Let me dream a little dream for you

The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism
May 19, 2000

Robert Fogel is one of the leading economic historians of his generation. His development of "cliometrics" - the use of statistical techniques in history - and his application of these methods to the study of economic growth and of slavery in 19th-century America earned him the Nobel prize for economics in 1993. This book shows him in a more reflective mood. There is even a touch of valediction. It is dedicated to his grandchildren "and to all the other grandchildren who will inherit the 21st century". He tells us about the long-run development of the American economy, about where America has arrived and where it is heading, the problems Americans face, and what they have to do to overcome them. This is a very American book, imbued with a deep sense of American exceptionalism.

The core of the book is a sweeping theory of great cycles in American history, in which economic change, political change and religious revivals are interlinked. The "great awakenings" of the title are phases of religious revival, centred on evangelical Christian movements. These awakenings occur when technical change makes existing institutional forms obsolete. They generate political movements that, after a lag of 30 to 50 years, produce institutional reforms. Fogel finds four such awakenings, beginning circa 1730, 1800, 1890 and 1960. The crowning achievements of the first, second and third great awakenings were respectively American independence, the abolition of slavery and the creation of a welfare state; the fourth is still in progress.

Fogel presents these cycles as peculiarly American. He contrasts the progressiveness and dynamism of evangelical religion in the United States with the religious institutions of Europe, which he characterises as passive and hierarchical state churches. (Has he forgotten about the role of Nonconformist churches in British radicalism, and the significance of the Roman Catholic church for nationalism in Ireland and Poland?) In strikingly teleological terms, he presents this cyclical pattern as the working-out of an American destiny: it reveals "the lines of continuity in the three-centuries-long struggle to fulfil the millennialist aspirations of the founders and heirs of the American nation, and to win not only the whole national population but the whole world to the egalitarian creed that is at the core of American political culture". Thus, it is crucial to Fogel's account that the great awakenings are egalitarian movements.

Surprisingly for a founder of cliometrics, Fogel does not provide much in the way of statistical support for his claims about cycles of religious enthusiasm. But, as evidence that America is in the middle of a great awakening, he points to the growth of membership in Pentecostal and charismatic denominations, and in the Mormon church. The political content of this religious revival is to be found in the programme of the religious right: the anti-abortion movement, the tax revolt, the war on drugs, the campaign against pornography and violence in the media. This is perhaps a coherent political programme, but how is it egalitarian?

Fogel's answer is that the nature of inequality has changed. Economic growth in 20th-century America has all but eliminated material poverty. Much of the book is an account of economic history, marshalling evidence in support of the claim that the distribution of goods in the conventional economic sense is no longer a major issue. Most people, he argues, are nearing satiation in material goods. If the value of leisure is treated as a component of consumption, the share of leisure in total consumption is rising rapidly. People now seek self-realisation rather than consumption; the important scarcities are in the realm of "spiritual resources". Fogel lists 15 "vital spiritual resources" that are unequally distributed. Typical entries are "self-esteem", "strong family ethic" and "capacity to resist the lure of hedonism".

We see how Fogel is able to treat the religious right as egalitarian, but this is still a misuse of words. Egalitarianism is concerned with the equal distribution of goods whose desirability is uncontroversial. Some of the items on Fogel's list, say self-esteem, do seem to correspond with universal wants, but others seem more like ethical demands that people might choose to resist. Fogel has well-meaning proposals for redistributing "spiritual resources" by offering further education for the elderly, providing mentors to "alienated young people", counselling teenage mothers, encouraging "retired professionals" to be voluntary workers and so on; but he provides little evidence that these transfers are desired by the recipients, or that there are donors willing to supply them. It is unclear whether Fogel is reporting the political programme of the great awakening or whether he is urging his own reform programme. He is not so much telling us that the evangelical churches are leading an egalitarian movement, as that they could do so.

Fogel ends with some predictions. American grandchildren (and, to a lesser extent, the grandchildren of other nations) are promised longer lives than their grandparents enjoyed, better education, shorter working hours, greater equality, stronger families, and (by virtue of technical solutions to current problems) no worse a natural environment. With the peculiar exception of a recurring worry that there might be a war between America and China, Fogel sees a clear road to the sunlit uplands of the future. He seems to have no sense of the hidden landmines that history has a habit of detonating. But then he is an American.

Robert Sugden is professor of economics, University of East Anglia.

The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism

Author - Robert William Fogel
ISBN - 0 226 25662 6
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 320

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