Modern Transformation: Introduction


This book is dedicated to the people of South Sudan
in the hope that some of these ideas may be
useful as they develop their new nation.





Copyright © 



What is the modern transformation?

    Prior to the beginning of the Early-Modern Age, five hundred years ago, the world was a very different place. Governments were run by hereditary kings and queens who actually ruled. Titled aristocrats called knights and barons owned or controlled the tillable land. They extracted land tax or rent from the subordinate class of peasants who worked the soil and brought in the harvest. There was no democracy and no equality. Aristocratic rank gave a man power and authority, which was more important than money. 1

    This book tells the story of how the world has changed, and is changing, from traditional tribal and aristocrat-peasant forms of society to modern nation states with democratic governments and capitalist market economies. This modern transformation has happened or is happening everywhere. Today the world contains two hundred nation states. About thirty of them have completed the modern transformation and achieved democratic–market (first world) society. The rest are known as emerging or developing nations. The developing countries are still in the early, middle or late stage of the modern transformation and will develop into fully-modern democratic-market nation states around the end of this century. 2

    The modern transformation contains a lot of dislocation and violence. The traditional pattern of society is breaking down, while the modern pattern is still taking shape. The Islamic countries are currently in the middle of a peak period in their modern transformations. The result has included Islamic revolution, the Syrian Civil War, and a huge amount of anarchy, violence, and dictatorship. This book will explain the violence and why dictators are often a necessary part of the modern transformation. They are used in the interval after the last traditional ruler has lost power but before a successful elected government can be established. 3

How long is it?

    The modern transformation is the change from traditional society to fully-modern democratic-market society. This is not an event; it is a long and difficult process. When western Europe began the modern transformation five-hundred years ago, the pace was glacial, and the full transition was not completed until after World War II. The speed has increased each century since then. Today, countries like China and India are changing very rapidly, but these countries have already been engaged in the modern transformation for well over a century. The sheer size of this transition to fully-modern society will require at least three more generations even for these speedsters to finish the process. 4

    Americans have a difficult time understanding why it should take so long for other countries to complete the change to modern democratic society. That is because England was already more than a century into the modern transformation when the first settlers left to start the North American colonies in the early 1600s. These were some of the most modern people of their time. They were adventurous commoners, individuals and young families, who left most of their traditional baggage behind when they bordered ships for the "New World." The early American settlements evolved without aristocrats or family elders. The immigrants to the New World quickly developed a new way of life that was more modern than traditional. Because they never had a tribal or aristocratic society of their own, the North American colonists had a head start in the modern transformation. 5

    For most of the world, it was not that easy. Royalty or tribal chieftains ruled everywhere. The populations were immersed in traditional society. They had traditional aristocratic or tribal: leaders, economies, religions, and families. They could not just sail away, leave it all behind, and start fresh somewhere else. They were forced to continue to use the traditional institutions, while they slowly began to make incremental changes. People had no idea what was happening and no vision of the future to guide them. For most countries, the modern transformation was a much-slower step-by-step process. 6

    With the industrial revolution and modern technology, the speed of change has greatly increased. Emerging nations in Asia and Africa that began the modern transformation after World War II will complete it around the end of this century. From the beginning, the process has included: national rebellion, civil war, nation state formation, an industrial revolution, an oligarchic ruling class, and the development of modern political, economic, and social institutions. 7

What kinds of societies existed prior to the modern transformation?

    All countries were traditional societies when they began the modern transformation. That means some variation of tribal and/or aristocrat-peasant institutions. These are the kinds of societies that used to be ruled by kings, queens, and tribal chieftains (think "Game of Thrones" on the HBO network). 8

    The economic functions of food production and food distribution are the most important part of the mechanics of how societies work. Tribal society was based on a subsistence economy, where most people hunt, gather, herd, or grow their own food. The relatively small amount of distribution was handled by sharing or barter between family and neighbors. Aristocrat-peasant society was fed by a subordinate class of peasants who worked the land and delivered a substantial part of the harvest to their aristocratic lords, without being paid. This was a command distribution system. Before the modern transformation, all humans lived in either tribal or aristocrat-peasant society. 9

    The best place to observe the beginning of the modern transformation is in the villages. In an aristocrat-peasant agricultural village, if the peasant farmers pay their land tax in grain and seldom use hard cash, it is traditional society. When the peasants start selling a significant amount of their food production at urban markets and have money to spend, the modern transformation has begun. In a tribal village, if food is generally exchanged by sharing or barter, it is still traditional society. When households need a cash income because food is bought and sold, they have begun the modern transformation. As the economic changes continue, emerging nations become progressively more modern and less traditional. After a century or more of difficult and sometimes violent transformation, they will become fully-modern democratic-market nation states. 10

    The second most important part of the mechanics of how societies work is the political function. Tribal chiefdoms and aristocratic states were governed by the strongest; that usually meant the war leaders who commanded the most powerful armies. Kings and tribal chieftains used to be warriors. Their political authority came from the fact that they could defeat all challengers on the field of battle. 11

    Modern society depends on markets for food production and distribution, and works in a completely different way. Market economy societies need more stability. When it is time to choose a new leader, they cannot have all the candidates mobilize their forces and fight it out on the battlefield. Fully modern societies are run by democratic governments, chosen by the voters. The most difficult part of the modern transformation is the change from traditional "rule by the strongest" to modern "rule by the people." 12

    The change to a market economy form of society comes first. The use of markets for wide-scale food distribution then requires a much larger and more stable form of government. This requirement has been filled by the modern nation state. Establishing nation states, finding the borders, determining who will be included, who will be excluded, and who will form the governments have been the primary components of the modern transformation. It sounds simple enough, but it turns out that this simple program of establishing modern nations takes centuries to accomplish and has been responsible for most of the violence and warfare of the last five hundred years. 13

Why is it that historians and social scientists never talk about the modern transformation?

    The process of evolutionary and revolutionary social change has never happened faster than right now. The problem is that it is very much misunderstood. Historians and social scientists are all forced to specialize when they begin their academic careers. They are not allowed to work on any research project as large as the world-wide modern transformation, which has already been in progress for the last five hundred years. Academic scholars look at little pieces of the modern transformation in individual countries, but they do not attempt to study and understand the entire world-wide transition from traditional to modern society. Instead, there have been many other ideas that have mostly served to disguise the lessons of history. 14

    It used to be the Marxists who created the most error and confusion about what was happening in the world. More recently, old myths about the superiority of "Western Civilization" have returned to explain the violence and turmoil that we see on the nightly news. The “Clash of Civilizations” theory as presented by Samuel P. Huntington has become the conventional wisdom in the West about the international political problems of recent times. He presents a view that emphasizes the differences between Eastern and Western Civilizations and claims that this is a defining factor in many of the most difficult and violent issues of our world. 15

    Huntington's thesis is that non-Western cultures have always been inclined toward autocratic rule, which in modern times evolved into communism and dictatorship. His focus is on the differences between the totalitarian governments of Eastern Civilizations, and the much more liberal political and economic institutions of Europe and the West. The problems that Huntington believed to be caused by a clash of civilizations include the Cold War between communism and the "free world" and the violence that has broken out between militant Islamists and the West. In this book, you will find a new and very different explanation for communism, dictators, and revolutionary religious violence. They were and are a normal and natural part of the modern transformation in both the West and the East. 16

The Thesis

    It looks like there is an endpoint for the modern transformation. This is still a bit speculative, but I will make the case that it results in democratic-market society, which we know as the thirty or so first-world countries. 17

    My thesis is that today’s non-Western developing nations are halfway through the modern transformation using the same universal patterns of change that have already taken place in the Western world. Oriental countries started the transition to modern society much later than Europe, but they have been making a lot faster progress. Most developing nations will finish the modern transformation and arrive at democratic-market (first-world) society in the next few generations. 18

    China, Brazil, Egypt, and Iran are presently in the middle of the same modern transformation that western Europe has already completed. Almost everything the emerging and developing world is doing today has already been done, and we can look in the history books and see how it was done. This gives us the advantage of 20/20 hindsight. We are going to examine European history in order to understand how the transition to modern society works. Then, we will take that knowledge and use it to understand the developing world today. Believe me; the change from traditional to modern society is much more complicated than it seems like it should be. Toward the end, we will focus on the Arab Spring and the modern transformation in the Islamic world. 19


    Whatever else history may be, it is first and foremost a story. The difference is that here you will find not so much “his-story” as “their-story.” All of the people from the past are included, not just kings and other leaders. The present is also included. The story is so much more complete this way, and it comes out very different from anything that you have ever read before. 20

    The individual characters of history are important, but they are very well covered elsewhere. This story will focus on the mechanics of political, economic, family, religious, and military institutions. We will see how these different components of human society work together, change, and evolve. As that happens, new kinds of societies evolve along with them. All around the globe, developing nations are changing from traditional to modern. It is important for the world to understand this process. 21

    The end of the modern transformation will not be the end of history. Democratic-market society in its fully developed form is a relatively recent innovation. We do not know how it will continue to evolve from here. In some ways it looks promising, but clearly it also has many challenges. 22

    This book is an attempt to paint a very broad picture of history. We are going to cover a tremendous amount of material and do it very quickly. Most of the details have been left out. Many important historical events are mentioned only in passing. Readers who would like to fill in the picture with more information are encouraged to use any good internet search engine, where almost everything is available. 23

The Research Project

    I learned how to read on a set of children’s history books and have been addicted to reading history since the late 1950s. This book is the direct result of a specific research project that began fifty-one years ago at age twelve. 24

    It was the summer of 1963. My intention was to better understand the Cuban Missile Crisis, which had occurred the year before. The United States and the Soviet Union each had a different kind of society, a different form of government and economy. This seemed to be the underlying reason for the obvious high level of animosity between the two countries. Just out of curiosity, and my addiction to reading history, I posed the questions: How many different kinds of societies have there been throughout history, and when, why, and how do societies change from one kind to another? 25

The Data

    My definition of history was everything of relevance that had ever happened which could shed light on how societies functioned. History, anthropology, archaeology, sociology, and economics were all the same to me. Any book that described people, how they lived, and what they did was of interest. I think of all of them as history books even though many were written by explorers, journalists, and social scientists. 26

    I went everywhere in history, no boundaries. My objective was to examine the machinery of all the different societies. Fairly soon I was focusing on five basic aspects. How does the government work? How does the economy function? What was happening at home? What was the religious structure, and what was the military structure? I compared the political institutions of every society with those of every other society and looked for patterns. I did the same thing for the economy, family life, religion, and military. It was not long before distinct patterns began to emerge. 27

    This work was not easy. It was complicated, but it was doable. Questions would arise for which it was not possible to just go out and find the answers. It required patience and the slow accumulation of data about more and more societies. Quantity was the key, and diversity. I needed societies from all over the world and every period of history. 28

Analyzing the Data

    I was not trying to remember specific line items of data. After accumulating enough information to form a picture of how the people lived and how they were governed, I could remember that picture. The brain seems to be very well designed for storing images, and it seems to have its own image compare utility. The study began at a young age when my brain was still wiring itself. That might have helped. I was forming pictures and images of every society that the library had books about. My brain was storing them and comparing them to each other. Those societies that were similar in their political, economic, and social institutions were put in the same category. A composite picture began to emerge of different patterns or categories of societies. 29

Contradictory and Biased Data

    The project was moving along fairly well. Slowly but surely, I was working my way through every society that data was available for. Two major problems have continued to appear throughout the study. One is bad data. There are a lot of contradictions in the historical record. Some of these are quite natural and mostly have to do with the fact that different historians have different points of view. They look at the same society and see different things. This just requires some extra work to figure out how to meld the different descriptions of history into a single coherent picture. 30

    Contradictory data is a much more serious problem when it results from bias and prejudice. Some historians consciously or unconsciously portray their own society more affectionately, while others are described less fairly. Political, economic, and religious institutions are sometimes distorted by authors who present them in an especially positive or negative way. This is something that I could not accept or put up with. 31

    When comparing the institutions of different societies to each other, it is necessary to have all good data. This is the basic gi-go problem, garbage in—garbage out. When even a small amount of bad data is used for input, it can destroy any possibility of having a successful output. Fortunately, my experience has been that after collecting enough information from enough sources, the bad data tends to stick out, and then it can be eliminated from consideration. 32

Lack of Economic Data

    The second and largest problem with the data has been that most historians say little about the economy of the society they are describing. This is a really serious problem. Over the years, I began to realize the economy was the most important of the five topics being examined. It turns out that the most defining aspect of any given society is the mechanism they use for producing and distributing food. This is also the part of the story that historians most commonly leave out. It has required a lot of perseverance to find this data for most cultures. 33

Change From One Primary Pattern of Society to Another

    The original idea was not just to list the different kinds of societies. I also wanted to know how countries change from one kind to another. As a group of primary categories of societies emerged, changed, and finally stabilized—it became clear that many individual societies were actually intermediate forms. They were in the process of changing from one primary pattern to another. 34

    Tracking down this process of change was much more difficult than identifying the primary patterns of tribal, aristocrat-peasant, and democratic-market societies. The effort took a long time, but gradually, the pattern of "The Modern Transformation" began to emerge. It is very complicated and includes: extreme nationalism, religious zealotry, imperialism, an oligarchic ruling class, socialism, communism, fascism, Islamism, and much more. Following the modern transformation around the world to find out whether or not it was a universal pattern required decades. 35


    Along the way, I earned a BA in History and was admitted to graduate school at Michigan State University, but there were problems from the start. The professors insisted that I must choose a specialty and begin learning the languages needed for archival research. I told them that I was not there to become a specialist or do archival work and tried to explain my own research project to them. 36

    When they evicted me in 1978, one of them said: “Nobody does your kind of work. It is not possible to do it. If you persist in this endeavor, you will have no colleagues, no one to present your work to. No one will read it, and nothing will come of it.” This has turned out to be prophesy. Since then, I have tried a hundred times to interest History and Social Science academics in this work. Their universal response: "It is too broad; it is much too large a project; professional scholars must acquire their research from primary sources, not from history books; this is not my specialty." The academics are useless. If the world is ever going to find out about the "The Modern Transformation," it will have to be presented by the publishing industry. 37

Testing the Conclusions

    I have continued to accumulate and analyze data and to improve the ideas presented in this book. I have been testing these ideas by reading history books and news magazines, especially “The Economist.” For over forty years, I have been reading avidly about the developing world. All of their coups, civil wars, national rebellions, identity cleansings, borders wars, and political difficulties of every kind fit perfectly into the framework of the modern transformation that is described in this book. Their economic and political achievements, progress, and development also fit perfectly with these ideas. 38

    Isaac Newton claimed that his three laws of motion were universal because they worked for all bodies in motion, including everything from apples to planets. The reason I say that the modern transformation and other patterns of history described here are universal is because they fit all of the data, not just some of it, but all of it. In the last fifty years, I have read enough history to be able to make this claim. There is little actual data in this book. I used the absolute minimum that is required to illuminate my explanations. The data that has been used is mostly very basic and well known. I do not claim that this framework of history is accurate and important because it fits this data. I claim that these patterns and this framework fit all the data, and these are the most important Universal Patterns of History. 39

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