Saturday, January 19, 2013

Modern Times

The British empire was certain of its moral, technological, and economic superiority to the culture of the peoples it conquered. History has been pretty unequivocal on the latter two, even while the first notion has become rather beaten up by both history and science. When one culture displaces another, it creates profound stresses in society. Every kind of personal and economic relationship is disrupted. It's conventional these days to blame that destructive impact on colonialism, but I think that's way too simple.

In the war of cultures, the roles of Shiva and Kali are played by something I will call modern times. Science and technology didn't originate in the West, of course, but at some point they achieved a critical mass there. The triumph of Newtonian physics, I think, provoked turning the tools of science on everything - biology, geology, war, culture and economics. Economic and cultural inventions powered a transformation of life and ways of making a living. Europeans were the first to experience the shock of this transformation and it was profound. Peasants, landowners, artisans and even kings had their livelihoods transformed or swept away. New economic relationships created new institutions like corporations, central banking, and new modes of credit.

Once unleashed on the world, these forces transformed it utterly. They provided the technological and economic fuel for colonialism and colonialism spread them to the world, but it's a fantasy to imagine that it could have been much different. Once these forces were unleashed, a myriad of institutions and cultural constructs were doomed. Many have had the fantasy of adopting what they like of the modern and skipping the rest, but this restaurant doesn't do a la carte.