Thursday, October 8, 2009

Democracy: The Opiate of the Masses

In chapters 4 and 5 Hobsbawm presents a lot of information about society and government in the period of the Age of Empire. We learn that during The Age of Empire many classes became newly enfranchised, and many workers joined labor unions and movements. Overall the era was very 'progressive.'

What caused the proletariat to become enfranchised? In Table 2 (p343) we see that the number of cities in Europe grew from a mere 364 in 1800, to 878 in 1850. This total doubled again to reach 1,709 cities with populations of over 10,000 in the year 1890. It is obvious that the Industrial Revolution changed the face of society drastically, enticing peasants to move into the urban areas to search for labor opportunities; 29 percent of the population lived in cities in 1890.

I think that Hobsbawm hints that the enfranchisement of the labor classes was not as spectacular as it seems (with a perspective from the future). He seems to hint that the labor classes were slowly enfranchised by the aristocracy
for the sake of the aristocracy more than that of the proletariat. The ruling classes gave laborers the right to vote slowly, like letting pressurized air out of a bottle, so that the working classes would not explode into revolution. If we look at the Age of Empire from a Nietzschean point-of-view we can say that--even when the working class was granted suffrage--the ruling class were still the masters and the working class were still the slaves. Just as Jurgis' embittered ears were soothed by the socialist orator's words in Sinclair's Jungle, so too were the embittered labor classes enticed by the allures of democracy and socialist action. But the massive class movement that Marx had died hoping for would never be fully realized because the Masters at the top still controlled everything below.

Why was there no massive socialist movement in the United States? One reason is that the electoral system was/is not proportional (Anibal). But I think the status quo was unwilling to let the workers of the country enact change on a large scale. For example, the government used the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to break up labor unions. One just needs to read Zinn's A People's History of the United States to find countless more examples where the government and John Galt used cunning as well as force to subdue labor and socialist movements.

Questions: It can be said that most of the industrialized countries today are becoming more and more socialistic. What will the repercussions be? If socialist parties were allowed more access to the democratic system, what would happen?

-Stefan Larson (Post #5)

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