Social Changes Following Wars and Pandemics

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Catastrophic events can be a turning point for societies. The Black Death (peaked in Europe between 1347-1351) is said to have taken the life of 60% of Europe’s population. The plague didn’t discriminate, young or old, wealthy or poor. Realizing that religion could do nothing to stop the spread must have been a bitter pill to swallow. The life people knew and trusted ended.

In the aftermath of the plague, people started pushing back at feudalism, a land-based economic system, and the Church. People began questioning the legal authority of kings who governed their livelihood on earth and the Church’s claim to rule the afterlife. They dared open their minds to a whole new way of thinking, leading to new ideas and innovations. Historians mark this period, 14th to 17th Century, as the Age of Enlightenment.

The French monarchy in the late 18th Century was going bankrupt. Spendings on its military, years of bad harvests, and rising prices for everyday needs led to an uprising. Long story shortened, the King’s promises of support for his people fell on skeptical ears. On July 14, 1789, the “peasants and middle class attacked and occupied the Bastille prison in protest, touching off a wave of violent demonstrations nationwide.” By the end of the following month, the National Assembly (government) approved the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizens—inspired by the Declaration of Independence in the United States. King Louis XVI (last King of France) refusal to sign the document —resulting in his beheading four months later — led to another massive public outcry. In 1799, General Napoleon Bonaparte, backed by the army, took over and declared the revolution over. 

Napoleon Bonaparte, a military commander with a penchant for wars, brought about lasting reforms that included higher education, the first central bank in French history, road and sewer systems, and a tax code. He provided bread to the hungry and, importantly, hope for a better life. 

Some people believe that laziness is the cause of poverty. But history tells a different story. Putting the blame at the steps of shacks, slums, sheds, and shanties delivers responsibility to the wrong address. Wars, depression eras, and pandemics are potent instruments for social change. 

The social changes in the aftermath of the French Revolution affected France and Europe and beyond. Upstairs, Downstairs, a British drama series from the seventies demonstrates the changes brought about by the French Revolution. The younger servants longed for more independence while the older ones held on to the status quo. Parallel to the young people’s struggle for a better life, “kings and lords” worked frantically to appease the masses without giving up power or sacrificing their lifestyles. 

According to Wikipedia, the 750,000 deaths during the American Civil War (battlefields and the Spanish flu) represented 2.385 percent of the population. These events changed the economic lives of former slaves, planters, and non-slaveholding whites. Imagine how difficult it must have been to process such monumental changes. One day you are a slave, and the next, you are on equal standing to the slave owner. 

Constitutional amendments between 1865-1870 eliminated slavery, affirmed the African American citizenship and allowed black men to vote. Blatant prejudice against blacks continued in the South and, to a lesser degree in other parts of the country, but by no stretch of the imagination was (or is) discrimination over. However, opportunities for education grew, political participation became a possibility, and with the 1872 revision of the Homestead Act, blacks could homestead. 

WWI was a time when millions of women went to work, replacing the men who had shipped overseas. Women volunteered for the Red Cross, tending (victory) gardens to produce healthy meals from meager rations. The 19th Amendment passed (1920), allowing women to vote. 

Historical fiction, like Jennifer Egan’s book, Manhattan Beach, tells the story of Anna coming of age during WWI. It was the first generation when it was acceptable for young women to go out without chaperones, smoke in public, have their own apartments, and earn money. Sara Donati’s book, The Gilded Hour, takes place in the 1880s and tells of two female physicians and their effort to bring birth control information to their female patients.

A little more than a decade after WWI, Americans experienced yet another societal changing event, the Great Depression. After President Herbert Hoover’s “hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government,” the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt was a cry from the nation’s people. FDR’s New Deal advocated government spending for large-scale programs, bringing relief to farmers and the unemployed, as well as public works projects, federal regulation, and financial system reform. The Social Security Act, The Federal Housing Administration, Civil Conservation Corps, and The Works Progress Administration were born. 

The aftermath of World War II brought more changes. African-American men in the military who served overseas found that the racism they were accustomed to in the US was not international. Two hundred thousand women served in various capacities, pilots, aircraft inspectors, etc. Rosie the Riveter—who in real life was Naomi Parker—worked in a machine shop in 1942 when a photographer snapped a photo that became a feminist icon. Once women knew they could be riveters, welders, drill-press operators, and machinists, they could not be told that an apron was the only choice of uniform they could aspire to wear. Interest in the woman’s movement reignited. Five million African Americans migrated from the South to major US cities. At the same time, suburbs popped up around big cities. With the GI bill, homeownership and college attendance skyrocketed, resulting in a middle class’s growth and significant improvement in people’s way of life.

Now here we are, 2020, and another moment in history is ripe for social changes. People are taking to the streets protesting police brutality.  As of this writing, the COVID-19 has taken 120,000 lives in the US. That’s more than the Revolutionary War, more than the Korean War, and by the time it’s over, it may exceed the number of death of WWI (116,000) and the Vietnam War (58,220) combined. 

What’s causing us to stand up and push back? What are we pushing back on? Donald Trump? Or is it something bigger, like the sustenance of democracy and the health of the planet? With history as our guiding light, authoritarian rulers are far more common than human governance. From birth, our young people have witnessed financially costly wars, political tribalism, and an ever-widening economic gap, intertwined with technological changes. Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian and philosopher, writes: “Questions about the ability of liberal democracy to provide for the middle class have grown louder.”  Harari continues, we are pushing back “not against an economic elite that exploits people but against an economic elite that does not need them anymore.” That’s a new game with different rules. Humans don’t want to be irrelevant. Nor do we want to live in a digital dictatorship.

Joe and Josephine may not understand biotechnology or artificial intelligence, but they sense the future is passing them by. If today’s “kings” no longer need people for their businesses, how do people push against inequalities and make room for themselves in the economy? 

The ordinary person is feeling more and more irrelevant. Six hundred years after the French Revolution, robots are replacing humans, necessitating a need to restructure the economy. Looking back, will our grandkids read this moment as the beginning of a new and fairer economic system? Will it be an economic system as described in the Doughnut Economy?

Periods after wars and pandemics are times when we reexamine our priorities. We look around us. What’s going on with our fellow man and mother earth? 

What once seemed outrageous, universal health care, publicly sponsored childcare and education, and universal basic income (UBI) no longer seem so far-fetched—making human and planetary needs our top priorities.