On the 325th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution: The historical significance of the English Civil War (Part Six)
By Mark Wegierski
Ultimately, it was not the dour Puritans who were to reap the benefits of Cromwell's victories, but the Whigs, properly defined. This was the haute-aristocracy and rising merchant-classes, who prevailed after 1688, in the period known as "the Whig supremacy". Discarding the earlier royal and feudal paternalism, the Whigs created what basically was an open oligarchy, enjoying little sense of legitimacy, and maintaining itself largely by naked force, the prison and the press-gang, as well as by the ideology of "anti-Popery". A paradigmatic example of their system of rule was the class of absentee landlords in Ireland. England had passed from being a society defining itself by monarchical and aristocratic honor (which at least nominally acknowledged the paternal responsibilities of a ruling-class) to a society defined by capitalist money (where, for example, the starving to death of the poor was deemed to be a fitting result of their "idleness"). Typical of this stance was the strong criticism of Charles I's extensive distribution of food to the poor in a time of famine, as profligate and unnecessary state-intervention. Ultimately, the religious idealisms and enthusiasms of the Puritans led not to a renewal of asceticism and fundamentalist, "back-to-the-basics" Christianity, but to the flowering of the most intense new forms of industrial development, money-making, and exploitation.
A transition which was vital to the future emergence of the United States had been made in the English Civil War, and its real fruit, the so-called Glorious Revolution. The American Colonies, especially in New England, intensely concentrated Protestantism, as well as the new English system and its ideas, transforming it in the unencumbered atmosphere of the "open" New World into something even more potent. The justifications for the American Revolution were responses to – it could be argued -- comparatively minor administrative encumbrances. (It might be quite instructive to compare the impositions of King George III to, for example, the impositions of the U.S. federal government today.) As in the English Civil War, it could be argued that it was a revolutionary vanguard that strove to carry out its program. And again, it could be argued that it was mostly the interests of the oligarchs that were served.
It may be difficult to understand today that American and Canadian patriotisms are quite different in their origins. It may be remembered that the harried refugees of the American Revolution -- stripped of their erstwhile social position and most of their possessions -- the so-called "Tories", or "United Empire Loyalists" – settled mostly in Upper Canada (Ontario) and the Maritimes. They allied with the traditional French society of Quebec to eventually form the Canadian state (polity) in 1867, which remained culturally quite distinct from America right up to the 1960's, and politically even to this day.
The success of the American Revolution, which would have probably been made both conceptually and physically impossible by Cromwell's defeat in the English Civil War, created what became a restless society constantly pushing at the envelope of social and technological change, while at the same time being characterized by an entrenched and virtually impermeable world-level oligarchy, which seems to have grown in power with every revolutionary surge. For example, although the 1960s movements were characterized by (among other features) idealistic and sentimental feelings of opposition to the large corporations, by the 1990s, transnational corporations had reached new pinnacles of economic influence and power.
Nevertheless, one can see in the history of America, an ongoing conflict between an "organic America" (which could be characterized by various terms like "the heartland", or "fly-over country") and an "oligarchical America" (which could be characterized by terms such as "the megapolitan centers", or "the bicoastal elites"). The irony is that without the workers, farmers, soldiers, policemen, and small-businessmen provided by the "organic America" – the "oligarchical America" would have foundered. The "oligarchical America" appears to have little sense of stewardship, gratitude, or care for the "organic America." It is difficult to explain, for example, how the ongoing "de-industrialization" of America – with its massive outsourcing and loss of jobs -- became an acceptable policy. Also, policies of high immigration have been imposed on America since 1965 despite widespread popular opposition.
It is possible to see the history of America as characterized by an ongoing series of revolutionary and transformative upheavals, which share many features with the initial defining upheaval of the so-called "Anglo-American societies" -- the English Civil War. Just as an "oligarchical Britain" has tended to undermine the "organic Britain", an "oligarchical America" has – at virtually every point in its history -- continued to undermine the "organic America" – until there is substantially very little remaining of the latter.
It could be argued that the ironic aftermath of the Sixties' revolutions is such, in its drive to unlimited technological advance, consumption, and grotesque selfishness, and its desire to impose this way of life on the entire planet, and all local cultures, that neither the American Republic in any marginally meaningful sense, nor possibly the ecosphere itself, will survive the outcome.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.