I’m not optimistic about our current situation. I think this pandemic marks a historical turning point, one we were already moving towards but which is now accelerating.
We talked about this in previous blogs on the future of the European Union, the future of travel, and other post-pandemic changes.
The past five or six years has felt like inhabiting a world that fell off the rails.
The rise of populism in Europe and America, with increasingly abrasive and self-absorbed nationalistic leaders, marked a change from the fellow feeling we experienced in the wake of the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall came down and set the Eastern bloc free.
Throughout most of my childhood, the globe was divided into opposed nuclear armed camps. The end of that conflict made the world seem smaller, as though a new era of freedom was on the horizon for everyone. Not the end of history, as Fukuyama posited, but the beginning of a new era.
But was it just a blip on the radar of history? A brief anomaly?
That’s how the philosopher John Gray would characterize it. And I think his work has much to offer when it comes to understanding what we’re currently facing.
Brexit left those of us in Europe reeling. The steady rise of right wing parties, and their electoral creep into parliaments across the continent, has paralleled the migration crisis and a rise in anti-Semitism in the EU.
And Donald Trump’s complete disregard for truth in favour of self-serving bluster has marginalized the United States and accelerated the end of the post World War Two global order that ushered in an unprecedented era of peace.
Today, we see a kleptocratic Russia and an authoritarian China filling the spaces where Western leadership used to be. But the West is too busy pulling down its own walls to notice.
Liberalism is eating itself alive, as competing interest groups composed of uniquely persecuted but bewilderingly overlapping categories attempt to bring down a society which is more free than any in human history, but that they characterize as an ugly edifice of bigotry and oppression.
I’m not surprised it feels like the world has fallen off its axis. How did we get from the innocent lyrics of the 1980’s rock songs that were the soundtrack of my teenage years to this staggering mess?
I think we got here by misunderstanding it.
I’m beginning to realize how lucky we were to be born into that period of relative peace and prosperity. It wasn’t typical. And it doesn’t seem likely to continue. Which brings me back to John Gray.
Gray makes a convincing case that the notion of progress itself is an illusion.
It is an inheritance of our Judeo-Christian cultural worldview, which sees life in linear terms as movement towards some better state. For the most part, the West ditched Jesus during the Enlightenment and swapped in science / ideology / secular humanism as our pillar of faith, and our road to salvation.
And so “we expect that, as modern habits of thinking advance across the world, people everywhere will become more like us — or at least as we imagine ourselves to be.”
That hasn’t proven true even in my lifetime. Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t embrace Western democracy. Russia embraced mafia-state rule by strongman after 1991. And China is going its own way with a blend of authoritarian governance and capitalist economy.
It’s obvious that this notion of modernity is flawed. And our misunderstanding is fundamental.
What if that core idea of linear progress — that we’re gradually making the world into a better place with each passing decade — is completely wrong?
Gray writes, “History is not an ascending spiral of human advance, or even an inch-by-inch crawl to a better world. It is an unending cycle in which changing knowledge interacts with unchanging human needs. Freedom is recurrently won and lost in an alternation that includes long periods of anarchy and tyranny, and there is no reason to suppose that this cycle will ever end.”
But what about the vast gains we’ve made in technology, transportation, medicine and agriculture? We’re so much better off now, right?
Absolutely. But here’s the thing.
The advance of scientific knowledge is cumulative, driving technical innovation and an endless stream of new inventions. But the gains we’ve made in ethics and politics are not cumulative.
“Unlike science, ethics and politics are not activities in which what is learnt in one generation can be passed on to an indefinite number of future generations. Like the arts, they are practical skills and they are easily lost.”
If you want an example for how easily they’re lost, look at the current misguided efforts of the leftist West to tear apart the cultural edifice our own civilization.
Rather than become more reasonable, more enlightened and more balanced over time, human history seems to go in cycles, with the struggles of earlier eras returning and being played out against a background of increased scientific knowledge and technological power.
“Human knowledge grows, but the human animal stays much the same. Humans use their growing knowledge to promote their conflicting goals — whatever they may be. Genocide and the destruction of nature are as much products of scientific knowledge as antibiotics and increasing longevity.”
Grey’s writings can feel rather bleak. Especially when you consider we’ve been living in a rather short, rather unusual period of material prosperity since the fall of the Wall.
He correctly points out that this started to shift after 9/11, but it’s been gradual, and the sort of things that make one feel the world has fallen off the rails only really began to accumulate and spill into noticeability over the past 4 or 5 years.
Strangely enough, I don’t find this idea depressing at all. On the contrary, it makes sense — and it’s empowering.
If you’re trapped inside the notion of constant progress towards a better state, then it’s easy for a shock like this virus crisis to leave you feeling out of control, cast adrift, like the world no longer makes sense.
But when I view the past decade through the lens of cycles, current events do make sense. We’re moving from a period of stability into a period of chaos. And like any period of chaos, it will contain hardship and loss as well as great opportunity.
So how should we approach it?
I can only speak for myself. For me, it changes the way I look at things. I don’t feel like I have to be in control of them, for one.
I’ve set a number of goals for myself — travel goals, writing goals, lifestyle goals — and I’d really like to achieve them. But I recognize that the landscape has changed. The terrain we’re moving through isn’t the same as the land I was mastering even one year ago. And that means my plans will probably be completely upended, too.
We don’t know what sort of world we’re moving into 3 months from now, let alone next year. But we can be pretty sure it’s not a linear progression from the life we thought we were living in 2019.
If progress itself is an illusion, then we must lower our collective standards and try to do our best in an imperfect world. It seems like we used to know this as a culture, but it has been lost.
On an individual level, it means understanding that not progressing with goals I’d set for myself isn’t some sort of failure.
A pandemic that continues to rage might mean I won’t be able to go back to my travel roots with a book-length journey through Central Asia next year.
And global instability might mean my dream of traveling around southern Africa in my own Land Rover, starting in my 50th year, may have to be shelved. Perhaps for a year or two, perhaps indefinitely.
For others, it might mean a career thrown completely off track by job loss or the failure of entire sectors of the economy. Or it might mean you don’t end up owning the house you worked so hard to afford.
Clinging to those visions in a period of chaos doesn’t just cause a mental disconnect, or feelings of failure. It blinds one to what’s actually happening, and to where the next best move might be.
But understanding that progress is an illusion, a holdover from our Judeo-Christian cultural worldview, brings a different perspective to bear. And it’s one that pagan societies understood quite well.
Cycles of stability and cycles of chaos will always be with us. And the world will always be made up of many types of society and government, from democracies to dictatorships, corrupt kleptocracies to nations ruled on fundamentalist religious lines.
The notion that everyone’s just waiting to embrace democracy and a globalized economy is a misunderstanding based on our own cultural blinders. We’re now watching it unravel.
Gray’s cyclical lens is tremendously useful as we enter this new period. I have a sense that I understand what’s happening, and so I can try to respond to it, to plot my options, to gather information, and be ready for whatever comes next.
Sure, there are major threats, especially with the economy. I’d be extremely worried if my wife and I lost our jobs and our income suddenly stopped. But so far, we’re okay. I hope you are, too.
I’m not optimistic about our current global situation, where “ethnic and religious wars have supplanted secular ideological conflicts [ie communism vs the capitalist West], terror has returned to the most advanced societies and empire is being reinvented.”
I think the world we knew, the world many of us grew up in, is in the midst of fundamental change and upheaval, and a part of me is sad for what we’ve lost.
But rather than feel depressed, I’m extremely curious to see what sort of world we’re moving into.
Despite the inevitable pain and loss, this is an exciting time to be alive.
I didn’t want to agree with you, but the more I try to come up with a counter argument, the more I realize that you’re right. We see scientific progress, we understand evolutionary progress, we see personal progress, we see communities solve problems and that’s progress for a community, and we look back and see some things as better than they were before and think we see societal progress, but is it really?
As a society, what would progress even look like? I have my own ideas, but many would see my version as regressive, and others have definitions of progress that I totally disagree with. When definitions of progress and perceptions of “truth” compete with different parts of society pulling in opposite directions, how can you have anything but a cycle or a pendulum rather than progress.
I think in part it comes from not taking a long view of history — or rather, not separating out moral progress from societal progress. I was thinking about this last night with regard to the 20th century.
Things were trucking along pretty well in the early 1900’s, technology was advancing at an incredible rate, and then we’re hit with WWI. The war to end all wars killed millions, and it could never happen again.
The 1920’s ushered in an era of moral freedoms, paired with continued improvements in technology. Sure, prohibition was a moralizing crackdown on other people’s behaviour, but it also brought in cocktail culture, the Jazz Age, Flappers, and the burst of creativity and license that was Weimar Berlin. And then we’re hit with the 1929 stock market crash, followed by a rise in authoritarianism in Europe (the Spanish Civil War, the rise of the Nazis, the rise of Stalin, etc)…. and WWII.
The war flattened large swathes of Europe, but also brought technological advances in aviation, nuclear power, radar, rockets, and put the final nail in the coffin of Western colonialism. Such a war could never be allowed to happen again. We must bring back the UN, a sort of revamped version of the failed League of Nations.
…but that didn’t last very long either. Stalinist Russia clashed with the West, as Churchill predicted. Eastern Europe was walled off into totalitarian misery, and so began the Cold War.
When seen through the lens of Gray’s work, the 20th century was a tale of steady technological advance paired with a loosening and tightening of morality.
Moral values didn’t improve in a linear fashion. Rather, the dominant social attitude seemed to tighten or loosen almost with each generation. And so we had the strait laced 1950’s followed by the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. Things seemed to be a bit less permissive when we were in high school in the 1980’s, especially after the HIV scare. But they loosed back up after we left (and I missed being a teenage guy in the age of dating apps).
The same sort of pattern seems to hold true in earlier eras, at least superficially, if you think back to the sexual mores expressed by bawdy Elizabethan playwrights vs those of Victorian era literature.
That’s just off the top of my head, so rather superficial. But the patterns do seem to hold true in terms of technological progress as compared to moral progress. I find Gray’s thesis difficult to refute.
Hi Ryan, Great piece, many thanks.
Like Andrea, I wanted to disagree with you but upon further
reflection realized Gray’s thesis is quite complete.
A few off the cuff random thoughts:
1) I think we might add that America’s economic boom post-WWII USA was not only winning.
But winning while sustaining basically no damages to the homeland manufacturing and infrastructure + way less casualties per capita than anyone.
2) Post WWII commercially we owned both the production and
the main markets with little competition. Now we have niether. We also used to have lots of goodwill. Whatever Trump found when he took office he has buried-
But then later in the early 1970s the USA dropped the gold standard and started printing $$$$ leading to somewhat artificial prosperity at the cost of slow inflation that has eroded real wages.
Just a few thoughts off the cuff that would be better addressed with a good whiskey or wine in hand 🙂
Rock on & best from Spain,
Yes, great observations, thanks Dan. In Heresies, Gray posited that the post-WWII pax Americana ended with the 9/11 attacks.
It’s taken some time for this to play out, but regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya were massive destabilizing influences which didn’t work out as hoped. Those countries didn’t embrace democracy, driven by an urge to be just like us. On the contrary, removing the strongman (for the latter three, not Afghanistan) took the lid off a pressure cooker which had been held in place by authoritarian leadership.
We’ve also seen the rise of Russia and China under very different, and very antagonistic, systems of government. And as you said in your second point, so much of our production capacity is now in China — even for vital products like basic medicines and tech components.
Nation states are making a comeback, even here in Europe, as borders slammed shut in spite of the EU / Schengen. Ideological conflict (NATO vs Warsaw Pact, or US vs Cuban communism) is out, and ethnic and religious conflict is in. Terrorist attacks are able to take place in the heart of ‘advanced’ western countries. And China has been working away at a new form of colonial empire (one belt one road; massive loans to impoverished African states, followed by one-sided resource deals when they can’t pay it back, etc).
We certainly are moving into interesting times. Best served with a good whiskey or wine.