The 5th Estate

tennis_court_oath

The Tennis Court Oath, Versailles, 1789

In the traditional model of rule, dating back to feudalism, there were three powers in the realm.  These were called the “Estates General” in pre-revolutionary France.

The first, and foremost was the Lords Temporal, made up of the hereditary royalty of the realm.  In effect these were the main landowners.

The second estate was the Lords Spiritual, the Cardinals and Bishops who ruled the church and wielded the power of “God” on earth.

The third, most numerous, and also the weakest estate was traditionally made up of commoners.  This is not to say they were poor peasants.  In fact the “Commons” were merchant princes, bankers, lawyers and aldermen selected to represent the interests of the middle classes.

Three great events in the 17th and 18th Centuries changed the dynamics of the Estates General forever.

  • In 1649 the British Parliament ordered the execution of King Charles, shattering the concept of “Divine Right” to rule.
  • In 1776 13 colonies of the United States of America declared their right of self-determination, a right of the 3rd estate to be free of the rule of the 1st estate.  No taxation without representation!
  • In 1789 the French 3rd estate seized power from the 1st and 2nd estates and firmly issued in the age of enlightenment.

Never again were the 1st and 2nd estates to hold power in the Western world without the agreement of the 3rd estate.

In the midst of this redefinition of the balance of power Edmund Burke, an Irish peer, made an address to Westminster on the reporting of parliamentary business by the Press.  He pointed out that the Press represented a 4th Estate which potentially wielded more power than the 3 estates general.  It proved to be a prophetic prediction.

Today almost every coup d’état begins with the seizure of the organs of the media, the presses, the radio stations and the TV stations.  Politicians and their military arms know that the media battle is as important as any conflict of arms.  Tight autocratic rule is only possible where the rulers control the media, the 4th estate.

The concept of a 5th estate, non mainstream media, emerged in the counter cultural revolution of the 1960’s, originally as the eponymous Detroit Newspaper.  It spread to a variety of media, but was restricted by traditional constraints on output.  The odd piece of output made a splash, such as the “Anarchists Cookbook”, but most of the small publications and independent radio broadcasts were lost to tiny circulations.

Then the internet arrived.  The 5th estate has blossomed on media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and in the darkest corners of the deep web.

Despite the best efforts of autocratic regimes it is very difficult to control the 5th Estate.  China is the best example of a state that exerts tight control.  Even the great firewall of China is porous.  The regime cannot control all the information that filters in and out of the nation.  People import smartphones from abroad, or use various tricks to bypass state control of the firewalls.

The “Arab Spring” revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and the Middle East were made possible by the 5th Estate.  Rebels were able to use social media to tear apart the propaganda and lies of the ruling elite.  They then used social media to coordinate and organize protests, uprisings and even battles.

Mainstream journalists use and abuse social media to bypass super injunctions by courts to control celebrity scandals.  They breach the laws of sub judice reporting in a manner that is impossible in the 4th estate.  Whistleblowers use social media to release data into the public domain including Julian Assange, Linda Tripp, Edward Snowdon, Bradley Manning etc.

The impact of the 5th Estate on Western Democratic politics is only now beginning to crystalize.

The rules are being formed but we get an emerging sense of the landscape.
Cover-ups don’t work.
Fraud is uncovered.
Nepotism is exposed.
Secret donations do not remain secret.
Past statements of politicians are dredged up and used as a stick to beat them.

The age of the media savvy politician and his spin-doctor sidekick is over.
We are entering a new era of politics, where consistency, honesty and openness are the sine qua non of political survival.

Large central parties are fracturing and falling apart as their corrupt members are isolated and exposed.
For the individual politician loyalty to the constituency is more important than loyalty to the party.
We see this in the rise of the independents, the mavericks, those outside mainstream politics.  The Trump factor.

The new era will favour smaller groupings with tighter internal agreement on issues and higher levels of trust between members.  “Family” style groupings who share values.
Governments will be by coalitions of these small groups.
The practice of governing will become more fluid as alliances are made, broken and reformed based on prevailing economic and political priorities.

The 4th estate has been increasingly controlled by the wealthy, who can afford to buy the media, and establish editorial standards.  Would the Watergate Scandal see the light of day in the current media climate?

By contrast the 5th estate is uncontrollable.  It can be influenced by those with the largest social media followings.

In the next 20 years you will see attempts by the wealthy to influence the 5th estate by buying influence.  Anyone who is seen as “bought” will rapidly lose traction.

King Canute (or Cnut) is famous for trying to hold back the tide.
In fact he was criticizing sycophantic nobles who accorded him divine powers.
He demonstrated that for all his power he was unable to order the tides.
Canute would understand just how uncontrollable is the 5th Estate.

king canute on the beach

Canute holds back the tide

 

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The power of press: why Islam lost to the West

printed_quran

It is seldom that you can take an invention and say categorically that it is directly responsible for given outcomes.  But we can do this with Printing.  The invention of the moveable type printing press in Europe set the west on a fast track to development of thinking, education, technology, representative government, free market economies and a rights based legal system.  The rejection of printing by the Ottoman Empire had the effect of stagnating the Islamic world.

In the mid 15th century the Ottoman Empire was the dominant power in world politics.  A rising star.  In 1453 the Ottomans conquered Constantinople.  The centers of learning in the world were Arabic; Baghdad, Damascus, Granada, Cairo.  People living in the Islamic world had better health, education, cleanliness, rule of law etc than those in the west.  In England at this time, for instance, the Wars of the Roses began, plunging the country into decades of turmoil.

Several things then happened that changed the dynamics of East and West.

Firstly Gutenberg perfected the printing press.  This technological breakthrough was rapidly copied all over Europe.  With widespread availability of bibles there was a rise in literacy and scholarship.  With access to the text of the Bible came a focus on the differences between church Dogma and the word of the Gospels.  This led directly to the reformation of the church in the West and the rise of Humanism.

Questioning the authority of the Church set in motion a rise in free thinking.  If the Pope can be questioned then why not the King?  Across Europe we see the rise of the third estate.

The Reconquista was completed in Spain in the latter half of the 15th century, defeating the Emirate of Granada.  With the fall of Islam in Spain a great wealth of knowledge was unlocked from the Arabic libraries.  Scholars found ancient Greek texts on philosophy and science.  The philosophical works by authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles etc, pre-dated Christian writings.  They approached religious matters through reason rather than faith.  The rediscovery of these works plunged the Christian world into a crisis which was exacerbated by the new literacy and widespread availability of the bible.

At the same time the scholars unlocked scientific texts by the Greeks such as Archimedes and Pythagoras, and mathematical developments by Arabic scholars such as Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi as well as learnings from the Kerala school of mathematics in India.

In the 13th and 14th centuries access to these texts was highly restricted.  A university could proudly boast a library numbering books in the dozens.  Monasteries restricted access to their hand copied texts.

With the invention of printing these works became available to a far wider audience.  Europe experienced the Renaissance.

At the same time, in 1483 to be precise, Sultan Bayezid II instituted a ban on printing in the Arabic Language.

By the time this ban was lifted, and widespread printing was made available to the Arabic world, the West had left the Arabic world behind.  By the 19th Century the Ottoman Empire was “The sick man of Europe”.

Spain, Portugal, Holland, England and France ruled empires that spanned the globe.

The Arabic world continues to suffer from the after effects of this 300 year ban on printing.  In the West we need to be patient with developments in the Islamic nations.  Europe did not grasp the concept of democracy in a few short decades.  The grip of blind dogma on religion was not an overnight change.  It took centuries of scholarship to resolve.  It is amusing how many westerners expect the Arab Spring revolutions to deliver Western Style economies in a couple of years.

Stop press!

Extra! Extra!

Extra! Extra!

23rd February 1455 is commonly held to be the publication data of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book to be produced on a moveable type printing press.

In our Euro-Centric Imperialist world view of history we were always told that Gutenberg invented the printing press.  The truth is a lot more murky.  The press was pioneered by the Chinese in the mid 11th Century, and they even invented a moveable type press.  However, due to the vagaries of the Chinese alphabet and difficulties in casting metal typefaces, it was never popularised.

China of the 11th century was a closed society.  While trade in silks, spices and teas found its way to Europe through the Islamic Caliphate, as it had previously done in Roman times through various Persian empires, the volumes were small, the prices high.  Technology did not transfer from place to place with any alacrity.

It was the turmoil of 12th Century Mongol conquest that paved the route for ideas to move between China and the West.  Travellers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta braved the Silk Road and brought back inventions and ideas from the east, such as Rice, Pasta, Gunpowder and Cast Iron.  Somewhere along the way the idea of the printing press made its way to Europe.

It was not until the mid 14th century that Gutenberg put all the pieces together.  His primary skill was with metal.  It was his ability to develop a quick and cheap casting process for the type that opened the door to printing.  Type metal is made of a combination of lead, antimony and tin.  It does not shrink and deform as it cools in the mold.  Gutenberg also developed inks that adhere to the metal type, and then cleanly imprint onto paper, and he developed paper of a quality to suit the pressing process.

The first thing printed was the Gutenberg Bible.  Making a bible that was accessible to a wide audience led to a reading of the bible by a large number of scholars.  Once they began to see what the bible contained they began to question church dogma.  The protestant reformation was born in a printing press.

Very soon after the bible the press was harnessed for other purposes, and became the first mass market mode of communications.  Media was born with the news sheet.  Political change by the people and for the people was made possible by literacy and was made reality by leaflets, pamphlets and manifestos from printing presses.  American independence and the French Revolution were a product of changes in society that began with a press, ink and a sheet of paper.

Sonnet XI; by Christopher Pearse Cranch

IN boyhood’s days we read with keen delight
How young Aladdin rubbed his lamp and raised
The towering Djin whose form his soul amazed,
Yet who was pledged to serve him day and night.
But Gutenberg evoked a giant sprite
Of vaster power, when Europe stood and gazed
To see him rub his types with ink. Then blazed
Across the lands a glorious shape of light,
Who stripped the cowl from priests, the crown from kings,
And hand in hand with Faith and Science wrought
To free the struggling spirit’s limèd wings,
And guard the ancestral throne of sovereign Thought.
The world was dumb. Then first it found its tongue
And spake — and heaven and earth in answer rung.