Egyptian vs. Minoan
Egyptian: Based on harvesting natural resources. Almost everyone is a farmer, growing crops in small plots of land according to the Nile's flood cycle. Wealth from agricultural surpluses is concentrated in the hands of a few.
Minoan: Based on manufacturing and trade. Many people are artisans and traders, making bronze tools or trading them overseas. Wealth from widespread commerce is distributed among many.
Egyptian: Political power is centralized. All-powerful Pharaohs claim kinship with gods. They run the empire with the help of soldiers and priests. Government buildings are off-limits to most people.
Minoan: Power is decentralized. The king claims no divine authority. He runs the country with the help of civilian administrators. Government buildings are used by all citizens.
Egyptian: Exclusive and stolid. Art is rigid and static. It's meant to be seen by rulers and priests. Men have higher status than women.
Minoan: Inclusive and vibrant. Art is dynamic and colorful. It's meant to be enjoyed by regular people. Men and women have roughly equal status.
Egyptian: Militaristic. Waging war is prestigious. Armies are used to conquer neighboring peoples, take their wealth, and enslave them.
Minoan: Peaceful. Waging war is unpopular. Ships—the best in the world—are used for trading, not to invade or conquer other peoples.
QUALITY OF LIFE
For most Egyptians, life is hard.
For most Minoans, life is good.
Unfortunately, a volcano on the nearby island of Thera erupted around 1600 B.C. Tsunamis smashed the Minoans' port cities and crippled their maritime economy, volcanic ash smothered the agricultural economies of their trading partners, and Minoan civilization was thrown into a decline from which it never recovered.
Classical Civilizations Make Progress
For 500 years after the volcanic eruption, the Mediterranean world experienced a "dark age." When civilization returned, it mostly followed the aristocratic pattern: the Assyrian and Persian empires were run by god-kings who controlled powerful armies and a priest class. They invaded their neighbors, accorded low status to women, and kept wealth concentrated in the hands of a few.
But around 500 B.C., citizens in two Mediterranean city-states built more equal societies.
In Athens, citizens overthrew their tyrant king and established a Democracy. Lawmakers were chosen by lot, juries were composed of one's peers, and citizens could vote to banish any leader who gained too much power.
A class of rich aristoi, or "the best" people (from which our term Aristocrat derives), still existed in Athens, but regular people had more political power than they'd ever had before.
At the same time, Romans banished their king and established a Republic. They split executive power between two men, each elected by the people to one-year terms. The Senate, an elected body of around 300 citizens, voted on laws and managed public funds.
Rome, while a Republic, was essentially aristocratic: a small number of rich landowning families controlled the Senate. But regular people still had power—they elected a rich landowner called a Tribune to protect their rights against the Senate. Also, Roman law applied to all citizens of all social classes.
As citizens in a democracy, Athenians prospered. They became wealthy through overseas trade, and made amazing advances in art, literature, architecture, and science. Their city was the most beautiful in the world. But by attempting to dominate neighboring peoples, and entering into a series of unnecessary wars, the Athenians devastated and impoverished their society.
Militarism ended the Roman Republic as well. Regular people in Rome gained more rights and became wealthier over the centuries—until Rome began winning wars against its neighbors. Wealth became concentrated in the hands of a few rich families who seized newly-conquered territories. Middle-class landowners spent years fighting in the wars instead of tending their farms, fell into debt, and lost their lands to their rich creditors.
A popular tribune attempted to reverse this process by enforcing a law that distributed public land to veterans, instead of allowing it to be taken by rich families. The rich families killed this tribune and his followers, and Rome soon became an empire. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and neighboring peoples were invaded, oppressed, and enslaved.
European Societies Show Progress
Medieval Europe basically followed the ancient pattern of aristocracy: wealthy landowners controlled society with the help of soldiers they paid, and almost everyone else was a poor farmer. Court life was splendid, but for most people life was squalid. The landowners constantly fought each other to acquire more land.
What moved Europe beyond the ancient empires was a new force for progress: the Church. Its priests were not directly aligned with military rulers. The Church "leveled" society by making beautiful churches accessible to all, and by providing social assistance to the poor. It also fostered meritocracy by offering advancement to men of any background based on their ability.
As farms in Europe became more productive, agricultural surpluses led to an explosion of trade. The Dutch traded cloth they wove for leather tanned by Italians; people from Spain traded their spices for wine produced in France. Merchants, bankers, and traders—not just landowners—could now make a good living.
In the 1300s, Bubonic plague killed one out of three people in Europe and devastated society. (Douglas Rushkoff makes a good case that the plague was brought on by aristocrat-induced wealth inequality.) But as Europe recovered in the 1400s, its emerging middle class of merchants rebounded as well. Educated and capable, the merchants began to get rich. By the 1500s, commerce and finance had replaced landowning as the source of wealth and power.
Although the source of wealth and power had changed, how societies handled them still mattered:
- Peaceful societies that distributed wealth and power among a large number of citizens flourished. Most people in them had a nice life.
- Militaristic societies in which power and wealth were concentrated became unstable. Life was hard for all but the very few on top.
This can be clearly seen in mid-1600s Europe by comparing the Spanish Monarchy to the Dutch Republic:
Spanish Monarchy vs. The Dutch Republic
Spain: Based on harvesting natural resources. Almost everyone is a farmer, growing crops. Military men take gold mined overseas. Wealth from agriculture and gold is concentrated in the hands of a few elites. Financial mismanagement by a small elite bankrupts the country.
Holland: Based on manufacturing and trade. Many people are merchants and traders, buying and selling goods overseas. Wealth from commerce is distributed among many kinds of citizens. A thriving stock market with wide participation fuels prosperity.
Spain: Political power is centralized. A hereditary king rules with the assistance of soldiers and priests. Royal palaces are off-limits to most people.
Holland: Power is decentralized. There is no king. The chief executive and legislators are elected. Government buildings are open to the public.
Spain: Exclusive and stolid. Art is rigid and static. It's meant to be seen by rulers and priests. Men have much higher status than women. Social mobility is nonexistent. No matter what people do, good or bad, they can't change their place in the social order.
Holland: Inclusive and vibrant. Art is beautiful and accessible. It's meant to be enjoyed by regular people. Men and women have more equal status than anywhere else. Social mobility is the highest in the world. Through education and enterprise, people rise in the social order.
Spain: Militaristic. Waging war is prestigious. Armies are used to conquer overseas peoples, take their wealth, and enslave them.
Holland: Peaceful. Waging war is unpopular. Ships—the best in the world—are used mostly for trading, not invasion or conquest.
QUALITY OF LIFE
For most Spaniards, life is hard. Most people are poor, illiterate peasants. Society makes no effort to help the poor, or to bring them out of poverty.
For most Dutch people, life is good. Most people are educated and middle-class. The poor are helped through public funds and institutions. (orphanages, almshouses)
In the 1700s, as science began explaining the mysteries of the natural world, a group of French thinkers began studying human society with scientific rigor. These Philosophes noticed that most people lived better when they had a say in government and when their society was tolerant.
They believed in progress. That is, the Philosophes thought that by pursuing science and abandoning religious superstition, people could harness the natural world for their own benefit and live peacefully with one another.
Their ideas spread throughout Europe, and became the core of a worldwide intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. Its fundamental belief in human progress led directly to the revolution that spawned the United States of America.
The American Revolution: a Progressive Enterprise
The leaders of the American Revolution were heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinkers, so naturally the United States was founded on progressive ideas. They're described in the Declaration of Independence:
"All men are created equal."
"Governments derive their powers from the consent of the Governed."
In other words, every citizen—a president, a clerk, a multimillionaire, a fruit picker—has the same rights and is bound by the same laws. And the nation's leaders work for its people—not the other way around.
At that time, most nations still operated according to conservative ideas: the rich and powerful should have special rights and privileges, and regular people had a duty to obey their "betters."
American colonists saw the problems with this sort of society firsthand: they were oppressed by a rich, powerful king who refused to obey his country's laws, treated them like criminals and second-class citizens, and prevented them from engaging in manufacturing and trade.
Progressive-minded colonists considered this unacceptable. They started and led a rebellion against the King's rule. They risked their lives to make progress and install a new system of government based on Democracy.
Conservative-minded colonists, called Tories, did not support the rebellion. They supported the King's rule, were afraid to change it, or thought that the costs of political progress outweighed its benefits.
Fortunately, the progressive-minded colonists prevailed and won their independence—with help from France, the birthplace of the Enlightenment. Tragically, conservative-minded colonists insisted on preserving an old evil that would tear the new nation apart: slavery.
A War for Social Progress
The struggle over slavery intensified in the years leading up to the Civil War. Progressive-minded Americans worked to improve society through the abolition of slavery, while the conservative-minded strove to extend the existing system of forced, unpaid labor.
Society in free states was different from that in slave states, and these differences fit the historical pattern of conservative versus progressive:
Slave States vs. Free States
Slave States: Based on harvesting natural resources. Almost everyone is a slave, or a farmer growing crops for rich landowners (sharecropping). Wealth from agriculture is concentrated in the hands of a few.
Free States: Based on manufacturing and trade. Many people are artisans and traders, making goods and trading them overseas. Wealth from international commerce is distributed among many.
Slave States: Political power is centralized. Rich landowners hold office. Religion is used to control people. Voting rights are sharply restricted.
Free States: Power is decentralized. Regular people hold office. Religion is used to uplift people. Voting rights are expanded.
Slave States: Exclusive and stolid. There is little social mobility—most regular people stay locked in social roles that don't change.
Free States: Inclusive and vibrant. Social mobility is common. Immigrants and regular people improve their place in society.
Slave States: Waging war is prestigious. Armies are used to conquer neighboring peoples, take their wealth, and enslave them.
Free States: Peaceful. Waging war is unpopular. Ships—the best in the world—are used for trading, not invasion or conquest.
The struggle between Progressive and Conservative elements of American society took on a character that has persisted to this day:
Exploited fear, bigotry, and hate to maintain a system in which a small group of people control everyone else. Ignored Jesus' message of kindness and inclusion, while cherry-picking Bible passages to justify oppression. Preserved an economy in which workers are exploited. "Overall prosperity doesn't matter, just as long as we're on top."
Appealed to the "better angels of our nature" to build a society in which all citizens have equal rights and opportunities. Followed Jesus' example—take care of the poor, and treat everyone with respect and kindness. Created an economy in which workers have more rights. "Overall prosperity will increase, and we will all share in that prosperity."
Like conservative societies throughout history, the slave states were militaristic; they declared war on the free states. Like progressive societies throughout history, the free states had developed advanced technology, manufacturing, and infrastructure; this enabled them to win the war.
After the war ended, another characteristic of the struggle between Progressives and Conservatives emerged: Whenever Progressives move our nation in a positive direction, Conservatives fight to roll back those gains. Conservatives in the former slave states used terrorist groups and unconstitutional laws to prevent progressive-minded citizens from voting.
The Progressive Movement is Born
As the Industrial Age dawned in the 1800s, something unprecedented happened: the economic activities that had always fostered a more equal distribution of wealth and power—manufacturing, commerce, and trade—were now being used to concentrate wealth and power.
As industry and mechanization began to dominate the United States' economy, a new aristocratic class of American emerged: Big Business tycoons. A small number of men built vast commercial empires in coal, oil, railroads, manufacturing, and newspapers. They did it by creating monopolies, or "trusts:" once their corporations achieved dominant positions in their markets, they gobbled up competing companies or drove them out of business.
These tycoons strove to amass huge private fortunes, often at the expense of their employees and customers. Children worked long hours in dangerous factories. Immigrants burned to death when the sweatshops they worked in caught fire. Tainted food and medicines killed the people who bought them. Poor laborers died by the thousands in unsafe mines, and were kept poor by union-busting and monopolistic "company stores." Wars were sparked by newspaper barons.
The tycoons got away with this by buying political power. They used their wealth to fund the campaigns of politicians who did their bidding. Once in office, their political friends fought legislation for the public good that the tycoons thought might inhibit their ability to make private money.
Another reason the tycoons got away with exploiting regular people is that they owned large numbers of newspapers, through which most citizens got their information. Because they owned newspapers, they were able to suppress stories about Big Business exploitation. By the same token, they were also able to run columns that made Big Business domination of society seem like a good thing.
Industrial workers worked long hours in mines and factories, and saw their employers getting very rich while they themselves stayed poor. Farmers worked hard in their fields, yet stayed poor as monopoly railroads charged high fees to ship their crops to market. These regular people rebelled against the aristocracy of wealth that kept them poor, and their rebellion became known as the Progressive movement.
Women marched for the right to vote. Journalists known as "muckrakers" sidestepped big newspapers owned by press barons, and wrote stories for magazines that exposed horrible working conditions and Big Business corruption. Workers fought fiercely for the right to join a union:
- The owners of a steel mill in Homestead, PA tried to break the steelworkers union. They cut wages, locked out the steelworkers, and turned the mill into an armed fortress. The workers then struck, and organized to prevent replacement workers from entering the plant. The governor, whom the steel mill's owners had helped elect, sent in state troops to end the strike and break the union.
- A railroad car company, which owned the housing employees rented and the stores they shopped in, sharply cut employees' wages without decreasing rents or prices. Its workers struck, which prompted a massive strike by 120,000 other railroad workers. The president then sent Federal troops to break up the strike and arrest its leader.
- The owners of a coal mine in Matewan, WV cut the pay of workers who tried to unionize. The miners struck anyway, and the owners hired armed agents to break the strike. The mine owners sent in undercover agents to goad the miners into violence, and murdered the local police chief who supported the miners. This led to an armed insurrection of over 10,000 miners.
Some privileged Americans were also Progressives. Just as in ancient Athens, where noblemen helped establish a democratic government, some people in the upper classes of American society helped curb the power of Big Business tycoons to monopolize markets and dominate regular people.
In 1901, the president, born into a wealthy and prominent family, began a campaign to regulate Big Business. His administration enforced a law, passed years earlier, that prohibited companies from monopolizing markets through conspiracy. During his administration, over 40 major corporations were sued for antitrust or price-fixing violations.
He encouraged arbitration between companies and striking workers, and came to the defense of workers fighting for a better life. During a mine strike, he threatened to use the Army to seize the mines and operate them until the mine's owners agreed to arbitration to settle the strike.
The Progressive movement made gains across the board: The Federal government began inspecting food and medicines to protect citizens, and gave low-interest loans to farmers. The Federal Trade Commission was established to stop unfair trade practices. New antitrust laws were detailed and explicit, and could no longer be used to stifle unions.
Nonetheless, conservatives still retained the power to block social progress: Child labor was outlawed by Congress, but a conservative Supreme Court declared this unconstitutional. The first minimum-wage laws were passed, but the Supreme Court invalidated those, too.
The United States Becomes Progressive
American society was progressing, but big companies still dominated regular people. When the U.S. economy boomed in the 1920s, almost all corporate profits went to the people who owned and ran big companies, not the people who worked in them. Investors and CEOs became very rich, but most people's wages increased only slightly. More than half of all Americans were still poor.
While industrial production skyrocketed, most Americans didn't have much money to buy the goods that were produced. Demand for goods stagnated, but the value of the companies that supplied them soared, as the wealthy few looked for places to invest their surplus cash.
This imbalance in supply and demand led the nation's stock market to crash catastrophically in 1929. Almost overnight, companies lost more than half their value, and thousands of banks failed. The economy declined sharply, millions of jobs were lost, and one-third of Americans fell into poverty.
The president tried to revive the nation's economy through conservative policies. His administration gave vast amounts of financial aid to large banks and corporations, and much less to regular people. It didn't work—the economy remained depressed.
He also used the military to control regular people. When thousands of unemployed war veterans marched to Washington to urge Congress to pay their promised bonus immediately, the president ordered the U.S. Army to remove them. Soldiers used bayonets and tear gas to remove the veterans, and several veterans were killed.
In 1932, Americans elected a new president in a landslide. This new president's economic program was progressive; it focused on improving the lives and fortunes of regular people:
- Public works programs put millions of unemployed people back to work.
- Unions were encouraged and supported.
- Federal money funded electrical systems in rural areas.
- Child labor was abolished.
- Minimum wage guidelines were accepted.
- Government programs were created to keep the old, sick, and unemployed out of poverty.
- Banks and financial markets were regulated.
This program, Progressives reasoned, would revive the economy by enabling regular people to earn more money to buy things. It worked. In seven years, the economy grew by one-third. Consumer spending grew by one-third, and business investment increased fivefold.
Unemployment remained high, however. Conservatives blamed this on business regulation, the increased power of unions, and government spending. Progressives thought that the government needed to do more to increase the purchasing power of regular people, and should spend what was necessary to do that.
It turned out the Progressives were right. When the U.S. entered World War II, massive government spending on the war effort all but eliminated unemployment. The government awarded huge contracts to corporations, which hired millions of new employees to do the work. To help pay for this spending—and prevent war profiteering—taxes on the very wealthy were raised to very high rates.
Job discrimination against minorities and women was outlawed, and a shortage of labor increased wages across the board. Higher wages for regular people, combined with more progressive tax rates (the higher the income, the higher the rate), sharply narrowed the income gap between rich people and everyone else.
After the war ended, most of the Progressive economic policies that prevailed during the war years were continued. Unions remained strong, markets were regulated, and tax rates were progressive. As a result, the United States became the most prosperous nation on earth. Its economy grew strongly for the next 25 years, as U.S. companies sold their goods and services to the world's largest middle class.
Making the Nation More Progressive
In the post-World War II era, the United States played a leading role in the reconstruction of Europe and Japan. It turned its former mortal enemies into friends, and helped establish international institutions that brought stability to world politics.
Most Americans had come to prefer meritocracy to aristocracy, and the nation's best colleges, which had previously educated privileged Americans, began basing admission on merit. New government programs enabled many more people to get a college education.
Other government programs focused on eliminating poverty, improving education in poor areas, and providing medical care to older citizens. These programs were successful. The number of Americans in poverty was cut in half, poor children began performing better academically, and millions of older people began receiving health care they hadn't before.
The arts thrived. American painters, architects, musicians, and playwrights reached heights of creativity and accomplishment. Conservatives exploited overseas threats to gain power and reduce the freedom of regular people, but they were only partially successful. For most Americans, life was improving.
However, while life got better for most Americans, the descendants of slaves in the former slave states were kept in a state of poverty at the lowest level of society. They weren't allowed to vote, to use public facilities, or do the same jobs as everyone else. People who tried to change this system were persecuted; if they persisted, they were killed.
Throughout most of the 20th Century, this system persisted. To get the former slave states to support Progressive policies for the nation, Progressives agreed not to try and improve the status of slave descendants. But in the 1960s, Progressives decided to help the slave descendants gain equal rights and opportunities. Laws were passed that guaranteed the right to vote for all citizens, that opened public facilities to all, and that expanded job opportunity.
Life began to improve for the descendants of slaves, but many people in the former slave states resented these changes. Conservatives, both rich and poor, didn't want a more egalitarian society. Rich Conservatives regarded the regular people who stood against social progress as their natural allies, and began to cultivate them as a base of support.
The Modern Conservative Movement
Back in the 1930s, when the Progressive president made it clear he would favor the interest of regular people over those of the super-rich, several owners of the nation's largest banks and corporations tried to stage a military coup to replace him with a new cabinet officer whom they controlled. Their plot failed when the general they recruited to lead the coup exposed their plot to Congress.
In the 1960s, rich Conservatives again set out to dominate society and fight what they saw as a Progressive threat. Instead of trying to grab power by force, this time they sought to build popular support. Their goals were to get Conservatives elected to public office, and to persuade the general public that the nation should be run according to Conservative ideas.
To attain these goals, a small group of Conservatives with lots of inherited money and Big Business wealth began to organize. They funded and founded a network of foundations, publications, and political groups to serve specific purposes:
- Their foundations justified and promoted conservative ideas.
- Their magazines and newspapers disseminated them.
- Their political groups bankrolled Conservative politicians.
This network was—and still is—organized like 1890s industrial and banking trusts, with a small number of very wealthy people serving on interlocking Boards of Directors.
Politicians backed by this Conservative network soon won most Congress and Senate seats in the former slave states. Since outright prejudice was unpopular in other states, Conservative presidential candidates made coded appeals to oppression that resentful people in former slave states understood, but seemed innocuous to others.
Using the former slave states as solid voting bloc, and the power of the presidency, Conservatives succeeded in rolling back or crippling many government programs that benefited regular people. They also deregulated markets and industries. At the same time, they used their network to demonize and damage Progressive ideas and institutions:
- Because regular people had used their government to distribute wealth and power more equally in society, Conservative politicians, writers, and pundits put forth a message that government was inherently bad.
- Because regular people had used unions to force large companies to treat them well, Conservatives passed laws in the former slave states that made it almost impossible for people to unionize, and national laws that sharply reduced the power of unions.
- Because estate taxes prevented an aristocracy of wealth from emerging, Conservatives lobbied against what they called "the death tax."
When the Soviet Empire collapsed, and Capitalism triumphed over Communism, Conservatives used this to their advantage. They maintained that the more Capitalism in society the better, and that unregulated Capitalism was even better still. If vast disparities of wealth resulted, that was the Will of the Market, and not to be questioned.
Conservatives also cultivated and mobilized religious fundamentalists who opposed social progress that benefited women and homosexual citizens. The votes and activism of religious fundamentalists soon played an important part in getting Conservatives elected.
This political action by rich Conservatives brought them more political power, which they then used to obtain more wealth, which they in turn used to obtain more power in a feedback loop.
Where We Are Now
Rich Conservatives have been very successful at restructuring our society so they could aggregate and retain power and wealth. The richest one percent of Americans now controls a third of the country's wealth, while the poorer half of Americans control only three percent.
They have not, however, achieved a decisive victory against Progressivism. From 1992 to 2008, they moved aggressively to wipe out Progressive institutions and crush their political opponents once and for all; the subsequent election of a president descended from slaves proves that they failed.
Because the policies they implemented made life obviously worse for most Americans and almost brought on total economic collapse, rich Conservatives have lost the initiative—they can no longer set the nation's political agenda. However, they still retain the power to block significant social, economic, and political progress.
Their greatest remaining power is "soft:" the fact that Conservative ideas dominate political debate. Conservative ideas suffuse the political culture in which our elected leaders operate, to the point that even well-meaning leaders discount obvious, tried-and-true solutions because they're not Conservative in nature.
But that's a subject for a subsequent blog post.