Ch. 18. The West and the Rest

    The two hundred nation-states in today’s world have made, or are making, the same journey from traditional society to modern society. Some have had an easier time of it than others. It is sort of like two hundred rafts, canoes, and inner tubes going down the same large river rapids. They all have similar starting and ending points, but very different things can happen to them along the way. 1

    Some small countries, such as Switzerland, Slovenia, and Singapore, have managed to keep their heads down and get through the modern transformation without too much trouble. It is usually more difficult for larger states. 2

The New-World West

    The modern transformations in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand fall into a special category. These countries were settled by British and other European emigrants who boarded ships and sailed away leaving the "Old World" and its traditional institutions behind. They were headed for "New Worlds," where they could start new lives, using new rules. 3

    All of the colonies that eventually became the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were originally settled by British or French commoners who were among the most modern people of their time. They were looking for new land that was not already owned by aristocrats or gentry. They used ethnic cleansing to push aside the tribal inhabitants and the land was theirs. These colonies changed from traditional society to early-modern society as the population changed from native to European. 4

    Most of the immigrants to the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand came to build a new future with their own hard work. At first there were a few British aristocrats to run the colonial governments, but they were relatively easy to remove.
Most of the immigrants were commoners who shared a rough social equality and could set about developing market economies and democratic institutions on that basis. 5

    All four of these immigrant nations had some conflict between an emerging oligarchic ruling class and the working class majority at the end of the 19th century, but it was relatively minor compared to the class war in most of the rest of the world. The wide-open frontiers in North America, Australia, and New Zealand could not be controlled and monopolized by a rich and powerful oligarchic ruling class as usually happened in the more densely-populated Old-World countries. By the time wealthy oligarchs like J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller became so powerful that they needed to be controlled, democratic institutions had already evolved to the point where most of the battles could be fought in the voting booths rather than on the streets. Government regulation, labor unions, and trust-busting politicians were able to deal with the oligarchic elite without the need for wide-scale violent revolutionary activity.  6

Modern Transformation in the United States

     Of these four countries, the United States had the most difficult time in completing its modern transformation. It required a revolutionary war to boot out the British (1776-1781) and about three hundred Indian wars (1610-1898) to cleanse out the First Nations. There was a border war with Mexico (1846-1848) to fulfill its “Manifest Destiny” of annexing everything from the Atlantic to the Pacific. By far the biggest problem was slavery. 7

    The American South became sidetracked onto a tangent that was quite common in the 17th and 18th centuries. In many areas with warm climates, African slaves were used as plantation labor to raise crops that mostly could not be grown in Europe. It was a modern business in the sense that these were cash crops grown for market distribution to make a profit: sugar, tobacco, cotton, and many others. It was a traditional business because slavery was from the past. It is not compatible with modern democratic institutions. 8

    The problem was that the South was comfortable with their plantation society. They were making good money off of slavery, and they did not want to give it up. This was, and is, fairly common in the modern transformation. Countries sometimes find themselves in a comfortable niche but one that holds them back from the full development of modern society. This situation is not sustainable. It might last for a few generations, but it has to come apart eventually. In this case, it was causing so many problems for the dis-United States that a Civil War (1861-1865) was required. 9

Rules for Democratic-Market Society

    Slavery was abolished, but that did not end the problem. A poisonous atmosphere of racism and prejudice remained. White Americans did not want to acknowledge the social and legal equality of "Black Americans" and "Brown Americans." They had already killed off nearly all of the "Red Americans." After the Chinese began to arrive for the California gold rush, "Yellow Americans" were treated just as badly as Black Americans.  10

    The idea of the innate superiority of white European racial stock caused massive problems in the 19th and 20th centuries. Americans created huge difficulties for themselves by believing this myth. British, French, and Germans have gotten themselves into just as much trouble because of it. This kind of behavior is quite normal for the modern transformation. People often cause problems for themselves, their country, and their economy because of a reluctance to give up traditional beliefs and behaviors even when it is obvious that they no longer have a place in the modern world. 11

    In order for democratic-market society to work well, the government and the people must follow the necessary rules. Market decisions need to be based on factors like price, quality, reputation, and supply and demand. If people use bogus criteria when making market decisions, like racial mythology or ethnic and religious favoritism, it leads to friction and distortions in the market machinery. This is something like throwing sand into a gear box. 12

    Democracy “rule by the people” also has its own set of rules and requirements. Disenfranchising various identity groups based on their skin color, ethnicity, religion, tribe, or any other criteria breaks these rules. This kind of distortion in the political machinery leads to a continuous series of problems. Identity-group issues have to be sorted out before a country can claim to have achieved fully-modern democratic-market society. That is why the modern transformation takes so long. 13

Completion of the Modern Transformation

    It was not until a century after the Civil War that Americans began to solve their racism problem. It happened when returning African-American and Latino veterans from World War II and Korea refused to accept the continuation of Jim Crow laws and voting restraints. It was not until at least the mid 1960s when the Voting Rights Act was passed that the United States could be called a fully-modern democratic-market society. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand also matured into democratic-market nation states after the war and the return home of large numbers of victorious veterans. The entire populations of these four countries fought the war together. That includes all social classes, all identity groups, men, women, everyone; they were all in it together. The result was fully-modern democratic-market society. 14

The Modern Transformation in Israel

    Israel is another country where a modern population of European emigrants pushed aside a much weaker traditional population and created their own nation. In the late 1940s, there was a tremendous amount of sympathy for the survivors of the Holocaust among all the victors of World War II who had helped to liberate the concentration camps. The Jews were adamant that they must have a national homeland of their own. The Western allies, the Soviet Union, and everyone who saw what had happened supported this project. 15

    The Jews smuggled themselves into Palestine. They did all of their own organizing and fighting. They scrounged up most of their weapons. The United States, Britain, and France did not have the heart to stop them. They and the Soviet Union allowed just enough war surplus equipment through for the Jews to prevail over the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors. 16

    The infant state of Israel had little difficulty creating a successful democratic government and a capitalist market economy from the very beginning. The Western nations, especially the United States, were very impressed with this achievement. Americans quickly developed a close bond and alliance with this new Western-oriented nation. Israel was considered to be a wonderful example of what free people could accomplish if they establish a democracy and a market economy. 17

    This was the late 1940s, just after World War II. A hundred newly emerging nations were in the process of becoming independent from the imploding European empires. It was also the early years of the Cold War against communism. Americans thought of Israel as an example to all emerging countries in terms of what democracy and capitalism could accomplish. 18

    In reality, Israel was a special case. Its founding population had already experienced a century of modern transformation while living in Europe, and they were familiar with an industrial economy. They were then ripped from their homes, had all of their property confiscated, and sent to concentration camps (1939-1945). The survivors of this experience arrived on the shores of the “Promised Land” with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They had no remaining baggage of traditional society. There were no ruling lineages, no aristocrats, no oligarchs, and no tribal big men. These survivors, men and women, fought together as equals to create their new nation state and had little trouble ruling it together as equals using democratic institutions. 19

    Overall, the modern transformation for the Jews was one of the most difficult and violent that any nation has ever experienced, but the worst of it happened in Europe and in the Nazi death camps. By the time they arrived in Palestine, the Jews knew that they were there to build a modern democratic homeland. Unfortunately, the creation of Israel has left the Palestinians in a very difficult situation. It also began the development of a serious problem between the United States and the Arab world. We will return to these issues in the next chapter. 20

The Clash of Civilizations Thesis

    We have just completed a review of the modern transformation in the West. There is a school of history which believes that “Western Civilization” has always contained the seeds of modern democratic-market society. They like to focus on Athenian Democracy, the Roman Republic, the Magna Carta, and the weakness of feudal European kings to support the idea that Western Civilization has always featured a more open society based on individual liberty. In contrast, they look at Eastern Civilization and see little aside from "absolute despotism." 21

    Unfortunately, this myth about Western Civilization is not just an intellectual argument. There are a huge number of Americans who believe that Western society and modern society are one and the same thing. They think that the West developed modern society easily and naturally. Oriental (non-Western) cultures and civilizations are believed to be incompatible with democracy and free enterprise. This is the viewpoint that was promulgated by Samuel Huntington in his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations. 22

    According to these ideas, the Oriental nations will never arrive at modern democratic-market society on their own. They must be coaxed and cajoled into developing democracy by the West. The Cold War between communism and the West and the present blood feud between the United States and Islamist militants are believed to be part of the “Clash of Civilizations.” It is thought that these conflicts are the inevitable result of inherent differences between Eastern and Western civilizations. 23

Universal Patterns of the Modern Transformation

    A more systematic examination of the historical record leads to a very different conclusion. The rest of the world started the modern transformation three hundred years or more after western Europe, but they have been following pretty much the same violent path. The primary difference is that the Oriental world is moving through the experience much more quickly than the Europeans. 24

    The Japanese developed modern industry and technology in order to ensure their survival in the face of European imperial aggression. Then they used this new source of power for imperial conquest of their own. World War II destroyed imperialism, militarism, and the oligarchic ruling class. This left Japan free to develop fully-modern democratic-market society. All of this happened in a way that was similar to the modern revolution in Europe, but much faster. The details were different, but the pattern was the same. 25

    Western Europe began the modern transformation and pioneered most of the universal patterns that have since been used by the rest of the world to establish and develop nation states. This includes religious fundamentalism, national rebellion, identity cleansing, civil war, border war, class war, and revolutionary socialism. 26

    Since its beginning in Europe five hundred years ago, the modern transformation has featured peasants, commoners, kings, aristocrats, an industrial revolution, an oligarchic ruling class, politicians, government meltdown, anarchy, coups, dictators, and confusion of every kind. We still see the same things in modern transformations all over the world today. 27

    Aside from the special circumstances found in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel, it has always been very difficult to get a democratic legislature up and governing for the first time. After defeating the royalist forces in 1646, Cromwell really wanted Parliament to take over and govern Britain, but it couldn’t. All they did was argue, mostly about religion and who should have which offices. This kind of hesitation involving democratic institutions has been very common throughout the modern transformation. It has appeared in England, France, Germany, and around the world. Today’s parliament in Iraq is getting off to the same slow start. 28

Variations in the Universal Patterns

    One difference between the West and the Rest is that the West began the modern transformation long before the development of heavy industry in the 19th century. The early engineering work that led to the industrial revolution was mostly done by common artisans and mechanics. It began in Europe in the 18th century and then continued in Europe and North America in the 19th century. 29

    By the second half of the century, some of these early industrialists were making real money. The technology that they were developing was at the stage where it needed massive amounts of capital. That is when the oligarchic ruling class moved in and took over. The workers who had actually built and operated the new machinery found themselves at the bottom of the pile again. At least they knew what to do about that. They fought back. 30

    The oligarchic ruling class has often become selfish and corrupt to the point where another revolutionary struggle is required to reduce or remove its power. This stage of the modern transformation was not needed in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or Israel, but they are exceptions to the rule. It has been a primary feature of the modern transformation in most of the other two hundred nation states. 31

    In western Europe, the oligarchs controlled the governments and were able to manipulate the rules of capitalism to line their own pockets. The workers turned to socialism which developed an anti-capitalist ideology. The great struggle between the socialist working class and the oligarchic ruling class was on. This contest continued until after World War II. 32

    In the rest of the world, it happened somewhat differently. The development of heavy industry in the mid 19th century got their attention. The Austrian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires—along with many other aristocratic states—wanted railroads, steel mills, and other such wonders for themselves. They began importing the new industrial technology any way they could. Sometimes they set up state owned companies. Sometimes they helped finance their own merchants and aristocrats to develop modern industries. 33

Oligarchic Society: Similar but Different

    In the non-western world, modern industry was brought in by the top of the society. It was mostly not developed by the common people as in western Europe and North America. Rich and powerful families changed themselves from merchants and aristocrats into oligarchs by starting new industrial enterprises with state encouragement and financial help. They often began by bringing in foreign engineers and technicians. Local workers were given the minimum training needed to do their specific jobs. 34

    This leadership from the top approach meant that most of the workers were essentially industrial peasants. They had few rights, little education, and no political power. In the early stage, the workers often had no idea what was happening or what they could do about it. Socialism was imported along with heavy industry, and it often became a revolutionary ideology for the new working class, but it also became a tool of the governing class. 35

    The more socialist a country is, the more control the government has over the economy. Powerful political leaders often like to have more control. It does not matter if they are monarchs, dictators, or elected politicians. When we look at socialism in Venezuela for example, are we seeing a revolutionary ideology for the benefit of the working class, or are we seeing a mechanism for the late Hugo Chavez and his successors to increase their power and authority? 36

    In half of today’s developing countries, the ordinary common people have never had any political power. Almost every aspect of modern society comes from above. Capitalism and modern industry were introduced either by the imperialists or post-independence ruling elites. Elections, if they exist, are organized and controlled by the dominant oligarchs. Education policy is written by the elite. Labor unions are controlled by political bosses. Socialism may be the platform of one elite political faction; free enterprise may be the battle cry of another. Almost everything on almost every level is controlled by a dominant upper class. 37

Working Class versus Oligarchic Ruling Class

    Just as in Charles Dickens’ time, modern oligarchs believe that they are great patriots and humanitarians. The wealthy families think of themselves as hard-working nation builders who are developing modern government and industry for the benefit of everyone. In the long term, this is partly true. In the short term, most of the wealth and power are monopolized by the oligarchs. 38

    How does the working class demand their rights? It is certainly a difficult question.
The answer is that the modern transformations in the developing world will be completed either one way, or another, just like it was done in the West. 39

    In the most favorable scenario, the working class is able to adjust to the new conditions. Their children get an education and begin to work their way up the promotion ladder. Economic growth opens up the economy to more diversity and competition. As the working class becomes more educated, productive, and prosperous, their political clout increases.  This can lead to a slow, steady, and fairly peaceful modern transformation. Scandinavia is an example. 40

    If the oligarchs are too greedy, too corrupt, and too successful at monopolizing economic and political power, there will be a lot more drama. For as long as the society is out of balance because of an over-mighty oligarchic ruling class, the common people will pick and choose among the various revolutionary programs that are offered to them. Experience shows that some of the insurgent organizations will be based around nationalism, some will use socialism, and others will have a religious ideology. 41

    The fascists used extreme nationalism, militarism, and conquest as themes to organize around. The communists used socialism and focused on the industrial proletariat in Europe and peasant farmers in Asia. The Protestants of early-modern Europe and the Islamists today use religion as a focus for revolutionary change. If the common people are satisfied with the progress being made, there will be less support for insurgent political factions. If a majority of the people feel trapped and unhappy, there will be more support for militant revolutionary organizations. 42

    Forward progress through the modern transformation will be made either one way or the other, relatively peacefully or relatively violently. If the country comes apart in a massive civil war—as did England, France, the United States, and Syria—the violence and killing are more likely to speed up the modern transformation than slow it down. 43

    Since the beginning five hundred years ago, the modern transformation has never been under anyone’s control. It just happens. The transition to modern society has its own motive forces and its own rules and requirements. In order for modern society to work correctly and continue to produce more wealth generation after generation, it must have a well-regulated market economy and a successful democratic government. There is no way to get around these imperatives. The modern transformation will continue until these conditions are met. 44


    Another difference between the West and the Rest has to do with the number of dictators. Americans developed a strong animosity toward dictators during World War II. According to American propaganda, the war was started by three dictators—Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo—for no reason aside from their lust for power. In American minds, dictators have been identified as the incarnation of evil. 45

    Dictators appeared in the early centuries of the modern transformation in western Europe, but not very many of them. In contrast since World War II, Latin America, Asia, and Africa have had dictators by the hundreds. In recent times, many of these dictators have organized and won elections: surprise, surprise. That usually does not much change the way they run their governments. 46

    The “Clash of Civilizations” school believes this is a major distinction and a serious problem for the non-Western world. They think that Oriental cultures have always used autocratic rule. It is sometimes called "oriental despotism." Dictators are thought to be a modern manifestation of this traditional pattern. In actuality, the number of dictators required has a lot more to do with the circumstances of any given modern transformation than whether it happened in the east or the west.  47

    If the common citizens were always capable of ruling themselves through democratic elections, there would have been few if any dictators. A problem regularly occurs when a country is first moving from traditional rulers to modern politicians. It is normal for the last royal dynasty to lose power before the population is able to get effective democracy up and running. This often requires dictators to fill in the gap, sometimes for more than one generation. It is not a permanent condition. 48

Aristocrats and Royalty Instead of Dictators

    When the modern transformation started in western Europe five hundred years ago, there were monarchs and aristocrats everywhere. Many of these were the major players who constituted the “ancien régime.” There were also a large number of lower level aristocrats who, as usual, were happy to rebel against and overthrow their superiors. The national rebellion of the Netherlands against the King of Spain was largely carried out under the leadership of the Princes of Orange. The Dutch did not need dictators because they had local aristocrats who were able to lead the rebellion. 49

    A large part of the religious warfare of the period was led by Protestant mid-level aristocrats going against the Catholic monarchs and upper-level aristocrats. Warlords and dictators were not needed. Titled aristocrats were available to lead almost any kind of armed uprising during the early-stage modern transformation in Europe. 50

    One of the most powerful and despotic revolutionary dictators known to history was England’s King Henry VIII. He used just as much violence to destroy the traditional Catholic religion in England as Stalin did to destroy the traditional Orthodox Church in Russia. And it was not just because he wanted a divorce. Absolute monarchs in England and France provided strong and sometimes brutal leadership for the early modern transformation. They managed to stop most of the petty feuds and local turf battles between the lesser aristocrats and began to establish secular bureaucratic governments. 51

    A large part of the early agenda of the modern transformation in western Europe was carried out under this kind of aristocratic and royal leadership without any need for dictators. The absolute monarchs of early-modern Europe played a role that was similar in many ways to the dictators of Asian and African developing countries in the 20th century. 52

    There were also generals like Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte who did fit the modern pattern of a military dictator. After Cromwell died and Napoleon was defeated, they were replaced by legitimate crown princes who were installed on the throne. If the royal families were not still available, England and France would have needed more dictators. 53

    In today’s developing world, there are not many monarchs and rebellious aristocrats around to lead the early and middle stages of the modern transformation. They mostly did not survive the colonial era. This has left the non-Western world in need of more warlords to lead rebellions and more dictators to maintain functioning governments. 54

Military Dictators

    In many developing countries, the military is the most cohesive and disciplined force available. The officer corps is educated and knows how to get things done. The violence and anarchy of the modern transformation often threaten to overwhelm the ability of the oligarchic ruling class to maintain order. When this happens, it has become common for a group of military officers to seize power and establish control. 55

    Traditional societies were ruled by the strongest. That usually meant whoever controlled the most powerful army. When emerging elected governments fail, the most obvious thing to do is to fall back on the strongest available leaders. The resulting military government might be headed by a council of officers or a single individual. It may last a few years or a few decades. Their job is to establish order, get the economy going, and continue modern development. It has regularly happened that one of the ruling officers who has charisma and ambition takes control as a dictator. 56

    Dictatorship has a way of developing according to its own rules. The trusted allies of the dictator—usually family, friends, and fellow military officers—become increasingly powerful. Commercial opportunities open up to them. They grow richer and join the oligarchic ruling class. At the same time, anarchy and violence must be quelled. In the absence of effective legal institutions, this is usually done by repression. 57

    Sometimes, a military government is run by the entire officer corps, as in Burma and some Arab countries. Generals are appointed to the top police and security positions, and as provincial governors. The army and air force own large industrial empires. Officers with business talent increase in rank and in wealth. In many developing countries, over half of the oligarchic ruling class is made up of serving or retired military officers. 58

    Sometimes a military government is better able to maintain order than any other option. Sometimes the military becomes too comfortable with their wealth and power. When it is time to return political leadership to civilian authorities, they become reluctant. Power and wealth are just as seductive for the military as anyone else. 59

Dictators Range from Useful to Really Bad

    Some dictators have managed to navigate through all of the difficulties and leave office with a country that is in better shape than when they started. Some dictators make little progress at actually solving the country's problems but at least provide an interval of stability. Sometimes the dictator forgets what century he is living in and starts thinking of himself as the rightful king. Some even try to start a dynasty that will live on after they are gone. Napoleon was the first modern military dictator to attempt this. It failed for him and most others who have tried it since. 60

    There have been useful dictators, mediocre dictators, and bad dictators. Some of them start out being useful and degenerate from there. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Some have started out ferociously eliminating all opponents, but once they gain control actually put it to some good use. Most dictators were, or are, working hard to hold on to power for a wide variety of reasons, but they do not have nearly as much control as most people think. 61

Dictatorship and the Oligarchic Ruling Class

    No one man can run an entire country all by himself. That was true for kings, and it is true for presidents, prime ministers, and also for dictators. Most dictators have about the same relative share of power as was traditionally exercised by strong kings. Monarchs were always surrounded by a number of powerful nobles; other important aristocrats held regional authority in the provinces. In a similar way, modern dictators are always surrounded by top level oligarchs who share power and responsibility. Lesser oligarchs around the country also have important roles to play. Together they make up the oligarchic ruling class. 62

    The modern transformation begins with the change to a market economy. People need a cash income to buy food and other necessities. This means that they need jobs, modern development, and economic growth. Large amounts of legal and physical infrastructure are needed to support the market economy. All of this requires active government leadership. The traditional rulers—monarchs, aristocrats, and chieftains—cannot survive intact through this change to modern society. There are economic, political, social, family, religious, and military changes for the society to endure. No country can get everything right the first time. There is a lengthy process of trial and error which will last for over a century. It used to take quite a bit longer. 63

    Traditional leaders cannot complete the modern transformation, but it is their job to get the process started. At some point, they will lose their legitimacy and be replaced by oligarchs, dictators, and elected politicians. This process often includes a great deal of anarchy, violence, and social collapse. Out of all the tasks that have to be accomplished, the modern transformation does not care which jobs are done by which kind of leadership. The only thing the modern revolution cares about is that the entire list be accomplished either one way, or another. If monarchs cannot do the job, and elected politicians cannot do the job, then dictators will do the job. If it cannot be done this generation, then it will be done next generation. One way or another, every part of the modern transformation will be completed. 64

    Americans should discard their World War II propaganda view of dictators. It was not true when it was first devised as war propaganda, and it is not true today. Dictators do not seize control of a country just to satisfy their lust for power. They have important roles to play in the modern transformation.  65

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