Saturday, October 21, 2006

Cycles of Wealth And Democracy

Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress and touches even the ermine of the bench. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty.

National Platform Of The Populist Party, 1892

As societies consolidate, they pass through a profound intellectual change. Energy ceases to vent through the imagination, and takes the form of capital.
Brooks Adams, The Law of Civilization and Decay, 1896

I hate to break it to Thomas Friedman, but globalization isn't new. The wealthy elite have thought of themselves as immune from the tides for a long, long time, and they've always thought globally for their times. The planners of the Peloponnesian Wars did not differ markedly in spirit and motivation from Roman Senators, nor they from Spanish, Dutch, and British administrators, nor they from ours. All their cultures went through the same basic phases (agrarian, commerce, invention, manufacturing, and finance) collapsing to cycle through the sequence again or reach a point of stasis. For some reason, each generation of we
althy elites thinks of themselves as utterly unique, blessed with special powers of levitation. So far they have always been forced to return to earth, and the alignment of ego and reality has always hit them hard.

First, however, the tide of reality-based frictions hit the poor, who have no basic skills or holdings to fall back on when the elites begin to screw up their primacies. It does so even as the elites begin to levitate in the blossom of finance. The wage base shrinks as manufacturing is outsourced, slaves become more expensive, and the native new poor are usually too proud to grow food and too dumb to know how. They lack the social organization to weather the storm, and the elites feel threatened by any attempt by them to organize into more productive units. The democracies become repressive and undemocratic. The elites prepare to flee. Sound familiar?

It sure would be nice if we could learn from history and figure this cycle out for once. Will and Ariel Durant observed that successful civilizations start with getting pastoral and agricultural practices right, so probably the smartest thing for a late-phase wealthy democracy to do is encourage a broad-based return to agriculture. I don't see our leaders doing that anytime soon, so check out your local tilth and urban horticulture organizations, and farmer's markets. They are most likely the bones a new civilization will form sinews, muscles, and synapses around.

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