“Everyone knew it. Rarely has revolution been more universally predicted, though not necessarily for the right countries or the right dates.”

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution

“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now […] We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.”

Ursula LeGuin

When a crack appears in a dam, there’s only a small window in which a repair can be made. Once the crack passes the threshold of repair, the forces of gravity and the weight of the water held back make the endpoint inevitable. The dam will be destroyed, the water will flow, a stream will appear.

In the period of 1789-1848 in Europe, there was such a dam. Built of rigid social hierarchies, the absolute power of aristocracy, and the moral sanction of the church, it restrained and extracted value from the great mass of feudal subjects and a much smaller number of middle class craftsmen and merchants. At the end of the 18th century, two cracks appeared in this dam at nearly the same time. By the beginning of the 20th century, the dam was gone and every inch of the globe had experienced aftershocks its disappearance.

The first crack was the French Revolution. It transformed the king into a mortal man, from divine symbol into mere politician. It turned the church from the house of god into land to be confiscated, and introduced the idea everywhere that reforms by vote that are ignored become reforms by blood.

The second crack was the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. A great many contingencies had to come together for the British Empire to arise and for the engine of the domestic economy to turn from pastoral agriculture in the English countryside towards William Blake’s dark satanic mills. But they did come together, and that produced such a huge buildup of wealth that it broke the world, like a black hole distorting the very fabric of spacetime.

The work of the French Revolution never quite got finished, and the problems with a capitalist industrial economy—problems that were spotted almost immediately by both participants and observers of the new industrial paradigm; thinkers that thought it was not a tenable system included economists, politicians, factory owners, journalists, and bankers, as well as utopian visionaries—broke social contracts and created the need for poverty to enforce labor discipline. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are dying of this work left undone.

Progress toward political equality has stalled almost everywhere. All of Earth’s ecosystems are in existential distress because of the demand for extraction and growth by the modern global economy. In the last 15 years, I my mind has opened from the attitude that people who prophesize about “the revolution” were unserious and to be dismissed, to thinking that they are certainly right. What the damage to the planet is, I don’t know, nor do I know what things we are going to be asked to accept as normal as conditions deteriorate and freedoms dwindle.

But the status quo cannot hold. The forces of social unrest that are at work in the world right now will not return to the status quo ante, any more than the water can be returned to the reservoir once the dam breaks.

I picked up this book because I do not have the ability right now to imagine what comes next other than a broken version of now. I think that reading about the circumstances in which industrial capitalism arose has opened my eyes to how many things could have gone a little differently and produced a different result. Hobsbawm is a genial and stylish guide to this time, and I felt like I got a lot out of this reading experience, despite a couple places where his frame of reference serves him wrong, specifically gender and racial analysis and not being able to see the future past when this was published in the 60’s.

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