Market Mad House

In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. Friedrich Nietzsche

Historical Insanity

Does Decadent 18th Century Britain show us Decadent 21st Century America’s Future?

America is a decadent country, but history shows America’s greatest years could be ahead of it.

I think America’s greatest years could be ahead of it despite the decadence. History shows decadent nations are capable of tremendous growth, expansion, reform, and progress.

I consider 18th Century England one of the most decadent societies in human history. However, 18th Century England was one of the most progressive, creative, and expansionist societies in human history.

Decadent 18th Century England gave rise to the Industrial Revolution, the steam engine, capitalism, parliamentary democracy, modern finance, constitutional government, the common law, abolitionism, the English-language novel, modern history writing, newspapers, the modern conception of human rights, feminism, and the British Empire. Yet, 18th Century England was a decadent country.

Decadent 18th Century England

In the 18th Century, working class Britons spent their spare time guzzling gin and watching cockfights, while the aristocracy spent all its time playing cards, fox hunting, and having affairs. In addition, most 18th Century British institutions were corrupt.

The 18th Century British parliament, for example, was a cesspool of corruption that makes the modern American Congress look clean in comparison. For example, pocket and rotten boroughs elected many members of parliament in 18th Century Britain and Ireland.

To explain, a rotten borough was an empty or low-population area that elected a member of parliament. In an incredible act of gerrymandering and voter suppression, a rotten borough could represent under 100 voters. Meanwhile, big cities; including Manchester, had no parliamentary representation.

The rotten borough members of parliament (MPs) often bought their seats. Interestingly, many 18th century MPs had their seats bought for them by rich relatives. The rotten boroughs will remind many Americans of voter suppression and gerrymandering in the modern United States.

Nor was it just parliament that was for sale in 18th Century Britain. In 18th Century Britain, the rich could buy officers’ commissions in the army, Anglican bishoprics, and even noble titles.

Yes, even monarchs accepted and paid bribes in 18th Century Britain. In fact, King George III bribed parliament to implement his political agenda. Since the king was the richest man in the country, he was the biggest payer of bribes.

Beyond parliament, the official church in 18th Century England; the Anglican, was both secular and corrupt. The popular stereotype of a clergyman was the hard-drinking, card playing, womanizing, and fox-hunting country vicar whose “religion” consisted of a dull Sunday sermon full of meaningless platitudes.

Corrupt 18th Century Britain

Finally, 18th Century England’s wealth came from such horrible sources as the slave trade. Britain was one of the most successful slave-trading nations in the 18th Century.

The UK’s National Archives estimate British ships transported 3.1 million Africans to American slavery between 1640 and 1807. Frighteningly, the National Archives estimate 400,000 of those slaves died on the voyage to American servitude.

Few Britons questioned or objected to the slave trade until the 1770s and many people profited from it. For example, owners of slave-worked sugar plantations in the Caribbean bought many of the rotten boroughs. Moreover, slave trade money built many British cities including Bristol, Liverpool, and London.

Plundering and Corrupting the World

Nor was slavery the only corruption in 18th Century Britain. One of the country’s most powerful institutions was the British East India Company; or “John Company,” which engaged in the systematic plunder of India to enrich its officers and stockholders.

To plunder India, John Company mobilized an enormous army of Indian mercenaries. Hence, 18th Century Britain also corrupted other nations because many Indians participated in the corruption. To explain, many Indian mercenaries; or Sepoys, took John Company’s money and the chance to rob other Indians on the Company’s behalf.

Notably, the East India Company’s top general Sir Robert Clive found himself under investigation by parliament for corruption after he returned home. Parliament wanted to know the source of Clive’s £33 million fortune.

Beyond India, British slave traders corrupted Africa by paying local leaders to enslave other Africans. Moreover, British slave traders corrupted America and the Caribbean by selling slaves to planters in those areas.

Notably, the East India Company’s top general Sir Robert Clive found himself under investigation by parliament for corruption after he returned home. Parliament wanted to know the source of Clive’s £33 million fortune.

Beyond India, British slave traders corrupted Africa by paying local leaders to enslave other Africans. Moreover, British slave traders corrupted America and the Caribbean by selling slaves to planters in those areas.

Progress, Creativity, and Decadence

Hence, no society was more corrupt than 18th Century Britain, yet it was among the most progressive and creative countries in history.

Great minds at work in 18th Century Britain included; Sir Isaac Newton, Jonathan Swift, Edmund Burke, David Hume, James Watt, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, William Blackstone, John Wesley, Henry Fielding, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Malthus, Captain Cook, and Benjamin Franklin to name a few.

Technological innovations from 18th Century Britain; include the steam engine, low-cost printing, newspapers, the spinning jenny, power looms, canals, factories, the rediscovery of steel, and the marine chronometer to name a few. Intellectual advances from 18th Century Britain include constitutional law, abolitionism, human rights, feminism, capitalism, economics, journalism, Methodism, and English language novels.

The technological explosion in 18th Century Britain became the Industrial Revolution. Meanwhile, the intellectual advances arising from the Scottish Enlightenment led to both economics and constitutional government. The Scottish Enlightenment had a profound influence on America’s Founding Fathers.

The decades after 1800 saw incredible reforms in Great Britain. For example, The Slave Trade Act of 1807 banned the slave trade. In addition, the British Empire abolished all slavery in 1834. Comparatively, the United States did not abolish slavery until 1865.

Meanwhile, the Great Reform Act of 1832 put an end to rotten boroughs and began the slow process of expanding the vote to all Britons.

Expansion and Decadence

Interestingly, the British Empire went through a massive expansion in the 18th Century.

British armies conquered India, North America, Cuba, most of the Caribbean, and even the Philippines during the 18th Century. Strangely, the British conquered so much territory in the Seven Years War (the French and Indian War in America) they gave much of it back.

Meanwhile, Captain Cook discovered Hawaii, chartered the Pacific, and mapped Australia in the late 19th Century. Meanwhile, Sir Alexander Mackenzie crossed North America a decade before Lewis and Clark.

In addition, the British founded new colonies; such as Georgia, during the 18th century. Finally, the British began the conquest and settlement of an entire continent; Australia. in 1788.

Hence, Britain’s most decadent era; the 18th Century was its age of expansion. Therefore, I think history Ross Douthat’s thesis that decadent societies cannot expand is wrong. In 18th Century Britain, decadence and expansion occurred at the same time.

21st Century America and 18th Century Britain

Interestingly, 21st Century America (as viewed from 2020) has similarities to 18th Century Britain.

For example, 21st Century America; like 18th Century Britain, is the world’s richest and powerful nation. Additionally, 21st Century America is an imperialistic nation that dominates much of the world as 18th Great Britain did.

Modern American military power is vast but often clumsy and ineffective like 18th Century British military power. The 18th Century British could move armies around the world and dominate the oceans, but they could not defeat the American Revolution.

In addition, 18th Century Britain was the culturally and economically dominant country in Europe (sorry France). Similarly, 21st Century America is the culturally dominant country in the world. Notably, most of the influential modern art forms and entertainments originate in America.

Those art forms include movies, television, video games, rock music, jazz, comics, animation, pop music, and pulp fiction to name a few. However, local creators often adapt those art forms for regional markets in interesting ways. K-pop (Korean Pop), Japanese pro wrestling, Latin American telenovellas (soap opera), manga, anime, and British pop music are a few examples of this adaption.

Disruptive Technologies

Like 18th Century Britain, 21st Century America is experiencing great technological progress.

Recent American innovations include the internet, social media, software, apps, streaming video, digital payments, the global positioning system (GPS), smartphones, wireless, communications satellites, e-commerce, electronic banking, electronic equities and securities trading, personnel computers, tablets, video games, gaming platforms, and digital ecosystems.

These innovations are transforming our society, and economy just as the Industrial Revolution transformed Britain. Intriguingly, more disruptive technologies could wait in the wings.

Potentially disruptive technologies 21st America is pioneering include; artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, electric vehicles, self-driving vehicles, the Hyperloop, the interface of the computer and the human brain, virtual reality, genetic engineering, 3D printing, and fusion. All it will take is the success of two or three technologies to change our world beyond recognition.

The disruptive technologies; like the Industrial Revolution, are creating vast fortunes and driving income inequality. The world’s first and second richest men; Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are American tech entrepreneurs.

Additionally, the digital technologies are disrupting and destroying traditional economies and ways of life. For instance, Bezos’ Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) destroys Main Street businesses just as Britain’s textile industry destroyed cottage industries.

An Age of American Expansion

America’s Second Gilded Age of the last 30 years has been an era of exploration and expansion. Hence, the last 30 years in American history are comparable to the late 18th Century in Britain.

In the last three decades, American forces began operating all over the world. Notably, American troops appeared in Central Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and parts of the Middle East for the first time. In addition, American troops conquered Afghanistan and Iraq and waged war in Syria, Libya, Somalia, and many other places.

Moreover, America’s space agency NASA has explored much of the Solar System in the last 30 years. Just as Captain Cook explored the Pacific in the late 18th Century. In particular, NASA has been active on Mars for the last decade.

Recently, Elon Musk has kick-started space exploration and development through SpaceX. In fact, SpaceX has made more progress in the last decade than NASA and the Russian and Chinese space programs combined in the last 30 years.

In the past few years SpaceX has sent two astronauts into orbit, developed reusable rockets, and launched hundreds of satellites. Plans at SpaceX include the Starlink internet, a moon mission, and Mars colonization.

Is America Finished?

Therefore, America is expanding dramatically while skeptics such as Ross Douthat denounce the United States as decadent and stagnant and predict its collapse. Just as decadent 18th Century Britain conquered Canada and India, contacted Hawaii, and charted Australia, while Thomas Malthus expected its death.

Oddly, many Britons felt decadence doomed their nation in the decades between 1780 and 1810. In particular, Britain’s rulers were afraid of a French style revolution in the United Kingdom. Indeed, one reason for Australia’s founding was to give his Majesty’s Government a place to ship potential revolutionaries.

Others believed Britain was impotent and finished because of its loss in the American Revolution and inability to stop Napoleon’s armies. Strangely, Napoleon himself feared Britain’s Royal Navy and afraid to launch overseas expeditions. Notably, Lord Nelson wrecked Napoleon’s one attempt to lead an army outside of Europe; the disastrous Egyptian Adventure at the Battle of the Nile.

Many Britons in the 1790s and 1800s believed their nation was in decline and would France would soon conquer Britain. Today, many Americans believe China will soon supersede or conquer their country.

Likewise, late 18th and early 19th Century British cynics such as Thomas Malthus expected civilization itself to collapse. Much as many modern American doomsayers predict the collapse of civilization.

18th Century Britain vs 21st Century America

The parallels between 18th Century Britain and 21st Century America are striking. Similarities between the two countries include incredible levels of political corruption, vast income inequality, technological progress, military bungling, and incredible economic and geographical expansion.

In addition, it appears America is painfully undergoing a dramatic evolution in its social and economic thought. For instance, Americans are questioning basic institutions such as the police as Britons did in the late 18th Century.

One striking similarity is civil unrest. In May and June 2020, an unprecedented wave of protests and riots rocked American cities. Likewise, 18th Century Briton saw tremendous civil unrest in the form of the Gordon Riots and mutinies in the Royal Navy.

So yes, America is a decadent nation. However, America is still a country experiencing tremendous technological progress and expanding.

Will the American Empire shrink?

If 21st Century America keeps paralleling 18th Century Britain, retraction of Empire is probable. Notably, politics and military defeats forced the British to abandon many of their 18th Century conquests.

The British gave Cuba and the Philippines back to Spain, for example. In addition, the British abandoned most of North America to the United States after the American Revolution. However, the British soon began new imperial expansions in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, and elsewhere.

Hence, the United States could abandon troublesome areas of its empire; such as Afghanistan and the Middle East. However, new American expansion in space, on Mars, the Moon, and potentially Africa is probable.

If the 18th Century Britain parallel continues, America will experience an unprecedented age of reform and progress in the next two decades. Notably, 19th Century Britain underwent incredible reforms beginning with the abolition of slavery.

Only time will tell if decadent 21st Century America evolves into something better. However, British history shows decadence is not necessarily the end of a nation or an empire.