Friday, January 29, 2010

Revolutions and Romanticism

A passage in David A. Bell's The First Total War (Boston: Houghton Miffln, 2007) caught my eye. Reflecting on the growing cosmopolitanism of European society during the eighteenth century, Bell notes: "... commerce was binding the states of Europe more closely to one another. Commodities imported from the Americas and Asia — sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, textiles, spices, precious metals — clogged every port in Europe with heavily laden ships and drove the European economy into unprecedented expansion. Bordeaux alone saw its maritime trade increase sixfold between 1724 and 1789 (most of the cargo moved straight out again to other European destinations). ... The development of commerce was further aided by the slow rise of `cottage industry' — which had transformed half the farmsteads in some areas of France, Britain and the Netherlands into scattered elements of what amounted to a giant, primitive factory." (This is my emphasis).

This sentences sums up quite nicely the reality that factory-industry arises not in metropolitan areas, but on the countryside (as per previous entry). Bell does not directly mention Flanders, the Dutch-speaking Belgian province that was, at the outbreak of the Revolutionary/Napoleon wars in 1792, part of the Austrian empire, and after 1815, was temporarily made a part of the Netherlands (Belgium became an independent kingdom in 1830). However, the Dutch-speaking Flemish areas was where heavy-industry became predominant in the Belgian economy; as in Britain, industrialization took place in these outlying areas, instead of in or near Brussels, a city founded in the tenth century. Belgian Dutch — the Flemish — were also relatively disenfranchised compared to their French-speaking compatriots (the Walloons), who until recently controlled most political power in Belgium.

As Bell notes, the "cottage" manufactories were themselves a kind of loosely-organized factory system. In Britain, due to the abolition of feudal bonds and the apprentice system long before other European states, it was relatively easy to organize these "cottages" into a single factory existing under one roof. A web site devoted to European industrial history, suggests why it is, of all European states, it was Belgium that experienced industrial revolution first, after Britain: "In 1792 the country was conquered by Napoleon. His occupation had a positive effect on the economy: he abolished the old guilds and introduced freedom of trade. At the same time a large new market was opening up in France, not least for coal."

Of course, Belgium was not conquered by Napoleon Bounaparte, in 1792 or ever after. Napoleon was an officer with the Republican army during that time, but did not participate in battles in Austrian Netherlands; it was a Revolutionary army that took over the country that year, and did impose the liberal economic reforms as described in the passage, which led to the rapid industrialization of Belgian almost as soon as the Napoleonic wars concluded in 1815.

In December I referred to the paradox of the division of labour, in which high intellect contributes to the process wherein work itself becomes de-skilled and monotonous. This reduction of work to a dumb mechanical process is just a particular instance of the reality of scientific and Enlightened thought generally, which reveals a natural world denuded of romance and spirituality, in favour of dumb mechanical processes. This is, as I said, behind the inevitable division that exists in industrial societies between bourgeois and proletariat, or management and worker. To get a better sense of how intellectually-addled is factory work, I will refer to a book I read years ago, which quoted an academic who had worked his way through school as employee of a factory. Working on an assembly-line, he said, is comparable to a clerical employee typing out the same page of text, over and over again, for five days a week, for as long as twelve hours per day. The outlook of the proletarian, thus, is radically different from that of a bourgeois, regardless if the worker actually has an income as high or higher than the average white-collar worker. In essence, the worker can gain no inherent reward from his work. Thereby, he gains his identity and meaning from anything other than work. A bourgeois, on the other hand, does have the opportunity to gain intrinsic pleasure from her work. Thus, her identity is wrapped up closely with work.

Most books covering the Napoleonic wars begin with Bounaparte's coup d'etat on the 18th Brumaire, Year 8 of the Revolutionary calendar (November 8, 1799). Bell's work instead covers the years from the Revolution itself in 1789, to the coup ten years later, this to more fully pursue his thesis that the Revolutionary/Napoleonic conflicts were the "first total war." His argument is that, apart from the vast scale of the conflict itself (with battles themselves often numbering more than half a million combatants, when engagements of anywhere near 100,000 were rare before 1790), it was a change in mentality among the French revolutionaries which made the conflicts the Revolution itself engendered, into total war (Bell, FTW, p. 73). Prior to 1789, Bell says, the military was not considered a distinct realm apart from civilian life. The word "civilian" itself, referred in English only to an expert in Roman civil law (Bell, FTW, p. 7). Officers would usually pass seamlessly from military to civilian life, fighting wars (for various militaries) in between service as ministers of the state, being full participants in "society", as well as contributing successfully to arts and letters. The rank and file, meanwhile, were not actively segregated as they are today in "their own communities (military bases), complete with special forms of housing (barracks), a separate education system (military academies and other specialized schools), and even a separate legal system," just as eighteenth-century soldiers were not "conspicuously marked off from civilians by their uniforms" (Bell, FTW, p. 27).

Before the French Revolution, rank and file soldiers usually lived within in their own communities, or when on campaign, were (usually reluctantly) quartered within the civilian population (the obscure third amendment to the U.S. constitution expressly forbids the quartering of soldiers within "any house, without the consent of the owner").

This situation was paradoxical, however. Although there was no conceived opposition between "civilian" and "military" in ancien-regime France, and the rest of Europe, wars themselves rarely ever affected much of the non-combatant population. There were many instances of armies running amok upon civilian populations, of course: this was common in civil conflicts all through history, and it occurred frequently during the seventeenth-century wars of religion (which were often civil wars, as well). But, as Bell notes, during the eighteenth century, even as war itself became progressively more lethal for combatants, attacks on civilian populations actually decreased. As well, codes of honour among the nobles commanding the militaries usually prevented the wholesale slaughter of losing armies by the victors (after all, officers had often previously fought alongside officers they were now fighting against).

The American and French Revolutions firmly established that militaries were under the authority of civilian leadership (temporarily, as it turned out, in the case of France). This began the breach between "civilian" and "military". But this carried its own paradox. For although military personnel were thenceforth deliberately separated from civil society, armies themselves were (as with the Revolutionary levee en masse) vastly expanded to include, in potential, the whole of the adult and male population. Not only this, even those not conscripted to serve in Revolutionary or republican forces, were subjected to aggression and violence on the part of the mass armies. This is the meaning of "total war", according to Bell (a professor at Johns Hopkins university in Baltimore), and it is the reason why, at the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, as many as five million Europeans had lost their lives, most of these being direct combatants, but including a far larger proportion of civilians than ever was the case previously.

Reading through Bell's review of the debates and controversies which gave rise, by 1792, to the doctrine of total war, I could not help but to be reminded of Peter Gay's assertion that the original Romanticists did not view themselves as rebels against the Enlightenment, as they are usually considered today. They instead wished to bring advance Reason from its traditional concerns with society and politics, to the realm of the arts, literature, and the psyche itself. In fact, Romanticism and the Enlightenment existed in a figure-and-ground relationship. Romanticism subsisted on the domination and enslavement of nature and natural processes, as occurred through the scientific and industrial revolutions. Enlightened philosophy, at least in its Gallic form, incorporated an ideal of the "natural goodness of man" that has, in fact, no rational basis. There is little to differentiate the chief philosopher of the Enlightenment in the second half of the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (the Swiss Protestant who lived from 1712 to 1778), from any member of the Romantic movement in the post-Revolutionary period, and into the nineteenth century. Rousseau exalted the Noble Savage, while derogating the civilized arts and sciences (including the printing press, the means by which Enlightened ideas were spread throughout Europe).

According to Bell, Rousseau's avid followers during the French revolution were frequently Romanticists, to the point of delusion. Bell writes, "Take, for example, the durable belief that freedom gave `citizen-soldiers' something close to supernatural abilities, despite their lack of experience," (p. 138) and cites Revolutionary deputies and journalists who claimed that, in face of royalist enemies, soldiers of the republic would be immune from gunfire and that would magically gain the power of ten men. Bell writes, "Then there was the curious matter of the pike. As a weapon, it had not featured seriously on western European battlefields for a century. When used to impale the horses of oncoming cavalry, it still had some utility, but for soldiers to rely on it when facing companies of well-trained musketeers was little more than suicide. Nonetheless, the Girondins [radical Revolutionary deputies to the National Convention that ruled France from 1791 to ‘93] had blithely promoted it as the true weapon of free citizens before the war, and its cult continued to flourish even as the Prussians had began their march. In September 1792, the department of the Marne, on the Prussians route to Paris, ordered smiths and locksmiths to abandon all their work in favor of pike making. The sober military engineer Lazare Carnot, a future member of the Committee of Public Safety [which instituted the Reign of Terror in 1793-94], argued for the distribution of pikes to the entire adult population. In a revealing exchange in the Legislative Assembly [which ruled from 1789-91], a deputy criticized Carnot for holding up the pike-bearing Macedonians and Romans as models. ... But another deputy immediately shot back, to huge applause: `If we have not been either Spartans, or Athenians, we should become them.' In 1793, a Revolutionary general would complain that the government had burdened him with no less than `sixty thousand [pikes] that are good for nothing.'" (pp. 138-139)

But, there was a change in intellectual life, which distinguished the Enlightenment philosophy from that of the Romanticists. It was simply due to he French Revolution itself. The plans and schemes proposed by Rousseau and the other philosophes were acknowledged (even by the philosophers themselves) as mere fantasia. It was believed that, perhaps, in a century or so, perhaps as long as two hundred years, humanity would be adequately prepared to live by Reason. As 1789 dawned, no one in France or anywhere else had any idea that, by the end of the year, royal absolutism would be replaced with a constitutional monarchy, let alone that a few years after that, a republic would be declared and Louis XVI and Queen Mary-Antoinette would be put to the guillotine. The fantasy republics envisioned by Rousseau, Montesquieu and Condorcet obviously couldn't measure up to the reality of Revolutionary republicanism.

But, far from ushering in a new age of liberty, the Revolution introduced the Terror (the Marquis du Condorcet lost his life to it in 1794) and total war (which eventually gave rise to Bounaparte). In response, many of the Enlightened turned away from politics entirely, or even embraced reaction — like William Wordsworth, the English poet and radical Whig who embraced the French-Revolutionary cause, only turn away from it during the Reign of Terror, and who, by the time of his death in 1850, was a firm Tory. But, as Peter Gay points out, most Romanticists were not like Wordsworth; to the extent that they did react against the Enlightenment, it was more so out of a recognition that Reason, while necessary, wasn't in itself sufficient to living a full life.

In any case, Romanticism and Utility formed into a Victorian dialectic: as industry and rationality proceeded during the nineteenth century, so too did Western culture become more and more enamoured with romantic concepts — to the point of cliche, by the mid-century. Certainly, Romanticism powerfully informed the radical political movements of the time. The socialist philosophy espoused by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, had as its meta-purpose the expulsion of Romanticist concepts from socialism. Marx and his followers sought to revive the dormant spirit of the Jacobins, the ultra-rationalist Terrorists of what Marx called the "Great French Revolution." It is, on the other hand, not surprising that Marx and Engels — like their erstwhile mentor, Georg Hegel — would promulgate a philosophy of history. The systematic and scientific treatment of the past was another area pioneered by the Enlightenment — in particular by German academics. History, long the only real social-science (in spite of its treatment as an "arts" subject in the English-language curriculum), had brought clarity to the past as never before, or at least since ancient times.

It established the time-line of history as being much older than was previously assumed, just as geology was beginning to prove that the earth simply had to be millions of years old. Before history was developed as a science, the past was a pastiche of legend and fact. Early-modern philosophers neglected history because they recognized how unreliable were accounts of the past. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, along with most others, instead ignored the past and proposed a hypothetical man "in the state of nature", as the starting point of their theories. Otherwise, early-moderns looked to the ancient past, accounts of which in Thucydides and Herodotus were assumed to be accurate.

The narrative of the past proposed by these early scientific historians — that the classical world marked the height of human achievement, the Middle Ages were represented the apex of darkness and superstition, and history ran on a progressive course — have become the common-sense of the educated today. These and other notions of the past have been superseded, or upended entirely, by professional historians. Marx and Engels, as much as Hegel, looked to a philosophy of history as a way to lend meaning to past events, thereby lifting humanity from the realm of dumb mechanical processes.


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  3. The Labor/Knowledge dichotomy is interesting to behold.

    Reminds me of one pundit who said this is akin to how the United States Navy basically operates at the human level: A system of fantastically complex machines designed by geniuses, to be operated by dummies. Without taking so glum a view of the abilities of the quotidian masses hired to do the wet work of war, some have also pointed to the "Rosie the Riveter" phenomenon of WWII, where millions of American women--primarily secretaries and housewives for the age where most women were tending home, hearth, and snotty noses of kids--were hired to forge the machinery of war almost akin to some Tolkien narrative about Sauron hiring Orcs to beat metal into scimitars. Johnny went of to war, so Mom had to step in and follow the factory whistles and routines of labor in his absence.

    Engineers set the standards for mass productions of the war such as tanks, planes, machine guns, etc. Of course. But it was demonstrated that "the average person" could very well grasp--with some shortened hurry-up training--many of these same intricacies of design. No, engineers and scientists were not made out of these women, but it's all the same fascinating to know that the majority of the American war effort's labor and detail of weaponry was made by female hands that formerly were rocking cribs.

    Your knowledge of history is far more in-depth in mind. I know some of the major players and busybodies on the political or philosophical stage, and that we be about it for my elucidation in the public system of the state of Georgia. No doubt you've moved by choice and interest far beyond this kind of thing.

    In any event, I can only add that it would be beyond fascinating to speculate what future historians will say was the proximate cause or main set of causes in what will invariably be our turn to have our coffee tables, refrigerators, and cars dug up from the successive layers of soil, that tomorrow's archeologists will almost doubtless sift.

    Unless, of course, we end things long before then or the transition is something smoother. But whether Utopian or Dystopian, there WILL be some sort of future that we can only guess at and of which writers of all stripes have had much mirth in trying to pin down entertaining vignettes for their stories.

  4. Guesses about the future from pundits on late-night talk shows are probably no more accurate than the predictions of linear success and the shibboleths of inevitable progress were of the glories of the 20th century, with its projections of accoutrements like personal helicopters and free food, and constant amusements at the mere touch of buttons--the closest in the latter case being porn and sports at the click of a mouse. On such notions, only the poor get the food stamps, and only the rich get the personal copters. Though the point was made of the mere POSSIBILITY of such things, and in that vein accurate to some degree. Contradictions abounded and were pointed out even then. If progress is inevitable, why all the emphasis on revolution? If the synthesis/antithesis of seeing history was shown to forge new notions, why did it not take root in those nations with desperate situations that writers made note of all the way to the time of the malnourished starvling "Oakies" in the Grapes of Wrath? Why did the Marxians, who had an intellectual following in all of Europe, make their first real Revolutionary strike in a cold, agrarian, mostly non-industrial land of pealing church bells and angry peasants--like Russia. Trouble was brewing, yes, but it was the Czarist variety, not industrial.

    So much then for predictive insights from every budding Notrodomus.

    The old saying is "The Past is Prologue."

    My point being that someone WILL be analyzing us, should the "we" of the "us" leave a legacy beyond chemical waste and refuse.

    Marx and Engals both had notions that were ahead of their time, and contra what some of my conservative kin say, WERE more than just expert pamphleteers. Of course, their vision was linear, in that human progress moved on a steady if bumpy timeline along the potholes of history, taking a recursive look and rearview mirror glance to superstition and religion and other alleged sins of the past that we've now overcome. Some philosophers today claim this is pish-posh, and that it merely reflects--as did the Marxian vision--an homage that is leftover from the "Triumphalism" of the hard sciences that chased the demons back to their hovels.

    Romanticism here was really just a rehash of previous notions of conquest over some collective enemy, though Marx would deny this sternly, no doubt. This time, the enemy was a necessary agent, and Marx himself wrote on the expansive and to a degree liberating qualities of early capitalism in that it "batters down all Chinese Walls", both literally and figurately, and smashed the old world and brought an end to the "idiocy of rural life", as he termed such pastoral matters.

    But even here their predictions were about as accurate based on the info THEY had as we are to be with what WE have, even knowing that per some pundits, our "knowledge" (if by that we mean the "facts of the matter" on whatever topic) is "exploding" at exponential rates. Perhaps on the "factoids", but what about wisdom. Should our forebears' civilizations had had that, they'd still be around in glory.