The British empire isn’t dead, It’s just gone digital   no comments

Posted at 7:26 pm in Economics,Sociology

This week, I went historic.

As part of my sociology reading, it was apparent that societies do not just exist in isolation, but rather are the product of thousands of years of traditions and culture. A central theme suggested by Gidden’s is that society is the product of uncertainty, when individuals work together they increase their chances of success. In response to this, society can be seen as having evolved in distinct epochs, hunter-gatherers, pastoral and agrarian societies, traditional non-industrial, post industrial or modern societies, and post modern information age societies. Not all societies evolve at the same pace, if at all, with external factors influencing their development. According to Kautsky (1999) traditional societies were based on the desire to create an empire, for control of limited resources. Post industrial revolution, there was a mass exodus of labour from the countryside and a migration in to cities which became large population centres, with this migration came a shift in social life, as people became one of many, the majority of relations became impersonal.

In response to the decline of traditional communities, a new community was formed, with the rise of the nation state, individuals felt part of a much larger society, as such rather than being a member of a village they became English, or French, or Spanish. (As an aside historically Italy and Germany became states long after most of Europe, and they remained city states far longer) The rise of the nation states gave far more influence to the relative governments, allowing for the start of national agendas.

The growth of nation states allowed for the expansion of western imperialism, founded primarily on fortune and firepower, nations were far stronger, both in terms of sheer productivity, and technology, such as gunpowder based military, than those who opposed them, the subsequent result was the rise of colonial superpowers, with the rise of the British and French colonial empires, based on trade. The Spanish empire, which had embarked on imperialism based primarily on looting rather than trade, had failed to innovate and was in decline by this time. Colonialism was driven primarily by economics, and central to capitalism was a growth of inequality and poverty, western powers became richer at the expense of indigenous populations, helping to create the third world. It has been found that societies that industrialised in the modern age have had some of the largest groths ever recorded, for example South Korea is now one of the worlds leading exporters of modern goods, despite being an agricultural society until post the Korean war, in the 1950s, of course western investment has acted to encourage this growth, with the US investing billions to turn the nation into a capitalist paradise, as a result of the Cold war.

So what causes theses societies to change? Unfortunately there is no one theory on this, but rather societal change is influenced by culture, physical environment and politics. Factors such as religion influences cultural, these can act to enhance or reduce the speed of change, such as the demands to translate the Latin bible into English in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, resulting in increased literacy rates for the average population. Culture is also influenced by communication technology, mass communication has encouraged the growth of societies, from the invention of the printing press to the development of the internet. One of the largest influences on culture is the individuals that govern, and influence them, leaders can be seen as an extension of societal desires, a true embodiment of the culture, leaders can be great war leaders, such as Napoleon, or Caesar, scientific and industrial innovators such as Newton or Brunel, or great social motivators, such as Ghandi, Washington or even Jesus. Physical environment motivates social trends due to limited resources, the ancient Egyptian empire relied on agriculture as there were insufficient  animals to hunt, whereas native Americans were never encouraged to develop farming based communities due to an excess of bison and buffalo, natural resources also encourage conflict as imperial powers attempt to gain advantage. The influence of politics is also a complex relationship, Marxist theory states that politics are a direct consequence of the economic nature of a society, however there are examples where fundamentally different political organisations have both used capitalists economies, such as Nazi Germany and the US. A far clearer link can be seen as the ultimate expression of political will and its affect on society, the military. Countries like the USSR and North Korea invested vast sums of capital into the development of military might, resulting in a twofold impact on society, due to limited finite resources, investment into the military reduced investment into the welfare and productivity of the nation, having a negative impact on growth, secondly strong aggressive military can lead to a reduction in individual freedoms, acting to reduce creative innovation.

 So how does all this relate to the modern world and economics? The western world has emerged due to a decline of traditionalism and a growth of rationalism, key to capitalism is the idea of self improvement, the same idea that drove individuals into the cities is still driving the desires of millions today, the growth of communication technology has freed the individual, people are free to develop their own distinct personality, and own identity. The growth of the same technology has increased the power of the state, allowing governments alter the lives of many in sweeping decisions, such as mass cuts to public spending. The society we live in today may be fundamentally different to societies of the past, but we are the product of our history.

The modern post industrial world is based on globalisation, driven mainly by the growth of ITC and the web. Globalisation has allowed individuals to transcend national borders and have a far greater sense of social responsibility across the globe, for example the web has allowed real time images of natural disasters on the opposite side of the globe, encouraging people to try and help, despite individuals ever likely to even visit the country in question. Wars are no longer fought with the aim of territorial gain, but to protect rights, usually based on western morality. Many have suggested that the web has brought the world closer, but all this has achieved is the flattening of culture, to be replaced by a global culture, based on an Anglo-American ideal, the British empire is far from dead, it just went digital. English is by far the global language of trade, the global language of the web, western imperialism could still be seen as alive and well. Globalisation is the complex marriage of society, economics, technology, and individualism, ideals which the west have long encourage and developed. Trade may have brought prosperity to many second world nations like China, but in an increasingly weightless economy (Quah,1999) the west still holds most of the trump cards.  

It is impossible to truly separate sociology and economics, they are intrinsically linked.

Written by ca306 on November 12th, 2010

Leave a Reply