Almost everything that we consider “modern” has its roots in the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, or the world wars. 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, and fascist, 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 peace among free nations. The conflicts that persist nearly always involve a dictator. The first few decades after WWII were so tainted by fear of WWIII that they were called the Cold War. Most nations recognized the value of multi-national structures such as the UN and EU to encourage communication and cooperation over cutthroat 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 autocracy and 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 evolved within the fabric of national identity, law, and worldview. In this chapter, those roles were 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.
Modern democracy created the left-right political spectrum. Liberalism was born in a revolutionary spirit, while the first right-wing conservatives were upper-class monarchists. This spectrum has shifted significantly with the political environment, yet each side mischaracterizes the other (and maybe even itself) with centuries-old stereotypes. Many conservatives still associate globalism with Lenin, atheism with the Reign of Terror, and secularism with Nazism. To some liberals, free trade and multinational corporations may still connote imperialism or class conflict. These are outdated and overly simplistic judgments of guilt by association. Stable progress in this fast-changing world will require modern conservative and liberal ideas. Before we can hope to utilize such principles, we have to understand them for what they really are today.
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