Wheels grind slowly

The road to revolution (part 1)

Two articles in The Guardian on 27 February have prompted a train of thought that I want to explore in a series of blogs. To be exact, they have not so much prompted a train of thought as gathered up assorted locomotives and carriages that have been rattling ineffectually round my mind for several years and assembled them into something that might pass for a train.  

Underpinning the unchoreographed meanderings of the carriages has been one fundamental question. Are the outbursts of nationalist sentiment and populist anger that now characterise so many countries, and not only Western democracies, a passing fad that will be pacified by renewed prosperity (assuming there is any)? Or do they portend something more revolutionary? I am coming reluctantly to the conclusion that it will prove to be the latter.

The two articles in question were ostensibly unrelated. The first was a précis of a forthcoming book by Aeron Davis, entitled Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the End of the Establishment. It posits the effective death of what we have long regarded as the British Establishment – a social elite that came together to control all the levers of power – and its replacement by a series of meritocratic elites, no longer working in concert. The second article, by Nicholas Ostler, drew attention to the curious fact that the worldwide hegemony of the English language has been coterminous with the decline of British power and influence (although not, of course, of American). It posits an inevitable withering of the universality of the English language.

What the two pieces have in common is that they both illustrate, in unrelated ways, how slowly the wheels of history can grind. The historical process is a double process, its two elements working on different timescales. The first consists of dramatic events that, at a stroke, change aspects of the country or the world that we inhabit – the declaration of a war, for example, or a successful revolution. The second element is a slow-moving continuum, where events may take decades or even centuries to mature into perceptible change. This does not make the second element less potent. Arguably, it is more potent. Dramatic events can be overturned: wars end and peace is restored; revolutions can be met with counter-revolutions. The remorseless grinding of the wheel is far harder to stop.

The ascent of the English language has been the consequence of, among other things, Britain’s colonisation of America in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Industrial Revolution and the creation of the British Empire in the 19th century, the spread of both American global power and American mass-marketing in the 20th century, and now the internet. It is a process that has taken more than three centuries to come to fruition. If Ostler is right, if the dominance of the English language has now reached its zenith, then its decline is likely to be equally protracted.

Similarly, the eclipse of the traditional British Establishment has taken centuries to mature. Again, the roots of the change lay in the 17th century, partly in Britain’s short-lived experiment in republicanism and more importantly in the establishment of a constitutional monarchy after the ‘revolution’ of 1688. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain’s growing wealth empowered merchants. The Great Reform Bill increased that empowerment, as did subsequent extensions of the franchise. The process was completed in 1928, with the establishment of universal adult suffrage.

That was 90 years ago. It has taken this long for the grip of the old Establishment oligarchy, social in its nature and inegalitarian in its instincts, to be loosened. Assuming that one agrees with Aeron Davis that it has been loosened, which I do. Yet this process has been the inevitable consequence of democracy. It is just that it has taken an eternity to happen.

For all that time, progressives and iconoclasts of both left and right have derided the continuing Establishment and have looked forward to its imminent demise. Now that this has largely happened, many of them – especially those on the left – are increasingly aghast at what has replaced it. Instead of the more egalitarian society that was anticipated, we have instead one dominated by single-minded self-interest, with the new plutocracy demonstrably indifferent to any notion of public welfare or social harmony.

“As George Orwell noted in 1941,” wrote Davis, “however useless the upper classes were, they believed in service to the nation: ‘One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class are morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed’.” Indeed they were. In the First World War, a greater proportion of officers were killed than of the rank and file. It is fair to presume that, in any future war, our new ruling class will be enthusiastic draft-dodgers.

If the dissipation of the old Establishment was the eventual consequence of democracy, the emergence of the new plutocracy will bring its own consequences. The effects will be just as slow-moving, but might be evident quite soon because they have similar roots and have already been in motion for some time, however invisibly.

In today’s more meritocratic world, the very idea of an ancien régime sounds absurd. But what brought about the French Revolution in 1789 had nothing intrinsically to do with an elite that was aristocratic, but rather with one that was entirely out of touch with ordinary people and resistant to any change that diminished its power. By that definition, the City of London and the world of global corporatism could reasonably be compared to the ancien régime.

In which case, revolution is not an unthinkable thought.