For purposes of this blog, history really begins at the point where we go from being an agricultural economy/culture to….whatever comes next, usually industrialization. And when we go from that second phase of economy to what we are now….that change happens faster and harder than the first. And what we’re going through now? I see the flames coming outta the engine of the Batmobile my friends! This set of cycles, these ‘interlocking rings’ of tech, economy and culture are going on everywhere not just the US or Europe. To be sure, how other places do this doesn’t have to replicate our experience, but may be informed by it. Iceland went from an almost Medieval culture at the start of the 20th century to building modern cities, poof, from whole cloth thanks to the economic miracle known as the codfish! (See, Cod by Mark Kurlansky, one of my favorite books of the last few years!)
But it is quite sobering how much evil and suffering have occurred throughout the world in the same relatively short time. When I read accounts of the First Battle of the Marne in WWI, I wind up feeling like we just handed monkeys machine guns and artillery and let them kill 100,000 people and wound another 400,000….in a week. Even more sobering….that’s merely the tip of the iceberg of horrors in the last 150 years. You know the names of the more famous horrors; do I have to spell them out?
Plus, there’s nothing to say that things won’t even get worse. That’s the danger in times like this; the ‘solutions’ we think make sense may indeed damage things, well, I won’t say ‘beyond repair’, but such that fixing them will be exceptionally difficult. Once we get behind bad ideas they entrench just as deeply as good ones.
But if there’s one thing I have confidence in, especially in America, is that we will work out things and the flaws of the old regime will be things we make fun of in the future. I think it’s because we really don’t value the past all that much. I know a lot of people that view this as a flaw, but I generally don’t! There comes a point when we’ve peaked out with the old ways even though it’s hard to see. I’ve long believed that everything becomes its own parody.
And, sort of amazingly, even older things get better than they were. We’re far better at growing food than we were 150 years ago, and we’re better, more effective manufacturers than we were 70 years ago. So, while we ride the wave of change, remember that we will find a way to build on what we’ve done. The “information economy” we’ve been building for the last 30-40 years I view as kind of developing a ‘central nervous system’ for us as a culture. But what brain will form from this?
3 responses to “The Longue Duree”
We are certainly going thru a major cultural change (driven, as the industrial revolution was, by a major technological change). And every cultural change is, at best, messy. More often, they include disasters as people slowly figure out what doesn’t work.
Part of the problem is that people and cultures are conservative — they resist change. Which is not an irrational phenomena. Changes involve risk, and we (and our cultures) originally evolved in an environment where there was very little margin for error. Not to mention that changes always involve some people having to make really, really major changes in their lives.
What make America a special case revolves around exactly that point. We have an almost unprecedented acceptance of change. I suspect that this has a lot to do with selection: people who emigrated and ended up here were precisely those who were most willing to take a chance and embrace something new; except for blacks, who had no choice, that is true of everybody, no matter where or what culture they came from. The rest stayed home and coped. Which is not to say that acceptance of change is anything like universal here — witness the current loud part of the population longing for the 18th century (or at least what they believe it was like). But it is more common here than anywhere else.
I would not venture to guess how things will eventually settle out, other than that it will be substantially different in at least some major areas. And I definitely would not claim that there is any certainty that America will be the first to figure out a viable way forward. But the past suggests that we have a better chance than most to do so.
wj, I do love your phrase “almost unprecedented acceptance of change”. It sums up neatly what may be the greatest stealth strength of America. I postulate that America will be the first to figure things out mainly because we are among the first “through the door” as it were. Plus, our lack of patience for the status quo staying too awful too long!
Rude question (I’ve been on another blog, which sent my mind down this track): Once, as seems likely, America works out how to cope with the new economic reality, how loud will be the screams about “cultural imperialism” as others start to copy us?
I’m guessing that places which are going to be in the midst of a severe demographic crunch in a decade or so (Europe, Japan, China) will be among those complaining the loudest. Not because we tell them how to deal. But just because, even if we spare them unasked advice, they find themselves forced by circumstance to follow large parts of the approach we pioneered.
It’s worth keeping in mind that, however big a mess we seem to be in, others are going to be in worse shape pretty soon. Cold comfort for those suffering, I realize. But worth remembering by anyone who is responsible for making long-range policy.