The ever spinning reel of history
Updated: Oct 19, 2020
This is a slightly longer read, but I hope one that will nonetheless be of interest.
Back in the mists of time, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama gained prominence with his speculative question: Has humankind reached “The End of History?” At that time, he was an international relations policy advisor en route from private to public sector appointments and a relative unknown.
Fukuyama made this epoch defining call initially in a talk in February 1989 that was subsequently re-presented in a paper in an obscure journal and eventually in a full-length book treatment entitled “The End of History and the Last Man”. In the 35 months between talk and book two notable things happened: Fukuyama become world famous and, in a related development, the entire manifestation of communism embodied in the Soviet Union and its satellite states disintegrated.
The trick that brought Fukuyama fame as a controversialist commentator was his projection of these dramatic contemporary events onto an abstracted grand narrative that had been devised by nineteenth century philosopher Georg Hegel and further interpreted by twentieth century philosopher and homme d'affaires Alexandre Kojève. That he did this just as it was all just starting to unfold gave his words the added timbre of a secular prophet.
In essence, Fukuyama promoted the conceit that liberalism – specifically Western liberalism and its primary institutions of representative government, free markets and consumerist culture – represented a universalist destiny for humankind that would enduringly triumph once its main competitors, viz. fascism and communism, had fallen by the wayside. Such additional drivers as nationalism and religion might continue to exist but only as walk-on parts without affecting the main narrative itself. Even China, he argued, would be forced to liberalise fully through inexorable and largely implicit global pressure.
It is possible that three decades on we are still at a “too early to say” moment akin to the urban myth of Chinese statesman Zhou Enlai similarly commenting in the 1970s about the French revolution two centuries earlier (in fact, he was referring to the Paris riots of 1968) but given the twists and turns in the world’s fortunes recently I am not sure anyone could credibly assert much to be inexorable any more. What can be said for certain is that “the opposition of events” (the actual words of Macmillan subsequently altered into another urban myth “events, dear boy, events”) have definitely impeded this smooth navigational course.
One could discount the 2007/8 financial crash as an unfortunate blip along the way, albeit a major one, but undeniable intrusions from religion on the one hand, which has steadfastly and inconveniently refused to die out especially in the forms of Christianity outside the West and of Islam increasingly beyond its traditional hinterlands, and on the other hand from various nationalist movements, including in a China increasingly underpinned by radically taughtened authoritarian principles.
As an amateur student of history, current affairs and the state of culture, I am always interested in received wisdom that is assumed to be implicit and a generally held norm. A cultural feature can be said to be dominant if it is so embedded that no-one need refer to it, a tacit but deeply engrained part of the public psyche. I would venture that many in the West for upwards of fifty years had been broadly aligned with the notion of Western liberal destiny and thus considered the matter settled. Only secondary – if still important – matters might still cause a spread in political outlook, such as fine tuning of the balance between state and private spheres, the addressing of equality issues, and so on.
Of the proliferation of supranational organisations and frameworks in the second half of the twentieth century, notably the UN, GATT, IMF, World Bank, WHO plus regional or special purpose versions such as NATO, the EU, OPEC and – albeit time-limited as it turned out – the Warsaw Pact, all bar the last two were formed to reinforce a liberal worldview and consensus according to the Western model. What would previously have been seen as national competencies were and mostly still are gradually being migrated to these higher levels. All of this acted to reinforce a sense of progression towards global convergence.
What then de-settled the matter so utterly, especially given these elaborate structures and embedded currents of thinking? There’s quite a list.
9/11 happened and numerous other outrages followed in many parts of the globe. Increasingly, governments around the world were elected on tickets challenging the old liberal consensus. The 2016 Brexit vote happened. The 2016 US Presidential outcome happened. Religious expansionism happened especially in the quasi-political form of Islamism. The oft-called “Arab Spring” didn’t happen in the way expected. Chinese liberalisation very much didn’t happen.
Added to this are subtler but just as pervasive currents of change. The exercise of power and influence within this list of global institutions has been becoming more heterogeneous, reflecting increasingly powerful axes fuelled by worldviews that are much less beholden to Western liberalism. There are increasingly multifarious manifestations of “critical theory”, most obviously influencing affairs through assertions contained in identity politics. The promotion of multi-polar history and culture is disrupting a simplistic, single-threaded and linear progressive purview, indeed to the point of challenging its very basis retrospectively.
The proverbial person on the Clapham omnibus will be consciously aware of some combination or other of this great mass of events and developments and will welcome some and be concerned about others, but anyone resting on previous notions of inevitability – whether of the triumph of the Western liberal order or indeed of an alternative, quite different and possibly revolutionary alternative – given the uncertainties thrown up will no longer have the option of acquiescent complacency and will perforce have to take a definite pro or con position sooner or later.
What I am trying to reflect here is a broadly neutral summary of events and currents and not a personally expressed, directional view: the point in my mind is that the cognitive dissonance clearly being experienced across the West these past number of years is actually a symptom of the enormous adjustment needed following weakening if not full uprooting of the implicit, somewhat simplistic assumption of the hegemony and inevitable triumph of Western liberalism. There is a confluence of competing grand narratives quite distinct from and arguably inconsistent with the one many people grew up with, and they are increasingly demanding our attention.
There may be an echo here with previous blog comments of mine on the rise and fall of empires (https://www.baloghblog.uk/post/empires-come-and-empires-go-what-of-those-in-our-own-times), which considers a different angle on establishing a grand narrative. It may also be that another famous and perhaps less naïve analysis from the 1990s, Samuel P. Huntingdon’s “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order”, written partly as a counter to Fukuyama, has so far aged better. To his credit, Fukuyama himself has tailored his own hypotheses particularly in the last couple of years with publication of “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” in which he identifies the demand for recognition as the fully explanatory “master concept” for all individual and collective human action and thus looks to position his own candidacy for inclusion in the canon of Western philosophical thought. A great article reviewing that book and taking in a general tour d’horizon is available from the New Yorker website at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/03/francis-fukuyama-postpones-the-end-of-history. Here is the closing paragraph of that article, which happens also to sum up my own thinking:
It might also be good to replace the linear “if present trends continue” conception of history as a steady progression toward some stable state with the dialectical conception of history that Hegel and Kojève in fact used. Present trends don’t continue. They produce backlashes and reshufflings of the social deck. The identities that people embrace today are the identities their children will want to escape from tomorrow. History is somersaults all the way to the end. That’s why it’s so hard to write, and so hard to predict. Unless you’re lucky.
That “lucky” at the end is a somewhat barbed reference to the wave crashing down on Soviet communism on which Fukuyama in 1989 found himself magnificently surfing.
Three closing comments from me:
Firstly, a story on the BBC website the week after Donald Trump had been elected in 2016 was headlined “America Divided Under Trump”. The evidently implied presupposition that there had been no such division under the previous Administration is staggering in its naïvety, and neatly exposes the extent to which the destiny narrative (in this case the inevitability of Hilary Clinton’s election) was deeply embedded in at least that commentator’s mind, let alone the publishing organisation’s editorial policy. Other articles that consciously or unconsciously ignored long existing subcurrents that had been hiding in plain sight were legion in the aftermath of that event, illustrating many examples of “backlashes and reshufflings of the social deck” referred to in the New Yorker article but seemingly coming out of the blue even to seasoned commentators.
Secondly, two grand themes I have not mentioned so far are climate change and, of course, the current coronavirus epidemic. My only attempt to be controversial in this blog entry (but of course please feel free to take exception to anything else you feel can be contended) is that, underneath the grave seriousness of both themes, one can detect a palpable sense of relief by those who subscribe to worldviews giving prominence to global governance frameworks that there are now not one but two causes célèbres justifying their continued existence. More on those another time, perhaps.
Thirdly, just to add a soupçon of human interest, I happened somewhat incongruously at a B&B in deepest Somerset to chance across a couple of East German students on the night of German reunification in 1990 and the demise of the communist Democratic Republic of Germany. For them there was no inevitability, no positive progression and nothing other than a calamity that the idealism they saw in the communist worldview was being steamrollered by a predatory competitor. As I recall, they gave a clear-eyed, compelling and passionate explanation and defence of those collectivist ideals (well, I too was young and more impressionable then) and wanted somehow to keep it alive. Thinking about that moment now, I wonder how many of us would be able coherently, compellingly and, yes, idealistically to defend Western liberalism in contrast to a challenger looking to oust it. And how many of us would even want to?
Finally, the self-indulgence of a closing reflection. The reference in the title of this piece to the “ever spinning reel” is taken from the English language version of the song “The Windmills of Your Mind” (originally “Les Moulins de mon Coeur”). Those who study such things will know that different worldviews have different concepts of the passage of history: the dominant Western one springs from the Judeo-Christian notion of progression towards a definitive end, albeit with variations as to precise destination, whereas some others see it is indefinitely cyclical and so with no conclusion. I like the analogy of the reel because it can be taken both ways: if there is no celluloid film present (it could also be a cotton thread, I suppose) then the spinning reel has no reason ever to stop, entropy notwithstanding, but if it is indeed accumulating the celluloid then it will eventually fill up, having shown on the screen what the projectionist has loaded onto it. Over to you as to your choice of which worldview you think is right, and what film is being shown if post-modernism doesn’t prevent you from nominating one.
Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain, or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that's turning running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes of its face
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind!
As featured in "The Thomas Crown Affair", https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dAGGTVft5Lk.