In a recent book, Juliet Barker offers new perspective about an old event (1381: The Year of the Peasant’s Revolt, Kindle Locations 41-48):
“In the summer of 1381 England erupted in a violent popular uprising that was as unexpected as it was unprecedented. Previous rebellions had always been led by ambitious and discontented noblemen seeking to overthrow the government and seize power for themselves. The so-called ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ was led by commoners— most famously Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Balle— whose origins were obscure and whose moment at the forefront of events was brief. Even more unusually, they did not seek personal advancement but a radical political agenda which, if it had been implemented, would fundamentally have transformed English society: the abolition of serfdom and the dues and services owed by tenants to their lord of the manor; freedom from tolls and customs on buying and selling goods throughout the country; the recognition of a man’s right to work for whom he chose at the wages he chose; the state’s seizure of the Church’s wealth and property. Their demands anticipated the French Revolution by four hundred years.”
Our understanding of the origins of modernity keep being pushed back. It used to be thought that the American Revolution was the first modern revolution. But it was preceded by generations of revolts against colonial elite. And before that was the English Civil War, which increasingly is seen as the first modern revolution. We might have to push it even further back to the Peasant’s Revolt.
It makes sense when you know some of the historical background. England had become a major center of wool production. This unintentionally undermined the feudal order. The reason is that an entire community of feudal peasants isn’t necessary for herding sheep, in the way it had been for traditional agriculture. So, by the time the Peasant’s Revolt came around, there had already been several centuries of increasing irrelevance for much of the peasant population. This would continue on into the Enlightenment Age when the enclosure movement took hold and masses of landless peasants flooded into the cities.
It’s interesting that the pressure on the social order was already being felt that far back, almost jumpstarting the modern revolutionary era four centuries earlier. Those commoners were already beginning to think of themselves as more than mere cogs in the machinery of feudalism. They anticipated the possibility of becoming agents of their own fate. It was the origins of modern class identity and class war, at least for Anglo-American society.
There were other changes happening around then. It was the beginning of the Renaissance. This brought ancient Greek philosophy, science, and politics back into Western thought. The new old ideas were quickly spread through the invention of the movable type printing press and increasing use of vernacular language. And that directly made the Enlightenment possible.
The Italian city-states and colonial empires were becoming greater influences, bringing with them new economic systems of capitalism and corporatism. The Italian city-states, in the High Middle Ages, also initiated advocacy of anti-monarchialism and liberty-oriented republicanism. Related to this, humanism became a major concern, as taught by the ancient Sophists with Protagoras famously stating that “Man is the measure of all things.” And with this came early developments in psychological thought, such as the radical notion that everyone had the same basic human nature. Diverse societies had growing contact and so cultural differences became an issue, provoking difficult questions and adding to a sense of uncertainty and doubt.
Individual identity and social relationships were being transformed, in a way not seen since the Axial Age. Proto-feudalism developed in the Roman empire. Once established, feudalism lasted for more than a millennia. It wasn’t just a social order but an entire worldview, a way of being in and part of a shared world. Every aspect of life was structured by it. The slow unraveling inevitably led to increasing radicalism, as what it meant to be human was redefined and re-envisioned.
My thoughts continuously return to these historical changes. I can’t shake the feeling that we are living through another such period of societal transformation. But as during any major shift in consciousness, the outward results are hard to understand or sometimes hard to even notice, at least in terms of their ultimate consequences. That is until they result in an uprising of the masses and sometimes a complete overthrow of established power. Considering that everpresent possibility and looming threat, it might be wise to question how stable is our present social order and the human identity it is based upon.
These thoughts are inspired by other books I’ve been reading. The ideas I regularly return to is that of Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism and the related speculations of those who were inspired by him, such as Iain McGilchrist. Most recently, I found useful insight from two books whose authors were new to me: Consciousness by Susan Blackmore and A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind by Robert Burton.
Those authors offer overviews that question and criticize many common views, specifically that of the Enlightenment ideal of individuality, in considering issues of embodiment and affect, extended self and bundled self. These aren’t just new theories that academics preoccupy themselves for reasons of entertainment and job security. They are ideas that have much earlier origins and, dismissed for so long because they didn’t fit into the prevailing paradigm, they are only now being taken seriously. The past century led to an onslaught of research findings that continuously challenged what we thought we knew.
This shift is in some ways a return to a different tradition of radical thought. John Locke was radical enough for his day, although his radicalism was hidden behind pieties. Even more radical was a possible influence on Locke, Wim Klever going so far as seeing crypto-quotations of Baruch Spinoza in Locke’s writings. Spinoza was an Enlightenment thinker who focused not just on what it meant to be human but a human in the world. What kind of world is this? Unlike Locke, his writings weren’t as narrowly focused on politics, governments, constitutions, etc. Even so, Matthew Stewart argues that through Locke’s writings Spinozism was a hidden impulse that fueled the fires of the American Revolution, taking form and force through a working class radicalism as described in Nature’s God.
Spinozism has been revived in many areas of study, such as the growing body of work about affect. Never fully appreciated in his lifetime, his radicalism continues to inform and inspire innovative thinking. As Renaissance ideas took centuries to finally displace what came before, Spinoza’s ideas are slowly but powerfully helping to remake the modern mind. I’d like to believe that a remaking of the modern world will follow.
I just started an even more interesting book, Immaterial Bodies by Lisa Blackman. She does briefly discuss Spinoza, but her framing concern is the the relationship “between the humanities and the sciences (particularly the life, neurological and psychological sciences).” She looks at the more recent developments of thought, including that of Jaynes and McGilchrist. Specifically, she unpacks the ideological self-identity we’ve inherited.
To argue for or to simply assume a particular social construct about our humanity is to defend a particular social order and thus to enforce a particular social control. She makes a compelling case for viewing neoliberalism as more than a mere economic and political system. The greatest form of control isn’t only controlling how people are allowed to act and relate but, first and foremost, how they are able to think about themselves and the world around them. In speaking about neoliberalism, she quotes Fernando Vidal (Kindle Locations 3979-3981):
“The individualism characteristic of western and westernized societies, the supreme value given to the individual as autonomous agent of choice and initiative, and the corresponding emphasis on interiority at the expense of social bonds and contexts, are sustained by the brain-hood ideology and reproduced by neurocultural discourses.”
Along with mentioning Spinoza, Blackman does give some historical background, such as in the following. And as a bonus, it is placed in the even larger context of Jaynes’ thought. She writes (Kindle Locations 3712-3724):
“Dennett, along with other scientists interested in the problem of consciousness (see Kuijsten, 2006), has identified Jaynes’s thesis as providing a bridge between matter and inwardness, or what I would prefer to term the material and immaterial. Dennett equates this to the difference between a brick and a bricklayer, where agency and sentience are only accorded to the bricklayer and never to the brick. For Dennett, under certain conditions we might have some sense of what it means to be a bricklayer, but it is doubtful, within the specificities of consciousness as we currently know and understand it, that we could ever know what it might mean to be a brick. This argument might be more usefully extended within the humanities by considering the difference between understanding the body as an entity and as a process. The concept of the body as having a ‘thing-like’ quality, where the body is reconceived as a form of property, is one that has taken on a truth status since at least its incorporation into the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 (see Cohen, 2009). As Cohen (2009: 81) suggests, ‘determining the body as the legal location of the person radically reimagines both the ontological and political basis of person-hood’. This act conceives the body as an object possessed or owned by individuals, what Cohen (2009) terms a form of ‘biopolitical individualization’. Within this normative conception of corporeality bodies are primarily material objects that can be studied in terms of their physicochemical processes, and are objects owned by individuals who can maintain and work upon them in order to increase the individual’s physical and cultural capital.”
In her epilogue, she presents a question by Catherine Malabou (Kindle Locations 4014-4015): “What should we do so that consciousness of the brain does not purely and simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism?” The context changes as the social order changes, from feudalism to colonialism and now capitalism. But phrased in various ways, it is the same question that has been asked for centuries.
Another interesting question to ask is, by what right? It is more than a question. It is a demand to prove the authority of an action. And relevant to my thoughts here, it has historical roots in feudalism. It’s like asking someone, who do you think you are to tell me what to do? Inherent in this inquiry is one’s position in the prevailing social order, whether feudal lords challenging the kings authority or peasants challenging those feudal lords. The issue isn’t only who we are and what we are allowed to do based on that but who or what gets to define who we are, our human nature and social identity.
Such questions always have a tinge of the revolutionary, even if only in potential. Once people begin questioning, established attitudes and identities have already become unmoored and are drifting. The act of questioning is itself radical, no matter what the eventual answers. The doubting mind is ever poised on a knife edge.
The increasing pressure put on peasants, especially once they became landless, let loose individuals and identities. This incited radical new thought and action. As a yet another underclass forms, that of the imprisoned and permanently unemployed that even now forms a tenth of the population, what will this lead to? Throwing people into desperation with few opportunities and lots of time on their hands tends to lead to disruptive outcomes, sometimes even revolution.
Radicalism means to go to the root and there is nothing more radical than going to the root of our shared humanity. In questions being asked, those in power won’t be happy with the answers found. But at this point, it is already too late to stop what will follow. We are on our way.