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The irony of an authoritarian Protestant king: The golden age of politics and economics bequeathed to us by the Protestant movement and the Glorious Revolution is coming to an end. No longer fit for purpose it must be ushered into the annals of history if we are to survive the coming decades.

Image courtesy of Alamy

More than anything, what Trump’s populist political acumen has tapped into in the United States, is far more innate to the American condition and has deeper roots in history than many realise.  For what it represents is a last gasp and dying war cry of the economic, social, and political golden age that was bequeathed to us by the Protestant movement from the late 17th century onwards and whose star has waned to the point of finding itself almost on proverbial life support today.

What was once revolutionary and helped ignite the Industrial Revolution, was a lightning rod for modern liberal parliamentary democracy and arguably led to both the French Revolution and the U.S. War of Independence, is no longer fit for purpose. 

In an age where the old Protestant work ethic is being battered by the advance of capital and innovation.  Driven by technology and automation, labour has seen its share of the pie slowly ebb away from at least the 1980s.   And that has eroded that loftiest of American ideals, that hard work always leads to more reward.

And at a time when civilization-threatening climate change (and as the recent pandemic also demonstrated), we now increasingly require counter-intuitive, humanity-wide concerted action and collective sacrifice that are alien to the very foundational Lockean principles of “life, liberty and property” and the pursuit of happiness upon which the U.S. was founded.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688

If you ask most British people when the last invasion of the country was, most, from all backgrounds will instinctively tell you 1066 and the Norman invasion led by William the Conqueror. 

But this is incorrect. 

It is in fact 1688, led by another William – William of Orange, the Dutch King at the time.  William invaded with an armada of more than three times the size of its more famous predecessor – that of the Spanish one in 1588.  But the invasion, of England at least, was largely peaceful, and done at the behest of the Protestant noblemen in Britain keen to depose James II, the last Catholic monarch of Britain. 

It is one of the most important dates in modern British history by all accounts but isn’t mostly taught in schools, mainly because two years later, James II made his last stand in Ireland at the Battle of the Boyne that he lost.  An event that is still celebrated annually to this day by Protestants in Northern Ireland (known as the Orange Order) and detested by its Catholic population, leading to perennial clashes.  Certainly, when I was growing up and the Troubles in Northern Ireland were in full swing (albeit at their tail end), it was far more controversial. 

But this is to leave a gaping hole in one of the most far-reaching events in the country’s long and storied past.  The Glorious Revolution of 1688 as it came to be called, set in motion events that were to lead to fundamental changes not only in Britain’s economic, social, and political landscape, but also in the pre-nascent United States as well, and to whom the U.K. of course ultimately passed the mantle of global power in the mid-20th century.  It could be argued that the world might have been a very different place, possibly without Western hegemony without it.

The catalyst for the invasion was the birth of James II’s son.  This would have ensured a continuation of the Catholic lineage on the British throne that up to that point would have passed to James’s sister Mary, married to William of Orange, both whom were Protestant.  William of Orange’s official reason for the invasion was “to protect the Protestant religion.”

But it was more than just a matter of religion.  James II had attempted to rule very much in the spirit of other European Catholic monarchs, believing in the absolute power of the throne which extended to direct, authoritarian rule over the colonies in the Americas.  William of Orange (who subsequently became William III when he took the throne), was more of a Protestant liberal brand of ruler, and immediately placed himself under the rule of law of Parliament.  Not a year later, the Bill of Rights was passed bequeathing civil rights to citizens and siphoning power away from the King.  It was to be the last time Britain was to be ruled by an absolute monarch and marked the birth of modern parliamentary democracy and political economy that we know today.

The principles upon which the Glorious Revolution were founded, leaned heavily on a group of philosophers and political scientists that helped start the period of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries and that had roots in the protestant movement and its rejection of centralised papal power. 

And principle amongst them was John Locke. 

Sympathetic to the Puritanical cause (although Church of England himself), Locke’s ideas had been influenced by the movement’s persecution on the continent.  He had a “live and let live” attitude vis-a-vis religious rights and believed the right of freedom of expression of the individual in their ultimate pursuit of ultimate happiness.  He became known as the ‘father of liberalism’.

In economic terms, the effect of this new-found liberalism was to revolutionise the world of finance by providing predictability and institutional protections to lenders they had not enjoyed under the whims of monarchs with limited lifespans.  The ultimate effect was fiscal responsibility and confidence in the new form of government that had not existed under direct monarchial rule. Within 5 years, in 1694, a central bank had been set up (the second oldest after the Swedish one) to further advance and organize national monetary policy.  Not only that, but it was also the beginning of more sophisticated financial instruments such as using government debt as collateral to borrow against.  Ultimately, private sector loans exploded – both the supply and demand of them.  And led indirectly to the birth of the Industrial Age not 60 years later, providing a steady and reliable source of funds to nascent industries.

In cultural terms, the Protestant ethos championed liberal ideas on contraception contrary to those of the Vatican.  This led to smaller family units and therefore more concerted capital accumulation over generations, increasing the wealth pool.  And Lockean ideas on individual property rights and that were enshrined into law by the Glorious Revolution meant that land could no longer be expropriated by the capricious whims of a monarch and helped put Western society firmly on the path to modern-day capitalism.  

In the American colonies, the Glorious Revolution loosened the tight grip James II had tried to impose on them through direct rule, bypassing colonial assemblies – which was their equivalent of Parliament.  Britain became far more sympathetic to their calls for increased and colonial assemblies were almost immediately re-established after the Glorious Revolution.  It has been argued that this loosening and the ideas borne out of the Glorious Revolution put in motion events that led to the War of Independence nearly a century later.  What it certainly did, was lay the groundwork for the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Bill of Rights that followed.  The phrase “pursuit of happiness” was lifted straight from Locke into the Constitution by Thomas Jefferson, and even some passages from the English Bill of Rights of 1689 made it into the American one.

The Glorious Revolution, based on the Lockean principles of liberalism – itself borne out of the Protestant movement – and that finally put to bed the rule of absolute monarchs in Britain very much sowed the seeds for the world we live and know today. 

The kicked invariably kick back….

Blackadder the Third – BBC – 1987

But things began to turn sour in the United States within a century. 

One of the absolute truths of human nature is that those who are persecuted will lash out at the first opportunity available:  Returning slaves to Africa liberated after the American Civil War and resettled in Liberia created their own elitist and discriminatory class that beat down on the local population, and ultimately led to civil war and the near failure of the state in the 80s and most of the 90s.  And of course, millennia of persecution of Jewish people in Europe that culminated in one of the darkest episodes of genocide in history led to the creation of the Israeli state and subsequent confrontation with the Palestinians; Something we are all watching in real time today, in retaliation for the terrible act of terrorism committed by Hamas.

And so it was for the Protestant movement, especially in the U.S. 

Ideas of personal freedom and liberty were exposed for their limitations and were tempered by ideas of racial superiority over the native Indian tribe and of course Black America. Locke’s “life, liberty and property” became the right for southern and mid-western states to own humans as property and railed against the tyranny of centralised (federal) government. This of course exploded into the U.S. Civil War in 1861, still the war with the highest American body count by a long shot, over a third higher than that of the second world war. The argument as to where the lines are drawn; Where Lockean principles should give way, has been at the heart of the centuries-long tussle at the heart of American discord and what fuels the culture wars today. 

Europe largely escaped these contradictions.  Most of Europe was Catholic and took a separate path (Germany being a notable exception whose own path was unique in many ways). In Britain, their own civil war that had preceded the Glorious Revolution had brought in a period of puritanical rule that most people baulked at. This was coupled by the fact that the Church of England was the dominant Protestant denomination with the monarch as its head, since the time of King Henry VIII in the 16th century.  So, the fortunes of both became tied.  And as they began to wane for the monarchy post-1688, so did they for religion and its more zealous aspects in socio-political British life.

In the United States though, Lockean principles were encoded into the Constitution., making them brittle and far harder to update.  And as times have changed, America has strained to face its new realities without breaking its political contract with its people.  This was best exemplified most recently during the pandemic, where the need for collective action was dominated by debate over individual liberties and Lockean rights in the U.S. and even to a lesser extent in the U.K. The pandemic and the collective sacrifices that were demanded to varying degrees all over the world were mostly considered in both countries through the arguments of individual liberties infringed.  Certainly, in the United States by President Trump and his administration at the time. 

This bodes badly for the coming upheaval that will be created over decades by climate change.  Where collective actions and constant sacrifices will be demanded as the problem becomes more acute and obvious.  Lockean principles are just not equipped to deal with such a sea change required. 

It is the very groups that claim to adhere most to these principles that are bringing the system under the most strain.  And this is because, the economic foundations upon which it was all founded with the Glorious Revolution, and that were severely dented by the 2008 global financial crisis, no longer work for that section of society as a whole.

The economic genie that became a monster

Much has been written about the income inequalities that have now strained even the middle class in America in the last few decades.  And where 66% of wealth is still accumulated by the top 10% in 2024 and how that has fanned and driven Trump’s populist movement.  At its very heart is the breakdown of the Protestant work ethic that constitutes the American Dream.  As recently as December 2023, Statista – a global and business intelligence digital platform – wrote of the inequality and breakdown in these stark terms: “Despite the idea that the United States is a country where hard work and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps will inevitably lead to success, this is often not the case. In 2021, 9.3 per cent of U.S. households had an annual income under 15,000 U.S. dollars. With such a small percentage of people in the United States owning such a vast majority of the country’s wealth, the gap between the rich and poor in America remains stark.”

The current Biden administration has identified this issue and has been proactive in trying to resurrect middle-class jobs and higher relative pay for them.  While Trump also promises to revive their fortunes, and by extension revive the American Dream and the Protestant work ethic upon which it is founded, the future does not bode well.  There is a less talked about underlying trend that will make their efforts moot, whatever either side does in the short or medium term.  And this is the fact that the relationship between capital (ie investment etc) and labour is slowly breaking down. It was stable – so much so that in economic theory it formed one of the basic pillars upon which other theories were built:

Labour income provided 75% or so of national income while capital brought in the remaining quarter.  Probably the most famous economist in history, Maynard Kenyes, called this relationship, “one of the most surprising, yet best-established facts in the whole range of economic statistics.”

But since the 1980s this relationship has begun to shift and is on borrowed time.  Driven primarily by technological shifts and ultimately automation, capital – and those that own it – is taking up an increasing share of the pie, while labour income is taking up less and less (see chart below: taken from a May 2019 discussion paper from McKinsey and Company – a global management consultancy firm.).  And with this trend set to continue, if labour makes up less of total income, then no amount of onshoring jobs and boosting union power will ever make up for it.  As Daniel Susskind, in his seminal book about automation, “A World Without Work”, states. “In the two decades since 1995, across twenty-four countries, productivity rose on average by 30 per cent, but pay by only 16 per cent.  Instead of going to workers, the extra income has gone to owners of traditional capital.”

Mckinsey and Company: May 2019 – “A new look at the declining labour share of income in the United States”

Susskind goes on to cite the OECD (Organisation for Economic Corporation and Development) which identified up to 80% of the decline in labour’s productive growth as being due to technological progress between 1990 and 2007.  The same Mckinsey and Company report from May 2019 reiterated this point in their comprehensive study. “Improvements in technology, such as more powerful computers and industrial robots, are reflected in lower prices for investment goods; this increases the incentive to substitute capital for labour.” 

And it is not just that.  The knowledge economy is becoming increasingly important and exacerbating capital’s dominance in our global economy.  As McKinsey points out, “This is particularly the case in knowledge-intensive sectors so that more value goes to capital owners relative to labour. Such consolidation and rise of superstars can also go together with lack of competition, particularly in highly regulated sectors or in domains where intellectual property gives companies a competitive edge, for example, due to strong patents.”

The financial innovations brought about by the Glorious Revolution have now slowly begun to devour and undermine the rest of the system that came out of the Glorious Revolution.  Undermining the Lockean social contract and by extension eating away at modern liberal democracy itself with the rise of vast oligarchical multinational corporations and their links to political power.

And the anger amongst the very people who once championed these principles has grown dark and sour. 

The irony of an authoritarian Protestant king

Into this void of confusion and misdirected anger has stepped Donald Trump. 

And in so doing, we have come full circle from the Glorious Revolution. 

Knowingly, or most probably unwittingly Trump has bent this collective fury, the result of the breakdown of a system that has lasted a good few centuries, and is now in its twilight years.  Who wants – by his own account – to reimpose this old, anachronistic system by force and proposes doing this by bending and even breaking the very social, political and economic contracts that guaranteed the system in the first place.  In so doing, he is invoking some of the powers of the very Catholic monarchs that the Protestant movement aimed to consign to the dustbin of history, and whose autocratic rule only had the effect of crushing economic prosperity for the majority not spurring it on.

 John Locke himself, who as a boy grew up in the British Civil War that preceded the Glorious Revolution by a few decades and saw King Charles I deposed and eventually beheaded, would almost certainly have baulked at everything going on today.  He was always wary of rapid revolutionary change as well.  His very writings were partly driven by a deep urge to avoid the trauma of his early experiences, preempting it through gradual visionary and insightful change.

The real problem of course is not Donald Trump.  It is that we have not been able to come up yet with a new and credible social, political and economic contract throughout the Western world to preempt the coming changes of this century. 

But if we don’t, even if it isn’t Trump, then another populist will come along to fill that increasingly gaping void as a once glorious system of government and economy, leads us down the path into a chronic and possibly terminal decline.

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