Today’s history books are supersaturated with detailed accounts of the last few centuries. This chapter attempts to discern the broadest trends. If Descartes visited for dinner and asked, “What have I missed?” how would we distill it for him? We might start with these nutshells:
- Almost everything that we consider “modern” has its roots in the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, or the world wars.
- The change has been so abrupt that this world is still swirling like a pot that has just been vigorously stirred.
The vision in Descartes’ time was that a handful of empires would eventually engulf the world, each feeding itself on its own natural resources. This program was complicated by the surprising success of the American model: a sovereign republic. Revolutionary inspiration began to stress empires and monarchies from within. Meanwhile, as the empires consumed the last frontiers of available land, they could no longer expand without clashing against each other. Their conflicts climaxed in the world wars, when they dealt each other blows that would all prove fatal by the end of the 20th century. The wars were surprisingly devastating, the first large-scale wars fought with industrial military technology.
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 national sovereignty: moderate liberal democracy, anti-capitalist socialism on the left, and belligerent nationalism on the right. The two extremes were more easily exploited by dictators. Today’s Pax Republica is an age of peace among free nations. The conflicts that persist virtually always involve a dictator.
20th century multi-national structures like the UN and EU were the first serious attempts to encourage communication and cooperation over cutthroat competition. Unfortunately, the UN immediately got pulled in different directions by autocracy and lingering nationalist rivalries. Thus, although we now live in a globally integrated society, law has not caught up to reality; there still is no effective model for world government or unification. In fact, we are still making an awkward sociological transition from thinking of ourselves as nations to conceiving of ourselves as one planet.
In Descartes’ time, each nation had its own organized religion, which had evolved to provide law, morality, and a shared reality for its people. In this chapter, these church functions were increasingly displaced by state, science, and universal values. This fracturing of shared reality has created yet another identity crisis for emerging nation-states.
Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution has completely remade our economy. Private multi-national corporations now serve the economic functions that empires once did. Productivity has created large upper and middle classes that have great bargaining power over governments and corporations.
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. At the same time, they brought together diverse communities from the countryside and from around the world. Cultures informed one another. Religions and ethnicities blurred together into melting pots. This created yet another modern cultural divide between rural and urban realms.
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, which shifts with the times. Conservatives and liberals have many legitimate differences of opinion. Complicating this rivalry, though, each side mischaracterizes the other (and maybe even itself) with centuries-old stereotypes. Interestingly, both sides draw heavily upon anti-imperialism. Conservatives still remember nationalism as liberation from empires. Nationalism now stands as the opposite of globalization, which many conservatives fear as reversion to an evil empire. 1 On the left, pejorative terms for free trade and capitalism include “neo-colonialism” and “cultural imperialism”. 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 reconcile such principles, we have to understand them for what they really are today.
Visit Ch. 2 Margin Notes: Blog posts about developments related to Ch. 2 history
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