Ever since the French Revolution, the political landscape of the world has been split into two opposing camps: the Left and the Right. For over two centuries these two camps have been locked in perpetual intellectual and political warfare with eachother, and, at times, this conflict has broken out into open violence and war. Over the course of this struggle, the Left consistently gained ground at the expense of the Right; one by one, the trenches that the Right had hastily built up for itself had to be abandoned forever. When the Right did win, it was only in fits and starts, and sooner or later the Left was sure to erase and reverse those gains (think Bismarckian Germany or Francoist Spain). The Left, accustomed to its easy victories, began to see its goals and ideals as inevitable and belonging to the future, while seeing the goals and ideals of their enemies on the Right as anachronistic and belonging to the past. The Right, in denial of its embarrassingly long string of defeats, became increasingly intellectually provincial: no longer was it interested in defending profound and sweeping ideals like transcendence, beauty, or the natural order. Instead, it became preoccupied with reacting to liberal attacks on the vestiges of the pre-revolutionary world. This dichotomy is so pervasive that an individual born in the modern world could be forgiven for assuming that it had always existed. In fact, prior to the French Revolution, the “Left” was not so much an established political force as much as a rebellious undercurrent against the established “Rightist” order — an undercurrent that, over the centuries, steadily eroded the traditional pillars of Western civilization (the Church and the Monarchy), to the point that they finally buckled and began to collapse at the end of the 18th century. We see this undercurrent with Jan Hus and the Bohemian Reformation, with the Humanism of the Italian Renaissance, with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, with the English Civil War and the subsequent establishment of a Parliamentary Monarchy in England, with the Copernican Revolution and with the Scientific Revolution more broadly, and culminating finally with the Age of Enlightenment and with the American Revolution, which led to the establishment of the first democracy in the modern Western world. The most obvious common theme linking all of these events and movements was a rejection of established authority, whether on moral, philosophical, or scientific grounds. The less obvious connection between them is that they were all predicated on increasing levels of material prosperity.
Take, for instance, the Age of Enlightenment. In the 1600s and 1700s, as the wealth of many Western European nations gradually increased both due to technological innovation and increased revenue from their colonial ventures, the number of people living in cities and towns gradually increased (on average). This “freed” an increasing number of people from heavy labor, who could now pursue a more intellectually engaging line of work. Many of those jobs required the ability to read and write, which caused an increase in the literacy rate. This increase in the literacy rate caused an increase in the number of books written and sold in Western Europe, which allowed scientific and philosophical treatises to reach an ever-growing audience. This, in turn, led to even greater technological innovation and thus to even more economic and colonial growth, closing the “vicious cycle.” And the Age of Enlightenment was precisely a product of this cycle. The number of relatively wealthy, urbane, literate, and well-educated people was steadily increasing, and at the same time the tolerance these people had for suffering and hardship was steadily decreasing. This 1751 quote from the Scottish philosopher David Hume, a man who perfectly fit that description, is a perfect example of the nascent attitude of “hedonism as a virtue” that the “enlightened masses” of his time so thoroughly embraced:
Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper. We justly, therefore, transfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices…
Gradually, the enlightened masses began to look with increasing suspicion on the traditional power structures such as the Church and the Monarchy, because these were seen (correctly) as obstacles in the way to the pursuit of pleasure by society at large. They developed both scientific, philosophical, and moral arguments which sought to deconstruct the reasons those two institutions gave to justify the power they had over the people. But mere arguments weren’t enough. Eventually, having transferred mortification and self-denial to the “catalogue of vices,” the urbane masses went into full revolt against these pleasure-denying institutions. This led directly to the so-called “Age of Revolutions,” the most famous of which was, of course, the French Revolution. In a similar way, all the other events and movements that prefigured the French Revolution in the West can be linked to increasing levels of material prosperity and the resultant increases and improvements in education, literacy, and communication technologies. Both Jan Hus and Martin Luther were extremely well educated for their time. The Italian Renaissance occurred when Northern Italy (and Florence in particular) became the wealthiest region in all of Europe. During the English Civil War the literacy rate in Great Britain exceeded 50%, a rate matched only by the Netherlands at the time. The Scientific Revolution would not have been possible without the printing press, which enabled the rapid dissemination of scientific treatises. When the Thirteen Colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776 they had the highest per capita income in the entire world.
When the Industrial Revolution commenced at the close of the 18th century, all of these trends began increasing geometrically. Material prosperity — as quantified by metrics such as national gross domestic product, or by life expectancy data — began a sustained increase for the first time in human history. The revolution began in the Anglosphere at first, but quickly spread across the entire West and, eventually, across the entire globe. If we accept the thesis that Leftism thrives in societies with a high level of material prosperity (and that, conversely, Rightism thrives in societies with a low level of material prosperity) then it should not come as a shock to us that this was also the first time in history when the Left began to permanently supplant the Right as the dominant political force in society. Today, countries that are more developed also tend to subscribe to more liberal values (ceteris paribus), and, for the same reason, the inhabitants of cities tend to be more Left-leaning in their political outlook than the inhabitants of towns and villages. Conversely, communities like the Amish, which shun modern technologies, are by far the most conservative and traditionalist in their lebensphilosophie (for instance, the Amish living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania have a birthrate on par with Sub-Saharan Africa, despite being an hour’s drive away from Philadelphia).
So far we have managed to establish a clear correlation between material prosperity and impulses in society that are Leftist in spirit, but we have yet to establish a causative mechanism. A complete and thorough explication of such a mechanism would comfortable fill up the pages of more than just one hefty tome, but the most important aspect of it is not difficult to grasp, and in fact I have already hinted at it when I wrote of David Hume. The essence of this mechanism can be found in the following quote from C.S. Lewis’ 1943 book, The Abolition of Man:
There is something which unites magic and applied science (technology) while separating them from the “wisdom” of earlier ages. For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.
A man wishing to survive the hardships of an impoverished society humbles and submits himself because he must, in the process gaining wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. A man pursuing his self-interest in a prosperous society satisfies his every desire because he can, in the process losing all wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. And why blame him? Technology renders the pursuit of virtue obsolete, since in a world in which machines do most of the heavy lifting for us, and the state is more than capable of paying us for doing absolutely nothing, a man bereft of virtue — however corrupt his soul may be — might hardly be in any worse shape materially than even the most virtuous of men. David Hume was pointing out an obvious truth of our age: virtue belongs in the cloister, and the modern world has no use for either.
Let’s not pretend that we weren’t warned about this sorry state of affairs. “And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” said Jesus to his disciples in one of his most memorable teachings. The British economist Angus Maddison has estimated that the gross domestic product at purchasing power parity of the entire world in the year 1 A.D. (around the time when Jesus spoke those words) was around 105 billion 1990 International Dollars. In the year 2003 that figure had risen to around $40.9 trillion, an increase by a factor of 390. If we look at the UK specifically we see a massive rise of the gross domestic product from around $320 million in 1 A.D. to around $1.2 trillion in 2003, an increase by a factor of 3125 times. The conclusion we should draw from Maddison’s data is as obvious as it is disturbing: in Jesus’ time we would all be rich men, and our spiritual prognosis would be very grim indeed. If a traditionalist or a reactionary truly desires a world in which virtue rather than pleasure is the highest goal of man, then he must recognize the spiritual damage that comes from living in a prosperous society. If he fails to do so he is simply wasting his time.
I will conclude with a quote from a rather infamous individual, a social outcast and murderer, who nevertheless came to very much the same conclusion by virtue of his isolation from society in the backwoods of Montana. The man’s name is Ted Kaczynski, and this is what he had to say in his 1995 manifesto Industrial Society and its Future:
The conservatives are fools: they whine about the decay of traditional values, yet they enthusiastically support technological progress and economic growth. Apparently it never occurs to them that you can’t make rapid, drastic changes in the technology and the economy of a society without causing rapid changes in all other aspects of the society as well, and that such rapid changes inevitably break down traditional values.