Historical Perspectives on the Social Order
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Published: Thu, 21 Sep 2017
- Laura Sanchez
- Ronald P. Bobroff
In The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood showed the various transitions that the American society had to go through in order to achieve a sense of equality in a socio-economical level and with respect to the government. In the book, Wood starts talking about how American society looked like at the beginning, how it was basically a replica of what people knew at the time; a monarchy-like Estate, derived in some form of aristocracy since there was no king ruling in the continent, but back in England. In this early Estate, the status quo was important to maintain and show in order to reflect power and social position, where work was seen as something not worthy of doing by the higher classes because they already had the financial resources and did not feel the need of produce them through labor activities. Since labor activities were seen as something lower classes needed and should do in order to gain resources to live. Because the higher classes, the Gentry, were the only independent group, because they did not have to answer to anyone, they were the ruling class, but the lower classes had to answer to the ruling classes because they had to work for the money that was provided by the higher classes.
Even when the American society enjoyed some freedoms that the English society could not enjoy, the inequalities were still present, since the ‘level of freedom’ people could enjoy was given by the social status they had and enjoyed. But again, this was the replica of what they knew as a socio-political system. In America, it was clear that because the Gentry did not have to work for the financial resources they already had, for it was clear that they were to lead and the rest, to follow.
From this aristocratically estate of government, American society made its way to a less hierarchical society, where equality of opportunity was the main character, where every person was born with the same rights and where every man had the equal opportunity to become a gentleman based on their level of education. This was in the reality a rough equality, since they were still valuing people based on the property owned. According to Wood “equality lay at the heart of republicanism; it was, said David Ramsay, “the life and soul of commonwealth.” Republican citizenship implied equity. ‘Citizen’ (or sometimes ‘cit’) was a term that had been commonly used by the premodern monarchical society. It generally had meant the inhabitant of a city or town, who had been thus distinguished from a member of the landed nobility or gentry”. Then, it came the idea of a ruling class composed by disinterested gentleman, this idea came up because the alternative was interested gentleman who were to rule obeying their own particular interests, but if the leading class had no particular interest they were to rule more equally and impartially to everyone instead than just for a few. The problem here is that this model of being ruled by disinterested gentleman would be replicating the past and with that, replicating the old problems. Since this disinterested gentleman were also human beings with their particular interests to work for, even when they claimed not to have any particular interest. With this new concept of equality, and in reality those who claimed to be disinterested and those on the higher social classes were not more capable to rule than the rest of the population who had access to the same opportunities.
The problem with this approach is that it generates and feeds conflict of interests, because no matter who is in a leading position is undeniably going to promote policies that will benefit their own interests or the interests of the people close to them; resulting in an unbalance of the social and political system.
This opened the way for a democratic political system, where ordinary people could being involved in the government, in contrast with the previous forms of government that were attempted where only the gentry could aspire to be in charge of a leading position on the government, like a perpetuation of the aristocracy, because “if gentlemen were involved in the marketplace and had interests just like everyone else, they were really no different from all those common people – artisans, shopkeepers, traders, and others – who had traditionally been denied a role in political leadership because of their overriding absorption in their private occupational interests. In short, the Anti-Federalists were saying that liberally educated gentlemen were no more capable that ordinary people of classical republican disinterestedness and virtue and that consequently there was no one in the society equipped to promote an exclusive public interest that was distinguishable from the private interests of people”. The great achievement of this time is that the motivation of the people to participate on the government had really changed from maintaining the status quo to open the positions equally to every person in the society, transitioning almost without realizing into a democracy.
By contrast with this new increasing openness in the American society, we find a British society which was open to foreign nationals looking for refuge, but this openness of the British government to receive foreign nationals into their space was not seen well by other European countries and by British nationals as well. This is why, some British nationals, called themselves anarchists, decided to promote and commit terrorist acts on British soil as a form of rising their voices and make the statement of their inconformity with this policy of giving refuge to other people. They wanted to keep Britain for themselves, so while other countries were opening their boundaries to welcome other nationals, other ideals, religions, and a complete new rainbow of possibilities; there were groups in Britain, as is explained in the novel The Secret Agent, as well in other countries that were not happy with this kind of policies, that took their nationalism feelings and ideals to another level full of hate and incomprehension that led them to commit acts of terror and treason to their own soil. Because, in the end, this people, the anarchists, were not democratic.
This anarchist group decided to attack Greenwich observatory, the center of the modern world, sending a clear message of how anti progress they felt, because instead of promoting and applauding the progress they attacked it. Being objective, if they only were against the laws, policies or even the political system and beliefs, they would have attacked some political, judicial or governmental institution, but they needed to state that they were not only against the policies but against any form of progress, and nothing claims more progress than science. Because science is the fundament of the progress of humankind; “moreover, I am a civilized man. I would never dream of directing you to organize a mere butchery, even if I expected the best results from it. But I wouldn’t expect from a butchery the results I want. Murder is always with us. It is almost an institution. The demonstration must be against learning – science. But not every science will do. The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy” And, wanting to close the borders to people of foreign countries because some nationals of a given country feel insecure about it, is an inhumane act full of hate, prejudice and resentment. This anarchists could not being democrats because they were firm believers of the socialist doctrine, that is by mere concept anti progress. Democracy is about progress, that is why throughout history it is often seen that democracy is the last form of government achieved after having tried and passed for all others, because its core is almost perfect and can be only achieved through trial and error; after seen what should and should not be done. Democracy is about liberties, not debauchery as people often misunderstand it. Democracy is about equality of opportunities, people cannot be forced to do something they do not want to, but they have the right of having equal opportunities to access the minimal conditions to live and to live well. If someone is working hard and is not getting involved or interfering with other people’s life, it does not matter where that person is from. That individual person is a human being and has the right to live and to live well, and to work, and to not being afraid of being attacked by another person. This is the kind of society that Wood explain to us, this is the fundament of the openness of American society. They were open to everyone who was disposed to work hard and live a good life based on their work. And that is what is translated nowadays in what is called ‘the American dream’, it is just another name for the principal fundament of the American democracy.
Benedict Anderson in his Imagined Communities suggests ways that the citizens of a nation perceive themselves as a part of the whole as a community developing some sort of spirit that overcomes them and that is able to overlap the individuality of each one, this is what is called nationalism; a sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself. He explains this when he says that “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”; meaning that what really matters is the idea of belonging, the feeling to be part of something bigger than the sense of individuality. Is the idea of being a valuable member of the whole.
Anderson also explains the it is not only the sense of belonging, but it goes further to the sense of limitations, because human beings do not like to think that everyone has the same without having fought for it; meaning, that it is important to feel that there are some boundaries that somehow contain this massive feeling of community; “because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind. The most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation in the way that it was possible, in certain epochs, for, say, Christians to dream of a wholly Christian planet”. In the end, we need to feel part of something that even though it is bigger than us it is finite; something that no one else has it and that it cannot be found elsewhere, something that belongs to us so that there is the idea that it is special and therefore that generates in the human mind the urgency to defend it.
Another important concept is sovereignty, which is the power conferred by independence. Not having atavistic ties that create and maintain ties to the past, gives way to the progress of a nation and with it, the progress of its citizens who feel part of it. “Because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. Coming to maturity at a stage of human history when even the most devout adherents of any universal religion were inescapably confronted with the living pluralism of such religions, and the allomorphism between each faith’s ontological claims and territorial stretch, nations dream of being free, and, if under .God, directly so. The gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state”. This is extremely important because the sense of progress brings with it a new meaning to the concept of freedom. At this point, we found citizens who have well identified their sense of belonging to something larger than them as mere individuals, who need to feel that they belong to something unique and special, that not everyone can have access to and that is worth fighting for; Accompanied by the ideas of freedom and progress.
Finally, Anderson explains that in spite of the inequities that have existed in the world historically, nowadays the feeling of nationalism has generated that the human beings feel part of a horizontal whole where all are equal and fight every day for a common goal and that they are able to fight for this, not necessarily with the disposition to kill for this but with the will to die defending that for what they believe and live; “because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings”. For it generates the idea of horizontality as Anderson explains, that is to say that there are no longer any social classes that command over other social classes. That all are born equal and have access to the same rights and opportunities because they all are human alike. And they are willing to go to the last consequences in order to defend it.
Comparing these four ideas about nationalism as a sense of belonging to a whole with what Gordon Wood explains in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, “United States, already composed of more and more diverse peoples, could not rely on any tribal or national identity. To be an American could not be a matter of blood; it had to be a matter of common belief and behavior. And the source of that common belief and behavior was the American Revolution: it was the Revolution and only the Revolution, that made them one people.”. The sense of belonging for American people needed to be greater than language, political views, religion or national origin; the sense of being part of this great nation needed to go further, to the point that all people, national and foreign, feel the need to defend the ideals in which this nation is built. This nation, with well delimited boundaries, that has been pioneering in subjects of freedom, equality and horizontality, meaning that all people are equal under the unit of the American flag, provided they are willing to respect and work for it, to defend the ideals it represents.
Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. (New York, Vintage Books, 1991)
Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent. (Oxford World’s Classic, 2008)
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. (New York, Verso / New Left Books, 1996)
I pledge that I have acted honorably.
 Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. (New York, Vintage Books, 1991), 223
 Wood, 256
 Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent. (Oxford World’s Classic, 2008), 25
 Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. (New York, Verso / New Left Books, 1996), 7
 Anderson, 7
 Anderson, 8
 Anderson, 8
 Wood, 336
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