“Prosperity” is one of those things which most people would say is a good thing. Nearly everyone wants “prosperity,” in whatever way they may define it. Yet, how to secure it is a question which creates quite a bit of division, and has indeed birthed many of the almost innumerable ideological conflicts that have plagued the modern world. I believe that much of this has to do with the failure on the part of modern man to adopt a rational definition of “prosperity.”
The typical Westerner today, and especially the American, would tend to define “prosperity” in solely economic terms. For them, prosperity is that which leads to economic growth and a greater abundance of superficial expressions of wealth such as access to entertainments or the possession of various status symbols. Prosperity would be measured in increasing GDP, more electronic baubles on the shelf at Best Buy, and an ever-rising stock market index.
However, there is a good argument that can be made that these are not really “prosperity,” in a reasonable and traditional sense of the word. The traditional sense of “prosperity” which has applied for most of human history (once again, we find modernism to be an aberration here, as it is in much else) can best be summed up in the Hebrew (shalowm) and Greek (eirēnē) terms, found in the Scriptures, which the ancients used. Both of these terms transcend the shallow and materialistic sense which modern Western man applies to “prosperity.” Rather, “prosperity” involved a deeper sense of spiritual, moral, and mental peace (indeed, “peace” is a common translation of both of those words). It portended an absence of conflict, not just in the bare sense of not fighting with someone else, but more broadly in leading a stable, well-grounded, balanced life that was suitable for your station in life. To the extent that it involved economics, it did so in the sense of communal abundance grounded in hard work and industry which allowed individuals within a community to lead lives secure from hunger or privation, rather than speculation in commodities or eternal pursuit of wealth and trinkets.
Indeed, by this definition, we can see that much of the modern art of economic speculation is the very opposite of genuine, classical peace and prosperity. When a man commits suicide by jumping out of a window because he lost a good chunk of his “fortune” in a stock market crash, it is quite clear that he had no genuine peace or prosperity in his life. Indeed, decadence and decay in a civilisation are nearly always accompanied by an unmooring from the primitive and traditional ideas about “the good life,” and their replacement with the pursuit of vast wealth, combined with all of the insecurities that come with it. It’s no surprise that it would take a man like Crassus to speak an absurdity such as,
“Greed is but a word which jealous men inflict upon the ambitious.”
Related to what was said above, we should note the very common assumption that prosperity can only come about as a result of political liberty, coupled with its corollary in liberalism, “free market” capitalism. Most classical liberal theorists presume that “prosperity” of any sort can only come about as a result of broadly democratic institutions, granting political equality as widely as possible. When this sort of condition exists, it is said, then the “creative energies” of the “entrepreneurial spirit” can be “unleashed” to provide an “unprecedented engine of economic prosperity.”
This is a mistake essentially rooted in shallow materialism of the sort mentioned above, which sees ever-expanding market demand as a good, in and of itself, which must be satisfied by ever-increasing economic speculation and consumption. People making this error of judgment confuse superficial “standard of living” defined by increasingly intricate toys with which to play for deep-rooted “quality of life.” Some people in the modern world – ranging from archaeofuturists to “back to the land” movements to those who simply seek to disconnect from the complexity of the modern world and retire to a cabin in the mountains – instinctively grasp the superficiality of modern “prosperity.” They sense that the nature of the beast is to gradually enslave every area of human life to it while diminishing our capacity for true humanity.
As a point of fact, political liberty and unbridled capitalism actually tend to reduce broad-based prosperity, rather than enhance it. While proclaiming “equality” for all, these modernistic makeshifts really serve only to breakdown traditional mores and standards which served to reinforce social harmony. Many may not like to hear this, but socialism actually does have a point with respect to many of the failings of liberal capitalism, such as the maximal concentration of massive wealth into the hands of an extremely small (and typically not very virtuous) set of people belonging to the commercial caste. This same sort of problem existed in the late Roman Republic (e.g. Marcus Crassus, quoted above) and contributed to the same sort of social destabilisation which we’re seeing in the USA today. It was this sort of spirit, indeed, which the prophet Isaiah cried against so long ago,
“Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!” (Isaiah 5:8)
Expansion of political power through the franchise (i.e. democratisation) and concentration of economic power through monergocapitalism, while seemingly inverse phenomena, corollate quite well because they both stem from impulses which serve to imbalance a society and create disunity. Indeed, the vast disparity in wealth (and thus, political power) generates the sort of social turbulence that leads to never-satisfied democratic remediation based upon often-legitimate concerns about economic oppression and insecurity. So, while socialism’s criticisms of capitalism may often have some merit to them, its remedies for these problems as they are pursued through “democratic” action (whether truly or merely nominally) are quite problematic both because they are unjust and tend to create even more social instability than they resolve. Indeed, the endpoint of virtually every democratic system in history has been collapse brought about by social strife and civil disorder caused by political jockeying between factions representing different classes/castes who were “liberated” through the extension of the franchise.
The TRUE source of prosperity comes not from democracy or unbridled capitalism. Rather, it comes from stable government invested with enough legitimacy and authority to provide a stable social system, which is especially true when the stable government is an authoritarian (but not totalitarian) system such as monarchy. The evidence from history is uniform – monarchies and monarchy-like systems (such as ducal Venice) are extremely stable compared to democracies. Democratic systems (which include classically liberal, Enlightenment-derived republican forms) tend to last, at most, around 250 years before terminal degeneracy sets in. Many of the monarchies in Europe and the dynasties in China lasted for centuries. Venice – a so-called “republic,” though one whose charactre became increasingly aristocratic and authoritarian over time – lasted over a millennium before being brought down by Napoleon. The fundamental advantage of monarchies, and especially of imperial aristocladic systems, is that their centralisation of political power into the hands of the king and his court creates a stable, polar axial system. This avoids the destabilising competition of faction against faction and class against class which is seen again and again in systems which incorporate democratic elements.
One can fairly say that even despite the many petty wars of the Middle Ages, your typical peasant during this period led a life characterised by more true “prosperity” as defined above than we tend to give credit for. Barring uncontrollable factors such as weather or plague, and even accounting for the much lower technology level they had back then, we can still see that the medieval peasant led lives filled with community, feasts and festivals, regular harvests, and the rest of the elements that define true prosperity. The average peasant and serf in 1300 got Sundays off, and had around 150 feast and other days in which he was relieved of labour. Many serfs and peasants worked for their lords three days of the week and had the other three weekdays to labour on their own steads. They were taken care of by their lords, who were bound to care for them through reciprocal bonds of loyalty. Compare all of this to the typical American wage slave today, who often has to work on Sunday, whose own interests have to fit completely around their company’s needs, who gets an average of just four weeks of vacation, who lives in constant fear of being downsized by a completely non-loyal company which no longer needs their services. Additionally, while a peasant or serf could look to their lord for redress and justice, the best a white, male worker in modern America can hope for is that they don’t make anyone mad enough to complain about them to HR.
So in many ways, whose lives were really better? Especially when we consider that under the various historical monarchies, their everyday lives were often simply freer than ours are today. Back then, you could generally say what you wanted, so long as your weren’t advocating treason or sedition. Today, you can go to jail for calling a transsexual by the wrong pronoun. Back then, they were free from pervasive surveillance and control over their lives. Today, if you live in a modern democratic state, virtually every moment of your waking life is under surveillance, whether on camera or via electronic surveillance of your email and online activities.
Democracy rarely provides for a true enjoyment of “the good life,” and when it does, it usually proves to be only a transitory affair. Many who wish to argue that democracy promotes prosperity will try to point to the modern experience of the Anglosphere, and to Europe in general. However, the anglospheric enjoyment of genuine peace and prosperity arose from the seemingly inborn tendency of Englishmen towards respect for law and order coupled with the relatively slow democratisation of anglospheric institutions, despite the whiggish tendencies in those nations’ politics. Europe, which only really became broadly democratic in the 20th century, enjoyed several decades under the protection of the USA’s military umbrella that allowed them to devote enhanced levels of resources to their welfare state apparatuses, postponing (but not indefinitely) the inevitable. Likewise, the relatively homogeneous European populations formed high-trust societies with low levels of corruption and welfare “cheating.” However, as the trickle of Third World immigrants turned into a flood – itself purposefully engineered by Left political parties seeking permanent electoral dominance through demographic replacement – the high-trust systems have fallen apart and civil disorder continues to reach new heights. Say what you will about American gun culture, but at least in the USA you generally don’t have to worry about having grenades thrown at you by immigrant gangs, which is not the case anymore in Sweden. Europe’s democracy, and the concomitant effort by democratic egalitarians to maintain their electoral positions, has utterly destabilised their democracy – a case of a monster eating itself and producing an even worse monster as a result.
Indeed, unstable liberal, capitalistic systems tend to create cycles of booms and busts, with the generation of much artificial “wealth” and its subsequent destruction once the speculative bubble passes. It’s not surprising that this has been seen most often in commercialised societies ranging from Holland’s tulip mania in the 17th century to the housing market collapse of 2007-2008 in the USA.
Contrast that with European society in the Middle Ages. After Europe got back on its feet from the dislocations caused by Germanic and Muslim invasions, Europe saw not one, but three separate renaissances (Carolingian, High Middle Ages, and the Italian) characterised by a flowering of the arts, the expansion of trade and agriculture, the growth of monumental architecture (itself indicative of readily available wealth and labour), and development of philosophy and the sciences. Indeed, if anyone ever uses the phrase “Dark Ages” unironically, it is obviously they have no clue what they’re talking about. Europe actually did quite well during the period from 700 – 1500 AD, despite the periodic bouts of plague. We’re talking about centuries of positive growth and expansion in all areas that prepared Europe to capitalise on its strengths during the Age of Exploration.
And all of this occurred while feudalism, aristocracy, and various forms of monarchy were the norm.
Certainly, Europe is not the only example. Indeed, many examples of “the good life” can be found occurring under more “authoritarian” and less “free” systems, as compared to their alternatives.
As one example, look at the Roman West in the second century versus the third. In both centuries, the government was helmed by monarchical emperors and the people enjoyed only limited personal liberties (at least as compared to today’s liberal regimes). However, the second century saw government under a series of emperors who both ruled well and ruled for relative long periods of time each. In other words, from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius government was stable, even if not “free” in the liberal, democratic sense. This was a period of unparalleled prosperity for the Empire. Contrast this with the third century (properly from the elevation of Pertinax in 193 AD) which was characterised by imperial instability, civil war, the degradation of the army, and the debasement of the currency. Early in this century (212 AD), the edict of Caracalla extended Roman citizenship to nearly all freemen in the Empire – a form of democratisation (though it basically served to make them all eligible for extensive forms of taxation). Certainly, the edict did nothing to improve Caracalla’s position, and likely contributed to greater discontent over the increasing taxation and economic instability during this century. The lesson is clear from the contrast – stable authoritarian government provides prosperity, unstable government – including authoritarian government seeking to rest itself on a broader democratic basis – does not.
Even as far back as the Bronze Age, this pattern seems to have been the case. Mesopotamian society rested on a fundamental basis of insecurity, perhaps created by their geographical situation on a fluvial plain subject to frequent but unpredictable floods. As a result, Mesopotamian kingship did not rest on a solid theocratic or imperial basis, but rather on the constant competition between petty states to unify the region and exploit its neighbours for wealth and slaves. While too early for any practical argument about “democracy,” per se, the Mesopotamian experience still saw numerous cities acting as a pseudo-democratic system in which the pieces of political power were relatively small and spread out, creating an unstable international situation that correlated to the type of jockeying for political power endemic within democracies.
Contrast that with Egypt which, for nearly three millennia, presented a stable, unified monarchy to the world, one which was characterised by a high degree of unity, centralisation, and stability. Even the handful of fairly brief exceptions to this only serve to prove the rule. It is notable that it is in extant Egyptian literature, but not Mesopotamian, that we see writers extolling the good life which even the peasantry was able to enjoy.
Many libertarians (and others) often make the rookie mistake of confusing monarchy for totalitarianism. There’s a tendency on the part of many on the classically liberal “muh constertooshun” Right to lump all authoritarian systems together, as if there were no differences in their bases, actions, or extent of power through their societies. Hence, they might argument against what I’m saying in this post by trying to say that systems like North Korea’s are “very stable” (though obviously not at all prosperous in any sense of the word). Actually, the opposite is true. Totalitarianism is a fundamentally UNstable form of government, one which exists as a high-energy transition state held together by force and terror rather than by legitimacy and communal harmony. In a prosperous monarchy of the European or Chinese type which enjoyed the goodwill of its people as it reciprocally provided stability and prosperity to their lives, repressive measures and intense intrusion into the lives of the common people are rarely, if ever, needed or done. Repression in a totalitarian system exists because the whole system is on the razor’s edge of falling apart if it were not applied. The kings of Capetian France did not need concentration camps and mass executions because they provided good, stable government. If North Korea’s police state apparatus were to relax, it is likely their whole system would come down in short order. That is not the mark of “stability.”
In summary, we must understand that neither democracy nor unbridled, unregulated “free market” capitalism are necessary for genuine national prosperity and for the “good life” to be enjoyed even by the common man. In fact, though the rapid rise of science and technology in Europe and the Anglosphere coincided with political and economic liberalisation, it does not necessarily hold true that they occurred because of that liberalisation. Imperial Germany and Napoleon III’s France contributed as much a share to the scientific revolution and inventive boom of the 19th century as did whiggish England and republican America. The peculiarities of northwest European (and descendants) cultures had more to do with establishing European dominance than did superficial political innovations. The take home lesson for us today is that we should not fear a return to authoritarian systems, provided they are based on rational underpinnings of legitimacy and authority. With the accelerating collapse of today’s modern socially and politically liberal regimes, we should be prepared to seek (or return to) alternative systems which will stand a better chance of providing true prosperity and stability in our nations.