November 21, 2011

Occupy the past

Writing about the Occupy Wall Street movement, Victor Davis Hanson observes that

Revolutionary movements throughout history are so often sparked by the anger, envy, and disappointments of an upper-middle cohort, highly educated, but ill-suited for material success in the existing traditional landscape.

This brings to mind the Japanese term gekokujô (下克上), or "juniors dominating seniors," which is used to describe revolutions from below.

Such as the overthrow of the Tokugawa regime in the mid-19th century. Not only was the regime brought down by the "outsider" clans (clans defeated by Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Sekigahara back in 1600), but the governors of those provinces often banded together with lower-ranked samurai against the entrenched interests of upper-class samurai.

The upper-class samurai—think of them as tenured professors—were fully invested in the system going on the way it was. They had theirs and as far as they were concerned, the entire purpose of society, government and the economy was to keep on providing it until the end of time.

Given misery stipends and prevented by sumptuary laws from engaging in "vulgar" business, lower-class samurai—think of them as adjuncts—were often worse off than the merchants at the bottom of the class structure. When the feudal order broke down, these lower-class samurai were at the forefront of the political and economic revolutions.

Unfortunately, even after upending the status quo, many remained prisoners of the delusion that the system could continue with slight modifications (namely, they'd be in charge). They became the personification of Upton Sinclair's observation, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

But there are limits to government largess, no matter how worthy the recipients. One of the first policies enacted by the Meiji government was the elimination of the feudal classes and the stipends paid to the samurai simply for being born government employees. In the words of Margaret Thatcher, they'd run out of other people's money.

The same samurai who'd overthrown the Tokugawa shogunate decided that this was a bridge too far and recruited Saigô Takamori to launch a counter-revolution. In the ahistorical Hollywood version, we're supposed to identify with the ex-samurai fighting to preserve the feudal order and their class privileges. A probably unintended message, but still very telling.

The expectation that because we've been getting a "defined benefit" in the past, we deserve to keep on getting it (plus a cost-of-living adjustment) forever is deeply ingrained in human nature. It is our economic original sin and we can't bear to leave Eden. Which is why David Brooks throws up his hands and says "We're going to be Greece."

The tragedy of the Meiji Restoration is that Saigô Takamori's back-to-the-future vision only grew stronger after his death. It took the destruction of the entire country to finally quench the flame. The worse thing we can do now is imagine that things can go back to the way they were. If we can't learn from the past, at least we can refrain from trying to live there.

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