In the previous posting on this subject, we closed by noting that the way the “new things” of modernism and socialism developed was far more fantastic, even shocking than was depicted in Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s apocalyptic science fiction satire Lord of the World published in the early twentieth century.
First off, while most people today are under the impression that socialism began with Karl Marx’s “scientific socialism” (communism) and that modernism first arose in the late nineteenth century, both actually came much earlier, in the wreckage following the French Revolution, although the roots go much further back, as Msgr. Ronald Knox noted in Enthusiasm (1950).
The new world that emerged in the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars was one with which large numbers of people were disillusioned. Old ways had been swept away and replaced by a system that seemed inadequate at best, anti-human at worst. It was as if the world had changed completely almost overnight.
|Founding of the Bank of England, 1694|
That was not really the case. The French Revolution — embodying a pale imitation of the principles of the American Revolution twenty years before — exposed serious weaknesses in many fundamental institutions that had been building up for some time, particularly in State and Church. Society had been under increasing strain in many areas, but most particularly from two previous revolutions, that of finance, and that of technology.
With the reinvention of commercial or mercantile banking in the fourteenth century, and the invention of central banking with the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694, the first link in the chain binding economic development exclusively to past savings and human labor was broken. It became possible to finance growth using technology on a large scale. Development was no longer constrained by limited financing of small scale technology, but by virtually unlimited human imagination — which is to say, practically not limited at all.
There was, however, a problem. The new financing techniques as a rule benefited only those who already controlled wealth. In this way the rich came to monopolize ownership of the new capital instruments of the Industrial Revolution. Most people were cut off from enjoying the full benefits of participation in economic development through lack of access to money and credit, the principal means of acquiring private property in the new capital instruments.
In general, most people were limited to being suppliers of human labor or recipients of public assistance or private largesse. Labor, however, was decreasing in value as an economic input relative to advancing technology. In addition, increasing demands were being made on public funds and private charity as more and more people became unable to support themselves by labor alone.
Large numbers of people were forced into destitution as a way of life instead of as a temporary condition, while a small number became immensely wealthy. Through their access to money and credit, this meant not only that the wealthy could acquire existing capital, but enjoy a virtual monopoly over new inventions in the future.
The rich became richer at an accelerating rate as technology advanced and became increasingly productive, while the poorest of the poor often lost even bare subsistence as they were displaced from traditional employment and small ownership. As is the case today, the failure of existing political and religious institutions to address the situation adequately, particularly the European monarchies and the Catholic Church, caused not merely discontent, but growing anger and resentment.
|Pope Pius VII|
Many people who hoped for fundamental social, political and religious change were disappointed with what they saw as the failure of the French Revolution and its betrayal by Napoléon Buonaparte. To many radicals, Liberté, egalité and fraternité seemed as distant as they had before the Revolution. Reactionaries added to the growing discontent by attempting to return to the pre-revolutionary status quo, or — more accurately — an idealized version of it that was as unrealistic as the vision of the new world order of the radicals.
Eventually the radical liberal position centered on a collectivist or Franco-European version of liberal democracy based on the sovereignty of humanity as a whole. For their part, moderate liberals (the ancestors of today’s conservatives) coalesced around an individualist or English type of liberal democracy that assumed only a small élite is effectively sovereign. At the same time, the personalist version of liberal democracy in the United States, based on the sovereignty of each person, was contradicted by slavery and treatment of native peoples, and — what is often overlooked — hampered by an appallingly inadequate financial system.
|Pope Gregory XVI|
There was, however, one institution that looked to the future without forgetting the past: the papacy. Surprising many people today, before his election Pope Pius VII had declared there is no necessary conflict between democracy and Christianity. Even his imprisonment by Napoléon had not diminished his zeal for reform, although reactionary elements in the Papal States and among the European Catholic powers prevented anything other than token reforms from being carried out in the wake of the social chaos left by the Man of Destiny.
Part of the problem was the anomalous position of the Papal States, which in the early nineteenth century was virtually unique in having no motive or desire to expand its territory, and was philosophically oriented to wage war only in self-defense. Thus, while ostensibly an independent country with the pope as temporal ruler, by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Papal States were a de facto client state or dependency of any Catholic European power with the military or commercial might to assert its claims. Only by playing the territorial and political ambitions of the other European powers off against one another were the popes able to maintain independence as long as they did.
Consequently, faced with the necessity of placating reactionaries and keeping radicals and moderates in check without surrendering the remnants of papal independence or asserting power he did not have in the first place, Pope Leo XII ceased reform efforts and functioned in the civil order as something of a benevolent despot. Pope Pius VIII showed definite signs of wanting to restart Pius VII’s reform program, but died a year after his election. It was left to Pope Gregory XVI to deal with the rising tide of discontent and revolution spreading through Europe in the late 1820s and early 1830s.