Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Autumn of the Modern Ages: The Age of Europe, the Bourgeois, the State

The Autumn of the Modern Ages: Part 2

“We live in the ruins of a civilization, but the ruins are in our minds.” 
– John Lukacs, The Passing of the Modern Age

1. The European Age.   

The Modern Age was a European thing.  Beyond the forests of Transylvania, across the Mediterranean, terms like Renaissance, Age of Reason, Scientific or Industrial Revolution had no traction.  Hungary had its renaissance; Romania did not. France celebrated the age of reason; Algeria did not.
In 1470 Pope Pius II, among others, coined the term European to refer to an inhabitant of that continent, for all practical purposes then synonymous with white and Christian.  Two-thirds of Christendom had been lost to Islam and her horizons had shrunk effectively to the borders of the European continent.  The idea of a European was thus contemporary with the ideas of modern and progress.  At the same time, civilized and cultured began to mean the same thing, and the term primitive appeared by 1540.  This terminological ferment signals the emergence of certain ways of thinking. 
At the dawn of the Modern Ages, white Europeans went forth from their continent and brought their modern civilized progress to every primitive corner of the globe.  Whole continents were settled by Europeans.  Byzantine Russia was drawn into its orbit.  The Jihad faltered and broke at the Gates of Vienna.  And the rest of the world began to imitate European customs, laws, clothing, technologies, architecture, parliaments, and science.  

But the end came swiftly.  In 1914, all but two African countries were ruled by Europeans; eighty years later, none were.  In the interim, the Europeans had entered into a mutual suicide pact and slaughtered one another by the millions on the altars of Nationalism.  After that secular paroxysm, European confidence evaporated.  They no longer went out to the colonies.  The colonies came to them: Indians and Pakistanis, Maghrebis and Turks began to colonize Europe.  The Jihad resumed.  Today, Europeans are not even reproducing themselves; and the intelligentsia use “progress” and “modern” with ironic smirks rather than with earnest enthusiasm.  Even the progress of science and technology is viewed with green suspicion.[1]  Something has gone out of the heart of the European Thing. 
Before we cheer too lustily, it may have given us imperialism and colonialism, but it also gave us better health, more democratic governance, broader communication and education, and a host of other boons.  “We are glad the British left,” a Telugu friend of mine once told me in India, “but we are also glad they came.” 
Nothing happens overnight, and nothing in history is inevitable; but in a few generations even Europe may no longer be European.  Some foresee a “Caliphate of Europe,” while others believe the newcomers will adopt European culture.  It could go any which way, which is happy news for science fiction writers, if not for Europeans.  But here is a piquant question: Can parliaments and science outlive the context that gave them birth? 
Is dishwater dull?  Naturalists with microscopes have told me that it teems with quiet fun.
– G. K. Chesterton

2. The Bourgeois Age.  

In 1910 every state in Europe was a monarchy, except France and Switzerland, but the power of those monarchs had been dwindling throughout the Modern Ages.  In some countries, the nobility had become little more than decorative accessories.  Nearly every great mind and great work of art of the past five hundred years – from Shakespeare to Stoppard and Rembrandt to Renoir – has come from the bourgeoisie. 
The bourgeois mind was marked by intellectual self-discipline and honesty.  They built “square and on the level,” and “Let me level with you” became a common phrase for open frankness.  Barzun [JB] regarded the bourgeois intellectual’s “considered views” as “a broom with which to clear the mind of cant.”[2]  The bourgeoisie balanced liberty with equality and gave us constitutional government. 
But starting about a century ago, the term bourgeois began to be used in a pejorative sense.  This coincided with a movement out of the bourge (city) and into the suburbs.  By no coincidence, the term intellectual took on the modern sense ca. 1884.  Historically, the literacy line had marked a clear distinction between the masses and those who could “read important books and converse well.”  But by the late 19th century, pretty much everyone could read and write, and scientists and artists were crowding in on the humanists.[3]  A new line was needed to identify those who read closely and conversed intelligently – not just literate, but intellectual.  In democratic societies, that did not sit well with the demos, and so intellectual was almost from birth a pejorative.  The surest way to mark the Villain in your SF stories is to have him speak precisely and correctly.  Intellectuals complained about the anti-intellectualism of “commercial culture.”  But culture has always been commercial and “anti-intellectualism” began with the invention of intellectuals [JB].   
By the 1950s, “I feel” was replacing “I think” in common discourse.  “Measured, cool reflection” was on its way out; “committed, hot activism” was on its way in.  “Square” became a pejorative.  Reasoned debate and considered views gave way to naked will. See the comm boxes on many blogs and magazines for illustrative examples. “I choose.  Don’t ask me to give reasons – I just choose!”  It began to matter less what you chose than that you chose.  Shouting down disfavored speakers or physically occupying the platform became frequent debating tactics at places that had once been universities.   
Barzun saw certain recurrent images in the 1950s: abdication, desire for release, and exhausted impotence.  The boring adult world of achieved self-discipline abdicated to an exciting adolescent world of spontaneity and desire.  People “idealize youth,” he wrote, and “hope that youth will bring to the conduct of life an energy that manners have sapped in their elders.”  

Where youth once desired maturity above all else, the mature now desire eternal youth.  At the beginning of the age, young men of 14 and women of 12 could form marriages, enter contracts, own property, etc.  At the end of the age, they are “children,” and men in their mid-twenties behave like adolescents. 
Is this good or bad?  Youth does have more energy, more creativity.[4]  And the cool, considered reflections of the bourgeoisie can sail awfully close to the complacency of the English Victorian or Austrian Biedermaier. 
And what of the future?  Literacy has not made the masses more intellectual.  Instead, the intellectualism of the masses has become less focused, less sharp.  The term "middlebrow" appeared. A time may come when an impulsive and unreflective people that feels before it thinks will look back a bit wistfully at “cool, considered reflection” and wish they did not live in such energetic times. 
The growing powerlessness of the modern state reflects the abdication…of its erstwhile governing classes; and it is at least probable that in its wake there will follow not the blessings of increased liberty but a long transitory brutal period of insecurity and terror.
 – John Lukacs, The Passing of the Modern Age

3. The Age of the State. 

The absolute, divine-right monarch had been unknown during medieval times, which preferred its kings nominal and weak; but royal absolutism ensured peace and security; and those are bourgeois virtues, par excellence.  So the rise of the bourgeoisie meant the rise of the monarchs.  Strong monarchs were even seen as democratic – champions of the people against unruly barons. 
And with the monarchs came the Totalizing State.  The self-governing chartered corporations of the Middle Ages – free towns, universities, guilds, companies of players – were brought under State regulation or control.  The scope of State authority continued increasing even after the bourgeoisie turned against the monarchs.  Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that democratic despotism would be “more extensive and more mild.”  

The supreme power then … covers the surface of society with a net-work of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate to rise above the crowd.  The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting.  

The result would be governments that would “interfere more habitually and decidedly with the circle of private interests than any sovereign of antiquity could ever do.” 
Starting ca. 1870, the States of Europe assumed power over the two fundamental principles of private life: the formation of marriages and the education of children.  Naturally, they had to fiddle with them until they had broken them. State-run secular schools with mandatory attendance date from this time: Austria (1869), England (1870), Switzerland (1874), the Netherlands (1876), Italy (1877), Belgium (1879), and France (early/ mid 1880’s). German public schools were secularized around this time also.  State-run schools naturally glamorized the State, and the net result was throngs of people cheering the onset of World War One. 
Likewise, Austria instituted civil marriage in 1868, and the idea spread to Italy (1873), Switzerland (1874), the German Empire (1875), and elsewhere.  In the US, State licensure was used to prevent interracial marriage.  Today, we have forgotten that people once married without State permission.  By the early 1900s, the State even proposed to decide who could marry whom based on Darwinian principles, although eugenics got a bad rep shortly after and is now on hold. 
What comes next, Big Brother?  Maybe not.  A funny thing happened on the way to the Total State.  It began to fade away.  Lukacs cites several reasons for this:

a) The impotence of technology.  Large super-scientific States with massive arsenals found themselves in the position of “hunting bumblebees with an elephant gun.”  And they no longer dared, as Napoleon had, to line up the cannons and fire on rioters. 
b) The democratization of warfare.  The resistance movements of WWII presaged popular warfare carried out by small private groups.  It had already been proven that no State could prevent incursions by air.  In 1970, Lukacs wrote that they would be unable to prevent foreign incursions by land.  “I am not thinking only of guerrilla and commando raids,” he wrote, “I am thinking of the sudden migratory pressure of large populations, sloshing across frontiers.”[5]  The result will be a blurring of the line between war and peace: fighting may diminish or intensify at times, but will never entirely cease.  States will be unable to negotiate and enforce a peace because there will be no State authority with which to negotiate. 
c) The deterioration of sovereignty.  Toward the end of the Modern Ages, Popular Sovereignty began to subvert State Sovereignty as the main legitimizing authority.  Both Hitler and Mussolini claimed their authority directly from the People, not from the constitutions of the Italian or German states.  Even tyrants now stage election kabuki to claim rule in the name of “the People.” 

After four hundred years of bloody wars to make their respective boundaries match, the Nation and the State have begun to part company once more.  Multi-national States disintegrated (Yugoslavia), divorced (Czechoslovakia), or devolved (the United Kingdom).  The Scottish Parliament reconvened.  Bretons, Basques, Flemings and Walloons began to question the legitimacy of the States they lived in – echoing with no sense of irony the Sudeten Germans of an earlier generation.  The notion arose that politicians of one Folk could not represent citizens of another Folk, and that Rights apply to Folks rather than to individuals.  Folkish Nationalism spread from the right to the left. 

Figure 3: Frequency of the term “patriot” in English language sources, per 
Meanwhile, States began to farm out their services.  Some were “privatized” or “subcontracted” (e.g., Maximus Canada[6] operates health services in British Columbia.)  Others were awarded as grants to NGOs (ACORN, Halliburton, Planned Parenthood, etc.) or spun off as “quasi-governmental entities” (Federal Reserve, USPS, Fannie Mae, etc.).  Still other State powers were subsumed by supra-State organizations like the European Union or the United Nations. 
The natural impulse of a Popular State is to extend the idea of Fairness through rules. [7]  This triggers circumvention, loop-holing, and gaming the system, which leads in turn to further rules to plug the loopholes.  Eventually, the rules accumulate to the point that most citizens no longer understand how to deal with them.  (How exactly does one run for Congress or open a small business?)  At this point democracy implodes to technocracy. 
It has become possible to foment and even run a rebellion without ever crossing the border.  The power of radio was seen already in Nazi Germany, but since then videotapes followed by the Internet have added to that capacity.  Today, a demonstration or mob can be organized in a flash.  It is naïve to suppose that the organizers will always be kinder, gentler people and the flashmobs anything more than dupes for the powerful. 
For SF writers, what will the future look like?  Perhaps the modern State will run to completion and become the Total State it has always aspired to, regulating or running everything within its territorial boundaries, telling people what sort of light bulbs they can use or how much water their toilets must hold.  But perhaps it will become something more like a holding company, providing a playing field within which it will license various NGOs to deliver what States used to deliver, a practice curiously like that of the granting of feudal fiefs. 
But “the feebleness of enormously powerful states” among themselves reflects their impotence within themselves.  A few thousand students or farmers upset over a cut in their subsidies can defy governments armed with tanks and atomic bombs.  Eventually, this will become common wisdom and “a long transitory brutal period of insecurity and terror” will set in.  A New Dark Age. 
But it was once a truism that the Mafia-controlled neighborhoods of New York were the most crime-free, and anyone can play the game of private warfare.  The reaction against the anarchy may see a sort of alliance between governments, NGOs, and street gangs, as a new sort of feudal warfare becomes the norm. 

[1] Compare how literati and artists reacted to aerial flight and how it reacted to space flight fifty years later. 
[2] Compare anti-bourgeois gatherings, which tend to repeatedly chant three-word slogans.
[3] Middle-brow had been invented.  Could the Oprah Book Club be far behind? 
[4] Though Nietzsche observed that rebellious youth was more interested in the sputtering fuse than in the explosion it would lead to.  In his day, idealistic youth wanted Change; specifically fascism. 
[5] The Albanian State did not invade and conquer southern Serbia; the Albanian Folk simply sloshed across the frontier  into Kosovo until it was de facto Albanian. See the Moroccan takeover of Spanish Sahara for an earlier example.
[6] Corporate HQ: Reston VA.  Motto: “Helping Government Help People.” 
[7] The Germans have a wonderful term for such people: Besserwissers, “those who know better.”

©2014 Michael F. Flynn


  1. Would the American takeover of Texas be an even earlier example of the "sloshing over" concept? Albeit one which eventually took on specifically modern trappings.

    1. A bit early, and the Texans had been invited to settle there by the Mexican government. But certainly a forerunner.


Wonder and Anticipation, the Likes of Which We Have Never Seen

  Hello family, friends and fans of Michael F. Flynn.   It is with sorrow and regret that I inform you that my father passed away yesterday,...