Slavery, Freedom and Business Endeavor

Announcing the latest book by Bradley Bowden

Reflecting on the nature of civilization, the French historian Fernand Braudel concluded that “at bottom, a civilization is attached to a distinct geographical area”, a region that determines its “opportunities and constraints” as well as its “more or less fixed limits”. Braudel also concluded that each civilization was fundamentally conservative at heart, a mechanism through which the habits and values of “the distant and far distant past” cling “to life” in the present.1 In his estimation, the current iteration of western civilization is something that emerged from a fusion of Germanic and Roman cultures during the Carolingian period (c. 800 AD), a period that saw “the cradle” of the West shift from the Mediterranean to the North Sea.2 Whatever changes had occurred since then—the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution—mattered little. Instead, the bedrock of the civilization—rooted in language, religious values, law, social norms—remained largely intact, resistant to fundamental change.

Image Credit: George Washington dressed as Roman emperor by Italian neo-classical sculptor Antonio Canova, 1815-20

In his Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler articulated a very different understanding of both the West and the nature of civilization. According to Spengler, each civilization represented the final flowering of the culture that produced it: a ripening that was destined to “decay, and never return”.3 As a civilization, the modern West is, Spengler believed, a successor to the earlier medieval or early modern civilization, but distinct from it. A product of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Spengler argued that what distinguished the modern iteration of western civilization from every one that came before it was a “Faustian” pact with mechanization—an arrangement that saw “the entrepreneur, the engineer, and the factory-worker” emerge as the civilization’s flagbearers.4 It was, moreover, this Faustian pact with mechanization and the attractiveness of the material bounty that it provided that gave the West its global ascendancy, creating a unique “world economy” constructed around vast megacities with “cosmopolitan” cultures and peoples.5

How then can we understand the nature of western civilization and its modern western iteration? Is it simply an extension of a long-established civilization, forged more than 1,200 years ago? Or is it, alternatively, something profoundly different? Is the West’s pact with mechanization made in hell or heaven? Is the modern West confined within “fixed limits”, or has it become a truly global civilization, embodying societal practices and values that have universal appeal?

In exploring these questions this book places everyday life rather than grand culture at center stage.

Historically, societies in every part of the globe were caught within a “Malthusian trap” in which economic expansion drove population expansion to unsustainable limits, causing an eventual crash in both living standards and population. As we explore in Part 1 of this book, this Malthusian trap was as much a characteristic feature of the societies of the New World as the Old. For societies caught within a Malthusian trap—which was every premodern civilization—the consequences for the ordinary person were catastrophic. Most were physically and intellectually stunted, perpetually undernourished and condemned to premature death. What we think of as civilization—cities, literacy, the leisured comfort of Pharaohs and Caesars—was confined to a tiny minority. The modern iteration of western civilization, which this book argues emerged around the middle of the nineteenth century, was profoundly different. As mechanization spread from mining and textile manufacturing to transport, communications, agriculture and even household activities (for example, washing, ironing, vacuuming, and so on) a total new mode of life was created.

“the entrepreneur, the engineer, and the factory-worker” were the product of a pact made in heaven rather than hell. It is to them we owe our escape from the Malthusian trap that previously doomed societies to an endless cycle of expansion and collapse, expansion and collapse.

Like Spengler, this book argues that the modern iteration of western civilization is a successor to the earlier medieval or early modern civilization, but distinct from it. Like Spengler, this study also argues that the new expression of western civilization that emerged around 1850 was, from the outset, a “world economy”—one constructed around global interdependence and the appeal of new technologies and lifestyles. Unlike Spengler, however, this book concludes that “the entrepreneur, the engineer, and the factory-worker” were the product of a pact made in heaven rather than hell. It is to them we owe our escape from the Malthusian trap that previously doomed societies to an endless cycle of expansion and collapse, expansion and collapse.

From the outset, the new iteration of western civilization was the product of far more than machines and technology. It also owed its existence to a set of values that underpinned its economic expansion, and which were also seminal to the transformation of everyday life: individualism, democracy, economic and political liberalism. Even within Europe, these values were both novel and contested in the mid-nineteenth century. They remain contested. Individualism, the core value and driving force of the new civilization, is the opposite of collectivism. One takes one’s identity from one’s own opinions, behaviors, experiences and beliefs. Individual identity, as an expression of individualism, is something that can never be bestowed by a collective, be it one based on religion, race or sexual preference. Individualism and its key societal expressions—economic and political liberalism—also entail choice and, therefore, risk. Individualism is thus a friend of markets and the associated ability to freely choose one’s job and to spend one’s money as one likes. Conversely, it is the enemy of the state and state-directed controls. Yet, as this study explores, the modern state with its bureaucracies, taxes, benefits and restrictions is as much a feature of our modern western civilization as are markets. At times the state has proved individualism’s protector, setting out a series of constitutional and legal norms that protect both democracy and the rights of the individual. At other times it has sought to strangle individualism, either by stealth or through a sudden and abrupt imposition of authoritarianism.

An historical novice, the fate of our modern iteration of western civilization has often hung by a thread. In the 1930s, much of Europe lived under totalitarian regimes of one sort of another. Today, its survival once more hangs in the balance. Everywhere, as we discuss in our final chapter, we are witnessing what this study refers to as the “milletization” of society, whereby various identity groups become homogenous enclaves in ways that resemble the millet system of Ottoman Turkey—a system that bestowed upon each religious and ethnic group its own distinct legal identity. The inevitable result of this system in the Ottoman Empire was not pluralism, but fragmentation; not harmony, but inter-ethnic strife and the Armenian Genocide. Whether our civilization survives is, in the final analysis, up to the choices we make. Do we value individualism, choice and thus risk? Or do we prefer the security of the collective, be it the state or a de facto millet?

To read more go to Slavery, Freedom and Business Endeavor by Bradley Bowden.

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