Nuggets of dialectical materialism

Remember those seductive lines at the beginning in the Communist Manifesto:

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman  and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes."

Now read Chris Anderson's introduction to his piece about the imminence of a new historical epoch, what he calls "People Power", in the "World-Changing Trends" section of July's Wired magazine:

"First steam power replaced muscle power and launched the Industrial Revolution. Then Henry Ford’s assembly line, along with advances in steel and plastic, ushered in the Second Industrial Revolution. Next came silicon and the Information Age. Each era was fueled by a faster, cheaper, and more widely available method of production that kicked efficiency to the next level and transformed the world... Now we have armies of amateurs, happy to work for free. Call it the Age of Peer Production.

Anderson promises us that he isn't an anti capitalist and his notion of people power isn't simply Sixties utopianism. Maybe, maybe not. But what Anderson is definitely guilty of, like the Hegelian Marx of the Communist Manifesto, is simplifying history into an inexorable process, a march of events from one epoch to the next. In Anderson's mind, first there was the Age of Henry Ford, then the Age of Microsoft and the PC, and now the Age of Peer Production.

There is an alternative to this Hegel/Marx/Anderson world view. In his 1953 essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isaiah Berlin, the distinguished intellectual historian of Marxism, contrasts the historiography of Leo Tolstoy and Joseph de Maistre with the idea of history as inexorable process:

"Both Tolstoy and Maistre think of what occurs as a thick, opaque, inextricably complex web of events, objects, characteristics, connected and divided by literally unnumerable unidentifiable links -- and gaps and sudden discontinuities too, visible and invisible. It is a view of reality which makes all clear, logical and scentific constructions -- seem smooth, thin, empty, "abstract" and totally ineffective as means either of description or of analysis of anything that lives, or has ever lived."

So the reactionary alternative to Anderson and his world-changing trends, is to instead regard things as opaque, muddled and impossible to categorize. Grand historical generalizations -- People Power, the Long Tail, the Attention Economy etc-- are illusions rather than real explanations. This is a much more challenging way of making sense of history. It doesn't lend itself to glossy magazine articles. Nor can it be summarized in a paragraph. But it might be "truer" -- or, at least, less "false" than the nuggets of dialectical materialism that Anderson is serving up to Wired readers.