Friday, December 16, 2011


Much of the history of the last few centuries is the history of emancipation, sometimes labelled that, sometimes labelled differently. Catholic emancipation, the emancipation of the Jews, the emancipation of women, the abolition of slavery, civil rights, queer emancipation; the list goes on. The process of extending basic moral and legal protections to an ever wider range of people.

This history of emancipation is a history of expanding capacities, particularly cognitive and economic capacities. They are products of the Scientific, Commercial and Industrial Revolutions.

Farming can support much higher populations than foraging. But it is also a highly constrained existence; one is tied to a particular plot of land and the rhythms and vagaries of the seasons. If the population increases too much, then the constraints pinch tighter. As niches get more constrained, they are defended more rigorously. As the risk of hunger increases, patterns that have proved viable will be clung to. There are good reasons why landed peasantries are notoriously socially conservative. (Landless peasants, by contrast, can be an explosive social force since they both lack assets at risk from social disorder and seek the security of landholding—by expropriation, if necessary.)

Religion can both validate the moral constraints needed to make such a society function and legitimise particular social arrangements that provide order. And order has very strong value to a farming society. Seeing the cosmic order as a struggle between order and chaos is much older, and more widespread, than seeing it as a struggle between good and evil.

Commerce can be disruptive because it is dynamic: it seeks income from exchanges, so seeks both people to exchange with and goods and services to exchange—it is a process of discovery. Though commerce is much concerned with risk, the new or unusual has much greater implications of benefit than in farming. It is why static orders tend to frown on commerce: its dynamism is disruptive; as is its focus on exchange, on gains through trade. Features that can loom large in static orders—ethnicity, belief, gender, sexuality—are a matter of indifference to a commercial order. Commerce has persistently treated marginal groups better than has religion or politics.

French man of letters Voltaire expressed this memorably in a famous passage in his Letters on the English, first published in 1734.
Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. There thee Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker’s word. At the breaking up of this pacific and free assembly, some withdraw to the synagogue, and others to take a glass. This man goes and is baptized in a great tub, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: that man has his son’s foreskin cut off, whilst a set of Hebrew words (quite unintelligible to him) are mumbled over his child. Others retire to their churches, and there wait for the inspiration of heaven with their hats on, and all are satisfied.
So a shift towards a more commercial order will tend to be a shift to a more cosmopolitan or ecumenical social order.

Science can also be disruptive to established orders: the expansion of knowledge, the discovery of how things work, can both undermine old rationalisations for existing arrangements and validate the possibility of new arrangements. This includes discovery of other cultures: awareness of potentially very different social patterns can make existing social arrangements seem much more contingent and so contestable. Either way, the expansion of knowledge makes received wisdom seems less authoritative; more up for reconsideration, even rejection.

Technological change can magnify both the commercial and the scientific effects: the need for new skills, the experience of new possibilities, makes existing arrangements seem even more contingent and, worse, impediments. What was previously reassuring and protective can come to seem outmoded and constraining. It is not that people are not still threatened by change (some can be very threatened), it is that change acquires more partisans. The Industrial Revolution, the expanding commerce of multiplying technology, was a conjunction and magnification of the disruptive effects of commerce and science.

The shift from being a society dominated by the land/population ratio to one dominated by the capital/population ratio creates both a more dynamic and far less constrained society. Capital can not only expand far more than land can, but comes in far more varied forms and social consequences. Social possibilities increase greatly.

In such circumstances, the dynamics of emancipation are a push-and-pull interaction. With the expansion of commerce, science and technology, it becomes easier for the traditionally repressed to conceive of a situation where their repression goes away. As incomes rise, and transport and communication capacities expand, it becomes easier for them to interact and organise. As labour becomes more scarce (compared to capital), and so more valuable; as incomes rise; as commercial possibilities expand; paying attention to the formerly repressed offers more gains. As more people experience social change, further change becomes more “normal”, so less dramatic and threatening. Change begets change. The example of the emancipation of one group, the lifting of some socially imposed constraints, inspires another.

Some socially imposed constraints turn out to still have value: that part of the process can overshoot. Some of what went on in the 1960s is reasonably construed as having done that. But the process of expanding legal and moral protections, so that all have the same protections, is a process that cannot overshoot—provided full reciprocity is maintained. That is, provided it is a process of expanding the moral and legal community so all share the same protections, not a process of finding new ways to privilege certain groups. After all, emancipation is basically the process of achieving full legal and moral reciprocity.

It is no accident that the liberal capitalist societies of the West have led the way in the processes of social emancipation. They, more than any others, had the triad of expanding commerce, science and technology.

[This post has been amended to expand the argument and has been cross-posted at Critical Thinking Applied.)

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