Modernism and the Enlightenment

The emergence of the General Man who through his common sense can govern himself politically



1637-1787--and beyond even to this day.

1. This period saw the triumph of science and reason over tradition and religion.

2. The world changes from mercantile to commercial capitalism as fixed wealth changes to fluid capital, revolutionizing the capitalist mode of production.

3. Dynastic states become expansionist, nationalistic states with imperialist designs to build empires. Parliamentary democracy becomes a factor in world politics.

4. There is popular sovereignty with a limited but expanding electorate, meaning that literate white men of property can vote and choose representation, particularly in the Netherlands, France, England, the thirteen colonies and the United States they become, and to a lesser extent Switzerland. Russia is the major exception.

5. The rule of law emerges, and codified norms instruct people universally on right and wrong behavior. An emphasis on individual rights emerges based on deductions from natural law.

6. Imperialism leads to global warfare.

a) France and England develop a world rivalry.

b) England and Spain likewise.

 c) Russia under Peter and Catherine the Great expands its interests to the Pacific Ocean  and becomes a transcontinental empire.

7. The bourgeois class triumphs and replaces feudal lords, who become marginalized. Factories replace guild production and home production. There is mass production of commodities where people sell their labor power which itself is a commodity for sale.

a) Slaves, women, children, and indentured servants become commodities in the new world order, with slavery the "peculiar institution" based on racism; otherwise, blacks would have to be emancipated.

b) Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations (1776) and Thomas Malthus wrote On Population (1798), the former concerning the revolutionary character of capitalist marketplaces with the social and technical division of labor; the latter vividly describing the devastating consequences of laissez-faire capitalism in creating conditions of war, famine, and disease, with an invocation for the state not to intervene but to allow natural processes to weed out the unfit (i.e., the powerless).

8. Modern ideas of natural law subvert religious authority. Each man through his reason can become morally autonomous. There is a law above the written law of men, which can be seen in nature and is accessible to reason and the scientific method. Deism is the doctrine of a naturalized God, and deified nature is accessible to the common man through his understanding the workings of natural law.
9. Agriculture is revolutionized and people are dispossessed from the land with improvements in agricultural techniques and the institutions of primogeniture and entail; many move to the cities. In the colonies, urbanization is just beginning. Philadelphia is the biggest city in the British colonies, but is  provincial in nature with only ten thousand people. London has one million.

10. There is a constant struggle between the centers of power and local interests. The thirteen colonies were much like thirteen nations, where initially power and hence sovereignty resided in the separate states. The Age of Enlightenment sees increasing concentration of power in the center and the rise of professional bureaucrats. The concept of federalism emerges out of the necessity for a strong state, particularly for conducting foreign affairs and building a banking system with international credit. A strong state means that a country can engage in Realpolitik. Might makes right. Politics consequently becomes amoral, scientific, and expansionist, although there is in America an ideology of equality and republican virtue in the civil society. The Federalist Papers (1788) by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay argue for a strong state and the Constitution.

11. The signers of the Declaration of Independence claim to be disinterested, speaking for mankind or a General Interest; in fact, they are either landed property owners with slaves or wealthy merchant traders. Too, there are many lawyers. Citizens, however, are vocally irreverent in local politics. The common man believes that all men are equal before a deified nature, and God is actually naturalized through the praxis of science. This doctrine is called Deism.

 12. The Cromwellian and Glorious Revolutions in England establish the dominance of Parliament in politics. There is a concept of the universal right of men to revolt against arbitrary authority. France followed the colonies in revolting, but there was a social revolution in which a bourgeois revolution was made. Antecedent to the American and French revolutions, there was the revolution in England in the seventeenth century, which did have an effect on the American revolution. These rights are "natural" and can be deduced by reasoned  (educated) men. These laws are transcendent, not man-made but writ large in nature. Some even argue (Deism) that they are reflective of God's will. The average citizen is aware of his rights and interests, that is, very commercially and money-oriented. This cultural trait is true to this day. The Protestant ethic is based on the notion of a chosen, elect people who are deemed "saved" if they accumulate wealth. Wealth is a sign of God's Providence. This fusion of religion and money-making has consummated itself today in Christian fundamentalism. Too, multinational corporations have changed the definition of state sovereignty.

13. In the colonies, people hold up for esteem a natural elite of character who feel themselves the only ones fit to govern. These are men of substance, that is, property. The concept "gentleman" is prevalent to describe this category/class of disinterested rulers who govern for the sake of duty and patriotism rather than for personal gain or profit. Of course, this notion is more myth than reality. Americans have always been money- and achievement-oriented and fashioned a very materialistic society. Too, the worker began to sell his labor power for a subsistence wage in what is called the capitalist mode of production. Americans have a tradition of not wanting to pay taxes, which was the paramount issue in the colonial assemblies before the 1776 revolution. The assemblies exercised veto power over the budget and the salaries of the executive. Taxation without representation became the battle cry of the War of Independence.
14. There was an international division of labor in which the colonies supplied England with raw materials for finished products. It was called the Manchester System. Americans resented being kept backward and not allowed to develop their manufacturing capabilities. The impetus toward self-sufficiency economically impelled revolutionary change. The colonies were developing an American identity. England was too far away to have an impact on day to day life. When England started to tax the colonies arbitrarily without the balancing of such actions by representation, a revolutionary movement developed and eventually nationhood. Too, England employed a double standard in the application of the laws that violated the colonies' sense of fairness or an innate intuition of justice. The colonists believed that the contract with England was solely through the king. He held a revocable trusteeship. John Locke and subsequently Thomas Jefferson propounded the idea of a social contract rooted in nature.

15. Equality versus freedom. Equality is a substantive, social issue and freedom a formal, political standing in civil society. You can be free before the eyes of the law or God but not equal because you do not have the means for human self-realization. Obviously, we cannot say all people enjoy the empirical manifestations of equality. The real issue is that of equality of opportunity in contrast to equality of outcome. That distinction has defined the politics of affirmative action.

16. Representative democracy became a revolutionary notion in which the basic tenet is that the rulers need the consent of the governed to exercise power. There was a natural right to revolution based on the insights of reason and common sense.