Liberalism, Enlightenment & Axial Age

There are two historical periods that have interested me for a long time: the Enlightenment Age and the Axial Age.

We speak of these modern times as if there is something fundamentally different about society today, but I feel unconvinced as I look about the world. I often get this sense of how primitive humans still are with only a veneer of civilization.

This brings me to my fascination with history. The past isn’t really in the past. History is the act of storytelling in the present. All the basic problems of humanity still exist and have always existed. The reason tumultuous events of bygone times fascinate us is because they symbolize the very issues with which we still struggle.

At the same time, there are societal shifts that are fundamental. I would add that there is no way of going back. But the shift I perceive is much larger than any given historical period. The Enlightenment Age and the Axial Age are the outward manifestations of this foundational reallignment. It comes down to civilization itself, specifically in terms of the the first cities and city-states as they developed urban infrastructures and cultures which in turn laid the groundwork for the first empires.

We are more or less the same as humans during other times in the development of civilization, but we are utterly transformed from humans prior to that. The Axial Age most clearly demonstrates this period of transition. It’s when all the problems of civilization and urbanization came to the forefront. It’s also when patterns were being set down that would lead to all later developments: Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, Enlightenment Age, Revolutionary Era, etc.

The Axial Age was more pivotal than even the Enlightenment Age. I’d argue that the Enlightenment thinkers were largely just responding to the ideas and practices first introduced during the Axial Age, although it is worthy of note that the Enlightenment Age allowed those ideas and practices to be taken to their next level. What the Axial Age prophets and philosophers offered to ensuing generations are such things as individualism, republicanism, democracy, anti-authoritarianism, universal truth, transcendent idealism, non-ethnic/non-tribal communitarianism, egalitarianism, multiculturalism, scientific inquiry, rational thought, international trade, syncretism, etc; but also such things as monotheism and patriarchy.

We moderns, left and right alike, are the descendants of the Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment thinkers, radical and moderate, were descendants of the Axial Age.

So, this makes us all descendants of that first shift that began as civilization more fully took hold across all societies.

This shift has been continuing ever since and has yet to play itself out. I don’t sense that we’ve yet come to another era that comes even close to the vast significance of the shift that became so apparent during the Axial Age. What was started so long ago either needs to come to some kind of conclusion or else utter failure; then and only then will society be ready for something entirely new.

My most personal interest at the moment, though, is on a much smaller scale.  As can be seen from many recent posts, my mind has been overly focused on conservatives and liberals, even moreso than usual which is saying a lot. My focus has often been on what divides people in terms of ideologies, movements and predispositions. But thinking about the Axial Age reminded me of what unites all modern people.

I’ve thought about this most specifically in terms of America which is most representative of what it means to be modern, considering most Americans have so little sense of the larger past beyond the American Revolution. One implication of American history can be interpreted as a lack of having a tradition of conservatism. Those Americans claiming to be ‘conservatives’ tend to identify with classical liberalism or at least be heavily influenced by it.

The problem with this is that classical liberalism isn’t simply or directly opposed to modern 20th century liberalism. For one thing, later liberalism emerges out of classical liberalism (in the sense of classical liberalism being defined as all liberalism prior to the 20th century, including radical liberals such as Spinoza and Paine). For another, classical liberalism originated specifically in opposition to classical conservatism. Conservatives can’t simultaneously claim classical liberalism and classical conservatism, two mutually exclusive categories. American conservatives aren’t traditional conservatives or, to put it another way, their tradition of conservatism isn’t very old and is actually a reformulation of one variant of early liberalism.

In some ways, this is just an argument about terminology. But it is important because it is about the history of that terminology. I don’t care, in a practical sense, how others choose to label themselves. What I care about is the deeper meaning and values that underlie those labels. Liberalism by any other name is still just as liberal.

An obvious thing to note is that conservatives today are more socially liberal than liberals were in past centuries. So, we presently all are social liberals. It’s just that people who identify as liberals are slightly more socially liberal than people who identify as conservatives. Most of the things that conservatives opposed in the past have now become the social norms for modern Westerners and for much of the world as well. Conservatives no longer defend monarchy, theocracy, slavery, racism, genocide of the indigenous, etc; at least few do so fully and overtly. Traces of classical conservatism remains, but they are just traces at this point. Even fundamentalism is just another manifestation of modernity.

All of this can’t be denied, and yet most conservatives can’t accept the truth of it. They are caught up in the word ‘liberalism’, not looking beyond their own fearful projections to the actual meaning behind the word. That is the challenge. There doesn’t seem to be any neutral language to use. Instead of social liberalism, I could speak of social democracy. But that is problematic as well since social democracy has a history with socialism. Of course, we technically live in a social democracy already, whether or not conservatives realize this simple fact. America is a liberal society, in the basic sense of the word.

The Axial Age can be seen as the first time social liberalism manifested on a larger scale, even if it only looks like mere glimmerings by today’s standards. It took the Enlightenment and many revolutions to bring this emerging social liberalism to greater fruition. Even now, social liberalism can feel like it is barely limping along. The important part is that we’ve collectively come to see that social liberalism is of central value, no matter what terms we use to describe it.

I don’t know why the language aspect is such a stumbling block. I think that is why I was recently thinking about this in terms of the Axial Age. That earlier era came before such labels were invented, although I’m sure similar distinctions were beginning to arise back then.

Maybe if we liberals speak about social liberalism in the terms of the Axial Age,  then it will be more acceptable to conservatives. The Axial Age as the origin point of Christianity is less threatening, if anything the source of what many conservatives see of value. To find a shared language, we might have to step back in time before we can step forward.

Innovation, Social Liberalism, Cultural Diversity, etc

Here is Steven Johnson speaking about his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. I was watching the full version of this discussion at FORA.tv.

I could go into detailed analysis about these ideas, but I just wanted to point out some related ideas.

Johnson’s idea that cities have been the breeding ground of innovation because of all the social mixing. This seems to have started most clearly during the Axial Age when cultures began mixing like never before. Also, I’ve seen research that shows people who grow up with multiculturalism become more socially liberal as adults. There is something about being socially liberal, also supported by research, that relates to the trait of ‘openness to experience’ which is an attitude of being open to what is new, including new ideas and new ways of thinking. Interestingly, I’ve read that paranormal experiences are most often reported (more often experienced?) along the coasts and major cities (i.e., where liberals are concentrated)… and some research shows that religiosity is opposed to supernatural experience.

Some other related ideas and issues are America as a melting pot, the rise of the creative class, an increasingly global society, Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, religious syncretism, paranormal experience. Et Cetera. I’m sure much else could be added.

Anyway, the central point in my mind is that the liberal vision of society has it’s benefits. One thing Johnson points out is that many of the American Founders were part of the cultural mixing that was going on in Europe (Paine, Franklin, and Jefferson all traveled in Europe). Specifically, Johnson points out the coffee houses that were popular in European cities at that time. These coffee houses were where people and ideas mixed together. As we all know, this led to much revolutionary fervor in the New and Old Worlds.

http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/04/17/what-drives-motivation-in-the-modern-workplace/

http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2009/08/22/cultural-shift-generations-race-technology/

http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2009/12/12/religious-syncretism-paranormal-experience-and-democrats/

http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2009/06/27/psychology-and-parapsychology-politics-and-place/

White Nationalist Recruiter Rebuffed At CPAC 2011

Here is a video that gives further support to a theory I’ve had.

The younger generation is more socially ‘liberal’ than past generations. Even younger Republicans are relatively liberal on social issues (which actually started back with GenX Reagan Republicans, personified by the fictional character of Alex P. Keaton from the tv show Family Ties). Other evidence of this shift is Meghan McCain who supports gay marriage.

As far as I can tell, the only reason social conservatism took over the Republican party was because of the Boomer generation. Social conservatism has remained so dominant for so long is because the Boomer generation was the largest generation followed by the extremely small Generation X. Only the new generation of Millennials is larger than the Boomers and so that is why we are only now seeing this shift to any great extent. GenXers, by themselves, couldn’t have much impact on changing social attitudes and GenXers don’t have the same desire to change social attitudes as is seen with the Millennials.

Millennials are the most multi-cultural, multi-racial generation ever to exist in US history. Along with being racially open-minded, they support a broad range of socially liberal positions. The only position they hold that is slightly socially conservative is their being somewhat pro-life, but at the same time they are very pro-sex and they don’t support repealing Roe vs Wade. Millennials are odd in being somewhat more ‘conservative’ in their lifestyles such as being focused on marriage and family. It’s just this lifestyle conservatism is more about personal choice instead of culture war. Millennials are very critical of politicized religion. Also, their conservatism is very much pro-government.

http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/a-portrait-of-generation-next/

http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2009/11/27/the-new-conservatism-genx-millennials/

http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/survey-on-love-sex-kids-gender-roles-reversing/

http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/01/23/us-demographics-increasing-progressivism/

http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/oreilly-polls-old-vs-young/

Feminomics: Red v. Blue Family Paradigms

Feminomics: Red v. Blue Family Paradigms

“Hidden by the statistics on family instability is a big success story. College-educated women are the only group in the country whose marriage rates have increased, and their divorce rates have fallen back to the levels of the mid-sixties — before no-fault divorce or the widespread availability of the pill. At the same time, the Census Bureau reports that highly educated mothers are more likely to work than are their less-educated counterparts. With stagnating incomes for the working class, this upper quarter of families, concentrated in urban areas and the blue states on the coasts, has increased the advantages their children enjoy. Their secret: invest in women as well as men, empower reproductive choice, support companionate relationships, and reap the benefits of family formation by mature parents with a measure of financial security.”

US Conservatism: Through the Looking Glass

I was just thinking about how fiscal conservatism isn’t necessarily all that conservative… depending, as always, on how you define the term.

Social conservatism is conservative because it attempts to conserve traditional culture and attempts to conserve the authority and influence of the institutions that support it. This is where American conservatism goes off the tracks. Our country wasn’t founded on conservative values, but was founded on revolution. The Founding Fathers weren’t conserving traditions. They fought against the traditional style of government and in it’s place instated an entirely new form of government. Essentially, America’s ‘tradition’ was originally in opposition to European tradition, but later on Americans came to identify with their European roots… in defining “Real America” as contrasted to the cultures of African-Americans, Latinos, and non-European immigrants.

This is sense of rootedeness in European tradition is odd considering that US conservatives think of themselves as somehow being the torchbearers of the tradition they inherited from Europe. But Europe is more traditional than the US almost by definition… but, to US conservatives, Europe is the opposite of their notion of tradition. Americans so much loved tradition that we even created entirely new traditions of Christianity. I find it ironic for Mormon Beck to be the defender of tradition.

This issue of confused ideologies came up with the recent IRS building attack by Joe Stack. In his suicide note, he criticized the government in typical fiscal conservative fashion. The confusing part was that he made statements that could be interpreted as praising communism over capitalism. This is strange as US conservatives love to disparage Europe for its socialism. Ignoring Stack’s unclear ideology, some have connected these particular statements to Henry Fairlie who was a European conservative… a very different species. Fairlie moved to the US and was critical of the Republican party because it didn’t seem conservative to him at all. As he saw it, without a stable government, there can be no stable society, no stable culture, no stable tradition.

Idealizing capitalism in place of government didn’t seem like a good answer to Fairlie. Without a strong government to enforce strong regulation, there is nothing traditional about uncontrolled capitalism. In all traditional societies, the market is controlled by government whether national or local. Capitalism itself isn’t even a traditional value. The Catholic church which is the very archetype of Western Tradition has often been critical of capitalism. In the past, religion was allied or even conjoined with government in order to control all facets of society including the markets. This is what US conservatives like to call socialism or communism.

US capitalism is a very unstable system with booms and busts. The markets change quickly and the system encourages risky behavior. The US government, on the other hand, was designed to be very conservative. The power of the govt is divided and change happens very slowly. The US government is more conservative than US capitalism and yet conservatives criticize the former while idealizing the latter. If you look at the history of US capitalism, it has been the single greatest force in destroying traditional communities. Why are conservatives considered fiscally conservative when they support a big military and undermine all programs that directly help US citizens (public schools, assistance programs, etc)? Liberals are considered fiscally liberal, but if you look at the Pew data liberals are the demographic that is the most concerned about balancing the budget.

In the US, the penultimate defenders of “fiscal conservatism” are the libertarians. This just adds to the confusion. Libertarianism was also inherited from Europe where originally it was part and parcel of the workers movement. Even in the US, the early workers movement was against the government that was aligned with the corporations (corporatism) all the while promoting what are now considered socialist ideals of workers rights. Over this past century, though, the protest against government has switched from progressivism to regressivism and the libertarian movement has switched from anti-capitalism to pro-capitalism. Even so, libertarianism and progressivism have never been entirely separated. Any time a truly populist protest movement arises, libertarians and progressives become almost indistinguishable… for example, the Peace movement protesting the Iraq War.

I suppose the connection between libertarian and progressive sentiments had been strained since at least the Civil War. But the separation didn’t become obvious until Republicans took up the Southern Strategy. By using this strategy, conservatives played off of the Southern fear and resentment toward the Federal government. As progressives were finally getting the government to enforce laws that defended the common man, this irritated the class conscious Southern Aristocrats.

I’ve discussed some of this before such as the role the KKK played in the development of conservative ideology. It’s strange how conservatism became what it is today. Glenn Beck has gone so far as even to attack the Christian tradition of social justice. Social conservatism without social justice? Fiscal conservatism without regulation on capitalism? It’s like we’ve fallen through the looking glass.

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