Category Archives: World History

How 1914 – 1930 Changed the World

World War I killed, lost, and wounded over thirty-five million people.  Civil wars and insurrections killed many more.  Disease killed fifty million.  Millions of people lived in poverty.  Millions more were under imperialistic rule.  Empires fell.  Nation-states were created.  Capitalism, colonialism, and democratic liberalism were in question.  International insecurity and competition led to rivalries and alliances.  Five empires fell during this time, the Qing, the Ottoman, the German, the Hapsburg, and the Russian.  The empires that survived faced opposition from the colonies as well as economic unrest at home.  World War I and its aftermath left the world searching for new economic and societal formats.

The alliances that were formed assured that when rivalry led to war, others would join.  Because of these alliances, a single terrorist attack in Sarajevo, Bosnia triggered a war that soon engulfed most of the world.  When Serbian terrorists killed the Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Bosnia, Austria blamed Serbia and declared war.  Germany was allied with Austria.  Russia was allied with Serbia.  The Russians declared war on Austria and the Germans declared war on Serbia and Russia.  France was allied with Russia so Germany initiated a pre-emptive attack on France that required German troops to travel through Belgium.  England was allied with Belgium and declared war on Germany.  Japan was allied with the British so they invaded German holdings in China and German held islands in the Pacific.  The Ottoman Empire sided with Germany and declared a holy war on England and France.  The United States entered the war on the side of Britain and France.  Britain and Germany extended the war into the colonies.  The colonies, particularly India and Africa, contributed resources, labor, and millions of lives for the benefit of their rulers.  The outcome of the war hinged on access to sustainable wealth.

Industrialism and colonial holdings provide that wealth.  Military buildup before and during the war meant increased wealth for the industrialized economies.  Science and industrial innovation created new tools for war and improved industrial capabilities enabled their mass production.  Colonial societies benefitted from increased exports.  Empires with holdings outside Europe and access to shipping lanes had the greatest chance of surviving.  Hardship and poverty because of sacrifices for the war effort led to dissatisfaction at home.  This brought about revolutions in Russia, Germany, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire.  The war ended when nations and empires ran out of money or lost the willingness to expend more lives and treasure.  Nor were the victors exempt from troubles at home.  Revolutions demanding independence or economic equality sprang up in the colonies.  Civil unrest, labor strikes, and revolutionary uprisings occurred in Canada, the U.S., Russia, and throughout Europe, East Asia, India, Africa, and South America.

Even more tension was created when the winners of the war divided the spoils arbitrarily, ignoring political, cultural, and linguistic divisions.  This created new rivalries and political unrest within the colonies.  Twenty-five million people found themselves to be minorities.  Colonial subjects fought for independence and the ruling parties fought to retain control over their subjects while fighting with one another to defend and expand their territorial holdings.

The end of the war brought home an increased work force as demand for industrial goods rapidly decreased.  Colonial subjects could no longer sell the commodities they had been forced to produce.  A worldwide economic depression followed the war.  Alternative philosophies were explored.  Italian Fascism, German Nazism, Russian Communism, Latin American Corporatism, and Japanese Militarism gained popularity.  Authoritarian rule began to look more capable than liberalism of responding to economic crises due to its ability to respond quickly.  Various forms of socialism and communism were presented as alternatives to capitalism.  Unfortunately, the more socially focused economic models that espoused various forms of central control were combined with authoritarian regimes that ruled through nationalism, propaganda, and violence.  These conditions combined to create even more unrest.

The Great War, the War to End All Wars, set the stage for the wars and political unrest that plagued the world for the next thirty years.  Liberal nations in Europe and the Americas were forced to implement more aggressive government interventions in the economy to reign in capitalism.  Both the authoritarian and liberal governments instituted social programs in an effort to alleviate suffering.  Inequalities plagued all.  The world still had not learned to create a society that could work for all.  The world was more unsettled than ever with many questions left unanswered.

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How the Industrial Revolution Changed Global Commerce

The second industrial revolution began in the middle of the 19th century and fundamentally changed global commerce.  Advances in science and technology allowed rapid development of new industrial techniques, new power sources, rapid communication and transportation, and new war machinery.  All this combined with innovations in financial systems such as the creation of limited-liability joint-stock ownership and the stock market, helped to move economic power away from government and more into the hands of the industrial capitalists and bankers.  Capitalism was embraced with a fervor and devotion few religions enjoy.

Global competition intensified when Germany, the United States, and Japan challenged Britain’s early lead in industrialization.  The need to secure existing colonial and imperial possessions and to acquire more became more important than ever.  This increasing competition caused both governments and industrialists to pour money into research, education, expanded industrial capabilities, and increased military forces and weaponry.  Besides coffee, tea, sugar, and other commodities, industries now needed new resources such as copper, rubber, oil, and bauxite.

This need for raw materials and the need to utilize industrialized farming techniques led to a new age of conquest, population dislocations, and subjugation.  The United States invaded Mexico in 1846 and forced them to cede half their territory, then in the late 1890s declared war on Spain and invaded the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.  The United States entered these wars under the pretext of freeing the colonies of Spanish rule but the concept of “American Exceptionalism” justified retaining domination of all three countries.  In India, after Britain put down the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a massive push for infrastructure began.  This came in the form of railways, communication lines, and a postal service, all for the support of the commercial interests of Britain and the East India Company.  British investors financed these projects but charged them to the Indians in the form of taxes.  Britain went on to conquer Malaysia, Burma, and Ceylon.  Between the 1860s and 1890s, France occupied Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos.  The Dutch had ruled Indonesia until they chose a policy of less government exploitation in favor of settlement and private exploitation.  Africa suffered most from this new wave of colonization.  In 1884 and 1885 delegates from Germany, Portugal, Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, the United States, and the Ottoman Empire partitioned an unmapped Africa.  No Africans were present.

All this upheaval and rapid change created unprecedented wealth for the industrial and banking magnates while poverty, exploitation, displacement, and low wages became the norm for the vast majority.  This period of technological advancement, industrialization, and global interdependence saw the coming of age of capitalism and its ideals implanted in the world’s psyche.

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Ye Shi – Abandoned Principles

Here is a quote from Ye Shi, writing in the late 12th early 13th century when foreign invaders held the north, referring back to a text from the Warring States period.

“One maintains a country with principles, with proper roles, and with the ability to change according to the circumstances. For the Zhong guo (the “Central country”) not to govern the Yi di (tribal peoples) is principle. For the Zhong guo to be the Zhong guo and for the Yi di to be Yi di is the proper role. We are in control of both. Therefore if they come to pillage then we go to war with them; if they come to submit then we receive them; to order them according to their reasons for coming is the ability to change according to the circumstances…The reason the Zhong guo is the Zhong guo is simply because it has these three thing. If we cast aside the tools by which we will necessarily be victorious and merely rely on deceit and force than we will have transformed ourselves into Yi di…However, although the Yi di are unprincipled, they always expect good faith and principle from the Zhong guo. The Zhong guo regards the Yi di as unprincipled and thus responds to them without employing good faith and principle. It does not understand that this is the reason it is the Zhong guo. Basically it cannot abandon something because the Yi di lack it.”

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Filed under China, Conditions of War and Peace, War, World Culture, World History

How the Enlightenment Failed Mankind

The scientific and industrial revolutions exploded in the age of conquest and discovery.  This period of conquest and discovery produced both the need and the financing for further scientific investigation.  Increased focus on education and research gave rise to the unintended consequence of advances in moral and cultural studies.  This moral and cultural enlightenment, and the social sciences it created, have been in conflict with capitalism since the development of the concept that certain rights exist in the individual and that these individuals have the right to create laws that control them and their governments.  While the Enlightenment did much to temper the pain, it did little to curb the advancement of imperial and economic conquest.  Capitalistic pursuits have had more influence on international relationships and global interactions than moral values.

The power of this new understanding found expression in the American and French revolutions.  The establishment of governments “by the people” raised new questions such as who is a citizen, who gets to vote, and who deserves equality.  The answers to these questions put the aristocrats and property owners at odds with those trying to achieve their newly imagined rights.  The moneyed interests prevailed, and only white, male, property owners gained suffrage.  This arrangement saw many more of the new ideas ignored and even perverted; ideas such as the immorality of slavery and sovereignty of native peoples.  The utilitarian view of “the greatest good for the greatest number” was twisted to justify conquest and colonialization of other cultures for their own good.  Both Europeans and Americans perverted Darwin’s theory of evolution to “prove” that Africans were lower on the evolutionary chain and it was therefore moral to treat them as animals.  Europeans and Americans continued to enslave Africans while Europeans maintained profitable slave trading networks in the name of economic growth.  Darwin’s ideas were also used the judge cultures and societies.  In addition, the ideas of Manifest Destiny and the belief in the white racial superiority were used to justify the eradication of Native Americans and the military conquest and eviction of the Mexicans from their own lands.

As formal imperialism began to slow, other informal forms of imperialism continued.  In Free Trade Imperialism , countries no longer used their navy and military might to monopolize trade routes and port cities; they now used the navy and military might to protect their interests abroad.  Free Trade Imperialism gains and maintains control through economic influence, dependence, and debt.  A common method of attaining these goals was to finance infrastructure such as railroads to transport goods and to provide markets for those goods.  This tactic placed tremendous pressure on the dependent countries to grant trade and other concessions to the more powerful trading partners and thus freed the conquerors of any responsibility for conquered societies.  This also relieved the citizens of the imperialist countries of the moral difficulties of conquering and controlling sovereign peoples.  Liberal Imperialism uses methods such as civilizing missions.  This involves evaluation of cultures based on economic and religious values.  If a society was not exploiting their resources for profit or they were not worshiping the right gods, they were classified as uncivilized heathens, incapable of ruling or educating themselves.  The only moral thing to do was to provide them with God, civilization, and leadership.

The process of free trade imperialism is very much alive today and spreading Euro-American capitalistic values around the world.  Not only European countries and the U.S. but also other economic powers such as Russia and China are encouraging domestic companies to spread their economic footprints.  Increasing the economic strength of privately owned companies increases the power and influence of the nation so governments provide protections for these companies.  This is illustrated by the military presence protecting Middle Eastern oil supplies and trade routes and economic and military aid to preferred countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and others by these same economic powers.

Liberal Imperialism was one aspect of the reasoning for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  The U.S. government removed a ruler that did not meet their standards.  A liberal democratic super-power of the world removed the ruler of a sovereign nation under the pretense of bringing democracy and a better life to the citizens.  Free Trade Imperialism then helped perpetuate the war due to the large number of private contractors employed whose only motive was profit.  This is just one example of the economic powers of the world interfering in the affairs of sovereign nations.

The ideas that developed in the Enlightenment Period alleviated tremendous amounts of suffering around the globe.  These new ideas were key elements to the revolutions and evolutions of democracy, ending slavery, and bringing about a greater awareness of injustice and inequality.  However, these powerful moral concepts have merely been treating the symptoms.  Much more dangerous to humanity are the goals that have been and still are driving economic development.  While the philosophers and social sciences tinker with making the path smoother, other than a few marginalized intellectuals, no serious examination of the direction of the path or of what might lie at its end.  The Enlightenment did so much for the people of the planet but it failed to stop the relentless march of capitalist theocracy to ecological damnation.  Perpetual economic growth requires infinite resources from a finite planet, which makes the very concept of continuous economic growth logically unsound.  The capitalistic system is a Utopian fantasy; the fantasy is that a system based on personal profit over the greater good can continue.  The advancements in moral and ethical philosophy and critical thinking have not enlightened enough people to prevent us from committing suicide by capitalism.

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Filed under Capitalism, The Enlightenment, Uncategorized, World Culture, World History

17th Century Cultural Awakening

A worldwide cultural and philosophical enlightenment accelerated around the globe in the 17th century.  Silver from the new world and people and goods from around the world moved on ever-expanding and complicated trade routes.  Knowledge and culture also traveled these trade routes, which enabled the peoples of the world to share and exchange art, science, music, religion, and philosophical ideas.

In the Americas, the Europeans borrowed art, music, and technical expertise from the aborigines and the African slave populations but this was mostly an uneven exchange.  The newcomers took what they could make use of and the others adapted under extreme coercion.  As European wealth and population grew, European culture soon displaced the cultures of the other inhabitants.

By the middle of the 17th century, European culture was flourishing due to the development of nation-states with more sophisticated administrations, consolidation of state wealth, and state control of military powers.  Its many political and religious struggles, along with the desire to advance its commercial ventures, resulted in advanced information gathering techniques.  This exposure to information inspired a search for knowledge that would fuel the European Enlightenment.  Abandoning Christian beliefs, Enlightenment thinkers searched for universal and objective knowledge that did not depend on religion, political views, class, or gender and would apply to all people and cultures.  Unfortunately, these same political, religious, and commercial ambitions also led to an era of internal and external wars.

The Ottoman Empire (1) avoided these religious wars through a philosophy of tolerance.  This helped create a rich, syncretic culture of diversity with a blend of ethnic, religious, and linguistic elements.  They accommodated Sufi and Sunni Muslims as well as Christians and Jews.  They allowed those of other religions to have their own schools and places of worship.  Ottoman scholars claimed, “An hour of learning is worth more than a year of prayer”.  The Ottomans stressed education based on the Humanities rather than the sciences with the emphasis on law, politics, religion, logic, and theology as well as advances in astronomy, physics, history, and geography.

Like the Ottomans, the Mughal Empire (2) ruled over a large non-Muslim population.  This allowed a broad and open Islamic culture of learning to develop which the Hindus and Muslims shared.  Through aesthetic refinement and philosophical sophistication, they bridged religious differences.  In the field of architecture, the Taj Mahal is an example of blending Persian and Islamic design with Indian materials and motif.  Their philosophical interests included the work of European philosophers as well as Sanskrit treatises.

In the Safavid Empire of Persia (3), Shah Abbas I (4) created a time of great prosperity.  This prosperity and royal patronage of the arts stimulated a cultural revival.  Shah Abbas I moved the capital to Isfahan and hired artists and architects from throughout Persia to build an ornate city that would rival Delhi and Istanbul.  The royal mosque was at the center of the city.  Next to the shah’s palace was a public plaza seven times larger than the Plaza of San Marco in Venice.  Other advancements in the arts included three-dimensional representation, perfection of the illustrated book, and an elaborate calligraphy.  Artisans produced mosaics of brilliantly colored tiles to adorn mosques and other buildings and elaborate silk and carpet products for export.  Intellectuals espoused a culture of ideals, aspirations, and wealth for the court, the property owners, and the commercial elites.  The Shiite version of Islam, which cultivated the more conservative values of Iranian societies found a home in the Safavid Empire.  The Safavids funded long established madrassas and brotherhood schools to educate the people.  This created a political-religious system based on Shiism and loyalty to the royal family.  Almost four hundred years after the end of the empire, Shiism remains the fundamental religion of the Iranian people.

China had a long tradition of learning that saw significant expansion due to a growing population and extensive mercantile networks.  Fueled by improved agricultural techniques and the influx of silver that accompanied increased Chinese exports this exchange of goods brought with it an exchange of ideas that allowed a culture of diversification and expansion that predated that of other cultures.  By the last decades of the Ming Dynasty (5), a publishing industry had developed and collections of books from around the world were housed in “magnificently built” and “finely adorned” libraries.  Connoisseurs of fine arts gathered collections at unprecedented levels and books became increasingly available, especially the study books for the civil service exams.  The Qing Dynasty (6) continued the practice of civil service exams and made the schools available to all.  China escaped the religious warfare suffered by Europe because while they did recognize spiritual entities, they did not consider any of them as a supreme being who favored one faction over another.

In the Tokugawa Shogunate (7) of Japan, there was a renewed interest in European culture.  The long influence of Chinese ways blended with Japanese traditions and European teachings.  Increased trade and wealth and an extended period of peace enabled thriving cultural growth.  Literacy reached as high as one third of the population and popular novels sold as many as 12000 copies.  Booksellers as well as libraries made books readily available.  The fine arts also flourished including Kabuki Theater and elegant tea/contemplation ceremonies.  Chinese Confucianism offered a set of legal teachings and blended with Buddhism, yet did not displace Shinto as a way of worship.

A global cultural awakening occurred in the three centuries surrounding the 17th.  As various cultures were shared and exchanged around the world, the cultures that survived were enriched in ways that cannot be measured.  While the Chinese and Islamic worlds retained their own cultures and systems of knowing, Europeans had more influence on the rest of the world, but traces of all these cultures can still be observed around the world today.

(1)  Ottoman Empire         1301 – 1922

(2)  Mughal Empire            1556 – 1605

(3)  Safavid Empire           1501 – 1722

(4)  Shah Abbas I              ruled 1587 – 1629

(5)  Ming Dynasty             1368–1644

(6)  Qing Dynasty             1644–1912

(7)  Tokugawa Shogunate  1603–1867

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Filed under The Enlightenment, World Culture, World History

Capitalism Conquers South America

The conquest of the Americas was not planned or foreseen.  It was an uncoordinated pell-mell rush to acquire souls and gold.  The Catholic Church’s need for souls and man’s desire for “wealth” drove this madness.  No one knows where the souls went and the cost of the so-called wealth may prove to be more than the world can afford.  For the peoples being discovered or enslaved this was a time of devastation and destruction.  For the majority of the people of Europe all this new found wealth brought only pain and suffering.  Life was hard for European peasants and laborers and intolerable to impossible for indigenous Americans and Africans.

The discovery of the New World by Columbus at the end of the 15th century launched the Age of Discovery.  A Papal Bull (Dum Diversas) issued in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V authorized Portugal to enslave any non-Christians .  This opened the African slave trade to Europe.  In 1455 Pope Nicholas V issued the Romanus Pontifex which extended Catholic nations of Europe dominion over lands yet to be discovered.  In 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued the Inter Caetera bull establishing the Law of Nations.  Together the Papal decrees led to the global slave-trade of the 15th and 16th centuries, and the Age of Imperialism.

By the end of the 15th century Europe had depleted the fertility of its farmlands through monoculture farming and polluted its streams and rivers and even the off-shore fishing waters.  The Ottomans had severed the overland trade routes to the East.  Europe desperately needed access to new resources.  These resources were found in the New World.  The Europeans were not concerned that these lands and resources were being utilized by other people.

By 1455 Spain and Portugal had full permission to “convert or invade, capture, subjugate, and perpetually enslave any non-Christians”.  This gave the people of both nations legal and moral authority to plunder the wealth of the Americas.  The Spanish began enslaving the indigenous people of the Caribbean with the arrival of Columbus. On his first trip he returned with a few samples of the product and on the second voyage he sailed with 500 Arawak men, women, and children to be sold as slaves.  Only 300 survived the trip.  He later wrote “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”  However, so many died on later Atlantic crossings that this proved to be not as profitable as using these people as local slave labor.  They would rape their own lands to feed Europe’s greed.

During the first decades of colonization, abusive slavery and infectious diseases had killed so many Americans that a new source of labor was needed.   The first African slaves were brought to the New World as early as 1502.  The Spanish were not deeply involved in the slave trade so the British and the Dutch slave traders kept them supplied.  On the other side of South America the Spanish were busy stealing silver and gold using enslaved or conscripted indigenous people.

And the ecological imperialism was equally devastating.  The Portuguese “harvested” the Brazilwood trees for ship building and export.  In place of the forests, they planted the same sugarcane crops that had depleted the soil of the Mediterranean islands.  By this time the Brazilian natives had either died from diseases or had fled into the forests.  The Portuguese looked back to Africa for the labor that was needed for ecosystem destruction and monoculture faming.

All this stolen wealth did not help the people of Europe; for most of them it was a world of conquest, violence, hunger, inflation, and exploitation.  In most parts of Europe, two per cent of the population owned ninety-five per cent of the wealth.  What wealth the bourgeois did not piss away on trinkets and toys they spent on wars; religious wars between and within countries, wars to steal more wealth from other Europeans or to protect their own, and wars to put down the many peasant uprisings.

The discovery and exploitation of the New World is usually depicted as a great advancement for mankind but how is that to be determined?  Not by the improvements in warfare.  Not by the number of dead and unborn.  Not by the increased inequalities or the added wealth of the few.  And certainly not by the things we don’t know we lost.  We have no idea of the wisdom and knowledge these people may have contributed to the world.  Maybe the only believers in the One True God died in a silver mine or on a plantation somewhere.  And what was lost in the ecological destruction?  From the evidence of what was lost and the lack of evidence of what was not gained we may never be able to evaluate the five hundred year period from the end of the 15th century to the end of the 20th.  This age of parasitic devastation is coming to an end.  As of now, this same capitalistic drive is still at work, systematically turning the earth and everything on it into wealth, but it can’t go on much longer.  We have passed the point of sustainability.

“What do I think of Western civilization?  I think it would be a very good idea.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

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