I read two oddly related books this past month:
- Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements, by Craig Calhoun, a very academic history of the origins of the radical movements. It primarily covers US and UK radicalism, emphasizing that the traditional left/right political analysis approach is misleading and obscures some important aspects of the origins. Only a history nerd will wade through the dense academic prose, so I've pulled the highlights out below.
- Who owns the Future, by Jaron Lanier, a current commentary book. It's much more readable by the ordinary techie. It's a grab bag of ideas. I found myself alternatively reacting "yes, I've seen that effect" and "interesting idea, but what about this and this?". It's worth reading primarily because it includes useful observations that are much too often ignored by the techno-enthusiasts.
Roots of Radicalism
Much of recent historical work has attempted to force fit 19th century radicalism into the left-right mold of modern politics. This has misleading results.
Radicalism originated in the early 19th century social movements in Europe and the US. These were a response to the social disruption from the industrial revolution.The primary participants were the artisans and craftsmen, not wage slaves. Prior to the industrial revolution artisans made things. Black smiths made metal things, potters made pottery, shoes and clothes were made by hand, and so forth. The industrial revolution destroyed careers that were safe and predictable. The whole artisanal segment of society was destroyed.
- These people were not poor. They had reliable food, clothing, and housing. They had reliable work. They had an education.
- The radical groups were at least as much conservative as progressive. They did not want change. They wanted to preserve their place in an artisanal society.
The radical movements included groups that espoused nativism and other conservative solutions. These later morphed into nationalism and fascism. Some radical attempts to preserve a craftsman oriented social structure evolved into syndicalism, which has since faded from the political landscape. Syndicalism never fit within the left-right paradigm.
The Tea Party and Occupy movements have a great deal in commmon with these early radicals.
The cultural evolution into wage slavery and the need for labor unions took place later. The completion of the industrial revolution and emergence of organizational dominance took place after the destruction of the first wave of radical organizations during the 1848 revolutions (Europe) and the Civil War (US).
The role of religion was mixed. The Second Great Awakening in the US was a powerful force that created communities with a goal of eliminating corruption and improving society. Their goals included abolition of slavery and temperance. It was split between the transcendentalist and evangelicals, who had profoundly different views of God and man's relationship with god.
The transcendentalist and evangelical branches in the US diverged and they became political enemies in the later 19th century. They agreed on abolition, but after the Civil War ended slavery, other issues like temperance, women's suffrage, social structures, etc. were areas of great dispute. This split never fit within a left-right paradigm. This religious component was just as important as the worker-owner split emphasized by the left-right paradigm.The education level and financial status of the early radicals was much better than the traditional left-right paradigm indicates. This is apparent in some of the ways that the establishment in the UK worked to suppress the radicals.
- The stamp tax and other measures increased the cost of paper and printing. It became too expensive for the radicals to reach their audience, but remainded affordable for the upper classes. This indicates two things. The radical audience could read, because pamphlets and papers were effective at reaching them. The radical audience had some spare cash, to cover publishing and distribution costs. The stamp tax was designed to make this communication path too expensive.
In the UK the merchants, lawyers, etc. were split away from the radicals by changes in the 1830 reform act. Prior to that, voting was based on real estate ownership. You needed to own significant real estate (land and buildings) to qualify to vote. The 1830 Act expanded this to include financial resources. The result was that middle class occupations got the vote. Prior to this, the emerging middle class had been supporting the radicals. Once they got the vote, they opposed to many of the other radical goals like de-industrialization.
In the US voting and political participation had always included the merchants, lawyers, etc. The US did not have a similar splitting prior to the bloodbaths of the religious conflicts and civil war that shattered early radical structures.
None of these groups were unitary or isolated. There was a strong web of overlapping group memberships within affinity groups. This is apparent in both the 19th century and the NSM.
The New Social Movements (NSM) of the 1960's and 70's were not that new. The radicals of the early 19th century had a lot in common with them. The 60's hippies and the 19th century Transcendentalists are close companions. Both periods had extensive social ferment with a multiplicity of rapidly evolving groups. The NSM activism and direct action efforts have direct parallels with 19th century radical activism and direct action (e.g., Luddites, John Brown, Underground Railway).
Who Owns Network
Much of what Lanier is observing reminds me of the changes that drove the Radical movements. His examples of the network destroying ways of working are similar to the destruction of the artisanal culture in the early nineteenth century. The computer and network are destroying a way of life for many people. You see reactions to this in the Occupy movement and Tea Party movement.
Lanier's response suggestions are interesting. They are very incomplete.
I liked his term "siren servers". The analogy to the Greek Sirens is apt. It's a better metaphor than the walled garden. Whether it's Facebook, Google, or some other niche area, the siren server pulls in its victims who are blind to the negative effects until they are already on the rocks.