Lady who wears Mauve twimmings in her skirt, and magenta wibbons in her hair!”

Pecuniary self-interest and class snobbery aside, Engels wouldn’t be the first socialist guilty of reflexive suspicion towards technological innovation and the capitalists that had made it possible. The Luddites you will always have with you.

For whatever reason, Engels failed to see how the invention of synthetic dyes was a boon to workers and society as a whole, a future in which the rare colors of kings would become the ordinaries of proles. Capitalist incentives had once again commissioned a technological innovation that could push back against harsh, natural scarcity. Life would become a little bit brighter and bolder because of it.

Every one Aniline.

This article was published at Matzko Minute on 8/28/2023.

Blog Post | Progress Studies

What Are the Causes of Human Progress?

The escape from stagnation has always required a culture of optimism and progress.

Summary: Human progress requires a culture of openness to change and innovation, which historically has been rare and resisted by established elites. Periods of remarkable achievement, like that seen in Enlightenment Europe, occurred when societies embraced new ideas and allowed for intellectual and economic freedom. The key to sustained progress lies in maintaining a culture of optimism and a politico-economic system that encourages innovation rather than suppressing it.

To make progress, we must do something differently from what we did yesterday, and we must do it faster, better, or with less effort. To accomplish that, we innovate, and we imitate. That takes a certain openness to surprises, and that openness is rare. It is difficult to come up with something that never existed. It’s also dangerous, since most innovations fail.

If you live close to subsistence level, you don’t have a margin for error. So, if someone wants to hunt in a new way or experiment with a new crop, it is not necessarily popular. There is a reason why most historical societies that came up with a way of sustaining themselves tried to stick to that recipe and considered innovators troublemakers.

That means that innovation depended on stumbling on a new way of doing things. Someone came up with a new and better tool or method by accident or by imitating nature or another tribe. But when populations were small, few people accidentally came across a great new way of doing things, and there were few people to imitate. In other words, there is a limit to what can be done in small, isolated societies.

It took greater population density and links to other groups to get the process of innovation and specialization going. Cultures at the crossroads between different civilizations and traditions were exposed to other ways of life as merchants, migrants, and military moved around. By combining different ideas, they set the process of innovation in motion. Ideas started having sex with each other, in the British writer Matt Ridley’s memorable phrase.

Such openness gave rise to extraordinary periods of achievement in cultures like ancient Greece and Rome, Abbasid Baghdad, and Song China. They were, as the American economist Jack Goldstone calls them, “efflorescences”—sharp and unexpected upturns that did not become self-sustaining and accelerating. They did not last.

The American economic historian Joel Mokyr talks about that as Cardwell’s Law—named after the technology historian D. S. L. Cardwell, who observed that most societies remained creative only for a short period. Often, they were ruined by external enemies, since poorer states and roving bandits are attracted by the former’s wealth.

But there are also enemies within. Every act of major technological innovation is “an act of rebellion against conventional wisdom and vested interests,” explains Mokyr. And conventional wisdom and vested interest have a way of fighting back.

Economic, intellectual, and political elites in every society have built their power on specific methods of production and a certain set of mythologies and ideas. The vested interests have an incentive to stop or at least control innovations that risk upsetting the status quo. They try to reimpose orthodoxies and reduce the potential for surprises, and sooner or later they win, the efflorescence is stamped out, and society reverts to the long stagnation.

An escape from stagnation requires a culture of optimism and progress to justify and encourage innovation, and it takes a particular politico-economic system to give people the freedom to engage in the continuous creation of novelty.

Enlightenment and Classical Liberalism

Luckily, this culture emerged forcefully in western Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, in the form of the Enlightenment, which replaced superstition and authority with the ideals of reason, science, and humanism, as the Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker summarizes it, and classical liberalism, which removed political barriers to thought, debate, innovation, and trade.

It was the combined forces of the Enlightenment and classical liberalism that reduced intellectual and economic elites’ power to stamp out progress. Cardwell’s Law started to break down, and the road opened for individualists, innovators, and industrialists to change our world forever.

Why did this happen in Europe, and why then? There are two traditionally competing narratives, one associated with the right and one with the left, and they are equally wrong. According to the first, it was because Europeans were better than others (perhaps because of natural superiority, the legacy of the ancients, or Christianity). According to the second, it was because Europeans were worse than others (perhaps because of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism).

The problem with the first explanation is that experimentation in science, technology, and capitalism had been present in previous pagan, Muslim, Confucian, and other cultures. In fact, Europe imported and improved upon many non-European advances. The problem with the second explanation is that all previous civilizations also engaged in slavery, colonialism, and imperialism when they had a chance. Yet, they remained poor. So, what made Europe more successful must have been something else.

As noted, elites everywhere reacted to surprising innovations by trying to enforce political authority and intellectual orthodoxy. What made Europe different was that the elites failed. Unlike the Chinese or Ottoman empires, Europe was blessed with political and jurisdictional fragmentation, which has been emphasized by scholars like the British-Australian economic historian Eric Jones and the English historian Stephen Davies.

European rulers had the same ambitions to conquer and control, but on a peninsula of peninsulas, they were halted at mountain ranges, bodies of waters, riverine marshes, and forested landscape. Therefore, Europe was split into a mindboggling array of polities, independent cities, autonomous universities, and different religious denominations.

Hundreds of different sovereigns could not coordinate repression and impose one orthodoxy on all. That always left room for thinkers, entrepreneurs, and banned books to migrate to the jurisdiction most hospitable to their particular heresy. The Protestant Reformation was a further blow to ambitions for universal authority. How can you revert to a trusted authority when you don’t know which authority to trust? Nullius in verba (take nobody’s word for it), was not just the motto of the Royal Society, founded in London in 1660, but the spirit of the whole Enlightenment project.

European princes discovered that rivals who welcomed more migrant scientists, entrepreneurs, and technologies also acquired more wealth and thereby more war-making capacity. Disruptive innovations still threatened the elite power base in the long term, but a lack of innovation might threaten their lives instantly—via a superior invading army. In a fragmented Europe, sovereigns faced the opposite incentive of rulers of vast empires, who feared domestic discord more than they feared foreign conquest.

Fear of change therefore began to give way to a fear of stagnation. “And thus, it is,” wrote the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1784, that the Enlightenment gradually arises “from the selfish purposes of aggrandizement on the part of its rulers, if they understand what is for their own advantage.”

Scientific and Industrial Advances

The associated classical liberal transformation, pioneered by the Dutch Republic, and then taken further by Great Britain and the United States, simultaneously widened the freedom for new experiments and enterprises through greater equality under the law, more secure property rights, and freer domestic economy and expanding markets.

That created a virtuous circle, since the scientific endeavor, businesses forced to compete, and an open society are by their natures works in progress, subject to constant challenge and improvement. They allow more people to experiment with new ideas and methods and combine them in unexpected ways.

As the American economic historian Deirdre McCloskey has shown, these processes went hand in hand with a profound reevaluation of urban and bourgeois life. Whereas commerce and innovation used to be seen at best as necessary evils to fund a hierarchical and aristocratic society, they now started to be seen as desirable, even honorable.

This relative freedom for inquisitiveness and irreverence unleashed first a scientific revolution and then an industrial one. The cumulative nature of knowledge instilled a powerful sense of optimism. When telescopes, microscopes, and the English scientist Isaac Newton unlocked nature’s mysteries, the whole world soon learned about it and started thinking about how natural regularities could be exploited for practical purposes.

Through migrations, correspondence, the printing press, coffee shops, and learned societies, scientists and entrepreneurs systematized knowledge in mechanics, metallurgy, geology, chemistry, soil science, and materials science. That made it possible to consciously manipulate, debug, and adapt methods, materials, and machines to changing needs. New knowledge pointed to new experiments that could be used to interrogate nature further, and the results of those interrogations pointed to new technologies that could be used to grow more food, prevent or cure disease, shape materials, and exploit energy sources.

The modern corporation and financial markets emerged as vehicles for systematically transforming capital and knowledge into goods and services that improved people’s lives. No longer did mankind have to wait for someone, somewhere to stumble on a breakthrough at widely dispersed intervals. An economic and intellectual system devoted to the systematic pursuit of discoveries and innovations had been created. From Manchester and Menlo Park to Silicon Valley, pioneers methodically pushed the technological frontiers further into the unknown, and free competition and international trade made such wonders widely accessible at everyday low prices.

Therefore, for the first time in history, progress did not come to a sudden halt. It continued and accelerated. More people than ever looked at the world’s problems and were free to come up with their own suggested solutions. Finally, mankind reached escape velocity, and progress was no longer a bump on a flat line of human development but a hockey stick, pointing sharply upward.

“It may be that the Enlightenment has ‘tried’ to happen countless times,” writes the British physicist David Deutsch in The Beginning of Infinity. And therefore, it puts our own lucky escape into stark perspective: All previous efforts were cut short, “always snuffed out, usually without a trace. Except this once.”

It should make us deeply grateful that we are among the few who happen to be born in the only era of self-sustained, global progress. But it should also make us focused and combative. History teaches us that progress is not automatic. It only happened because people fought hard for it and for the system of liberty that made it possible.

If we want to remain the one great exception to history’s rule of oppression and stagnation, every new generation must find it within itself the desire to make the world safe for progress.

CNN | Cost of Services

Cheap Robotaxi Rides Rattle China’s Taxi Drivers

“The fleet of 500 vehicles operating in the city belongs to Apollo Go, a unit of Chinese tech giant Baidu. They serve an area that covers roughly half of Wuhan’s population, according to a May company release.

A major selling point is the price. Base fares start as low as 4 yuan (55 cents), compared with 18 yuan ($2.48) for a taxi driven by a human, state media Global Times reported on Wednesday.

The service launched in 2022 and started to gain traction during the first half of the year. The company aims to double its fleet to 1,000 cars by the end of 2024. Wuhan currently has around 17,000 regular cabs, according to the city’s transport bureau.”

From CNN.

New Atlas | Science & Technology

The World’s Fastest Brick-Laying Construction Robot

“A robotic truck equipped with a 105-ft (32-m) telescopic boom arm has just journeyed from Australia to Florida. Now the construction robot will get busy churning out up to 10 houses in a bid to become the employee of choice for building entire communities.

The truck and its accompanying brick-laying arm is known as the Hadrian X and has been developed by robotics company FBR, which first announced its prototype in 2015. That machine could complete a full-sized house in two days. Last year, FBR (which used to stand for Fastbrick Robotics), showed off the new Hadrian X which, at top speed, could stack 500 USA-format masonry blocks per hour.”

From New Atlas.

Curiosities | Happiness & Satisfaction

You Can’t Have Too Much Money, Happiness Researcher Finds

“Last year, Killingsworth was part of team of scientists including the late psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who published a study challenging a famous 2010 paper by Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton that said happiness tends to go up with incomes until about $60,000 to $90,000 a year, at which point it flattens…

Kahneman and Killingworth reanalyzed that work and found the correlation between money and happiness extended to people with salaries up to at least $500,000 a year.”

From Bloomberg.