Thursday, October 28, 2010

Determinism in History

I have been reading Mike Rapport's 1848: Year of Revolution. The political disturbances that broke out in the first months of 1848 in Italy and France were noted all over Europe helping to trigger outbreaks of liberal and radical opposition to the reigning conservative (ofter monarchist) regimes.

The steam engine was first used to power railroad trains in 1804. By 1840 there were some 4000 miles of railroads in Europe. While there were examples of telegraphs prior to his, the invention of the telegraph is usually attributed to Samuel Morse who demonstrated his system in 1844. However, the telegraph spread relatively rapidly; by 1850 there were 12000 miles of telegraph lines in the United States.

It seems likely that the transportation and communication infrastructures that had been so recently improved helped spread the word of the outbreaks.

More fundamentally, the revolution in communications and transportation, together with the growth of the industrial production of textiles and the growth of coal and steel industries (related to the other technologies) promoted the conditions conducive to the destruction of the old political order and the creation of a new order, one in which political power was more widely shared.

It is striking that in 1848, there were important efforts to combine the various smaller provinces in which Italian was spoken into an Italian nation state, as there were efforts to combine the various smaller units in which German was spoken into a German nation state. The geographically expanding markets were surely related to the success of the efforts to build larger states on the basis of a common language. I would say that the further geographically expanding markets in the second half of the 20th century were surely related to the success of the effort to build a European Union that transcended the boundaries of traditional language groupings as well as the success of efforts to build common markets transcending language differences in other regions of the world.

This suggestion is a form of "technological determinism", implying that changes in technology lead to changes not only in economic but also political (and social) organization. I have also recently done three postings on this blog suggesting that weather and climate led to the American Civil War (posting one, posting two, posting three); this might be seen as a theory of climatic determinism.

How can I simultaneously propose two alternative theories of determinism? Of course the answer is that each is a theory of partial determinism. Technological and climate, technological and climate change all affect political and economic systems. So to do other factors, especially perhaps cultural factors. The world is a complex place!

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