Once again profound social and economic forces are changing the nation in ways that are difficult to understand in real time.
The American Revolution arose not from politics but from rapid social and economic changes that revealed the precariousness of the colonists’ prosperity. Conventional histories focus on the political context (Boston Tea Party, etc.), but more important were the changes in social relations, and the impact of the economy moving from quasi-feudal forms of patronage to an economy of impersonal market forces.
The political revolution was the result of profound shifts in social and economic structures. As Gordon Wood explains in his seminal book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, it was these social changes that nurtured the revolutionary zeal of the average (non-elite) male citizen.
Americans came to appreciate the precariousness of their prosperity, and this led to a deep split in the populace. Around 25% to 30% of the populace remained loyal to the British Crown/King, and these Loyalists reckoned it a political and economic disaster to separate from the “Mother Country.” The majority felt the exact opposite: their prosperity and liberties were all too easily snatched away by a Parliament and/or a Monarch who had little to no regard for their prosperity or liberties.
The precariousness of the relatively widely distributed prosperity and political liberties drove average people into an all-or-nothing choice: there was no middle ground, and the bitterness of the divide was life-changing. Benjamin Franklin, for example, completely cut off his eldest son when the son remained a Loyalist, despite the decades of affectionate intimacy they’d shared. Such prosperity and liberties that existed were reserved for Caucasian males, of course; women had the right to divorce and own property but no political suffrage, and slaves had no rights unless they were freed by their owners.
The social changes in the family and economy Wood describes are of especially keen interest, as they mirror the present era in so many ways. Parents in the 1760s were admonished to treat their children as individuals and to use reason rather than punishment. Parental authority was thus reduced from rigid authoritarianism to a much more nuanced and difficult process of nurturing and guidance–a process familiar to every parent today.
The economy was changing rapidly as well, as the lines of authority that were once personal became market-contractual. Where small farmers in the early 1700s sold their harvests to gentry planters or merchants, by mid-century Scottish trading houses were buying small farmers’ harvests directly, requiring written contracts rather than personal trust. Small farmers made more money, and the landed gentry lost power over the flow of goods. This disruption of traditional authority stretched from the home to the marketplace and ultimately to the British Crown and Parliament, which saw the rebellious colonists as wayward children who needed a good lashing to set them straight.
All of which brings us to the present, when once again profound social and economic forces are changing the nation in ways that are difficult to understand in real time. Traditional authority is weakening, and traditional social relations and markets are being disrupted, leaving most participants far more financially precarious than they were a few decades ago. To take one important example: where owning a home once meant counting on slow and steady appreciation of home equity, in today’s bubble-and-bust economy, timing is everything: poor timing can trigger the loss of one’s down payment and home equity, and capturing that equity requires selling at the top.
As I noted last week in What If Politics Can’t Fix What’s Broken?, politics as practiced in a bygone era of stability no longer offers any solutions to these profound disruptions. Middle ground has vanished, and ideologies have become quasi-religious because they no longer offer any practical guidance to a society and economy that are being transformed by the 4th Industrial Revolution, resource depletion and demographics.
Once again Americans are awakening to the precariousness of their prosperity and liberties, and traditional forms of belonging, loyalty
The elite college admissions scandal is a timely example of this dynamic: those with $500,000 can bribe the right people in the centralized hierarchy to get their Little Darling onto a winner-take-most career track. A precarious revolution is brewing, as the old social, political and economic structures unravel and fail.
The sober politics of compromise is giving way to the expedient politics of bread and circuses, borrowing whatever sums are needed to placate every corrupt,
The politics of failed ideologies and financial expediency will not end well.
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