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Politics and the fourth great revolution

By Peter McMahon - posted Tuesday, 26 July 2016


There is a sea change underway in world politics. The basic forms and processes that have dominated politics around the globe for over a century are giving way to new ones under pressure from a fundamental techno-social transformation. This change is most obvious in the countries with the most stable political systems, the rich West.

The change is evidenced by growing dissatisfaction with politics as usual, with the rise of political parties on what were the margins, and with the return of the young to party politics. It is evident in the strange US presidential election where perhaps the least popular candidates in history are vying to run the world’s most powerful nation, and in Europe where parties are fragmenting, including in the UK where a genuine leftist Labour leader emerged.

Meanwhile and outside the West, in the second most powerful nation, the People’s Republic of China, the Communist Party, having steered China through the most astonishing period of economic growth in history, is tightening its hold on power. And in Russia, still the second greatest military power in the world, a kind of despotic quasi-democracy looks entrenched. Nether situation is comforting to the leaders of the West.

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The causes of the great political meltdown are numerous – the shafting of the millennial generation (no job, no home, huge education debt), failure to deal with global warming, the boom generation heading into retirement - but the main factor is much more profound. It is the fourth great techno-social revolution, sometimes known as digitisation. That is to say it is the growing importance of digital technologies, from mobile phones to global telecommunications systems, and all the economic, social, medical, industrial and cultural changes that go with them.

There have been four great revolutions in history that fundamentally changed the way people lived. They are the agricultural revolution that occurred around ten thousand years ago, the urban revolution that began about five thousand years later, the industrial revolution that got under way around the mid-18th century, and the digital revolution that began in the 1950s but is only now really hitting its stride. Each revolution built on what went before but also accelerated change in the way humans ate, built, produced, played, fought and governed themselves.

The first revolution, sometimes called the Neolithic Revolution, began when humans initially settled down and grew crops, resulting in the first surpluses, the first permanent buildings and a dramatic population increase. The first surpluses meant there was something to fight over, and to minimise the damage politics (sometimes defined as the process of deciding who gets what) was invented.

Later urbanisation, the building of cities and towns, brought about the intensification of some existing trends and also some entirely new developments. Domination by men over women and the rich (a few warrior-aristocrats and priests) over the poor (just about everyone else) was consolidated. Hierarchies of all sorts were established and the religious emphasis shifted from female earth goddesses to angry male sky gods. A new phenomenon, imperialism, grew up as some cities banded together to dominate other cities and hinterland regions through military force.

Politics became more complex as social classes and other institutional formations vied with each other to control wealth and power. Imperialism and the constant threat of war introduced new pressures. In particular, there was the question of how the huge expenses of war were  to be paid for. The ancient Greeks tried an interesting experiment by broadening the decision-making to include the whole male, free population, but this ‘democracy’ would eventually fail and not be tried again for about two thousand years.

Rome, the greatest power in history till that time, was where many of the hard facts of modern politics became evident. The use of violence, such as assassination and riots, to pursue political agendas, the need to placate the urban masses through ‘bread and circuses’, the ongoing tensions between social classes and the need to keep the military onside were important aspects of this experience.

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For the millennium or so after Rome fell the power of the Catholic Church, and later Islam, skewed politics in a new direction. Religion played a part in imperialistic expansionism – most notably the rise of Islam, the Crusades and European expansion after 1500 - but what it really focussed on was detailed control over the everyday behaviour of large populations. This emphasis on tight control over behaviour then became a core part of politics as the nation-state arose from the 16th century onwards to take over many of the roles of the Church.

Overall, and despite obvious changes, the basic politics of urban societies remained constrained by the harsh economic facts of agriculturally-based societies. The advent of expanded trade and economic activity generally after 1500 made some difference, but ultimately not that much. Politics was mostly still about the rule of the vast majority by a tiny minority.

By the advent of the 18th century there had been enough political fragmentation (mostly the weakening of the monarchies and the rise of strong merchant classes) to allow the development of increasingly sophisticated daily life in Europe and the Americas. This in turn enabled the development of science and technology which ushered in the Industrial Revolution whereby humans learned to exploit fossil fuels, especially coal, to transform natural resources into useful items on an ever larger scale.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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