Two of the central premises of our modern world over the past 300 years have been economic growth/capitalism and democracy. Each can be seen as part of the historical dialectic which posits change from the prior (ancien) regime: stasis and monarchy/oligarchy, respectively. Each positioned itself has a positive change (aka “progress”) and with some plausibility. As you know from my earlier postings, it’s hard to argue against democracy, either theoretically or, in the long term, as to its practical benefits. Economic growth, too, yoked to technology and higher living standards has carried the day (at least until recently when Nature/climate has begun to submit its bill for damages deferred).
However laudable these twin touchstones might be from a generic, human/global perspective, their implementation have been tainted by a sense that noble aspirations have been appropriated by elites along the way. These groups, who were relatively advantaged at the time, have maintained or expanded their disproportionate exercise of the benefits of capitalism and democracy. One can characterize their posture as: “Yes, but me first.”
Their ability to preserve economic and political power, respectively, have been enhanced by the fact that these are mutually reinforcing.
Their economic argument is relatively easy to see; captured in the well-known theory of “trickle-down” economics. “Let me (the merchant/lawyer etc.) get rich by reducing the governments burdens on me, and benefits will—in due course—arrive on the doorstep of the not-so-well-off.” Repeatedly demolished over the past century, both as to its theoretical underpinnings and the historical record (most lately by Paul Krugman), “trickle-down” retains a political vitality explainable only by a combination of disingenuity and naivete hidden under a rubric of anti-governmental “liberalism.” As I have noted previously, there’s plenty of reason to be wary of gratuitous government involvement which has repeatedly demonstrated that it is no panacea for all of the world’s ills. Some classic “liberals” have advanced their views based on such concerns and some solid philosophical points. However, it’s hard to believe that many (less philosophical) advocates of lower government burdens are not more mindful of their personal benefits than the common weal. Noble policies with disproportionate effects have been a frequent result.
In fact, as shown by many economic historians (most recently Thomas Piketty), economic inequality has increased over time (generally as a result of governmental policies). In fact, the principal means by which inequality has been reduced have been wars and other catastrophes or the economic disruption of new factors of production over which neither the state nor society has had much control.
This is true both on a domestic basis and globally. The implicit rationale of imperialism was economic aggrandizement of metropoles (and their elites), relegating any incidental benefits (if that) for the peripheries. Comparable “charitable” stances were taken by elites in most “advanced” countries over the past few centuries, spurred either by guilt or fear of revolt.
The push for democracy has also featured more arguments by and benefits for elites (as against a monarch or smaller elite) than attention to the power of the mass of people. Magna Carta (1215) often cited as an essential text of the Western (especially English) democratic tradition, was pretty much all about the Barons who negotiated with King John. Again, there was no thought at the time that distributing political power to ordinary folks was a good or likely plan. It was only later, as a wider group developed the economic foundation to challenge the embedded political power of their time (17-18C), that it became a useful precedent, this time used against an aristocracy now fully embedded in the political/economic/cultural power structure of that age.
Even then, in the heyday of revolution, the dispersion of political power was incremental. Indeed, it is striking to compare the broad political structures of ancient Athens with those of the US Constitution; neither had room for women, slaves, or foreigners (i.e., most folks) and the US system usually also excluded free white males who had little or no property. The entire premise of the Electoral College is that the election of the President cannot be entrusted to ordinary citizens; they should rely on their more knowledgeable (well-off) colleagues to make the choice.
Britain, France, and the US—the leading “liberal” states of the 19C, all sharply restricted voting power. In various forms and methods, the ancien regime—traditional elites—persisted in power. For all its good PR, mass democracy is pretty much of a 20C phenomenon (and it is still very much a work-in-progress).
As with the economic angle, the arguments for slowing down democracy have been advanced by those with some power—intellectual elites, generals, the “rich”—to provide enough cover for their continued domination of their societies. However, in a sense, the history of democracy (at least in the last two hundred years) can be seen as aligning with the economic “trickle-down” model. Once we moved past the “divine right” theory of kingship, monarchies could only be a function of the structure of human power. Traditional arguments against democracy—the ignorance and volatility of the mob—that had been in place since Plato, were tempered by increasing literacy and the insertion of mediating representatives into the governmental structure.
The pace of these changes and the continuation of political inequality testify that, at least in this context, “trickle-down” takes generations. This is not surprising in terms of the pace of human social change generally, but it makes it even more difficult to see the economic version as anything other than propaganda designed to placate the bulk of society sufficiently to avoid more disruptive (not to say revolutionary) demands. One might say that the design of modern society, particularly the rise of the “middle class,” which could claim some degree of economic power and at least the form of political power, has evolved consistent with the needs/interests of elites to retain most of their own.
Overall, it’s hard to discern the specific causes of the dispersal of economic and political power. How much was taken? How much was ceded? Are there any coherent actors or just rough rubrics and groupings? Social scientists propose neat explanatory models. Historians insist that the variety of human situations (different societies, different eras, different mentalités) is too vast and complex to fit into a single story.