The past few centuries have been a particularly revolutionary time, both literally and figuratively. The theme of revolution defined the age, as the era of kings and empires died out and common people took control of their own lives. In the western world, the Reformation, Renaissance, and Scientific Revolution led directly into the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Almost everything we consider “modern” has roots in these two movements.
Enlightenment was the analysis of church and state with reason rather than superstition or tradition. It gave rise to modern political science, economics, and journalism. Enlightened philosophy rejected the divine right of kings and replaced it with popular sovereignty. The emphasis was on class or national rights in the 18th – 19th centuries and individual rights after WWII.
The Industrial Revolution was the period when machines came to prominence. Engines powered by fossil fuels greatly multiplied the speed and scale of labor in agriculture, mining, transport, and manufacture. Mass production and international standards improved efficiency. Machines made better machines. Some of these machines were designed to automate or accelerate routine operations, a branch of technology that led directly to computers. Industry progressed exponentially.
In fact, the dark side of this period was the theme of uncontrollably rapid change and its stressful consequences. In the 18th – 19th centuries, every attempt at democracy was hard fought against royal families and their conservative supporters. The power imbalance between earlier and later industrializers was one of the factors leading to WWI. Instability continues to the present day as the suddenly-decolonized nations of the 20th century still suffer with poverty and corrupt governments.
Politically, the “first” and “second” world wars were not unlike earlier conflicts such as the Thirty Years’, Seven Years’, or Napoleonic Wars. The main differences were the industrialization of military technology and the widespread involvement of civilians. Civilian participation was fueled by strongly nationalistic sentiments. Most nations felt justified that they were acting in self-defense, rhetoric that we still hear today.
As empires collapsed in the wars, 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.
The nation-state has played a complicated role in the modern world. Nationalism was liberation from imperialism; it was an expression of self-determination. There is no doubt that hundreds of peoples and billions of persons enjoy freedoms unknown just a few centuries ago. On the other hand, unchecked national sovereignty impinges individual human rights. National protectionism also slows down global integration – a key to peace and prosperity – though the trend is now in the right direction.
The Pax Civilia 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 rather than a peace. Still, there has been no WWIII, and there probably will not be, at least in the West. 1 The cost of total war grew to be well beyond any possible benefit, especially after the nuclear age. Besides, the complicated causes of the world wars came at a unique confluence of historic phases: old empiricism overlapping with new nationalism, racist attitudes against foreigners, Marx-Leninism as a viable replacement for monarchism, rapid and uneven industrialization. It was a period of immense disequilibrium, the birth pangs of the modern world.
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. At a time when empires were falling apart, democracy was unstable, and religion was called into question, socialism was a vision of the future just as plausible and palatable as any other. It gave hope to a lower class that had not yet heard of individualism. Besides its obvious hegemony in Asia, socialism remained a popular philosophy in Europe and South America well into the 20th century. Its most important surviving legacies are the welfare state and labor unions.
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, especially in the age of planes, trains, and automobiles, 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 as an upper class movement. The French Revolution revealed how alienated the lower classes had become. There is really no denying Marx’s premise that elites had ridden on the backs of the invisible lower classes for millennia. In modern times, the plight of the poor came into focus. Slavery was abolished and human rights were expanded universally. The deleterious social effects of poverty are now recognized as well, and there are serious efforts to eradicate extreme poverty altogether.
Controlling poverty will first require the species to control its growth. Large families are another vestige of outdated evolutionary pressure. High birth rates made sense in times of high death rates, especially in agrarian societies where the size of the economy and the military were effectively measured by the population. Those conditions were quickly outdated by industrial life. Some parts of the world are already too dense to support themselves. And since families are no longer economic units, they don’t need many “laborer” children. For all these reasons, families and governments alike appreciate the value of having children by choice, not chance.
Many changes of modern life had the effect of pulling family members in different directions. Fathers and, more recently, mothers, had 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. Western conservatism is defined partly by militaristic nationalism and loyalty to the church. Liberalism is influenced by labor, atheism and secularism, and globalism. Each side misunderstands the other in significant ways. Today’s conservatives still associate globalism with Lenin, atheism with the French Revolution, 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.
- A view supported by John Aziz in “Don’t worry: World War III will almost certainly never happen”, The Week, 3/06/14, http://theweek.com/articles/449783/dont-worry-world-war-iii-almost-certainly-never-happen (accessed 1/18/16) ↩
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