Almost everything that we consider “modern” has its roots in the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution. In combination, these movements brought an end to the age of empires. Each empire was internally strained by revolution and nationalism. Then the empires dealt the death blow to one another with industrial military technology in the world wars.
As empires collapsed, they left unstable power vacuums. The questions that arose were not only who should rule, but how. There were three major competing models for self-rule: moderate liberal democracy, socialism on the far left, fascism and belligerent nationalism on the far right. The two extremes agitated the most unrest, but they seemed to be the default in times of stress.
Today’s Pax Republica is an age of relative peace between stable nations. Its first few decades were so tainted by memories of WWII and fear of WWIII that it was called a Cold War. Most nations recognized that global cooperative systems such as the UN and EU were necessary to foster cooperation over competition. The permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, UK, France, USSR, and China – are the countries that “won” WWII and were supposed to present a unified front to enforce peace after the war. Unfortunately, this body got immediately pulled in different directions by lingering nationalist rivalries among the superpowers. Still with a world-war mentality, the American and Soviet governments wasted decades fighting for influence over Third World nations.
Religion had long been part of national identity and law. In this chapter, religion was significantly displaced by state and science. The US was the first major secular nation, and the French Revolution was partly liberation from the Catholic Church’s political influence. Socialist Russia and China actively purged religious institutions. As more secular governments took over the services of education, welfare, and health care, churches became a much less central part of daily life. Coupled with this, modern science has been so successful at explaining nature that it has left little room for mythology and superstition. This has led to a confused separation between religion and its derived morality, wherein again states have stepped in with secular bodies of law.
As changes tore holes in the fabric of medieval institutions, Marxism seems to have flourished as a way of patching the emotional holes. It could be described as the first major “secular religion”. Marx described an arc of history from a simple state of nature, through conflict, to redemption, much like apocalyptic mythology. It gave hope to a lower class that had not yet heard of individualism. Socialism was widespread in Asia, Europe, and South America well into the 20th century. It is now seen as a tempering influence on capitalism’s extreme inequalities.
Industrialists and their factories attracted workers to cities. The modern city is a microcosm of the best and worst of the human experience. Cities grew larger and denser, bringing the attendant problems of pollution and ghetto life. Youth gangs flourished. At the same time, cities brought together diverse communities from the countryside and from around the world. Cultures informed one another. Religions and ethnicities blurred together into melting pots.
The Enlightenment originated in the upper classes. Abolitionism and the French and Russian Revolutions spotlighted the plight of the lower classes. In modern times, slavery was outlawed and human rights expanded universally. The deleterious social effects of poverty are now recognized as well, and there are serious efforts to eradicate extreme poverty altogether.
Many changes of modern life had the effect of pulling family members in different directions. Fathers and then mothers found career goals and duties to employers. Children had school and a growing youth culture dominated by peers. Eventually, concepts of liberty became so individualistic that even the nuclear family was seen as a constraint. New models for mating, parenthood, and singlehood are still in the making.
Today’s concepts of conservatism and liberalism are deeply steeped in these last few centuries of history. Conservatism is defined partly by militaristic nationalism and loyalty to the church. Liberalism is influenced by labor, secularism, urbanization, and globalism. Each side misunderstands the other in significant ways. Today’s conservatives still associate globalism with Lenin, atheism with the Reign of Terror, and secularism with Nazism. Liberals still connect free trade to class conflict and multinational corporations to imperialism. These are outdated and overly simplistic judgments of guilt by association. It will take modern ideas to continue improving a modern world. But first, we have to understand these ideas for what they really are.
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