A quick search revealed that over 15 years of blog posts, the word macrohistory has been used only once. On reflection, macrohistory is something in which I’ve been involved for some time — mostly as a dilettante. Several book reviews and three book-blogging series (one complete, two either on hiatus or fully abandoned) concern macrohistory, and my own several multi-part blogs connect disparate dots over broader topics (if not quite history in the narrow sense). My ambition, as with macrohistory, is to tease out better (if only slightly) understandings of ourselves (since humans and human culture are obviously the most captivating thing evar). Scientists direct similar fascination to the inner workings of nonhuman systems — or at least larger systems in which humans are embedded. Thus, macrohistory can be distinguished from natural history by their objects of study. Relatedly, World-Systems Theory associated with Immanuel Wallerstein and The Fourth Turning (1997 book by William Strauss and Neil Howe) take similarly broad perspectives and attempt to identify historical dynamics and patterns not readily apparent. Other examples undoubtedly exist.

This is all preliminary to discussing a rather depressing article from the December 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine: Rana Dasgupta’s disquieting (ahem) essay “The Silenced Majority” (probably behind a paywall). The subtitle poses the question, “Can America still afford democracy?” This innocuous line begs the question whether the U.S. (America and the United States of America [and its initialisms U.S. and U.S.A.] being sloppily equivalent almost everywhere, whereas useful distinctions describe the United Kingdom, Great Britain, and England) actually has or practices democracy anymore, to which many would answer flatly “nope.” The essay is an impressive exercise, short of book length, in macrohistory, though it’s limited to Western cultures, which is often the case with history told from inside the bubble. Indeed, if (as the aphorism goes) history is written/told primarily by the victors, one might expect to hear only of an ongoing series of victories and triumphs with all the setbacks, losses, and discontinuities excised like some censored curated Twitter or Facebook Meta discussion. One might also wonder how that same history reads when told from the perspective of non-Western countries, especially those in transitional regions such as Poland, Ukraine, Turkey, and Iran or those with histories long predating the rise of the West roughly 500 years ago, i.e., China, Japan, Egypt, and the lost cultures of Central America. Resentments of the Islamic world, having been eclipsed by the West, are a case in point. My grasp of world history is insufficient to entertain those perspectives. I note, however, that with globalism, the histories of all regions of the world are now intimately interconnected even while perspectives differ.

Dasgupta describes foundational Enlightenment innovations that animate Western thinking, even though the ideas are often poorly contextualized or understood. To wit:

In the seventeenth century, England was an emerging superpower. Supremacy would come from its invention of a world principle of property. This principle was developed following contact with the Americas, where it became possible to conjure vast new English properties “out of nothing”—in a way that was impracticable, for instance, in the militarized, mercantile societies of India. Such properties were created by a legal definition of ownership designed so that it could be applied only to the invaders. “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of,” John Locke wrote in 1689, “so much is his property.” When combined with other new legal categories such as “the savage” and “the state of nature,” this principle of property engendered societies such as Carolina, where Locke’s patron, the first earl of Shaftesbury, was a lord proprietor.

Obvious, isn’t it, that by imposing the notion of private property on indigenous inhabitants of North America, colonialists established ownership rights over territories where none had previously existed? Many consider that straightforward theft (again, begging the question) or at least fencing the commons. (Attempts to do the same in the open oceans and in space [orbit] will pick up as technology allows, I surmise.) In addition, extension of property ownership to human trafficking, i.e., slavery and its analogues still practiced today, has an exceptionally long history and was imported to the Americas, though the indigenous population proved to be poor candidates for subjugation. Accordingly, others were brought to North America in slave trade that extended across four centuries.

Dasgupta goes on:

From their pitiless opposition to the will of the people, we might imagine that British elites were dogmatic and reactionary. (Period dramas depicting stuck-up aristocrats scandalized by eccentricity and innovation flatter this version of history.) The truth is that they were open-minded radicals. They had no sentimentality about the political order, cutting the head off one king and sending another into exile. They could invent financial and legal structures (such as the Bank of England, founded in 1694) capable of releasing unprecedented market energies. Even their decision to exploit American land with African labor demonstrated their world-bending pursuit of wealth. Their mines and plantations would eventually supply the capital for the first industrial revolution. They loved fashion and technology, they believed in rationality, progress, and transparency. They were the “founding fathers” of our modern world.

And yet they presided over a political system as brutal as it was exclusive. Why? The answer is simple. They could not afford democracy, but also, crucially, they did not need it. [emphasis in original]

So much for the awe and sacred respect in which Enlightenment philosophers and the Founders are held — or used to be. Statues of these dudes (always dudes, natch) are being pulled down all the time. Moreover, association of liberal democracy with the 17th century is a fundamental mistake, though neoliberalism (another poorly defined and understood term) aims to shift backwards to a former or hybrid state of human affairs some are beginning to call digital feudalism.

The article goes on to discuss the balancing act and deals struck over the course of centuries to maintain economic and political control by the ownership class. It wasn’t until the 1930s and the postwar economic boom in the U.S. that democracy as commonly understood took root significantly. The labor movement in particular was instrumental in forcing FDR’s New Deal social programs, even though populism and socialism as political movements had been successfully beaten back. Interestingly, the hallowed American nuclear family (limited in its scope racially), an ahistorical formation that enjoyed a roughly 30-year heyday from 1945 to 1975, coincides with the rise of the American middle class and now-aged democratic institutions. They’re all connected with widely distributed wealth and prosperity. But after the oil crisis and stagflation of the middle 1970s, gains enjoyed by the middle class have steadily eroded and/or been actively beaten back (again!) so that dominant themes today are austerity imposed on the masses and inequality coughing up hundy-billionaires with increasing frequency. Estimates are that 30-40% of the American citizenry lives in poverty, bumping up against failed state territory. Inequality has returned to Gilded Age levels if not exceeded them. Dasgupta fails to cite perhaps the major underlying cause of this shift away from affordable democracy, back toward the brutal, world principal of property: falling EROI. Cheap foreign labor, productivity gains, and creation of a giant debtor society have simply not offset the disappearance of cheap energy.

Dasgupta’s further discussion of an emerging two-tier economy along with the Silicon Valley technocracy follows, but I’ll stop short here and encourage readers instead to investigate and think for themselves. Lots of guides and analyses help to illuminate the macrohistory, though I find the conclusions awful in their import. Dasgupta drives home the prognosis:

The neoliberal revolution aimed to restore the supremacy of capital after its twentieth-century subjugation by nation-states, and it has succeeded to an astonishing degree. As states compete and collude with gargantuan new private powers, a new political world arises. The principle of labor, which dominated the twentieth century—producing the industrious, democratic society we have come to regard, erroneously, as the norm—is once again being supplanted by a principle of property, the implications and consequences of which we know only too well from our history books.

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