The rise of the west and the changing sociopolitical landscape

Aeon this weekend highlighted a 2017 article by Joel Mokyr looking at how Europe became the richest part of the world (or at least one of the richest).  Historically, there have been many theories, ranging from racist rationals, cultural ones, to it merely being Europe and the overall west’s turn to be on top.

That last one shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly.  1000 years ago, the Muslim societies in the Middle East were the pinnacle of civilization.  Europe at that time was a poor backwater.  Arguably, the Middle Eastern societies benefited at the time from being situated at the center of Asia (and thus the center of the known world), putting them at the intersection of long range trade routes, making them an international economic hub.  The rise of Europe seemed to coincide with trade shifting from overland routes to the seas, giving the sea powers (Portugal, Spain, France, and Britain) the advantages.

Still, the question could be, why did Europe produce those sea powers and not other regions?  The answer Mokyr explores is one that’s been posited many times: competition.  Europe never had one central government, but numerous squabbling states competing with each other.  That competition ensured that the Age of Discovery, among other things, would continue, unlike in China, whose own age of discovery was abruptly cut short by the whims of imperial decree.

But Mokyr notes that competition is only half of the story.  The other half is the rise of science and technology, and an intellectual class.  Unlike in regions dominated by a central authority, where a conservative ruling class threatened by developing ideas could simply suppress them, any attempt to do so in Europe simply led to other powers making use of those ideas.

Mokyr describes a “society of letters” which existed between intellectuals across international borders.  That and the printing press allowed ideas to permeate throughout European cultures.  So when Galileo was persecuted by the Catholic Church, and his ideas banned in Italy, they simply resurfaced in other countries, and continued to be built upon.

I’ve often noted that the printing press was the disrupting technology of the second millennium.  Its development in the 15th century led to ideas spreading much more rapidly, and enabled collaborations that previously had only happened across generations.  No one in 1440 could have predicted the effects it would eventually have: the Scientific Revolution, Reformation, Counter-reformation, religious wars, and many other developments.

So Europe’s rise could be a factor of competition and a technology and culture that allowed ideas to permeate throughout the competitors.  Thinking about this makes me wonder about the rise of the internet.  On the one hand, it could be seen as a continuation of mass media, which itself can be seen as a continuation of the printing revolution.

But the internet has always felt different.  The fact that I’m writing and publishing this post, without having to convince a publisher, broadcaster, or anyone else with resources to make it available, and that people throughout the world will be able to read it, seems like something new.  Something whose long term effects we’re just beginning to feel.

Some of the effects, of course, have been predicted from the beginning.  Even in the 1990s, I remember seeing predictions that it would lead to far more globalization than existed at the time, and that this would have consequences for many people in society.  That’s largely come to pass.

What was less predicted is the backlash that we’re now seeing in many countries.  In the English speaking world, that’s manifested as Brexit in Britain, and the election of Donald Trump in my own country.  Although in retrospect, looking back at history, it should have been obvious that something like this would happen.  The waves of industrialization of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries all came with their associated backlashes.  The rise of socialism and communism can actually be viewed as giant backlashes against those waves.

This morning, Taegan Goddard, on his Political Wire blog (highly recommended BTW), noted that the Democratic party has now been hijacked (warning: paywall), similar to the way the Republican party was four years ago.  The front runner for the Democratic nomination is a candidate who, until a few years ago, didn’t identify as a Democrat.  And the strongest alternative may end up being a billionaire who also only recently started identifying as a Democrat.  It’s worth remembering that Trump spent most of his life not identifying as a Republican.

For most of US history, political parties chose their nominees in smoked filled rooms, the choice made by party insiders.  That started to change in the 1970s with the switch to primary elections.  But even with that switch, party insiders: major donors, elected officials, and political professionals, still largely determined who the primary candidates would be, through the infamous “money primary.”

Goddard recalls that he wrote in 2016 that Trump’s rise in the Republican party “broke political science”.  With the rise of Bernie Sanders, we seem to be seeing a similar dynamic in the Democratic party.  The days of party insiders pre-winnowing the candidates appears to be over.

But what’s leading to that change?  Goddard focuses on the rise of social networks: Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest, in other words, the internet.  Another unforeseen consequence of the rise of the internet, is the weakening of elites in both parties to be able to constrain the choices.  Candidates now have the ability to interact directly with their constituencies and bypass party elites, the media, and other gatekeepers.

Some are saying that this means that parties are now irrelevant.  I think that’s wishful thinking.  The dynamics of how governing works in the US haven’t changed.  Given the structure of the US government, a president still needs allies in the legislative and judicial branches to get things done, and given the nature of separate but overlapping incumbencies, those alliances still need to be long term.  In other words, parties aren’t irrelevant yet.

And the fact is that this is happening within the parties, not outside of them.  But it is changing the nature of politics in the US, in ways I’m not sure anyone would have predicted a decade ago.

Bringing this back to the original thesis, the rise of Europe and the west may well have been based on competition, a competition enhanced and informed by a framework that allowed new ideas to proliferate.  It’s manifesting in new ways today, and happening across a much wider backdrop, with other world regions increasingly becoming major players.

The question, as always, is what happens next?

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8 Responses to The rise of the west and the changing sociopolitical landscape

  1. Mike,
    I’m in complete agreement with your position that competition must have incited the great rise of western power, along with the “turbo charger” of science itself. Regardless of how much we’re forced to publicly deny our hedonism, we’re all self interested products of our circumstances in the end. And given the excellent performance of our economy over his tenure, “the buffoon” may indeed win again. Note that Sanders is utterly unelectable given these circumstances. Will enough Democrats grasp this in order to put forth an electable candidate? I suspect so, and thus at least an interesting election should result.

    Beyond capitalism and democracy, what’s the next economic paradigm? Though capitalism makes use of conscious motivation (or the desire of us all to feel as good as possible), observe that it’s also destructive. The resources of the losers (sorry Bloomberg!) become blown away like dust in the wind. So what if capitalism were maintained, as well as engineered by the state so that the resources of losers wouldn’t be so degraded by winners?

    This is the course that modern China has taken by means of its Social Credit System. Everything visible about a given person or company is now being algorithmically assessed to improve or detract from a powerful credit scoring of that entity. So not only is a given decision now based upon standard self interest as before, but clear government preferences weigh into such considerations. Here capitalistic motivation is maintained, though with government guidance as well. With the demise of liberty in China I expect far greater general wealth, as well as a more unified system which doesn’t harbor the costs of standard western conflict. China should essentially become a single entity with countless parts that, unlike here, work together. I don’t like it, but that’s what I consider next up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      On Sanders, that’s definitely the conventional wisdom, and I’m not sure it’s wrong. The last far left Democratic nominee was Dukakis in 1988, and he got creamed, with Mondale and McGovern as other stark examples. But it’s been 30 years, so who knows? It’s worth noting the election of a black man in 1988 was inconceivable. And it’s not clear from the polls that Sanders would fare any worse than the others.
      https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/latest_polls/general_election/

      On China, I’ve noted this before, but I think you’re overestimating the competence of the Chinese bureaucracy to run that system fairly, consistently, and effectively. Remember, this is the same government that initially condemned the doctor that tried to alert everyone about the coronavirus. They appear to be as blinkered as any other government, but without the benefit of an open press to hold them accountable. Only time will tell, but it seems more likely to just be a new form of oppression to suppress behavior the regime perceives as threatening their power.

      Liked by 2 people

      • James Cross says:

        “And it’s not clear from the polls that Sanders would fare any worse than the others.”

        On the other hand, the negatives on Sanders haven’t really been called out yet. There’s something in the fact that both Trump and the Russians want Sanders as the candidate. Once the propaganda machine gets going on Sanders I’m afraid he’ll end up enough behind Trump in a lot of key states that he’ll lose. But his administration, if elected, is likely to be a disaster. He doesn’t have the personality to compromise and there’s no way he will get enough votes to pass anything on his agenda. Couple that will the huge deficit and the probable impending economic decline (things any winner will face), we would probably end up with Republicans back in charge of the Congress in 2023 and back in the White House in 2025.

        Liked by 1 person

        • On the negatives not being called out yet, I’m not sure. Sanders and his views are pretty well known by now. And citing Trump wanting him as an opponent assumes Trump knows what he’s doing. One of Sanders’ strengths actually appears to be his appeal to the working class, particularly the working class in swing states.

          But I think your concerns about a Sanders administration are warranted. It’s not at all clear to me he knows how to govern. Still, if it’s that or four more years of what we currently have, I won’t hesitate to vote for Sanders, if he becomes the nominee.

          Liked by 1 person

          • James Cross says:

            You don’t have Trump tweeting:

            “Angry Bernie is going to take away your doctors”.

            “Old Bernie is going to tank the economy. He’ll let in all the migrant.s You’ll lose your job”.

            “He’ll be a disaster. He’ll tax you to pay for his schemes. Angry socialist Bernie”.

            “A disaster on crime. A disaster on immigration. Socialist Bernie”.

            Liked by 1 person

      • Mike,
        Those poll numbers do sound better than I thought. We’ll see. James makes good points about Sanders though, but I doubt he’ll be the democrats’ choice anyway.

        On China, perhaps I wasn’t clear. I consider the SCS (where any government visible activity, such as buying something with a credit card, impacts a person’s score) to exist as a government tool to use against its people and so help tie them into a more unified system. What are some of the things that it doesn’t want? Protests against it, subverting the SCS, crime, drug use, unhealthy foods, overweight people, and so on. What are some of the things that it does want? Support on social media, doing charity work, high student grades, staying physically fit, certain occupations, exposing cheaters, and so on. Furthermore people with low scores are set up to harm the scores of friends and family who have high scores, thus creating extra social pressure to not do things which the government doesn’t approve of.

        The end result should be a unified population that produces high quality goods and services, as well as enjoys the wealth it creates. I expect repressive regimes across the globe to follow China’s lead. Given an endlessly tweakable SCS, it’s not clear to me that liberal western economies will function more productively than these highly unified economies. While we have to deal with crime and all manners of conflict, they’ll have a strong tool from which to modify the behavior of their people.

        In “A Brave New World” I think Aldous Huxley made a mistake by adding the happiness inducing “Soma” drug to quell the population. That’s something which should subvert much needed incentive. In the coming decades I suspect that China will show our world’s sci-fi writers how to build actual dystopian societies. And all by means of a simple credit scoring system regarding government visible behavior.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. PJMartin says:

    I reckon the next big thing is the collision of capitalism and politics with planetary constraints on growth…and at the moment that doesn’t look like going well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not sure about constraints on growth. It seems like historically there have been many pronouncements that we’re nearing them, but they always seem to be premature.

      On the other hand, dealing with the consequences of growth, particularly the environmental consequences, has a very long history of not being handled well, and I’d definitely agree that, with climate change, they’re garnering a new urgency.

      Liked by 1 person

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