Over the past several months, I have sipped from 18th and 19th century literature, as well as social critique. This was sparked by Piketty’s read of novels from earlier eras, and what they said about the economics of the time. While his interpretation offers a glimpse into the finance of the coming times, it seems to be even less than a full picture of the larger sweeping arc of history that we may be witnessing at this time. What began as a slowly gathering momentum towards freedom of thought and social liberalism peaked about 1950-1970, and has slid remarkably quickly since then. This slide appears to be heading into a new era that resembles the ancien regime period with a new aristocracy and a dwindling bourgeoisie. The outlines of this new period are beginning to take shape in the mists.
Prior to the Enlightenment, toilers toiled while aristocracy took in money from rent or government bonds (rent of a different sort). The aristocracy was not to be criticized. As the Enlightenment unfolded, writers began creating novels, as Priscilla P. Clark has described in “The Battle of the Bourgeois.” These novels consisted largely of social critique, grappling with problems of the day.
The novel, as an art form, was born two centuries earlier and blossomed in the middle of the 18th century. Readership was limited to the aristocracy, and writers such as Voltaire and Balzac used the novel as a means to criticize the morals and behavior of the time from a point of view within the aristocracy. Clark points out that this stance – feet planted in the book-buying aristocracy, fingers pointed at the onslaught of the unlettered merchant and service class – evolved by the middle of the 19th century. Perhaps as the nouveau riche began consuming books, writers started writing for a new audience, and the aristocracy slowly went from offense to defense, with writers such as Moliere starting to criticize the idle rich as well.
Clark and others trace a general arc of society that gradually liberalizes over time. Learning spreads; tolerance spreads, and new ideas are disseminated in wider and wider circles. This has been the theme of the modern era, for the most part. The bourgeoisie fought to establish a toe-hold on culture; this battle was eventually won. Instead of two cultures – the literate aristocracy and the masses – there was a continuum that included all.
And then, as Robert Motherwell commented about the outcome of the Spanish Revolution in 1935, “history, after all, can regress.” This was unfortunately a little too prescient for comfort. Thinkers all assumed this liberalization would continue ad infinitum, but instead, it appears to be a little more like this:
If the quality of liberal thinking and expansionism was near 0 in the year 1700, it gradually increased to the year 1800 to somewhere around 30 or 35. These numbers represent a sort of abstract “index” of social evolution, marked by the amount of the population that was educated, the amount of upward mobility available to the ordinary person, the percentage of people who went to college, and so on.
In the period 1830-1880 this liberalization took off. Slavery was abolished, first in England and then in America, and eventually in Russia, during this period. Railroads connected many cities and towns for the first time, demystifing the large cities and leveling the playing field. Social hierarchy integrated a sense of meritocracy, instead of aristocracy. A great geographic expansion took place, the age of explorers celebrated one’s ability to survive independent of the amount of money one inherited (although many of the great explorers were from the aristocracy).
The curve ascended at an even steeper slope between 1880 and 1918. Europe reorganized itself, beginning with the reunification of Germany. The Paris Commune occurred. Inventions such as the telephone, widespread literacy, and migration to America for a “fresh start” marked an era of rapidly progressive thinking. Old aristocracies finally toppled. Marxism began to take hold in parts of Europe. A Great War was fought in Europe, with the Allied democracies triumphing over the Central European patriarchal systems.
Art moved from realism to impressionism, venturing into dada and the exploration of the abstract. Writing went from the classic novel to the realism of Dostoyevsky, social realism; and then moved into a kind of abstraction of its own with Joyce and others. A sense of unfolding was taking place, a blossoming of the creative mind and spirit. Jazz was born. With it, the old borders between aristocracy and bourgeoisie faded. All participated, albeit at different levels, in the common culture of the new era.
After 1920, the curve continued on its trajectory for a little bit longer, but inflected after Franco, the dictator aided by Hitler, took over Spain in a bloody civil war. This marked the beginning of a new era, both of darkness and of light that marked the culmination of this progressive, liberal trend.
The darkness was, of course, World War 2 and the subsequent terror that it spawned with the atomic age. The light was a sense of tolerance and openness; an acceptance of the inner self, and a somewhat more united, common culture.
After World War 2, this common culture had an amazing brief “golden period”. Groundbreaking writers published in books and magazines read by a great cross-section; widely read and widely discussed. Art moved into abstract expressionism, and again the works of artists like Pollock and Rothko was viewed and discussed by a wide cross-section. Pop culture references to these cutting-edge artists were legion at the time and depended on a widely art-literate mass to understand the reference and interpret it whether in the form of a cartoon, TV show remark, or newspaper mention.
This golden period, however, has started to fade. For one thing, art, music, and literature seem to have hit a wall. In art, reductionism threw out everything to the point where it had to rebound into inclusivism. Socially, western cultures seem increasingly polarized with fewer and fewer common pathways to solve problems and carve a future. And of course Piketty suggests that the top 10% hold 80% of all the wealth…just like in the ancien regime.
Features of this new era include a new aristocracy, what Kotkin calls the “clerisy”. One is not allowed to criticize global climate change, in his theory and world. But one is not allowed to criticize the one percenters, either. This aristocracy consists of the financial, energy, and media elite, all of whom own lots of land and all of whom own much of today’s government. A new aristocracy is born.
The new era is characterized by a stratification of class, the shrinking of the bourgeoisie, and a hardening of the rich’s position of wealth. The new era is one where the new aristocracy may continue pre-enlightenment art forms such as the novel, visual art, and music that is worth discussing. But no one else will. The end of bookstores, newspapers, and magazines means the end of all that.
The new era is characterized by a closing of the inner self, not an opening. It is characterized by the closing of the mind, rather than unfolding and opening. For a small segment of the population, these trends may well continue, but history will regress.
In a few years we may return to pre-enlightenment levels of literacy, education, and social fluidity. Social structure may be rigid once again, with little upward mobility. Education may recede as a factor in one’s ability to prosper, as colleges struggle for survival. And once again, two or more cultures will be born. The culture of the new aristocracy will resemble our former, broad cultural connection. The rest of us will have access, but will not partake of this culture, and instead will develop sort of a street culture. Highbrow comic books, for example; reality TV; and politics that increasingly resemble thuggery, all are hallmarks of a street culture getting transferred onto a larger stage.