The rise of printing and the populist republic

The media needs clicks and people are rather myopic. This explains patently false pieces such as this in Buzzfeed, This Is How We Radicalized The World. It is a rather unorganized list of facts, but they are assembled in a way to convince and persuade the reading audience that modern information technology has facilitated the rise of political radicalism, as if it is something new and notable. So wrong it hurts.

Anyone who knows history will realize this is patently false. Anyone who is aware of the Taiping Rebellion, the October Revolution, or the unrest of 1848. Of course, that “anyone” is a small set of individuals because most people don’t know history. Their minds are devoid of most facts not having to do with the Khardashians. And journalists are not much better. Many of them are in the game of creating stories rather than interpreting the world. If public relations operatives are well paid propagandists on a short leash, many journalists are poorly paid propagandists compensated with the freedom to be fabulists.

A piece like the above could convince, but only with a scatterplot. Social science can convince whether history says otherwise, because it is systematic and clear. But most people are not fluent and competent enough to do such data analysis, so they create a conclusion that is congenial to their audience, and marshal evidence in a biased manner (wittingly or unwittingly) to support their conclusion.

To get a sense of what we’re seeing today in the world, we need to go back centuries.

In the early 16th century, the unity of Western Christianity shattered. The standard story you see in the movies is that a German Augustinian monk named Martin Luther led a rebellion against the Roman Church, what became the Roman Catholic Church after it was clear that the Protestants were going to go their own way.

An alternative model would be that the invention of the printing press naturally unleashed fissiparous tendencies pregnant within late medieval Western Christianity. Luther was the right man at the right time to claim the mantle of the first reformer, but it was no coincidence that others such Zwingli were having issues with Western Christianity as it was configured during this period as well.

The truth is in dispute, but if you are curious about this period I highly recommend Diarmaid MacCulloh’s The Reformation. Rather, I want to use the Reformation to illustrate the reality that the early modern period led to the emergence of a mass popular culture which eventually produced the ascendancy of a demotic ethos. In politics the people now rule.

In the mid-16th century cuius regio eius religio held that the religion of the prince became the religion of the people. In England and much of Northern Europe monarchs and broader political elites (such as in the cities of Switzerland and in the Low Countries) dragged the traditionalist peasantry into the new religion. I believe this was feasible in part because for much of the peasantry true sectarianism had not taken deep root. Their religion was customary, traditional. But it was not a systematic ideology to which they were bound. The emergence of Protestantism, printing, and then the Catholic reaction, transformed confessional identities into something more solid and persistent.

And one thing that is notable about the 17th century is that during this century changes in the religion of the prince did not entail changes in the religion of the people! In England James II lost his crown because his nobles, and the people more broadly, rejected a Catholic monarch who imposed religious toleration upon them (though of course it is likely James II would have liked to drag all of England and Scotland back to Catholicism by force, but he did not have the power to do so, so toleration was a reasonable compromise). In Prussia the Hohenzollern line became Calvinist, but their people held fast to Lutheranism. In Saxony the ruling dynasty converted to Catholicism, but the only Catholics in their domain for many years were those in the court.

Between 1500 and 1700 the population’s religious identity became strong enough that peoples could resist the interests and whims of their rulers. A collective identity, horizontal and thick, developed which could withstand vertical shocks from the elites. In The Great Upheaval Jay Winik observes that 18th century observers of the emergence of the American republic were skeptical of its sustainability because of its geographic expanse. Ancient republics did not scale well. Democracies and republics were all well and good for city-states, but once the polity became large, it always evolved into a monarchy.

America falsified this hypothesis drawn from historical experience. Why? How? I believe that the printing press and the development of mass media in the form of newspapers and pamphlets allowed for the emergence of a thick and horizontal demotic national identity, where elites had to cater to the considerations of the populace, because the populace could act as a unit if it felt its interests were being suborned. This was something that was not possible in the ancient world. Popular revolts for various reasons occurred, but they were often local. The Nika riots are a case in point.

The Roman or Chinese societies were bound together by loyalties, fidelities, and identities. But, they tended to percolate down from on high, as local populations adhered to sub-elites or a distant theoretical monarch. Populist uprisings were often due to material considerations, such as famines, and their aims were often not ideological, but pragmatic. Men, such as the first Ming Emperor, could rise to power due to populist fervor and sectarian ideologies, but once in power they could and often did set them aside as inconveniences.

Modernity changed that by demanding that the people who ruled bow down before the values of those who were ruled. The first presidents of the American republic were nominal Christians at best. The first prime ministers of Italy tended to have poor relations with the Catholic Church. The autocrat Frederick the Great founded the Prussian state as the core of the Protestant dominated Germany of the 19th century, but his own personal beliefs tended toward contempt and disdain toward religion. Over time leaders of modern nation-states had had to give more fealty to the dominant ethos of the populace, as they present themselves as exemplars and representatives of the people they rule. Pious and approachable. Refined and aristocratic men such as Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t have pretended to have the common touch, but by the 21st century politicians such as George W. Bush downplayed their plainly blue-blood background and affected a more common image.

Modern social media amplifies and accelerates these trends, as collective consciousness is even more interconnected, responsive, and cohesive. But these trends predate the “social graph” and email. They are the natural outcome of the democratization of information flow that occurred with the rise of the printing press and cheap paper. The key is that you don’t need 80% of the population emailing or on social media to develop a critical mass, you need influencers in each community to develop a common identity through communication. Modern science is one such community, which developed in the 17th century as one of the many republics of letters. Similarly, social and political eminences within a town could serve as information nodes for the local populace.

The big changes were all pre-modern. First, there was writing, which allowed for the sidelining of memory, and the persistence of linguistic forms and cultures even after they were no longer spoken by living people (Sumerian and Latin are cases in point). I believe written histories and self-conceptions are qualitatively different from oral ones. Less protean, more stable, and easier to scale across time and space.

Then the early modern revolution in printing, paper, and economies of scale allowed for the development of near-universal literacy societies in scale and scope. Economic productivity and the demographic transition allowed for the emergence of consumer middle class societies, where the broad middle element of society was all that truly mattered in name if not always in fact.

The fact that modern politics is more responsive to the people means that modern politics is more base, volatile, and often more radical. This is a feature, not a bug, of democratic republics. When the “Arab Spring” was in full swing I predicted that democratic populism would lead to the ascendancy of Islamism and cultural conservatism. Not liberalism. I was right. Democratic republics become less liberal as they broaden their base and sink roots in the populace, because the average voter is not particularly liberal. Ancient hunter-gatherer tribes were not liberal. They enforced strong norms and social taboos. But they were democratic in seeking social consensus within the band.

The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a nonobservant Shia Muslim whose grandfather was a Hindu. Though strongly attached to the Muslim identity as a national one, he was not a religious fanatic, and was only nominally Muslim in his beliefs and practices (he drank). But over the last several decades Pakistan has Islamicized the founder of the republic, and transformed itself into something that he likely wouldn’t have ever recognized. The madrassa has come into the halls of power, and forced the elites to conform to its folkways.

It is fashionable to emphasize the role of Facebook and social media for the ethnic and religious conflict in Myanmar. I would argue that the conflict develops out of the native Buddhist majority hostility to the Muslim minority which is also ethnically and racially different. Autocratic rule in places like Myanmar, Syria, and probably China, often allows for more toleration of minorities for various reasons. Once democratic majoritarianism kicks in, you may overturn authoritarian elite tolerance and usher in an era of majority persecution of hated minorities. Aung San Suu Kyi may not be saying much about the Rohingya precisely because she is reflecting the mood of the population of the people she represents. Dictators can ignore the passions of the people. Democrats can not if they wish to continue their hold on power.

We overestimate the impact of information technology in many areas of life. Modern scholars have access to a much wider assemblage of resources and are able to communicate at lightning speed with their colleagues, but are they that much more productive and insightful than their pre-computer predecessors? Surely there has been some change, but it is on the margin, a quantitative shift, not a qualitative one. Those who claim otherwise fall prey to presentism and their own ignorance at best, and are liars at worst.

13 thoughts on “The rise of printing and the populist republic

  1. The main reason why autocratic states can, at least oftentimes, be better in dealing with minorities is that they suppress deviation and force the minority to conform.
    Once the state eases the pressure there is quite often a resurgence of the minority’s old customs, behaviour and demands. Quite often even more extreme than before, because its more important for the newly constructed identity after its suppression.
    The more the majority allows, the more extreme and naughty the political demands become and there is bitterness between both parties. Unless the majority begins to identify with the minority, even to self-denial and self-hate.
    It depends also on how much both parties have to lose on a practical bases if making concessions.
    You can observe such processes everywhere. It can pop up between all kinds of human groups.
    workers and entrepreneurs, men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, races, religions.
    If you dont like where it will lead to, you have to stop it when it starts.

  2. As for 17th century Europe, the rulers could still force the people to conform to their religion. But they had to be brutal, determined and powerful enough, which those you mentioned where not.

  3. The collapse of the economic model that supported professional journalism did away with the path to prestige and meaningful compensation. The only path now to prestige and money is that of a partisan that influences and/or creates.

  4. “The main reason why autocratic states can (…) be better in dealing with minorities is that they suppress deviation and force the minority to conform.”

    They do? My ideia is that many autocratic states, from Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Baathist Syria (and perhaps even the Omyad Califate of Cordoba) the only things that they request from the minority is that they pays their taxes and don’t agitate against the government (leaving them largely alone in their daily issues).

  5. @Miguel: Those two examples are perfect for what I said. The Austrian monarchy constantly suppressed national and religious conflict, either by favoring one party or by playing the judge, or even by hitting both and making up their own Habsburg party.
    Whether it be Protestantism or ethnic nationalism, the Habsburg empire held it down. The administration was essentially German or assimilated German local elites. When, after a series of defeats and revolts, the rulers decided to make the equalisation with the Hungarians and start democratisation, even more and more trouble spots popped up. The most important one was the German vs. Czech conflict in Bohemia and Moravia.

    Usually revolution start when the regime in charge is more Liberal than the one before, but the people’s demands can no longer satisfied the ancient regime. The Baathist Syria being ruled by an ethnic-religious minority and the minorities support it, while the largest group of Sunni muslims, especially the radical Islamist ones, are the main trouble makers.

    As for the principal problem, its no majority vs. minority isssue per se, but one of a relationships between two groups of people with different interests and plans.

  6. I’m not claiming otherwise. But am positing:

    I concur with your contempt for “we are all so internetty now” trend-pieces written by journo-persons who are still too young to even run for POTUS. These are the sages who fill our news pages.

    As per iffen, one might say it’s because in today’s non-profitable news market these late-adolescent journos are very often still close to parental or spousal subsidy and so can afford to be wildly underpaid to pander to glib consensus while basking in authoritative ‘click-influencer’ status. Soon to be replaced by a younger/more ignorant/cheaper-still content-generator. We know of some teens in Belarus who can write passable English and string together provocative think-y phrases for pennies, too.

    The conceptual interest to me is, not so much whether the cause of this or that today’s atrocity or uprising/social-political development can be attributed by jumping-bean journalists to this or that twittery technology, but whether the sum of imagistic communication vs. alphabetic communication may in fact amount to qualitative difference.

    Not necessarily all the way today. Tomorrow, maybe.

    As in, meme-image non-phoneticicized communication vs. written words or ideograms, period.

    Seems to me there may be, on a civilizational level, a qualitative difference brewing.

    Particularly as algorithmically automated. Beyond the understanding or total control of ruling castes and minion coders, much less the more incohate demos.

    A deeper question of noetics.

    Like the model of climate change. Stealthy, barely detectable while happening, but in retrospect eventually undeniable in its cumulative and ultimately predominating ‘sudden’ effect.

    c.f. “ABC: Alphabetization of the Popular Mind”, Ivan Illich

  7. Razib,

    What I find most unusual, if not ungrateful, for these type of articles is a lack of reflection and awareness of just how much the writer’s own ideological side/preferences had been empowered by the very same tech/companies that they now decry. Without those same social media tech, current leftwing crown jewels such as gay marriage, BLM, white privilege, transgender bathrooms, gender “fluidity”, microaggressions, Dreamer amnesty, and loose/open borders would either not have attained such prominence in such a short time, or would not have existed at all.
    In general, we are sorely lacking in analytical pieces penned by real, rigorous writers who are able to synthesize all recent emergent social phenomenons (from all sides, left, right, sane, and insane), and explain which ones are explainable by social tech and which ones are not.

  8. Razib, I certainly agree with most of your thesis here. The Reformation was a function of the media technology: when it changed from “you get Christianity vocally from priests” to “you get Christianity from reading the Bible”, there were huge effects.

    But I find your ultimate para too strong. There has been a real change in the media technology between ~1995 and now. Back then, essentially all information that the average man had came via the mass media — newspapers and big 3 network TV news. These days, the legacy media still have vast power, but it is possible for people to be completely unplugged, getting all of their news via the Internet in ways that are unmediated or at least less mediated. It is also possible now to have news sites catering to extremely niche markets, by comparison to the old oligopoly of TV networks and monopoly of newspapers. Today you can get all your news from the Huffington Post, or from Breitbart. It’s two different worlds based on two different cultures. “Fake news” could not have happened even 10 years ago.

    I think that the change we are seeing is indeed qualitative. Hence the ever-increasing political division we are seeing. But as Gibson said, “the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” The majority (barely) still get their news via TV. But the Internet will become the majority soon. Look out.

  9. “Fake news” could not have happened even 10 years ago.

    I think that we had fake news 10 years ago, we are just getting better at identifying it.

  10. Erm… Interesting ideas, but you’re way off the mark about Burma. The military junta were the opposite of tolerant. They were in a continuous state of war with almost every ethnic minority in the country. The civilian government from independence to 62 weren’t the epitome of tolerance, but they were still a lot less hung up on Bamar supremacy. Civilians didn’t expel the Indians, or declare the Rohingyas to be illegal aliens, the military dictatorship did!

  11. @iffen: of course we had fake news; false news has existed as long as news itself. (Perhaps a few minutes less.) But we didn’t have the catchy label — “fake news” — for the phenomenon, nor the related widespread understanding of it as a thing that is happening to us, here and now.

  12. That was naivete, undeserved trust in the mainstream media. But then there was the starting point of everything turning into an ideological mess with “politial correctness” in the 90s, when people weren’t allowed to make up their minds and mouths if they didn’t follow the new societal concepts created by Marxists and supported by Capitalists, as soon as they forgot about the economic part of the model.
    A lot of people became indoctrinated in the educational system since then, which is why higher educated people are “more politically correct”, but since these concepts are against gut instinct and irrational if you don’t accept its artificial premises, a lot of people never swallowed it.

    Since 2000 there was a series of events which showed how manipulated and wrong the majority of the mainstream media is, like the invasion of Iraq, the financial crisis and its background in 2008, the war in Syria and the migration crisis of 2015.
    These were real turning points from which a lot of people lost their faith in the mainstream media and since they are not able to differentiate between truth and fake, they left the mainstream behind as a whole and better trust in those people which say what they want to hear.

    The educated people are no better, because they want to keep the system up as it is, make it even more extreme since they believe it serves them well, and therefore ignore the faults of it and the manipulated news even if they should know better. They don’t want to see the defects and see themselves supported by the mainstream media. Funnily even people which hated mainstream media and Capitalism all their life suddenly support those people and power structures, because they are even more afraid of the alternative.

    So subcultures grow apart and both are wrong on different aspects. It would be about scientists to make a correction, but science, espcially social sciences, are themselves so heavily distorted on their view on reality because of that ideological mess, and those which aren’t are so afraid, that they keep their mouth shut or being ignored and shunned once they speak up. In the past scientists might have said something inconvenient for those asking, but at least you chould trust most of them saying what they believe is true, that’s not the case any more, because all try to use newspeak and are afraid of the censorship.

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