Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Autumn of the Modern Ages: The Age of Money, Industries, and Cities

The Autumn of the Modern Ages: Part 3

“Get money; still get money, boy, no matter by what means.”
 – Ben Jonson, Every Man in his Humour. Act ii. Sc. 3.

4. The Age of Money.   

In the beginning of the Middle Ages, money had virtually disappeared from the Transalpine West, although Charlemagne continued to use the old Roman solidus. But by the High Middle Ages, the solidus had been replaced by the ducat, the pound, and the dollar (from thaler, Joachimsthal, where the silver mines were).  With the dawn of the Modern Ages. money was put to work like never before.  The bourgeoisie didn’t just have money, they made money. 
The Age of Money was the Age of Capitalism, but capitalism means the preservation and husbanding of money, and with the rise of democracy this shifted to the spending of money and the consumption of goods, a transition accentuated by the triumph of the will and of the youth culture.  Capitalism fell not to communism, but to consumerism. 

Money itself became increasingly abstract.  After 1900, silver cartwheels and twenty-dollar gold pieces were mixed with other forms of transferable wealth, like commercial paper.  Coinage was debased, became smaller and lighter; paper became non-convertible.  Cash vanished into computer bits, manipulated remotely by credit cards, debit cards, electronic deposit and payment.  A person’s credit rating began to matter more than his wealth -- in effect: potency mattered more than actuality.  It became illegal to travel with large amounts of cash. 
It’s not that “cashless money” is meaningless.  It’s that it might not mean what we think it means.  In 2008, enormous sums of money vanished without ever having actually existed.  In our future SF world of completely abstracted money people may find themselves inexplicably impoverished by computer glitches and hackers.  There will be no more stuffing the mattresses with “cash” against a rainy day.  They will have to duck their heads to the storm. 
Hog Butcher for the World,/Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,/City of the Big Shoulders: …
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
-- Carl Sandburg, “Chicago”

5. The Age of Industry.   

The Middle Ages had harnessed water and wind power to the crankshaft and had an industrial revolution of its own; but during the High Modern Ages, the thin gruel of wind- and water-power gave way to concentrated steam and electric.  Towns grew smokestacks and became cities, and displayed these belching factories on proud postcards.  Come, watch us grow!  But the Industrial Age was short-lived.  Not until 1874 were the majority of people in England employed in industry; and by 1956 the majority of Americans no longer were.  
Figure 4. Post card of Bethlehem Steel (Bethlehem, PA) during the Modern Ages
Labor shifted from the production of goods to the production of consumption.  More people worked in advertising and transportation than in making the goods being advertised and transported.  Cities, provinces, even entire countries began to base their economies on the production and processing of… tourists. 
Interestingly, total industrial output has not fallen; but automation and productivity mean fewer people are engaged in it.  Post-moderns can no longer afford to make their own shirts, and manufacturing has rippled outward into pre-modern countries like the wave front of an explosion. 
Meanwhile, those belching smokestacks no longer smell of good union jobs and honest labor, but of icky sweat and pollution, and the post-modern dislikes both.  Those whose talents and education would have previously placed them in industrial jobs at good pay, now find themselves in low-paying clerical and administrative jobs – or among the permanently unemployed.  That may change as the new age gets rolling; but transitions are rough. 
The shift from industry to service is not all negative.  Office and clerical workers are seldom cut in half by runaway boxcars, crushed between coal cars, or run over by pig iron carts.  No one need lug coal buckets up from the mine at age nine; or hop a freight through the tunnel at age ten to work in the nail mill in the next town over.[1] 
Figure 5. Bethlehem Steel in the Post-Modern Age.  Photo by Linh Dinh, posted at
The Bethlehem Steel works once ran for miles along the Lehigh River in Pennsylvania.  It produced the structural members for the George Washington Bridge and submarines for Churchill’s Britain.  Now the empty ruins serve as backdrop for a B-movie.[2]  Renovated portions have opened as restaurants, fitness clubs, and a Sands Casino.  The scene in Fig. 5 is now a backdrop for SteelStacks, an entertainment venue; but nothing is made there anymore. 
A few years ago, New Jersey Transit proposed re-opening the rail connection called the Lackawanna Cutoff between NJ and the Pocono Mountains.  NJT expected to take ten years to complete the various studies required and begin actual work.  A century ago, the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Rail Road Company built the line from scratch, “including a series of viaducts and massive fill embankments through the deep valleys,” in only three years.  Ten years of preliminary studies may be called many things, but “industrious” is not one of them. 
What about our SF world of the future?  Forget the obvious fact of the Service Economy.  The question is: what sort of people do such work?  A world of manufacturing is a world of makers; but a world of service and administration is a world of servants and bureaucrats.  That cannot help but affect the mentality of the coming age.  Suppose a coronal mass ejection really does fry all the chips in the world?  The Moderns would have rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt the world.  The Post-moderns might try to sue the Sun.  Okay, LOL.  But can a world of servants and bureaucrats dream of returning to the moon, let alone actually do it?  If not, of what will they dream?  
How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm
After they’ve seen Paree?
 – World War I song

6. The Age of Cities.   

From Florence of the Renaissance to the dream factories of Los Angeles, the history of the Modern Ages was the history of its Cities.  The term “urban” and its correlate “urbane” took on meanings of cultured; and civilized began to mean more than “living in a city.”  The amenities and culture of city life attracted [and defined] not only the bourgeois, but also the workmen who flocked into the new industrial factories.  Harsh as were the conditions in those factories, young men found them preferable to the south end of a north-bound plow-mule.  By the end of the 19th century, the populations of whole countries were concentrated in their cities. 
After 1900, this began to change, at least in the Anglosphere.  The suburbs grew and both cities and small towns emptied.  H.G. Wells noted this in his caustic review of the Fritz Lang movie Metropolis.  The cities of the future, he said, would grow horizontally, not vertically.  The drivers of the exodus were the cost of urban real estate and the desire for a house rather than an apartment.  The driver in another sense was the personal automobile, which was then becoming available to the masses. 
Normally, we might simply project this as continuing with the modern cities emptying, the post-modern suburbs filling, and large conurbations and “ring-cities” taking their places.[3]  However, the dispersed life of the suburbs depends on the automobile and the technological future of that is uncertain.  As India and China modernize, petroleum will become steadily more expensive.  Unless an equally portable, compact, and energetic power source is developed, people may begin to stick closer to home.  At the same time, neo-Puritan religious movements revile both suburbia and the automobile.[4] 
But even if the core cities refill, they won’t revive the Modern Thing.  “Urban” no longer conjures "urbane" images.  The Bourgeois Age is over, and it takes more than a lot of people living real close together to make a City. 
The Age of Privacy, the Family, and Schooling

[1] All but one example is from the author’s own family. 
[2] Transformers 2
[3] The pattern is reversed in Europe.  There, it is the suburbs that are filling with “urban youth.” 
[4] “Climate change belief given same legal status as religion” - headline, The Telegraph (UK) 3 Nov 2009

©2014 Michael F. Flynn


  1. I find the shift from Capitalism to Consumerism of some interest. It's my understanding that this change was not only "bottom-up" but also "top-down" as firms attempted to use psychological techniques to increase demand for products to combat that spectre that haunted late Capitalism: overproduction. By repositioning products from addressing people's immediate needs to addressing their theoretically infinite desires, the market was able to absurd far more products than it could before. What I want to know is how extensive is this change? In what ways does it follow the tendencies of the old system, and in what ways does it not?

    1. Lukacs has a bit to say about it in The Passing of the Modern Age.

      The old style capitalists did not have to convince people to ship grain by railroad, to builders that they needed steel I-beams, and so on. I have a suspicion that it tracks the shift from manufacturing to service. No one needs to convince me that I need new razor blades; but they do need to let me know that they produce razor blades for general sale. Most advertising is aimed at getting the producer's name out in front of eyeballs. They might get people to try a product once; but only the quality of the product can get them to try it twice. IOW, it's actually hard to sell people on things they don't believe they need, though relatively easy to sell them on things that third parties don't think they need.

    2. So would Lukacs explain the shift to consumerism mostly as a product of the collapse of the extensive disciplinary (in the broad sense) systems developed in the modern ages?

    3. I think more the rise of individualism, the youth culture, democracy, etc. at the expense of family, maturity, and the gentleman.


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