Ch. 10. Early-Stage Modern Transformation

    When scholars are researching the problems of post-World War II developing nations, they seldom spend much time looking at the 16th and 17th centuries. Early-modern Europe seems too distant to be relevant in current discussions about democracy, dictatorship, and economic development in the 21st century, but that is when traditional society began to change into modern society. When scholars ignore the first stage of the modern transformation in Europe, approximately 1500 to 1820, they are leaving out the most difficult and chaotic part of a lengthy process. In most modern transformations, the violence, chaos, and anarchy are heavily concentrated in the early and middle stages of the process. 1

    For the last sixty years, scholars have been following the progress of modern development in the emerging world. They compare these events to what they think is the beginning of modern development in Europe, starting around the end of the French Revolution. This means that they have been comparing the second half of the modern transformation in western Europe to the early stage of the same process in the developing nations of the 20th century. 2

    This has led to more confusion than enlightenment. It is usually necessary to look at the entire length of a process in order to fully comprehend what is happening. That is why I date the beginning of the modern transformation to the early 16th century. Academic scholars are much too specialized. They want to understand the change from autocratic government to democracy in places like Egypt, but they do not want to start their research at the beginning of the modernization process, five hundred years ago. Taking shortcuts with history is seldom the path to understanding. 3

The Disintegration of Medieval Institutions

    By about 1500, the urbanization of western Europe had continued to the point where it was causing real problems. Much of the growing urban population no longer depended on aristocrats for their food, which was now purchased through a market economy. The city burgers were becoming more and more frustrated by the tribute demands of the local nobility. They wanted to cut these lesser aristocrats out of the loop and pay taxes only to the king or in Germany to the powerful dukes. 4

    During the medieval period, the European aristocrats often set up toll gates on the roads that went through their lands. Anyone with a wagon load of commercial goods was charged a toll. This was also a major problem on the Rhine and other rivers. Strong kings tried to restrict this practice, but most medieval monarchs did not have the tools to enforce their writ everywhere. The barons were used to getting away with highway robbery. 5

    The cities were especially exasperated when toll gates were used to stop farmers who were headed to town with wagonloads of produce to sell. This not only raised the price of food, it impeded the flow. Towns, merchants, peasants, and almost everyone demanded that the king alone should tax and control commerce. This was just one of the reasons why royal authority was increasing and lesser aristocrats were in decline. 6

    For centuries the medieval European monarchs had been forced to defend their rule against the plots and rebellions of the over-mighty feudal nobility. Now, with money raised from the cities, they could use hired troops and cannon to knock down the castles of rebellious barons and put a stop to the low-level fighting among the local aristocracy. Those nobles who craved advancement were mostly forced to seek positions at court, doing the bidding of the king. Western Europe had entered the “Age of Absolutism.” Kings were turning into something similar to modern dictators. 7

Monarchy, Church, and Aristocracy

    Throughout the medieval period, Europe had been governed by the troika of monarchy, church, and aristocracy. Now the kings were growing stronger, partly because the royal governments were the obvious authority for regulating and taxing the emerging market economy. The aristocracy was growing weaker. Their power had traditionally been based on their military prowess and authority over the peasantry. Both of these were in terminal decline. 8

    The Catholic Church would suffer massive trauma. The “divine order” of traditional society was coming apart. Religious unrest had been increasing during the 15th century and would lead to the Protestant Reformation. The massive political, economic, and religious power of the Vatican would be broken. Europe would end up with many religions and freedom of conscience for individuals to choose among them. 9

    The kings would last long enough to lead or at least observe many of these changes, but eventually they too would come crashing down. Change would continue until the monarchs and aristocrats were retired and modern democratic nation states were established. 10

The Netherlands: The First Nation State

    In the mid 16th century, medieval society was coming apart in much of western Europe. Peasant rebellion in Germany was crushed, but it was followed by religious warfare that kept popping up at various intensities throughout the region. The Catholic Habsburg dynasty of Spain was looking for ways to tax the prospering cities of the Netherlands more effectively. Dutch patriots were joining the Protestant movement and were using Christian fundamentalist religious ideology to promote what was essentially the first modern “national liberation front.” 11

    The national rebellion of The Netherlands against the Spanish crown was a savage affair known as The Eighty Years War (1568-1648). It is often described as a religious war between the Dutch Protestants and their Catholic overlords, but there was much more to it than that. 12

    The Netherlands were the most urbanized and market-oriented part of western Europe. They were ready to begin the development of modern society, but there was no precedent for such a thing. No one had the slightest idea how to become modern or what was happening to them. It was all very complicated. There were political, religious, national, and economic issues involved. 13

    The people of the Netherlands fought against their Spanish rulers, but they also fought with each other. At any given time, different leaders had different programs and groups of supporters. Factionalism is common in all societies but is at its worst during the modern transformation, when there are so many different issues to argue about. Religion, politics, ethnicity, and economic class identity routinely become intertwined during the revolutionary period. 14

    Halfway through the Eighty Years War for independence, about 1600, the United Provinces of the Netherlands was born. This was the world’s first modern nation state, and it quickly became the first high-growth “tiger economy.” The recipe for its development included patriotism, heroics, and self-sacrifice—but it also included savage warfare, religious cleansing, and the slaughter of innocent populations. This pattern is still visible in the revolutionary experience of most nations. The modern transformation started out using excessive amounts of violence. Unfortunately, it has continued along the same path right through to the present day. 15

England: The Second Nation State

    In the 17th century, the focal point of the modern transformation moved across the English Channel to Britain. The Tudor dynasty had already destroyed the power of the Papist Church and chopped back the traditional authority of the top aristocratic families. The Stuart kings intended to rule as absolute monarchs like the Tudors before them. That was not to be. The times were changing. 16

    Parliament was beginning the long process of evolving into a modern government. It was demanding more power, especially over budgets and the regulation of the market economy. This led to civil war, the beheading of Charles I, and the acquisition of power by the first revolutionary dictator, Oliver Cromwell. All of this was accompanied by a huge amount of religious bickering and violence. 17

    During the English Civil War, it was not possible to separate the political and religious motivations of the participants. The Anglican Church, created by Henry VIII, was a hierarchical organization with the king and his bishops in command. As a general rule the more conservative faction of the English population supported the monarch and a more officially hierarchical church structure. 18

    The revolutionary faction supported Parliamentary rule and a looser fundamentalist Protestant religious structure that emphasized a personal relationship between God and the individual. This form of religion came from below, from the common people. There were no bishops or hierarchy of control. The people read their own bibles and developed their own relationship with God. The Protestants had a different “divine order of the universe” than the Anglican Church or the traditional Catholic religion. All of this was extremely violent and very revolutionary. 19

    The British Parliament was not actually a revolutionary organization. It was made up mostly of aristocrats and gentry. However, when it took up arms against the king, all of the many different revolutionary factions joined in. This was a political and economic battle, but none of them had ever fought modern political battles before. As a result, many of the participants stated their case in religious terms, which was a type of discussion they were much more familiar with. 20

    After the defeat of the royal army and the execution of Charles I in 1649, Parliament was still not ready to govern. Cromwell had no other choice except to rule as a military dictator. He slowly began the development of modern government in England. Through it all, there was a large amount of social chaos, including Levelers, Diggers, various messianic cults, and invasions of Ireland and Scotland. 21

    The “divine order” of the old society had come apart. No one knew what would replace it. After Cromwell’s death, the legitimate royal heir, Charles II, was restored to the throne in 1660, and many people believed that the revolutionary chaos was over. Not so, the modern transformation would continue for another three centuries, although usually as a quieter more evolutionary process. 22

The Enlightenment

    Toward the end of the 17th century, the European intellectuals were starting to catch on that something important was happening. They began questioning the outdated aristocratic institutions, religious and secular, and started talking about the “rights of the common man.” The intellectual movement known as the “Enlightenment” did not start the modern transformation, but it added greatly to its coherence. The Enlightenment philosophers helped to develop the idea that common citizens could form their own government without the need for kings and aristocrats. 23

The American Revolution

    In the 1770s, these ideas began to resonate in the English colonies of North America. The colonial merchants and tobacco planters were unhappy with the mercantilist economic regulations imposed by London. They started an independence movement, led a successful war against the British, and wrote a new constitution for the United States of America. 24

    For the first time a government was formed without the aid of aristocrats. Traditionally, the new American government has been called a “democracy.” The word should be used with a qualifier. It was early democracy or a democracy in the process of development. Indians, slaves, and women were not able to vote. There were property requirements in some states even for white males. This was not real democracy, “rule by the people,” but it was a start. 25

The French Revolution

    The modern transformation in western Europe, including France, began about 1500. Almost three centuries later in the 1780s, there appeared to be very little change in the French political institutions. The economy had changed, becoming much more market oriented. Social conditions in and around the cities had changed. Intellectual opinion, led by the Enlightenment, had changed. But the king still ruled from his throne. Bishops were still religious aristocrats with vast civil powers. The nobility remained dominant in rural society, and in remote areas, peasant life seemed remarkably old fashioned. 26

    There are many different parts to the modern transformation: political, economic, religious, social, military, and more. They do not necessarily change in lockstep with each other. Sometimes, an important part of the revolutionary process was lagging behind. When this became a serious problem, something would happen to restore equilibrium. 27

    The modern transformation in France was out of balance. It was time for political and religious change to catch up. The result was a major series of waves of revolutionary violence that crashed through French society between 1789 and 1795. The nobility, the church, and the monarchy were all hit extremely hard. Thousands of aristocrats and Catholic clerics were sent to the guillotine, along with the king and queen. Any good history of the period will give you details about the events that triggered each wave of executions. The details are important, but the real cause of the revolutionary violence was the modern transformation. 28

    After six years of mob violence, assassinations, and executions, passions began to cool. Napoleon Bonaparte gradually assumed control, consolidated the revolution, and led the revolutionary army on campaigns of conquest through the aristocratic states of Europe. After losing an entire army in Russia, the military dictator who tried to turn himself into an emperor was defeated by the resurgent aristocratic forces. There was a strong conservative reaction in France and all of Europe. By 1818, it appeared that the French revolution had been a bloody failure. 29

    In history, appearances are often deceptive. The reality was that the revolution had triumphed. The conservative reaction would be temporary. The Catholic Church had been forced to come to terms with revolutionary France and would never regain its previous power. The émigré aristocrats returned to their estates, demanded the restoration of their ancient privileges, and were met with stubborn noncompliance. The restored king, Louis XVIII, managed to hold his royalist government together with a certain amount of compromise until his death in 1824. His brother, Charles X, was an ultra-royalist who did not believe in compromise. He was forced to abdicate in 1830. 30

    The modern transformation would continue in France, and its pace would increase, but the guillotine was no longer used as a revolutionary tool. The group that had benefited most from the revolutionary experience in France, Europe, and the Americas was the capitalist business class. 31

The Rise of the Oligarchic Class

    In all four of the revolutions just described—the Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States, and France—the main point of the revolutionary activity was to remove or decrease the power of the “ancien régime.” Ruling monarchs and aristocrats were replaced by oligarchic governments that were more responsive to the local business community. 32

    These revolutions were led by the gentry and the upper levels of the commoner class. Most of the foot soldiers were young men of the lower class who had little to lose and hoped to improve their condition. The successful business elements who led these revolutions would evolve into a new “oligarchic ruling class.” You will hear a lot more about the oligarchic elite as this book continues. Think of them as the group of wealthy and powerful families that usually dominate the upper levels of business and government during the modern transformation. This includes both early-modern Europe and the developing world today. 33

    The first stage of the modern transformation is the beginning of a long and difficult process. In western Europe it lasted from 1500 to about 1820, and covered the end of medieval government and society and the early beginning of the nation state. Middle –stage modern transformation includes an industrial revolution, the continued development of the nation state, and the rise of the oligarchic ruling class. For the rest of this discussion, I will use the terms “modern transformation,” “modern revolution,” and “oligarchic society” interchangeably. They all refer to the long period of transition from traditional society to fully-modern democratic-market nation states. 34

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