Centuries

Century 1: 1815 – 1914 was the golden age of Europe.   France acquired Algeria in 1830, beginning its colonial expansion into Africa.  The British also undertook a new wave of colonization, putting together a navy second to none.  After Napoleon’s defeat, Austria emerged as the dominant continental power, focused on one thing — keeping the dangerous forces of liberalism and nationalism at bay.  Tradition, monarchism, and stability required an embrace of the status quo.  Austria felt this most acutely; being a multi-ethnic empire of medieval origins, nationalism and liberalism (democracy and individual rights) represented an existential threat to the Austrian empire.

Italy and Germany unified between 1860 and 1871, eliminating the last vestiges of the Holy Roman Empire.   As capitalism spread and Europe industrialized, a new prosperity took root, making cities like London, Paris, Vienna and even latecomer Berlin splendid and wealthy.  The working class, horribly exploited early on, slowly improved their lot, in part by threatening revolution should the state not step in and limit the power of industrialists.

The century was built on contradictions.   Liberalism was spreading.   Capitalism overtook traditional forms of economic relations, and was the basis for the new prosperity.   Democracy spread to France by the middle of this era, though Germany and Italy resisted.  Nationalism was a powerful force.   Germany and Italy were fictions without it.   Italians south of Naples could not understand the language and customs of Italians from the North.   Bavarians in Munich had nothing in common with Prussians in Berlin.   Yet despite this dynamism as long as stability could be maintained the system survived.  Energy was spent on colonialism, prosperity grew and the contradictions were hidden in plain sight.  Only when the collapse of the Ottoman Empire created a power vacuum did the whole edifice collapse into World War I.  Europe would never be the same again.

The collapse was multi-dimensional.  Einstein’s theory of relativity (1905 and 1916) destroyed the ordered world of Newtonian physics.   Freud’s (1890) notion of the subconscious decimated the enlightenment dream of human reason and rational thought as the path to the future.   We are not driven by reason, but by passion and forces we often don’t even recognize as being there.   Freud, however, was not the only one recognizing the unconscious nature of human thought, he simply took it to a new level with psychoanalysis.  In Music Diaghilev and Stravinsky turned the ballet world upside down with Rite of Spring (1913), and Schoenberg’s atonality rejected the musical traditions of the past.   Klimt pushed forth new areas in painting as in both art and music the romantic era had already given way to one more chaotic and anti-traditional.    Science, philosophy, our understanding of the human mind, tradition, religion, and the arts were being transformed just as the economic and political realms were.

Century 2: After WWI, we entered a new century, a different time.  It would be the age of ideologies, with fascism, communism, socialism, liberalism, and other human ideational constructs defining the social and political realms.   The State grew in power, and capitalism became dynamic and global.   To be sure, it took thirty years of economic and political instability before this new era achieved stability.   Once it did, the ideological battle reflected in the Cold War and the increasing complexity and expansion of global capitalism defined the new era.   This led to a bifurcated world, split between a small group of wealthy prosperous countries alongside poor and sometimes destitute countries.

The golden age of this era, still limited to Europe and a handful of other industrialized states, was from 1950 to 2001.  For a half century, prosperity spread, as did security.   People in the industrialized world had levels of material prosperity that went beyond even what the 19th century wealthy could enjoy.   As the state grew, so did bureaucracies.  This led to the collapse of communism, which couldn’t compete with the dynamism of capitalism.   Yet in the wealthy a dangerous cycle of debt and consumption developed.   By the 1980s the industrialized world started to rely on the “have nots,” particularly China, for their prosperity.

Most importantly, the prosperous relied on oil.   While they credited capitalism and democracy, the cheap energy provided by oil — discovered in mass quantities in Texas back in 1901 — created the capacity for mass consumption and continuous growth.   The expansion of debt and credit by the latter part of that era was fueled by a belief that growth would not slow.   Art and music changed as well, as the “culture industry” shifted from seeing art and music as forms in their own right to marketable products.  If it didn’t sell, art was worthless in the eyes of most people.

Yet there were contradictions here too.   Democracy had become less a way for people to use reason to try to solve societal problems and more a media contest for power.   Voters were increasingly uninformed and reactive to events and propaganda.   Freedom was eroded by growing bureaucracies, and capitalism grew to be less about competition and risk than corporate dominance.    The choice by the wealthy to rely on cheap labor and resources from those outside the West to provide their material toys also meant an expanded demand for oil, hastening the point when oil production would start to fall, and be unable to keep up with demands.   Moreover, the massive use of oil and consumption of material goods started to pollute the planet, bringing the climate and ecosystems out of balance.   This was noticed in the 1960s, but by the end of this era scientists were worried that the impact of these imbalances could lead to catastrophes.

Even as the population in the wealthy core became overweight, unhealthy, and focused more on making quick money with little effort, often caught up in superficial dramas and life-conditions, those in the poorer states grew angry.  This was expressed through religious extremism first, and it was an act of these extremists which ended this golden age on September 11, 2001.   That attack, alongside a real estate bubble, an foolish war by US, and dramatically rising oil prices brought the contradictions in the open.   By 2009 it was clear that this era was ending.

Century 3? Most questions remain unanswered.  Will there be something as dramatic and unambiguous to end this era as there was in 1914?   Or is a “great war” an anachronism, with terror threats and economic decline replacing it.  More important, what will the new era be like?   Will the information revolution and new technologies lead to a renewal of artistic and musical diversity, overcoming the old “culture industry?”  As horrific as the transition from “Century 1” to “Century 2” was, with the holocaust, two world wars and the Great Depression, the second era was arguably superior to the first, at least in the industrialized West.   Will that be the case again?   How chaotic will the transition be?   What is the impact of globalization — the new era will reach far beyond Europe and the West, and may even see a transfer of power and wealth from the West to a new core.

So we live in interesting times, moving from one era to another.    In two weeks I’ll be in Vienna, part of a travel course to Vienna, Munich and Berlin.    Perhaps strolling through time in that jewel of the 19th century will give me some insight at where our civilization is heading.

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