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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lucius Septimius: Historically Speaking

Kings & Queens

Social progress can always be associated with political freedoms. Political freedom requires the existing presence of both economic freedom and freedom of conscience. All three are linked, and the empirical evidence of history clearly teaches us that one cannot exist without the other two.

In the 12th century we begin to see the emergent emancipation of the individual via self-governing communities that spread education and practiced mercantile expansion and interconnection of economic markets. By the 14th century, even the smallest peasant villages of Europe were connected to a vast international trading network.

It was entirely possible for a peasant in fourteenth century Germany, using money he had obtained by selling produce which he had grown specifically to be sold in the market, to purchase pepper from Indonesia or silks from Italy, or woolen cloth from England, or wax candles from Russia.

He could use that money to build a bigger house on stone foundations. He could use that money to send his children to school or even university. This is not hyperbole: it happened on a regular basis. My research has shown that by 1450 better than half of the students who attended universities in central Europe were peasants; in any given village around 5% of the boys in a generation could expect to go on to a university.

What made this possible? Free markets, coupled with political liberty at the level of the commune and a level of genuine intellectual concern, the sort of thing that only money and the leisure time it buys makes possible.

Did everyone profit from this? No, of course not. There were always those at the bottom end who, for whatever reason, weren't up to the task. There was an increasing polarization in peasant villages over the period 1300 to 1500 between rich and poor. Some at the top moved upward on account of industry, investment, public service, and education; others just stayed where they had been as serfs. Wealth increased, but it increased specifically among those who were positioned to be most active in taking advantage of the new situation.

The nobility were not necessarily pleased with the new development. Labor costs increased; their profit margins decreased. Meanwhile, they felt it necessary to engage in increasing levels of conspicuous consumption to illustrate their status. The monarchs, the upper edge of the aristocracy, while pleased with the new wealth, were also concerned about keeping everyone in their proper place.

The result, in the 16th and 17th centuries, was increased regulation, regimentation, and repression. Educational opportunities dried up as schools were taken from the communities and given to the states.

By the seventeenth century, in France and Spain the sort of education which prepared one for university education was highly restricted -- trade schools were set up which would be more profitable to the state.

State churches preached official doctrine; dissidents might pay with their lives. Sumptuary laws limited the amount that individuals could buy -- the amount of cloth in your coat, the width of your ruff, the number of pairs shoes you might own were regulated by law.

Meanwhile, the state taxed more and more to support an ever widening and invasive bureaucracy intended to regulate every aspect of life. "Police ordinances" appeared in increasing detail, with prescribing how one ought to live, think, worship, speak, eat, drink, marry, screw, raise children.

At the top of the heap, an increasingly small band of courtiers enjoyed a life of unparalleled luxury fueled by taxes, but also on account of royal monopolies. There was hardly any sector of the economy where free competition was allowed. Between the guilds and monopoly corporations, practically every component of the economy was controlled by corporate and state interests.

This was Absolutism. It didn't work. People resisted.

There were periodic revolutions in Europe starting in the early sixteenth century leading up to the French Revolution. France, England, Germany, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands all experienced waves of revolutionary violence. In every case, what the rebels wanted was a dismantling of the absolutist regime and a return to the "good old days" of economic and political liberty.

There were also little forms of resistance -- on a daily basis common folk flaunted the new rules and regulations. Some did so openly, others privately and quietly. The state, despite its gruff rhetoric of "divine right" and "necessity" was generally powerless in these areas. Repression, when it did occur, was usually arbitrary and sloppy and only underscored the injustice of the system. Censorship could not quell dissent; the best thing to do was ignore it.

The end of the seventeenth century saw what is often considered the apogee of Absolutism -- the reign of Louis XIV of France. Louis' success was trumpeted by contemporaries and later generations. Here was a regime that WORKED. Highly centralized, extremely rational, effective in the extreme.

But was it? Research has shown that it was all a veneer. Louis's reign was largely a failure -- he bankrupted the nation and destroyed the economy through regulation and repression. Dissent was rife; rebellion was a constant threat. Only through constant war and the use of force could France be held together.

But we don't see that: we see Versailles. That was intentional. Louis and his advisers understood the value of propaganda. Create an image; control the message. And it worked. The age of the Sun King became a golden age. Meanwhile, France sunk deeper into the pit of social and economic backwardness.

Across the channel, political instability in England led to the totally unintentional lapsing of laws on censorship and banking. The result was the emergence of the freest and most open society the world has yet seen. It was raucous and chaotic. It had it's horrible dark side, shown in all those Hogarth paintings.

But in the space of a generation England was transformed from a sleepy agricultural society into the first industrial-mercantile society. Middle-class Englishmen enjoyed a standard of living on par with that of nobles in France and Spain. And there was a genuine freedom of the press. The newspapers of eighteenth-century London multiplied. In form and content they were like the blogs of today (and, in some cases, as ephemeral). Folks met in coffee houses and taverns, read the news, and argued about it. Politics, formerly confined to Westminster, was now taken "out of doors" as they put it.

Germans found themselves confronted in the eighteenth century with two models. The rulers were entranced with the French model of Absolutism. They built palaces emulating Versailles and attempted to apply the same sort of centralized measures that had worked so well (ha!) in France.

The middle classes, on the other hand, were totally taken with the English. Every middle-class German home had two books: a Bible and a translation of Shakespeare. Novels and plays in imitation of English models appeared in volume -- by the end of the century Germans were writing and reading more novels than anyone else, and the country enjoyed a literacy rate of 90% when the literacy rate in France was more like 40%.

Since the middle class were the bureaucrats who served the state, the two conceptions clashed in the formation of policy. But so long as the old political and social order remained in place, the middle classes were unable to do much to resist centralization.

That all changed in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The old aristocracy lost much of its political power (though not all of it) and the "liberals" (that is, supporters of political and economic liberty) began to acquire greater power. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the liberals were in a position to assume control of the state.

But then something went wrong. the backlash began after the European revolutions of 1848, when the liberals attempt to secure power through violence failed. Consequently, the established elites and aristocracy resisted the elimination of their privileges and the state absolutism that supported it , the guilds resisted the rise of the factories, and the farmers naturally resisted policies that forced them to modernize or starve.

Masses of unemployed (who would eventually be able to find much better paying jobs in factories than they had as day-laborers in the countryside) naturally bred a reactionary "army". The highest and the lowest allied against the middle... and against freedom.

Culturally, the elites began to yearn for the glory days of absolutism. Art nouveau in France revived the style of Louis XIV. Napoleon III created a new imperial style. Germans celebrated the memory of Frederick the Great and even earlier medieval kings. Spain devolved into worship of the "Golden Age" of Philip II. Meanwhile the labor unions and corporate entities gradually, in cooperation with the state, eliminated competition, drove out the small shop keepers, and began to create a kind of new feudalism.

The displaced shopkeepers -- artisans and petty bourgeois -- now found the reaction they had served so faithfully had betrayed them. They attacked the corporations. But the elites had a ready defense at hand: blame the Jews.

So the petty bourgeois waxed about the greatness of guilds while watching Wagner's Die Meistersinger then went home grumbling about how the dirty Jews had stolen their livelihood. It was a lie, but a lie that focused their anger on something other than the real cause of their misfortune: their own reactionary opposition to liberty.

We know where the story goes.

My point is that the modern day "liberals" have nothing to do with the liberals of the past.

They do not love freedom; they desire the perfectly ordered world of Absolutism.

They do not want "progress," they want to turn back the clock to the days of Louis XIV.

They are enemies of individual liberty and social mobility -- they want us to stay in our proper places and be cogs in the great society wheel that provides wealth for the courtiers and the sycophants of the prince.

And at the top, the celebrate a system of absolute monarchy. True, the kings are elected as are the nobles, but they are chosen from within a tiny minority which exercises almost complete control over its membership. And they are served by a secular clergy of media functionaries who preach the Gospel of state and obedience. Dissent is silenced now with far greater efficiency and much less bloodshed.

And, in the process, the agents of reaction, the priests, nobles, and princes -- the privileged orders -- have taken words such as liberty and progress and completely altered their meanings. They mask their reactionary seizure of power as "moving forward" when their ideal is the mythical age of order in the past. And the people are just stupid enough to buy it.

Perhaps it is because they are scared of progress and change. They don't want freedom; they want to find their place and stay there quietly. The problem is that they don't understand that by assuming that position they will not be able to enjoy the standard of living they aspire too.

But unwilling to accept responsibility for their new servitude they vent their spleen on imaginary, phantom enemies: Jews, Patriarchy, Christian Fundamentalism, Capitalism, etc. They happily lap up the poison spewed by their new priesthood as it allows them to hate and feel righteous doing so while absolving them of any blame for the incredible emptiness present in their own lives.

~ Lucius Septimius

Wagner ~ Die Meistersinger
"The Mastersingers of Nuremberg "
Overture & a piece of Act 1

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