Since the political earthquake of Trump’s election, preceded by the earth tremor of Brexit, the commentariat has been awash with declarations of the end of eras—of globalisation, of neoliberalism, of the post-World War II epoch of political stability and economic prosperity. As though to orientate ourselves in this brave new world, the search has been on for historical analogies, through whose lenses we might understand our present moment. In this search, references to the 1930s have dominated: its post-boom depression; the rise of populist, nationalist, and authoritatian political regimes; the fermenting, by unsavoury political figures, of hatred against groups defined by race and ethnicity, all offer parallels of some kind to our own present moment. Setting aside the question of the value of tracing historical precedents for our own times—a question which, amongst other things, might ask us to consider whether history is linear or cyclical—we might look beyond the 1930s to another “end of era” moment where echoes of our own predicaments may be found. At the end of the eighteenth century, Europe was in turmoil, pitched into a new era by a revolution which overthrew old political certainties, threatened the stability of the continent and had ramifications for the entire global order. Fears of economic instability abounded, and included worries that existing systems of wealth-creation founded on credit were out of control, and that the inevitable financial crash would hand power to military figures, or political strong men. Against all this, radical voices critiquing social and economic inequality, and political corruption, struggled to be heard against a rising tide of popular conservatism.
One of those radical voices was that of Mary Wollstonecraft, well-known today as a feminist thinker, author of two Vindications, of the Rights of Men (1790) and of the Rights of Woman (1792). But her political thought extended beyond gender to engage many of the key issues of her time—and ours. Her denunciation of the unequal distribution of economic assets presage Oxfam’s recent report, that the world’s eight richest men own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. She protested the effects of the vagaries of capital and labour markets on the workers who were dependent on them to earn the “sour bread of unremitting labour.” She developed Adam Smith’s insight, that the desire to emulate the rich was a common motivating force, to describe the stupefying psychological effects wrought by spectacles of power and wealth, and their deleterious social consequences.
Wollstonecraft was also a historian who recognised the centrality of popular movements, of all kinds, to political change, progressive or otherwise. Her account of the central political earthquake of her lifetime—the French Revolution—placed popular uprising, and its consequences, at the heart of its narrative. Nearly 300 years before Obama’s faith that the “arc of history” would bend towards justice, she struggled to accommodate the collective actions of those she called the “mob”—the Parisian agitators for bread (many of them women), whose march to Versailles in 1792 resulted in the capturing of Louis XVI—within an Enlightenment history she was determined to read as the triumph of reason and progress. She just about pulls off an uneasy alliance, between the popular political force of the agitators, and the forces of progress, by presenting the liberation of the grain trade (a central free-trade policy of economic progressives) as a joint achievement of both. Had her history, which was published in 1794, extended much beyond this early episode in the Revolution, the coalition of popular force and progressivism would have been much more difficult to sustain.
The historical optimism, however strained, of her View of the French Revolution, is entirely absent from Wollstonecraft’s next work, her travel letters from Scandinavia, written in the aftermath of the collapse of all that radicals had hoped might be achieved in France’s revolution. Travelling alone through Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, Wollstonecraft mused, often despairingly, on the new dominance of commerce, and asked what values—ethical, aesthetic, political—might be mobilised to restrain it. In remarks aimed at both England and the new American republic, Wollstonecraft warned how the “new species of power” which commerce constituted had brought liberty, but warned that the “tyranny of wealth is still more galling and debasing than that of rank.”
The unspoken question which hovers, unanswered, at the end of this most despairing of Wollstonecraft’s writings, is how a critical opposition to the unfolding forces which were to shape the next phrase of European and American history, might be sustained. In fact, she had already provided the best answer to that question, in the preface to her first major work, the Vindication of the Rights of Men. Addressing herself to Edmund Burke, to whose Reflections on the Revolution in France her work responds with vociferous and energetic attack, she narrates the process by which her casual reading of his “questionable” and “sophistical” text incited her indignation and caused her to seize her pen. More than a defence of Enlightenment reason, it’s a mini-narrative of how the unjust, the fatuous, the outrageous, calls us into being, and into action, by interpellating us as resistors.
On the side of the dissenting chapel in Stoke Newington, London, where Wollstonecraft’s early mentor, Richard Price, preached, the artist Stewy has stencilled a brilliant image of Wollstonecraft. Unremarkably dressed, the simple lines of her clothing might describe a loose coat worn by a woman of her time or ours. Quite properly, it is Wollstonecraft’s face which catches and holds our gaze. Turned slightly away from the onlooker, she is self-contained, composed, intent. She sees, she thinks; she marshals, as best she can, the resources of own intelligence and experience, to engage and counter the questions of her age. It’s an image I like to show to my students, and invite responses, when we study Wollstonecraft together. “She’s not wearing any accessories,” was one response—perhaps missing the presence of a Pussy hat. “She’s a bad-ass,” was another. Looking at the image reminds me how much Wollstonecraft, born over 250 years ago this April, is our contemporary. And it reminds me, too, how far we still haven’t come.
Featured image credit: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman title page from the first American edition, Library of Congress. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.