Independent Media Centre Ireland

Enlightenment Thinking

category national | worker & community struggles and protests | opinion/analysis author Tuesday February 14, 2006 23:59author by Liam Mullen - Freelance journalist

“Few have captured the spirit of the Enlightenment, its intellectual and social agenda, as has Mozart in his operas.”1
The Enlightenment was a period when a break away from the time we know as the Renaissance took place. It was driven by developments in the Natural Sciences, and especially the work of Newton and Galileo. The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, had questioned: “What is Enlightenment?” From the Roman poet, Horace, he coined a phrase “Sapere aude” (‘dare to know’).2
Two important events conspired to bring about change. The Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution ended the old feudal system of working the land in agriculture, and the effects of this can still be seen today when we look at the state of farming: large farms owned by co-operatives, EC milk quotas, small farms dying out. Where once the land supported the majority of the people; today the opposite is true. Most people live in cities. Populations of cities have soared.
An effect of this has been globalisation. Travel is now much easier, and goods are transported with ease. Production often takes place outside of the west, which helps to drive down costs, but has had detrimental effects on certain countries like the ‘banana republics’ of South America. Another downside of this success story has been the influence of certain brands that have taken over: Coca cola, Fyffe’s, Time-Warner, and McDonalds. Some of these companies have larger budgets than some national countries, and as a consequence they wield enormous influence and power.4
The French Revolution, on the other hand, had far reaching consequences – not just for the French, but the world at large. The French realised they were slipping behind when they compared themselves to Great Britain. The French Revolution was an attempt to redress this imbalance. The peasantry arose against the aristocrats in 1798, and many were slain on the guillotine. The term ‘terrorism’ originated during this Revolution, and since then fascist governments have used terror. The Nazis in Europe were adept at his kind of terror, as were the secret police under the Stalinist regime.3
Guerrilla movements are, or have been, active in a lot of countries. Examples include Mao Tse-tung of China and the Fidel-Castro movement in Cuba. Examples along the same lines today would include the Irish Republican Army (although the Good Friday Agreement remains in place at the time of writing), and the Palestinian quest for an independent state along the West Bank.
The Victorians of Britain remained sceptical about the Enlightenment process, pointing with some justification towards the amount of blood that had been shed. The process of the Enlightenment really took hold in Scotland – writers like Smith, Ferguson, Miller and Kames, becoming highly influential. But even in Scotland there were differences between the Highlands and the Lowlands. The Enlightenment was an International movement though, and took hold in many countries.
In Holland the Enlightenment was embraced. Roy Porter (2001) in his book described the state of affairs in the Netherlands: “The Dutch Republic was thus, in the eyes of many, a nonsense, and no-one knew quite what to make of it.” Today, that statement still holds true – Holland is a very liberal society – and their recent decision to legalize euthanasia shows how forward thinking they are.
But Holland still didn’t have the financial clout of Britain, where three Englishmen were pivotal in advancing Enlightenment thinking – Bacon, Locke and Newton.1 Joseph Priestly, another Englishman, who had discovered oxygen, was one of the Enlightenment’s greatest scientists. England had the upper hand because of its colonialism policies.
In America, Franklin brought together Enlightenment politics and science. Rapid advances in science, and a break from medieval beliefs, which clung, religiously to faiths and dogmas, helped push the Enlightenment along. Comte is regarded as the father of sociology, and science has developed at such a rapid pace, that change is always taking place, and pushing the boundaries. Space travel is only one aspect of this trend; breakthroughs in genetic engineering and medicines also helped push the Enlightenment. Recent controversies include test-tube babies, and Dolly – the sheep that was cloned - has triggered huge public debates.
In medicine several Enlightenment writers were also doctors – Locke, Hartley, and La Mettrie. One change advanced was: “Progressive doctors urged that “ignorant” peasant midwives be abandoned in favour of expert male obstetricians for delivering babies.”2 It was probably from such comments that feminism arose. Darwin’s theory of evolution also influenced the thinking of the times. Other writers that influenced the times included Voltaire, Montesquieu and Diderot who wrote scientific papers. D’Alembert, Richard Price and Condorcet were mathematicians, and much of the study of sociology takes place through the study of tables and figures, much of which is derived from polls and surveys – not dissimilar to what Lansdowne Market Research and MORI does today. Prime Time on RTE also conducts similar surveys. Even Tom Paine – the inventor of the iron bridge – is associated with the Enlightenment. Daniel Defoe who wrote Robinson Crusoe also influenced, as did Charles Dickens.1
Philosophers debated the Enlightenment – men like William Godwin. Advances in medicine are occurring on a daily basis, with physicians engaged in a constant battle against heart disease and cancers and new diseases like Ebola and Sars. Sociologists have long held the view that sociology is a science, and can be studied as such, and this unique perspective is known as positivism.3
The work of Adam smith coincided with the emergence of industrial capitalism in the 18th century. His best-known work the Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, the same year as the American Declaration of Independence.
Smith’s theories about wealth came from the division of Labour argument – a division between trades and within trades. Specialised machinery changed the face of work, helped by concentrations of people living in cities.
Industrial capitalism brought huge prosperity, but also a lot of poverty. Manchester was an example of this. The 20th century brought new problems, including The Wall Street crash of 1929, which led to the Great Depression and two debilitating world wars. Men like Keynes were instrumental, and he was behind the thinking and planning of key organisations like the United Nations.
Prior to World War 1 Gramsci – an Italian economist – had challenged orthodox Marxism. A Socialist Revolution had broken out in Russia, and was held up as a model to the rest of the world. Gramsci had different ideas.
By the 1970’s and 1980’s a new crisis point was reached. Inflation was only one aspect. Neo-liberalism raised its head and was espoused by Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government, and by President Reagan in the US. A new ideology developed known as “Thatcherism”, and it was under Thatcher’s leadership that one of the greatest battles took place between the forces of capitalism and the workers with the miners’ strikes of the 1980’s. The writings of Hegel – an Austrian economist – contain important references about this time period.4
The collapse of the Soviet Union bloc brought uncertainty about reconstruction costs; the collapse of the Berlin Wall brought reunification problems for Germany; hunger manifested itself again in Indonesia where it had all been eradicated; and Argentina faced the collapse of its banking system. It wasn’t all bad news though. Certain East Asian countries had achieved significant growth, Japan for example, although the yen has had its problems too.
The Aer Lingus dispute shows what Marx called the ‘potential to resist’. Karl Marx was born in Germany and began his career as a journalist. He witnessed first hand the effects of the French Revolution. His work combines a mixture of English economics, French politics, and German philosophy. “The foundations of Marxism include secularism, empiricism, rationalism, materialism, and an optimistic faith in progress…”5 Marx called the potential to resist ‘Labour Power’ or ‘Labour Capacity’. He recognised an underlying tension between the forces of capital and labour, and noted that competition could have a similar effect.
In the Aer Lingus dispute the trade union IMPACT are negotiating with Aer Lingus management over the company’s plans to introduce a faster turnaround time for aeroplanes in return for 4%. The cabin crew are protesting this and have initiated a two-month work-to-rule.
Trouble is also brewing over the restructuring of Aer Rianta, which enjoys a monopoly position at Dublin Airport. Transport Minister Seamus Brennan is involved in these talks, and Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O’Leary is constantly critical of both Aer Rianta and what he sees as government ineptitude. A headline in the Irish Independent bears out this attitude: “Ryanair boss attacks ‘Dithering Bertie’.” The picture accompanying the piece, though funny, tells its own story.6
When Marx spoke about the specific dynamics of society, and the twin pressures of capitalism and worker pressure, he said that such a combination created fear. Bill Gates of Microsoft is an example of this. Despite his wealth he still has a fear of competitors and is driven to succeed. Marx also spoke about Relative Surplus Value, which has the effect of making commodities cheaper in the marketplace. An example of this today would be videos and mobile telephones. He also recognised the uncertainty about the marketplace – and this uncertainty exists in the property market in Ireland today. Marx also looked at unemployment and what he called the Industrial Reserve Army. He recognised that companies producing more goods, more cheaply, equated to fewer workers. The following table shows what happens:

Growth Technical Innovation Need for Labour Control
Money Commodities Money back

If the money back was not greater, then the capitalist was in trouble and was out of business. Once again this concept can be seen in Ireland today with long established businesses folding or going into liquidation. Fruit of the Loom, in Donegal, is an example that springs to mind. In America, Upright Incorporated, declared Chapter 9 proceedings.
Probably the best example of capitalism versus labour power occurred during the Great Lock-Out of 1913, when Jim Larkin led the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union out on strike.7
Capitalism can destroy itself though. Marx recognised this. Every capitalist wants his own workers to have lower wages, but he wants other workers to have higher wages so they can buy his goods. Marx recognised that decisions being made by a multitude of capitalists might not be to everyone’s advantage and he called this ‘The Anarchy of Capitalism’. He also recognised an over-accumulation of capital. Companies making so much money, that they could not reinvest it in the corporation. When this happened the money went into the money markets. An example of this today would be the car industry, where there is a surplus of 30% of cars. The following table shows the effect within, say, the computer industry.

8 computer Factories Increase production by 25% Result
Idle Capital Idle Labour Computer surplus

Idle labour is what led to the Great Depression of the 1930’s and led to the rise of National Socialism and Nazism. Other areas that show an over supply of goods would include the pharmaceutical and petrochemical industries.
For Marx this is a recurring problem with capitalism. Certain factors were noted; the devaluation of capital and commodities; prices going down; equipment write-offs; cutting prices of goods; collapsing companies; the collapse of money; and finally large scale war.
David Ricardo was also influenced by the work of Adam Smith. A successful stock investor, he was also a Member of Parliament in Westminster, and he argued for liberal traditions. Ricardo questioned ‘Rent’, and tried to break the monopoly of power by the landowners, making powerful enemies in the process. With the Industrial Revolution the UK was short of grain, and was now importing goods, with the result that food prices had quadrupled. Ricardo knew that less fertile land would determine food prices. He agreed with the principles of Free Trade. In Ireland the Irish Potato Famine helped bring about an end to the Corn Laws.
Ricardo saw rent as a minus factor in the production process but he could never figure out different industries, like the lumber and computer industries, yielded a similar level of profit.
Malthus – a Church of England pastor – had different ideas. He argued for the elimination of the poor laws. He criticised the Enlightenment. He argued that population increased by a geometrical rate (1,2,4,8,16), and that food because it was dependent on land increased by an arithmetical rate (1,2,3,4,5), and he deduced that over-population represented a constant threat to human prosperity. His message found an influential audience among the upper and middle classes of the UK, and he would have influence over government policies of the 19th century. He had Market Conservatism as opposed to the more liberal market views of Smith.
So what does the future hold? Some sociologists are arguing that we are already living through another phase. There is a decline evident in the Roman Catholic Church, a problem exacerbated by the late Pope John Paul 11, and his successor to St. Peter’s throne Pope Benedict XVI and his teachings in relation to abortion, women priests, and contraception, especially in light of the aids epidemic. His views on women priests have alienated many feminists from the teaching of the church. It should not be forgotten though that John Pope 11 has battled successfully against communism and has seen its demise in the former Soviet Union, and some people say he was the main motivator behind the fall of communism. In that he left a very rich legacy. Postmodernism or the Post Industrial age refers to the current changes taking place in society.

1 Kramnick, Isaac, 1995. The Portable Enlightenment Reader, New York, Penguin Books.
2 Porter, Roy, 2001. The Enlightenment, Hampshire, UK, Palgrave 2nd Edition
4 Ibid Chapters 2&3
3 Giddens, Anthony, 1989. Sociology, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, England Chapter 11, pg 362,363
1 Ibid
2 Ibid pg61
1 Ibid
3 Ibid pg 21
4 Bilton, Tony, Bonnett, Kevin, Jones, Pip, Skinner, David, Stanworth, Michelle, Webster, Andrew, 1996. Introductory Sociology, Third Edition, Hampshire and London, McMillan Press Ltd. Pgs.295-313
5 Mendel, Arthur P, 1961. The Formation and Appeal of Scientific Socialism in Essential Works of Marxism, USA, Bantam Books
6 Black, Fergus 2003. “Ryanair Boss attacks ‘Dithering Bertie’ in The Irish Independent, 1st November 2003
7 Yeates, Padraig, 2000, 2001. Lockout Dublin 1913, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan Ltd.

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