Social Consensus in Industrialized Society
23 November 2008
Rarely do we fully come to terms with the extent to which industrialization has transformed societies. Western Europe and North America were the first to transform themselves. Today, even as we look on, the Industrial Revolution has come to China, and, to a lesser extent, to India. The double-digit economic growth of China over the past decade or more is not the result of the special competency of the Chinese leadership, it is a consequence of a one-time historical anomaly. Industrialization only happens once in the history of any given civilization.
Industrialized society is still groping toward a social consensus, still experimenting to try to find a social system that can coherently function in an industrialized society. Nothing is settled yet; the Industrial Revolution is still with us every day, still changing lives and society every day. It is possible that we may have entered an era in which socio-economic experimentation is stalemated and a genuinely novel social paradigm cannot emerge. But this is another question for another time.
The first social paradigm of industrialization was that in 19th century Europe (especially England), with masses of impoverished factory workers and a few rich owners — conditions deplored by Marx, and conditions that inspired Engels to write his The Condition of the Working Classes in England. This paradigm of social organization is frequently characterized as “social Darwinism,” though I think this inaccurate and misleading. While many social, political, and economic developments since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution brought an end to this early paradigm, traces of it survive in the idea of progress and even in the left’s concept of internal colonization, for the early factory system can be assimilated to this model.
The second social paradigm of industrialization emerged in the US in the middle of the twentieth century, with the television ideal of small town America and the nuclear family where dad goes to work and mom stays home to raise the kids. This idea has come under relentless criticism recently (cf. the book The Way we Never Were), and is now a source of ironic humor. Of course, it was never realized in fact. It was an ideal some attempted to put into practice. No social arrangement that aspires to an ideal — however insipid and mediocre that ideal may be — is realized in fact. The important thing is whether or not a given social ideal can function as an ongoing inspiration for a people. The ideal of feudal society also was never realized in fact, but it inspired and stabilized the Western world during its thousand years of medieval civilization.
Now society is struggling to produce a third social paradigm of industrial society. Many proposals have been made, and the Cold War of the twentieth was an ideological battle over the form of industrialized society, but no consensus has yet been achieved. We can speculate as to what form settled industrialized society will take, but it should be clear to us that no such consensus exists as of today: today there is no social ideal that spontaneously commands the respect of all peoples in the industrialized world. Industrialized society is in its infancy, historically speaking, and is still crawling and groping to find its way in the world.
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