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?