Tuesday, January 24, 2012

1848 Again

Last year I (and many others) likened the Arab Spring to the revolutions of 1848 in Europe. Consider the similarities:

- A massive population increase, particularly of young people (thanks to new agricultural techniques).
- Economic disruptions caused by industrialization.
- Youth unemployment and radical philosophies (Marxism).
- Traditional ways of life under assault. Rapid technological change
- An increasing level of participation in the civic sphere, driven by increases in literacy and education.
- A demand for civil rights for ordinary citizens, including the right to vote.
- Authoritarian regimes where political participation is impossible. Monarchies are common.
- Repression of citizen uprisings by heavy-handed military by autocrats
- New communications technologies (the telegraph, sophisticated printing press, road networks).
- Mixed results (some success, some failure). A counterreaction from conservative forces.
- Short-term failures followed in the succeeding years by longer term fundamental changes in politics and economics.

A lot of these map onto the current Middle East quite nicely. In his latest column, James Howard Kunstler summarizes 1848, making the point that ideas tend to spread mysteriously when their time is due:

The spring of that year was an inflection point when discontent over the changes sweeping through European society broke into open insurrection in France, Prussia, Austria, Italy, Poland, South America, and other places all seemingly at once - despite the absence of television and the internet. However, the upheavals of 1848 occurred not long after the first practical installation of a telegraph line from Annapolis, Maryland, to Washington, DC (and then in Europe). It was also a time when the first railroad networks were linking up.

In February that crucial year, the liberal "Citizen King" Louis-Philippe of France was driven off the throne after an 18-year-reign characterized by tranquility and prosperity compared to the decades that preceded it. In March, street protests and violence spread through the grab-bag of kingdoms, dukedoms, and obscure principalities (Prussia... Saxony... Hesse... Fulda...) that would eventually make up the super-state of greater Germany. The Austrian empire began its slide into senility as its constituent states rioted. Even the people in Switzerland went batshit. And so on. Enter, stage left, Marx and Engels with a new political theory, for the excellent reason that the industrial revolution was reaching its stride and the conditions of daily life were changing very rapidly. Country people left farms for factory jobs all over the continent, and the ill-effects of the new wage-slavery drove them into solidarity. The uproar of 1848 was widespread and left many changes in its wake. But it was short and it produced odd instances of right-wing reaction.

In France, for instance, Louis-Philippe was sent packing (to England), and a new republic was established - but the president it elected was Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew, Louis Napoleon who, in a matter of months declared himself president-for-life, and then Emperor. He was not at all a bad ruler, as things turned out. Among other achievements, he presided over the massive physical renovation of Paris that produced the "city of light" beloved today. But he was driven off his throne twenty-odd years later from the ill effects of the opera bouffe known as the Franco-Prussian War.

In any case, the main point is that so many people across a continent got the same idea in the first weeks of a particular year, and then set about expressing themselves violently. More to my point is how things worked out in America. You have no doubt realized by now that there was no uprising in the USA in 1848 (though we did prosecute a war with Mexico). Yet, in the best Fourth Turning sense of history, a new generation had come of age and was producing the revolution in ideas that included Emerson and Thoreau's Transcendentalism, and the abolition movement, dedicated to ending slavery. This combination of broadly-held idealistic notions boiled away for another decade and led to the "mumuration" that precipitated the biggest bloodbath of the civilized world in the 19th century: the American Civil War. The Revolution of 1848 expressed itself most horrifically in the place that thought itself most specially insulated from its effects.
And by coincidence, the latest In Our Time podcast from the BBC also covers Europe’s year of revolutions: 1848: Year of Revolution. A good overview if you don't want want to wade through an entire book on the subject. The Wikipedia article is also a good summary.

The revolutions of 1848 were sparked by the disruptions that the birth of the industrial regime caused. It's likely that new revolutions will occur as the globalized industrial regime becomes unstable and collapses. One good comment to the Kunstler post linked 1848 with Britians Chartism movement, which seems to have some similarities to Occupy.

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