Of Historical Illusions and Vain Predictions

Without venturing a guess about how and when the current election will end, I note in passing that predictions about its aftermath are all over the map.  They range all the way from a panacea of globalism to a dystopia of one party tyranny. Since there is an oracle for virtually every possible scenario, a few of them are bound to utter prophecies that more or less approximate what will actually happen. History attests to the fact that this can generally be attributed to good luck. Today’s lucky prophets tend to press their luck and expose themselves as charlatans the next time they venture to read the tea leaves.

Of course, the vast majority of predictions turn out to be dead wrong. Often, they can be dated according to the ideological fashions that happened to be in vogue at the time they were made. Consider, for example, the confident predictions of one Brooks Adams, published in an article entitled The New Industrial Revolution in the January, 1901 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Adams was an eminent political scientist and historian of the day, and a great-grandson of President John Adams. Wikipedia has a blurb about him. Evolution was all the rage in those days and, like many other social Darwinists of his day, Adams apparently sought to apply the great man’s theory without ever bothering to read what he wrote. Among other things, he imagined that “natural selection” took place at the level of modern nation states, causing “lesser” states to perish, and “higher” ones to replace them.

Adams’ deductions were suitably cloaked in “scientific” mumbo-jumbo such as the following:

The law regulating human development may possibly be formulated somewhat as follows: Nature favors those organisms which, for the time being, operate cheapest; but organisms are wasteful which, relatively, lack energy. An organism may fail in energy either because it is deficient in mass, or because it has been imperfectly endowed with energetic material. In either case the result is the same: organisms which, compared with others, are wanting in energy are wasteful, and, being wasteful, nature rejects them. Applying this law to recent social phenomena, certain deductions may be made which are not without interest regarding the past, and may be worthy of consideration in view of the future. An inquiry of this kind must begin with Europe, which until lately has been the focus of activity.

According to Adams, efficient means of transportation were a critical source of this “energy.” Europe had led the way into the “first” industrial revolution because, “…before railroads, its physical formation lent itself in a supreme degree to cheap transportation by water.” However, an even more abundant source of “energy” had appeared with the introduction of modern rail systems. Adams noted that, “…the introduction of the railroad permitted the consolidation of larger and more energetic masses than had theretofore existed.”

Germany had been the first European state to complete a consolidated rail system between 1866 and 1870, leading to, “…the downfall of France and the transfer to Berlin of a large treasure, in the shape of a war indemnity.” The United States could only build such a system by massive borrowing abroad, resulting in debts that seemed impossible to repay. According to Adams,

Perhaps no people ever faced such an emergency and paid, without recourse to war. America triumphed through her inventive and administrative genius. Brought to a white head under compression, the industrial system of the Union suddenly fused into a homogeneous mass. One day, without warning, the gigantic mechanism operated, and two hemispheres vibrated with the shock. In March, 1897, the vast consolidation of mines, foundries, railroads, and steamship companies, centralized at Pittsburg, began producing steel rails at $18 the ton, and at a bound America bestrode the world. She had won her great wager with Fate; society lay helpless at her feet; she could flood the markets of a small, decentralized, and half-exhausted peninsula with incalculable wealth.

Suddenly, Europe faced an existential threat:

The end seems only a question of time. Europe is doomed not only to buy her raw material abroad, but to pay the cost of transport. And Europe knew this instinctively in March, 1897, and nerved herself for resistance. Her best hope, next to a victorious war, lay in imitating America, and in organizing a system of transportation which would open up the East.

And what was meant by “opening up the East?” Nothing less than carving up China and divvying it up among the European states after the fashion of Poland. Adams continues,

Carnegie achieved the new industrial revolution in March, 1897. Within a twelvemonth the rival nations had emptied themselves upon the shore of the Yellow Sea. In November Germany seized Kiao-chau, a month later the Russians occupied Port Arthur, and the following April the English appropriated Wei-hai-wei; but the fact to remember is that just 400 miles inland, due west of Kiao-chau, lies Tszechau, the centre, according to Richthofen, of the richest coal and iron deposits in existence… A convulsion in China has long been anticipated as the signal for a division of the empire by an agreement of the Powers, somewhat as Poland was apportioned a century ago.

However, Europe had been foiled in its attempt to expand eastward. Russia’s trans-Siberian railroad could not supply the necessary “energy,” as later became painfully clear in the Russo-Japanese War, and the United States had blocked the alternative route by sea by seizing the Philippines. Thus,

…while caging Europeans within their narrow peninsula, she is slowly suffocating them with her surplus. Any animal cornered and threatened will strike at the foe; much more, proud, energetic, and powerful nations. Nevertheless, war is an eventuality which each can ponder for himself.

Adams was hardly unique in suggesting the possibility of a pan-European war against the United States at the time, either here or in Europe. He did suggest something close to the alternative that was finally tried many years later, after two devastating World Wars:

Obviously, great economies may be effected by concentration. Disarmament, more or less complete; the absorption of small states, like Holland, Belgium, Denmark, and the like; the redistribution of the Austrian Empire; the adoption of an international railroad system, with uniform coinage and banking; and, above all, the massing of industries upon the American model, may enable Europe to force down prices indefinitely, and possibly turn the balance of trade.

Meanwhile, however, things looked a great deal more apocalyptic:

Americans must recognize that this is war to the death, – a struggle no longer against single nations, but against a continent. There is no room in the economy of the world for two centers of wealth and empire. One organism, in the end, will destroy the other. The weaker must succumb… In the stern struggle for life, affections, traditions and beliefs are as naught. Every innovation is resisted by some portion of every population; but resistance to innovation indicates, in the eye of nature, senility, and senility is doomed to be discarded. When a whole nation becomes senile, like the Chinese, it perishes. That nation thrives best which is most flexible, and which has the fewest prejudices to hamper adaptation…Should America be destined to prevail, in the struggle for empire which lies before her, those men will rule over her who can best administer masses vaster than anything now existing in the world, and the laws and institutions of our country will take the shape best adapted to the needs of the mighty engines which such men shall control.

Such was the illusion of reality in the mind of a proud social Darwinist a bit over a century ago. To say the least, the 20th century resulted in an “attitude adjustment” regarding the future of mankind. China no longer seems quite so close to “perishing,” and Pittsburg is no longer the epicenter of the “New Industrial Revolution.” We have a different perception of reality today, but who is to say that our versions, and our confident predictions about the future, aren’t even more befogged than those of Adams? If anything is true, it is that our species tends to vastly overestimate its own intelligence. It is also true that, then as now, individuals survive or they don’t. That is the real question of “to be or not to be” facing each of us, regardless of the nature of the societies we happen to live in.

I note in passing that the issue of the Atlantic Monthly linked above has some articles about the ordeal of Whites in the South during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War that portray a somewhat different version of their plight than that taught in universities today. One of them was written by future President Woodrow Wilson.

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