The Age of Enlightenment is seen as roughly the period from about 1688 to 1778/1789/1815 in which there was a shift away from superstition and belief in magic to a greater faith in rational thought and experimentation to determine how the world worked. Behind this were developments in philosophy with its emaphsis on 'reason' and also a move from seeing society as properly based on hierarchy. Out of this we get the first moves to democracy as we know it in the modern sense and also the sense of 'rights of man' (application to women took longer) and that everyone was equal under the law, no longer were nobles and monarch exempt. It did not achieve everything over night and things such as the French Revolution (1789) which began based on these precepts soon ran off the rails and turned to violence. The Enlightenment did begin to break down prejudices and in countries like Britain legal discrimination against Catholics and Jews began to be reduced and then abolished in the mid-19th century. However, as we know that did not stop religious intolerance and anti-Semitism persisting. The important thing about the Enlightenment was that it gave the intellectual basis (and in the case of France and the USA examples of constitutions and bills of rights) for a lot of the things that people aspired towards in a liberal demoncracy in the 20th century and so we saw things like votes for all people, civil rights for minorities, equality for women and welfare states. All of this took decades, but without the Age of Enlightenment we would be in an age in which we would think most things were controlled by magic and that it was right that nobles should pay no taxes and have the right of life and death over those lower down the hierarchy (the bulk of the population) who would be squeezed for taxes with no protection if they fell ill or lost their jobs.
My view is that the post-Enlightenment phase in which the ideas put forward slowly and painfully were put into reality, is coming to an end. Why do I think this? You might say that the mass wars of the 20th century, the Holocaust, racist killings, etc. showed that the Enlightenment was not well established. I agree that the Second World War was certainly the period when Enlightenment values were put on the line. In 1938 very few countries in the world had democracy. However, it was Britain, the USA, France that won the war and their values became dominant in large chunks of the world. Their ally was the USSR which of course had a Communist system which though rational (in contrast to the Nazis who had emphasised things like occultism) was totally opposed to the human rights aspects of the Enlightenment through purges and prison camps and with a very hierarchical system. Of course the societies of Britain, USA and France were not perfect, there was privilege, but generally people living in these countries and those that they influenced after 1945 had better conditions than at any previous time in history. We are never going to have Heaven on Earth, but there are degrees of quality of life and we should be able to get better ones than worse ones.
I believe, however, that sixty-three years after Enlightenment values won in about half the world they are being snuffed out and that when I die, it will be in a World that is far less liberal, equal and certainly less rational than the one I was born into forty years ago. On what basis do I make this judgement? Let us look at the broad facts. A quarter of the World's population lives in China a country without democracy, with a very hierarachical society in which free speech and free association (key tenets of the Enlightenment) are banned. The country has never really had democracy bar a few attempts in the 1910s almost a century ago. Torture and execution are common place. Around a third of all the executions in the World each year (about 900) are carried out in China and these are the ones we know about. Censorship is extensive and sophisticated. Despite greater internet access coming to almost every small village across China blocking of particular sites is handled very successfully as journalists covering the Olympics soon found out. In additional internet providers and browser companies seem quite happy to comply with China's steps to block access. A couple of decades agon China was seen pretty much as a backwater, but its vast economic growth cannot be ignored now and companies and countries are falling over themselves to collaborate with the Chinese dictatorship because it is so profitable. I have commented on how the US boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics but was happy to attend the 2008 Beijing Olympics even though China's behaviour is as bad probably worse than the USSR's was.
China has a relativist view of human rights. This argues that in certain societies 'rights' have a different meaning. In China they talk more about duty to the society as a whole. They argue that things like free expression and free association, freedom from torture, the freedom to have a fair trial, are not actually appropriate rights for their society. This is just utter rubbish. You cannot say that the people of China do not suffer pain and deprivation any differently to the people of the UK or USA. There are absolute freedoms which have been articulated by the West but in fact are about being a human and having nerve endings and a brain and having emotional connections to loved ones and wanting to be able to express ourselves. China's line, saying that somehow the Chinese are not engineered to want or have these things, is in fact an extreme form of racialism on the part of the Chinese government. Chinese people are no different to any other person on the planet in needing these things. Unfortunately rather than arguing that the UN Declaration of Human Rights has universal application to every single human, places like the USA are undermining this severely saying, that 'well, US citizens might have these rights but not people we have abducted and are currently torturing'. Rights do come with duties, but then again the US wants its troops exempt from war crimes indictments. If the most powerful democracy in the World is pandering this line, how can we not expect the world soon to be all adopting a relativist position on human rights, one that suits the powerful and not the ordinary people?
In 1986 the concept of state-backed terrorism was when US President Ronald Reagan sent aircraft to bomb targets in Libya. Similarly US President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003 because the country was supposedly harbouring Al-Qaeda operatives. China we know is going out of its way to support harsh regimes: Sudan where there has been attempts at genocide in Darfur, Zimbabwe - where Robert Mugabe has long ran a harsh dictatorship, Iran - a theocracy which the USA is concerned about in terms of its nuclear developments and threats to stability in the region. All of these things are ignored in the rush to capture more Chinese trade. The USA is another side to the problem. Since 1941 the USA portrayed itself as the leading defender of democracy and Enlightenment values, though this often led to it backing dictatorships particularly in Latin America, South-East Asia and the Middle East. However, it was a functioning democracy that seemed to allow opportunity for people and after the bitter battles, its apartheid-style laws were dismantled. Now internally and externally it seems to have a different position. I have noted before how President Bush has felt the ultra-wealthy to be his core constituency and John McCain who looks likely to be his successor is no different. His vice-president Sarah Palin loves shooting things and believes in creationism being taught in schools. Fundamentalism since he rose in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 has been feared, but of course it has been bubbling up in the Christian world as well as the Islamic. Since Ronald Reagan came to power you have seen the Christian fundamentalists get stronger and stronger. This leads to policies such as teaching creationism (which believes the World and its life were created in six days in 4004 BCE, so after the start of Ancient Egypt, let alone the dinosaurs) and abstinence in sex as a form of contraception in a country with record levels of teenage pregnancies. The US welfare provision that there was has been neglected and means 40 million Americans are likely to be turned away from a hospital if they turn up with an emergency case. The last couple of decades have seen the chance of advancing in US society if you come from an ordinary background decrease. The USA is no longer a land of opportunity except for the very rich.
Like China, the USA does not believe in the rehabilitative nature of imprisonment it believes in punishment. Though the US population is about a fifth of China's, a quarter of all the prisoners in the world are held in US prisons (about 1 in 100 Americans are in prison). The number of US executions has risen steadily since the 1980s. The USA quite happily uses torture now in its supposed war on terrorism, even torturing foreign citizens it has abducted. How is this any different from China? Oh, the main difference is that China tends not to abduct people and also tends to only torture its own population. So, with the two most powerful countries in the world having no interest in Enlightenment values where does that leave the rest of us? Well of course a lot of the world is under military dictatorship of one kind or another. These flicker in and out of life as in Pakistan at the moment, but even when democracy can take hold it is often far from a true democracy and still works on the basis of corruption and hierarchy power. Other strong states such as Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia seem to have no interest in liberty and a willingness to use methods in terms of politics and legal processes which are abhorrent and originate from before the Enlightenment.
What about closer to home? Well the UK always follows US examples in preference to any other. We fly people to be tortured in US camps and seem to quite like the information the torture brings. Christian fundamentalism is catching on slower in the UK, primarily because the British loathe doing anything in a group bar for very short periods such as 90 minutes for a football match. About 4% of the UK population goes to church, we would rather queue up at a DIY store. In Britain we are Consumerist Fundamentalists and feel any constraint on our consumption as an assault on our 'religion'. However, faith schools are growing in number and the teaching of creationism is on the increase. Ironically the school at the end of my road teaches creationism but then gives dinosaur figurines to the boys as end-of-term gifts! Prejudice especially aimed at Poles is on the increase. We are set to have a government which like the American ones, is based on hierarchy and privilege. It is becoming almost impossible for ordinary people to afford to go to university and so many are being barred from getting what is now seen as the minimum for entering a decent job. If there was a referendum on these things we would have the death penalty, all police armed, use of torture for court cases, castration for sex offenders and repatriation of even third-generation immigrants immediately, the BNP which now has councillors in the Midlands, wants these things. It is only the politicians in Westminster brought up in the spirit of Enlightenment who are holding back this desire to return to the barbarity of the past. What happens when they retire and MPs who have only known the bigotry and violence of the 21st century come into office?
In my view we are seeing the end of the process which started with the Age of Enlightenment and are moving into a Dark Age. As in the early medieval period in Europe, we are going to see suffering, prejudice, persecution, violence, superstition, fear being the norms of our societies. No-one will have a 'right' to anything that they lack the power to snatch. We will be pushed around by the rich and the powerful in the way medieval peasants were. Life will be capricious and we will have nothing to defend us from it. We will all be potential victims of arbitrary law and terrifying punishment. All of these things are in place in China and are growing in Russia and the USA, that covers over 1.6 billon people, more than a quarter of the world. Many of the rest are not much better off. By 2038 it is quite likely that democracy and the rights that go with it will be as rare as they were in 1938.