Our own western civilisation is still at its height: the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th century is now enjoying a second wave as the marvels of computers continue. But let us not be over confident: all civilisations grow old and decline: where will our decline come from?
It is interesting to look at the great empires of the past, notably Egypt and China. Both were very long lived, but both went through a similar pattern whereby periods of success alternated with periods of failure. In Egypt the great kingdoms, the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom alternated with what modern scholars call Intermediate periods. Similarly in China the great dynasties were separated by periods of decline. But these declines were short, mostly a century or so in length until they were followed by resurgence. But the Roman empire was followed by no such resurgence, but by a long, long dark age.
But why was it that the Egyptian and Chinese empires bounced back so frequently from apparent disaster? Partly I think it was that the Chinese had a powerful foundation myth in the figure of Confucius. The problem with the Roman Empire was that by the 4th century, its foundation myth had lost all its force. The gods on Olympus had lost their force and had been replaced for practical purposes by the abstract named gods such as Fortune, or Virtue, and only Venus remained as a vague sort of sex symbol. The great philosophers too of the Greek civilisation were not flourishing. Aristotle, to my mind the greatest of all, spread his talents too widely, studying not only ethics and politics and poetics, but also botany and zoology and physics. Plato fared rather better and Neo-Platonism flourished among the intellectuals, but it was too abstract and too abstruse to be of interest to the middle class masses. If only Aristotle with his common sense could have been combined with Plato’s alluring story-telling to form a rolled up system of popular philosophy like that of Confucius, the classical beliefs might have survived.
Two entirely alien philosophies took their place: Christianity and Islam. Both had a strong storyline based on a real living founder. Both had a popular folksy story to tell that appealed to the middle class masses, who were neglected by the Neo-Platonism and both had a strong overlay of mystique and popular religion. They were ‘cockney’ religions. And both had the central doctrine inherited from the Jews of monotheism, the belief that there is only one god that is their god.
This had both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage was confidence: they believed that there was only one god, who provided a coherent theology. The disadvantage is that it is arrogant, and encourages its adherent to fight both against outsiders and among themselves. Christianity began well in that it proclaimed the doctrine of love, and for the first centuries of its existence it was a peaceable organisation. Islam was the opposite: its founder Mohamed, though beginning as a merchant, soon became a warrior and following the Battle of Badr succeeded in conquering Arabia by force, and under his successors, Islam became one of the most successful war machines that the world has ever seen.
Not only did they fight others, they became very susceptible to splits among themselves. No sooner had the Christians achieved official recognition than they split: the Arians split up against the Catholics, the Monophysites caused further problems, and the Catholics eventually split from the Orthodox; while among Islam, the Sunni split from the Shia, a damaging split which endures to this day.
From the practical point of view, Islam was the more successful. Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus and Cordoba rose as great cities. They studied philosophy based on Aristotle but they never succeeded in writing proper history. And subjects such as democracy never even began to be thought of.
Christianity by comparison was a miserable failure. On Christmas Day 800 Charlemagne proclaimed himself as the Holy Roman Emperor at Aachen, but Aachen was a miserable city compared with Bagdad, and his successors were not able to hold his empire together: the monasteries sucked out all intellectual life that might have formed a civil administration.
But the real problem was the great confusion in the background: the old traditions of Greece and Rome, and their glorious histories, had been replaced by the history of the Hebrews and the story of Jesus Christ, and both were alien. Yet the peoples of Europe were still surrounded by the glories of the Roman World: the roads were indeed collapsing, the great buildings were falling apart, but they were still there, but they were the buildings of the Romans, not the buildings of the Hebrews or the Christians, and there was this terrible disjunction between architectural reality and theology, and it was not until the Renaissance a thousand years later that they would be reconciled.
Today we have left Christianity behind, and we are enjoying the fruits of the greatest revolution of all time: the Industrial Revolution. But it has been a revolution without a philosophy, indeed no explanation of how it happened. Indeed worse than that, its history and reputation has been turned upside down. Instead of being seen as the greatest revolution of all, which has enormously increased the health, the wealth and the well-being of all those that it touched, it is popularly seen as being something to be ashamed of. This is very dangerous.
The trouble is that the nearest we have to a god who explains the Industrial Revolution, is Marx, who is a false god. The problem with Marx is that he never understood the market place and how the system of buying and selling can propel new ideas forward and kill off bad ideas, and that this is the magic that underlies the Industrial Revolution. He essentially calls for the centralised control of the economy, a system that has in practice led to the horrors of Stalinist Russia and Mao Tze Tung’s China. He turns his back on the marketplace, and calls for centralised control, just like the palace based economy.
We need to find a new god, a new myth that will explain the success of our society, and keep it going. We need to have a new god and that must surely be the god of the marketplace. To some extent, the way forward has been shown by my favourite gurus, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and the Institute of Economic Affairs. We need to proclaim the virtues of the open society, of the workings of trial and error, and of free trade in ideas. We need to keep government small, for government is all too often the problem, not the solution. Tolerance, compromise and the pursuit of the golden mean need to be our new god, and if we pursue them, we may if we are lucky continue to enjoy the benefits of the great revolution that we are currently enjoying. I hope that this essay in exploring the origins of the market economy and showing how it differed from the Palace economy that came before, will play an important role in establishing the foundations and ensuring the future well-being of our great revolution.
8th August 2020