The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution: lessons for today


Richard Moore

Bcc: contributors and colleagues

From: Caspar Davis 
Date: 1 January 2010 06:39:32 GMT
To: cyberjournal
Subject: re-3: escaping the matrix

Hi Richard,
With the greatest respect, the Enlightenment is normally attributed to the 18th century, and authors such as Pope, Newton, Johnson, Pepys, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Tom Paine, Kant, Ben Franklin et al. (although some might argue that it started in the 12th or even before). See, e.g.
Individualism as an ideal is a product of the industrial revolution – which also was born in the 18th century but gained a full head of steam only in the 19th. 
There were two wonderful productions of Dickens on TV over Xmas – Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. Dickens was the greatest critic of the societal baggage brought by the IR, in all his books but most emphatically in Hard Times, which was probably the most important book in the formation of my thinking, although Orwell certainly played a big role too.
It was the evangelists of the IR who first unabashedly made a virtue of greed and its side kick, individualism.The neo-cons of the last 30 years have made such a hullabaloo about the anachronisms of the Left, much of which indulges in replaying the 1930’s. However they themselves are reliving the 1830’s and have few if any ideas that do not date from then. Incidentally, the mercantilist tycoons seem poised for another great leap backwards as the US Supreme Court is expected to remove all the remaining barriers to  corporations directly buying elections in the near future.

Hi Caspar,

Nice to hear from you, and happy new year.

Yes, one can draw a technical distinction between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. I don’t disagree with what you say about that. However my own historical perspective is that the two are intimately linked, both expressions of the same cultural paradigm shift. 

The old cultural paradigm was aristocracy, characterized by the principle of stability. Stability of social position, wealth-level, religious beliefs, estate ownership, technology usage, etc. Not that things actually were stable, but stability was the organizing principle, the mainstream model regarding what holds society together and how an economy functions. 

The new cultural paradigm was republicanism, and was characterized by progress and change. Adam Smith and David Ricardo challenged the dominant economic models, explaining why change would be beneficial, and arguing that new models really could work. Stability had been the general model since civilization began, and venturing off into unknown economic territory took some serious justification. 

Tom Paine challenged the dominant political model, explaining why royalty had no real claim on legitimacy, and arguing that a people really could succeed in governing themselves. The king was like the captain of a ship. And whether you like the captain or not, you don’t really want to be on a ship without one. Somebody’s got to be at the helm. It took someone with Paine’s eloquence, and ability to speak to the ordinary citizen, to reassure people that republicanism could work. Until Common Sense was published, the majority of colonists were against independence; they just wanted better treatment by the Crown. Common Sense came out in early 1776, and the Declaration of Independence was signed only nine months later, public opinion having been shifted by Paine. Common Sense broke all records in terms of number of copies printed, and was read on street corners (as most people couldn’t read) not only throughout the colonies, but in Ireland and elsewhere. 

1776 is also the year Wealth of Nations was published, and 1794 is when Eli Whitney got his patent for the cotton gin. The Industrial Revolution was the liberation of innovation in the realm of economics and technology. The ideas put forward by Smith and Ricardo served to justify the economic development that was now possible based on emerging innovations. In fact, it was the innovations that came first, and the justifications afterwards. Innovations in production methods, regional specialization, trade patterns, entrepreneurial initiatives, imperialist methods, etc., had been building for some time. 

A generation of 18th Century intellectuals understood that a new paradigm of change and innovation was coalescing in the world of economics and practical affairs. They could see great potential in the new paradigm: the paradigm was basically about liberating practical human creativity. They could also see that this liberation, in economic and practical terms, could not be fully realized within the existing social structures. The liberation of creativity in the economic realm required the liberation of creativity in the realm of governance as well. 

What this all amounted to was a liberation of creativity in the realm of thinking itself – the formulation from whole cloth of new conceptual models, and their promulgation into a community of creative new thinkers, eager to consolidate a coherent model of the new paradigm. And these folks knew that the new model could not be sold to the existing regime. The model was politically revolutionary, and it had to be sold directly to the people. It was necessary to appeal to the reason of the ‘common man’. 

Thus the final step in the liberation of creativity was reached: liberating creativity in the realm of popular thinking. The development of a ‘thinking, literate public’ was needed to enable the emergence of a revolutionary constituency. And such a public was also essential to the sound functioning of a republican form of government, where ideally the actions of the government are the expression of the will of the people. In such a system, one needs the people to be well-informed and thinking soundly. 

The economic and practical innovations came first, leading to successive waves of liberation thinking, which we refer to as the Enlightenment. And those original practical innovations were at the same time the direct beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. It was all a single process, with the yang energy being expressed as the Industrial Revolution, and the yin energy being expressed as the Enlightenment. The two are not separate historical threads, but two strands of a single historical thread, a thread that culminated in popular mass revolutions, and the dominance of the republican paradigm.

As for individualism, it came embedded in both strands. The Enlightenment strand invited the ‘common man’ to think for himself about ‘big ideas’, and to see himself as an empowered agent in the affairs of society. As a citizen in a republic, his relationship to the state was as an individual, a thinking voter. In the aristocratic paradigm, one’s relationship to the state was mediated by the social fabric, within which one had a ‘place’ as a member of a ‘class’.  Meanwhile, the industrial / economic strand was about ‘each acting in his own self-interest’, rather than ‘each following the prescriptions of his traditional social niche’. A top-to-bottom infusion of liberation thinking carried with it an inherent tendency toward individualism.

Today we are once again on the cusp of a cultural transformation. And again, the impetus toward transformation emerges from practical / economic conditions. The paradigm of unrestrained economic development that was unleashed c. 1800, and which was supported by an amazing flowering of scientific and engineering creativity, led to a situation where we have spoiled our own nest on a planetary scale. Unrestrained development became a sorcerer’s apprentice out of control, producing more and more, while inadvertently destroying its resource base. Resource limits are the change-forcing condition today, whereas the potential-to-exploit-resources was the change-forcing condition c. 1800. Unrestrained development was one big two-century bubble, and it has now burst.

We have our modern equivalent of Enlightenment thinkers: the ecologists, the whole-system theorists, the purveyors of sustainability consciousness. Whereas the Enlightenment revolution was about discarding constraints, the sustainability revolution is about recognizing the necessity of constraints. Our modern whole-systems thinking can be seen as a delayed rebuttal to Enlightenment thinking. Time has passed, and we can now say, “See, you were wrong, and here’s why”. The Luddites already knew the rebuttals, but they were unsuccessful in their campaign to spread them. 

We have our own version of Enlightenment thinkers, but we don’t have our own version of a revolutionary process. As in the Enlightenment, these thinkers know the new model cannot be sold to the existing regime – despite the fact that the regime is today sophisticated enough to misappropriate the buzzwords of the model, as in ‘sustainable development’, ‘renewable energy’, and ‘green technology’. The new paradigm is again politically revolutionary, and once again a generation of intellectuals has consolidated a model of a new paradigm, and has taken it directly to the people, appealing to the reason of the ‘common man’.

What we are missing today is an element of the elite establishment whose self-interest is aligned with the new paradigm. In the Enlightenment all the nouveau-riche entrepreneurs, the worldwide traders, the budding industrialists – and the investment-banking community – had much to gain from the new paradigm. The leadership of the American Revolution came from the top, from those who were already the established colonial elite. It was only the tip-top of the established hierarchy that had everything to lose – the monarchs, the titled nobles, and the apex of the religious hierarchies. This non-productive, parasitic class was past its sell-by date, and yet a truly massive project, involving all levels of society, was required to finally dethrone them. 

Today all elements of the elite establishment are aligned with the existing political hierarchy. The visible top Western leadership class has been systematically alienated from its popular constituencies by the processes of globalization, privatization, et al. The Bilderberger process has created a class culture in which those leaders identify with their role in relationship to the shadowy globalist elite, and view their popular constituency as a flock to be managed. Visible Western leaders are dependent on this upward relationship for their political survival, just as third-world dictators are dependent on their foreign backers. The investment-banker class has emerged as the new royal class. Again it is a non-productive, parasitic class. But unlike the royalty of old, it knows how to maintain its tentacles of power in the face of changing circumstances.

In order to develop a viable revolutionary process, we need to go back to Tom Paine and consider his ideas anew. Paine was a thinker apart from the Enlightenment mainstream. He drew a clear distinction between society and government. He, like Adam Smith, was an early systems thinker. While Smith developed a coherent model of a liberated economic system, Paine articulated the systems-nature of civil society. He pointed out the obvious: society does not operate by royal commands, but by its own dynamics as a coherent system, evolved over generations. 

He was in fact arguing for the non-necessity of government and the practicality of holographic self-governance, to use modern terminology. The revolutionary leadership was happy to see Paine’s ideas promulgated, as long as the anti-government consciousness was being directed at royalty. But once the new republican governments came to power, Paine was discarded, barely missed going to the guillotine in post-revolutionary France, and ultimately died in anonymous poverty. In the same way the Declaration of Independence was discarded, with its legitimization of ousting unpopular governments, and replaced by the Constitution, which was crafted so as to preserve the prerogatives of established colonial elites, and to absorb and co-opt popular unrest. In the same way the essence of Smith’s economic model – constraints that prevented monopolization – was discarded, and only the bit about ‘pursuing self interest’ was retained. 

Paine’s ideas of society-as-system dovetail with modern systems thinking in ecology, and with the visions of the sustainability / relocalization movement. Paine provides the political dimension that is unfortunately lacking in modern systems thinking. The myth that democracy exists has blinded us from re-examining Paine, and noticing that the self-governance model was long-ago hijacked by the elite-led republican movements, and was replaced by a competitive party model that is itself elite dominated.

The only constituency whose self-interest is aligned with the self-governance model is the popular constituency itself – we the people, the ‘ordinary person’.  We don’t have any establishment allies we can count on, although they will always sound their siren call to distract us from our course, and Obama is today’s state-of-the-art siren. 

The holographically self-regulating economy must emerge from the local level, informed by the insights of the Transition Towns movement. Similarly, the holographic self-governance process must emerge from the local level – where we the people can manifest our collective will by means of inclusive local dialog, and through collaborative participation in the localization of economic affairs. Our revolutionary process is a holographic process, happening autonomously in each community. When the local has been everywhere transformed, the larger society will have been transformed as a whole, but not by a top-down process as in the republican revolutions.  

In order to begin the process of inclusive dialog, we need to reach out to one another across the ideological divides that governments have encouraged, and which individualism has fed into. We need to realize that individualism has ultimately turned out to be politically disempowering, and that re-identification with community and with our role in the social fabric is our path to political empowerment. And we still have the liberation ideology of the Enlightenment, meaning that our ‘role in the social fabric’ will be a creative role, not a return to the fixed niches of the aristocratic paradigm.

Reaching out across the ideological divides is a matter of consciousness and will, but succeeding at inclusive dialog requires skills that have atrophied in the context of hierarchical governance. In order to overcome our lack of dialog skills, we need to employ the appropriate technologies of facilitated dialog, which fortunately have been under development by far-sighted practitioners in the facilitation field. This appropriate technology is available to us when we are ready to make use of it.