Herkimer At The Battle Of Oriskany by Frederick Coffay Yohn
Conservatism, as the name implies, is an inclination toward the days of old (conserving what is, or has been, as opposed to moving toward change). Conservatism is consistent with a static environment, where social and economic mobility are constrained by structural realities. During the Middle Ages in Western Europe, the ultimate conservatism – feudalism – defined the political, economic and social environment. Hundreds of years went by before there was a disruption in the feudal hierarchy. This was true in Europe, and elsewhere in the world where feudalism prevailed. China, for example, stagnated for millennia, until Sun Yat-sen shook things up in the early 1900’s.
How were Europe and China stimulated out of their stupor? What force disrupted the resolute conservatism of these two feudal societies? And how do those disruptions relate to the obviously transitional times in which we now find ourselves?The erosion of feudalism in both Europe and China began with the introduction of ideas and it is the proliferation of ideas which will likely prevent modern societies from falling once again into the grip of an inertial hierarchy.
Change erupted, in China and in Europe, when a connection to the outside world was established and when that connection became a conduit for information. Like an infectious agent, the information traveled through the culture. In the West, it was trade and the re-acquaintance with classical values – humanism and philosophy – that instigated change. And it was the movement of people, in service of the crusades and trade, that spread destabilizing ideas across the continent.
In China, it was likewise information which shook the emperor’s gilded cage; the founder of modern China, Sun Yat-sen, spent time in Honolulu as a youth and returned to China with Western notions. Chiang Kai Shek, Sun’s protege, went to military school in Tokyo and is said to have picked up revolutionary ideas there. And, Mao Zedong is reported to have been a voracious reader and to have been exposed to Marxist-Leninism when he worked at Peking University.
No wonder the Chinese try so hard to control access to the world-wide web – they’ve been down this road before.
So, what lesson do I take from this and apply to my own culture? There is no question that the trend today, in the West anyway, is toward a more economically and politically rigid hierarchy, one that is top-heavy and offers little upward mobility. Toward, that is, conservatism. Are we headed, as some suggest, into a new feudalism?
It’s not likely, though the struggle against international oligarchy will be fierce. Look at Greece; look at England; look, even, at peaceful Iceland. In each case, the banking class, in conjunction with the political establishment, is appropriating the resources of the middle class. And the middle class is fighting back. The oligarchs might seem to prevail, but they can never be completely successful unless democratic rule is eclipsed – and even then the primacy of the bankers will be short lived. For truly popular resistance cannot be long suppressed.
Consider Egypt, 2011; Russia 1917; France 1789. In each case, change was precipitated by tension between the rulers and the ruled, a tension instigated by ideas which found fertile ground in a discontented population.
Although today print media is reputed to be on the wane, ideas, both good and bad, are as viral now as they have never been. There is no way to put the cyberspace genie back in the bottle. A savvy government may track internet usage and seek to stifle it, but there will always be clever hackers who manage to elude censorship. And there will always be young people willing to risk their lives in order to make a point.
So I have hope for the age in which I live – though I do despair when I see the suited-cynics who pass for public servants yield the national treasure to vested interests. I despair because the years to come will be hard. There will be much suffering and loss. But in the end, popular opinion, fueled by millions of voices transmitting instantaneously across national and political barriers, will win out. And those forces of conservatism, those who wish to drag us back to an oppressive social and economic feudalism, will submit to something stronger than their banking laws and their helmeted riot police – they will submit to the inevitability of ideas.
Resources on China
Chiang Kai Shek:
On the Russian Revolution
On the French Revolution
On the Battle of Oriskany
The National Park Service:
The Tryon County Safety Committee
On the Haitian Slave Revolt