Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The genealogy of the modern West

I would argue that what we now have is the distorted, mutated inheritance of the Victorian age. That was the classical time of creation of new structures as we broke through from the agricultural age to the industrial with the materialistic liberalism as the dominant political-ethical context. To this newly established global society happened then the catastrophes of WW1, World Depression and finally WW2 – which in politics led to the traumatic Cold War and in economics to the controlled Bretton Woods system that enabled the birth of Social Democracy. Now the Cold War is only a distant memory and Bretton Woods has collapsed long since, capital flows free once again: Victorians would know and understand much of today’s world. Unless we see this continuum and its radical crisis, we cannot really understand ourselves and our confusing, chaotic, scary situation after the fixed certainties, fixed threats of the Cold War era. This is the world that emerged in the early 19th Century: we are its children, perhaps on the very brink of the next transformation.


helsinkian said...

Your idea about Victorians understanding much of today's world is quite interesting. Do you have some specific Victorians in mind or do you mean people of that era in general? Sometimes world history is cyclical - some things are very much in vogue for a certain period of time, then they disappear and come back later on.

Yet there must be many things that the Victorians would not understand in our world. Sure, many of them might probably very well understand the reasoning behind radical Islamism better than us post-Victorian Westerners ever will. But Western moral values are infinitely more liberal now than in Victorian times and conservative Victorians might be horrified at the sight of many things in our society.

Some things haven't changed, some things might be coming back but other things have surely changed for now at least so that Victorians might get a culture shock if they saw what the West is like today.

I've always seen the Victorian era as the age of cynicism and double standards. It's also the age of many new ideas.

You once wrote about a sense of innocence that was lost in 1914. That's something that I would connect with the years immediately after the reign of Queen Victoria. 19th Century is to me more cynical and many of the new ideas that broke through in late 19th Century and early 20th Century were a reaction against that pervasive cynicism.

Is our time cynical or idealist? I think it's both, depends on from whose perspective you look at things. I'm intrigued to learn more what your view of the Victorian age is like, especially as some kind of birthplace for the modern West. Are you thinking of J.S. Mill or Herbert Spencer or Charles Darwin or something else altogether?

stockholm slender said...

Well, I would first of all say that the Victorian age was more nuanced than what is the common image that we have of a very puritan and repressed society. What I think did truly exist was for the narrow elite of high and middle class males a very traumatic insistence on absolute patriarchy - a demand that they never could truly meet. What we have is an ironic distance to this rigid requirement, but I think we still know it. I believe we are still reeling from the shock of this sudden emerging from the agricultural and monotheistic culture and society.