1.11 On mixing ideologies
When people think about the age of steam, what’s remembered, obviously, is it powered machines; less well-known is how much it was also a prime ingredient for some serious social chemistry.
Steam power increased social innovation and created ideological melting pots. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, thanks to steam, colonialism was having a heyday. Ideas and cultures collided. Hotbeds of new ideas sprung up, usually quite benign, together with political geysers, which were less so.
At the end of the 18th century, around 1789 C.E., the French and American Revolutions hatched the first modern democracies and forays into representative government. They had been fed and fuelled by a newly-arrived wealth and enfranchisement as a result of the Industrial Revolution. This was a time when there was a general loosening of the grip of autocratic power, power that had previously been exercised as ‘absolute rule’ by kings and emperors. It was a gift the machines were giving us.
Humankind’s tectonic power plates were shifting, as evidenced by a series of wars across the world that included the Napoleonic Wars, the American War of Independence, Spanish American Wars of Independence, the Second French Revolution as well as the Franco-Prussian war and many others.
These were fights for independence and for the dominant narrative, as well as wars for land and natural resources.
A range of ideologies began to filter into global consciousness as a result of increased human travel, including fusions between oriental wisdom and western philosophies.
Art reflected these cultural infusions. Toulouse Lautrec’s ‘Reine de Jois’ from 1892 C.E., is an illustration of how Japonism had found a place in Western fine art by the 1860’s C.E., in the form of flat graphics, lack of perspective and shadow, and compositional freedom.
It’s not difficult to trace economic and social migrations from that period in history now and recognize the effect they had on modern culture. According to Wikipedia, ‘the West Coast gold rush of the 1840’s C.E., and the population boom of that time included many workers from China who came to work in the gold mines and later on the Transcontinental Railroad. The Chinatown district of the city became one of the largest in the US and today as a result of that legacy, the city as a whole is roughly one-fifth Chinese‘.
Thanks to the age of steam, for example, Zen practice could readily make its way to San Francisco and infuse with West Coast culture there.
During the 19th Century, it became very clear how much multiculturalism and inter-disciplinary fields of knowledge were developing as a result of increased human mobility. Global connectivity was creating new belief systems.
While cultural cross-over has been a theme of human history since ancient times, these were the earliest days of what we know now as modern social mobility, social contagion and content going viral.
With travel increasingly happening across the planet, and at scale, there was more diversity. In other ways, things were also coagulating and getting joined-up.
There were several moves towards the unification of previously disparate territories around the world in the mid 19th Century, including the creation of United States, Italy and Russia as nation states.
Networked concepts, too, such as the idea of the Commonwealth were developing.
The earliest chapters of globalization were underway.