On last week’s podcast, Duncan and I yakked about an important concept introduced by Nicole Foss at The Automatic Earth blog site. This concept was “the trust horizon,” which outlines how legitimacy is lost in the political hierarchy. That is, people stop trusting larger institutions like the federal or state government and end up vesting their interests much closer to home. Thus, life de-centralizes and becomes more local by necessity. Your own trust horizon extends only as far as other persons, businesses, institutions, and authorities immediately around you – the banker who will meet with you face-to-face, the mayor of your small town, the local food-growers. At the same time, distant ones become impotent and ludicrous – or possibly dangerous as they flounder to re-assert their vanishing influence.
It is obvious that we are in the early stages of this process in the USA (and Europe), as giant institutions such as the Federal Reserve, the Executive branch under Mr. Obama, the US Congress (the ECB), the SEC, the Department of Justice, the Treasury Department, and other engines of management all fail in one way or another to discharge their obligations.
The people of the USA, having been let down and swindled in so many ways by the people they placed their trust in, and even freely elected, appear to be in a daze of injury. Maybe this accounts for the obsession with zombies and persons drained of blood – who yet seem to carry on normal lives (at least in TV shows). This odd condition is best defined by the familiar cry from non-zombies: “where’s the outrage?” Which brings me to today’s point.
Investment guru James Dines introduced another seminal idea on Eric King’s podcast last week. Dines’s work over the years has focused much more on human mob psychology than technical market analysis – which he seems to regard as akin to augury with chicken entrails. Dines now introduces the term “murmuration” to describe the way that rapid changes occur in the realm of human activities. The word refers to behaviors also seen in other living species, such as the way a large flock of starlings will all turn in the sky at the same instant without any apparent communication. We don’t know how they do that. It seems to be some kind of collective cognitive processing beyond our understanding.
Dines goes on to suggest that the political stirrings and upheavals of the past year represent an instance of human “murmuration” that will lead to even greater epochal changes in geopolitical and economic life. Now, I’ve often said 1) history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes [thank you, Mark Twain], and 2) that these times are like the 1850s. To be more precise today, these two concepts of “the trust horizon” and “murmuration” point to a moment in time that I believe we are now rhyming with: the revolutions of 1848 and the events that grew out of it.
The spring of that year was an inflection point when discontent over the changes sweeping through European society broke into open insurrection in France, Prussia, Austria, Italy, Poland, South America, and other places all seemingly at once – despite the absence of television and the internet. However, the upheavals of 1848 occurred not long after the first practical installation of a telegraph line from Annapolis, Maryland, to Washington, DC (and then in Europe). It was also a time when the first railroad networks were linking up.
In February that crucial year, the liberal “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe of France was driven off the throne after an 18-year-reign characterized by tranquility and prosperity compared to the decades that preceded it. In March, street protests and violence spread through the grab-bag of kingdoms, dukedoms, and obscure principalities (Prussia… Saxony… Hesse… Fulda…) that would eventually make up the super-state of greater Germany. The Austrian empire began its slide into senility as its constituent states rioted. Even the people in Switzerland went batshit. And so on. Enter, stage left, Marx and Engels with a new political theory, for the excellent reason that the industrial revolution was reaching its stride and the conditions of daily life were changing very rapidly. Country people left farms for factory jobs all over the continent, and the ill-effects of the new wage-slavery drove them into solidarity. The uproar of 1848 was widespread and left many changes in its wake. But it was short and it produced odd instances of right-wing reaction.
In France, for instance, Louis-Philippe was sent packing (to England), and a new republic was established – but the president it elected was Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Louis Napoleon who, in a matter of months declared himself president-for-life, and then Emperor. He was not at all a bad ruler, as things turned out. Among other achievements, he presided over the massive physical renovation of Paris that produced the “city of light” beloved today. But he was driven off his throne twenty-odd years later from the ill effects of the opera bouffe known as the Franco-Prussian War.
In any case, the main point is that so many people across a continent got the same idea in the first weeks of a particular year, and then set about expressing themselves violently. More to my point is how things worked out in America. You have no doubt realized by now that there was no uprising in the USA in 1848 (though we did prosecute a war with Mexico). Yet, in the best Fourth Turning sense of history, a new generation had come of age and was producing the revolution in ideas that included Emerson and Thoreau’s Transcendentalism, and the abolition movement, dedicated to ending slavery. This combination of broadly-held idealistic notions boiled away for another decade and led to the “mumuration” that precipitated the biggest bloodbath of the civilized world in the 19th century: the American Civil War. The Revolution of 1848 expressed itself most horrifically in the place that thought itself most specially insulated from its effects.
Hence, when you read an idiot such as Paul Krugman in Monday’s New York Times Op-Ed kindergarten, prating on the end of hard times in the USA, swallow a good half-pound of kosher salt. James Dines is right, a great human “murmuration” is underway, vibrating like a bass chord through bodies politic all over the world. Wait until you see what breaks loose at the Democratic and Republican conventions later this year.