We should turn our back on history

Embracing uncertainty to understand the future

The idea that history is aiming at some ideal political outcome has largely been discredited. And yet the narratives about today's political trends - democratic backsliding, populism, authoritarian nationalism - are still animated by sense that history has a structure. Instead of seeking reason and meaning in world events, we should embrace the liberating idea that chance and contingency drive history, writes Alexis Papazoglou.

 

We live in a post - End of History world. Even though most Westerners, including Francis Fukuyama himself, are no longer convinced by the idea that liberal democracy is the endpoint of political ideology. This Hegelian phrase 'the end of history' has of course been wildly misinterpreted. Fukuyama himself never claimed that history had come to an end, and in fact warned about all the ways in which it could all kick off again. And Hegel didn't mean that there was going to be no history after the Prussian state - his version of the political ideal. What he suggested was that human history has a kind of structure, a kind of aim - it's not just "one damn thing after another", it has some direction, it unfolds in a certain way, it strived to achieve something

 

Today, even as we have all but rejected the idea that the liberal democratic state was where humanity was trying to get to, the idea that history has a purpose lingers. The rise of authoritarian rulers, of illiberal democracy, of populism, of democratic backsliding, all this is seen through a similar historicist lens. Sure, we may have been wrong about history's telos, but we still, deep down, think it has one. A variation on the theme of The End of Democracy has dominated book titles since that fated turning point of 2016. If history is not driving towards universal human rights and democratic rule, perhaps it's driving in the opposite direction: radical conservatism, religious fanaticism, authoritarian rule etc, etc. But this move simply replaces one kind of historicism with another. What we should do instead is abandon the whole idea of history having any rhyme or reason and embrace the fact that it's all up in the air, open to change, and to being overturned, again and again.

Of course, most analysts don't put their explanations of what's happening around the world in quite such explicitly historicist terms. They will say that what they are observing are patterns, that individual events in one country cannot be understood in a vacuum, separate from what is happening in other countries. What happened in the US elections in 2016 clearly was no isolated incident. Around the same time, a number of populist and nationalist leaders were gaining ground around the world, or cementing their positions of power: Bolsonaro in Brazil, Johnson in the UK, Erdogan in Turkey, Orbán in Hunary, Salvini in Italy, Modi in India etc.

The 20th century critical theorist Theodore Adorno, having lived through two world wars, rejected the historicism of Hegel and Marx as misguided and dangerous hangovers from an Enlightenment ideal that saw reality as rational. He did, however, hold onto the idea of patterns in history. He argued that the Hegelian dialectic between the particular and the universal was the key to understanding historical events: The particular embodies the universal, and the universal is constituted by the particular.  And to some extent of course that's true. For example, the violent acts of any one individual at the Capitol on January 6th can only be understood in the context of the "universal", in this case the ideology of Trumpism. At the same time, Trumpism exists only in virtue of the individuals embodying that ideology. Finding patterns, then, is a way of teasing out how individual events are all linked to some greater story, some "universal" ideology, even if that story isn't totalising, like in the case of Hegel and Marx. Patterns point to something bigger you should pay attention to if you want to understand individual events within a greater context.

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We like to see patterns, even when there is no meaningful connection between the arrival time of buses, the position of stars in the sky, or historical events.

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But there's a problem with patterns. First of all, as Adorno recognised, no matter how good you are at pattern-spotting, and how well you think you intellectually understand the present and where it's going, events have a way of surprising you, of catching you unawares. This is how Adorno described the event of his arrest by the Nazis:

"Everyone who, like me, had the experience of having his house searched early in the National Socialist regime will know full well that such an event has an immediate    impact that is greater than any attempt to seek out its causes…A fact like a house    search in which you do not know whether you will be taken off somewhere or whether you will escape with your life has a greater immediacy for the knowing subject than any amount of political information, itself on the level of facts, to say nothing of the so-called larger historical context to which only reflection and, ultimately theory, can give us access." History and Freedom.

The other problem with patterns is that we are prone to over-diagnosing them. We like to see patterns, even when there is no meaningful connection between the arrival time of buses, the position of stars in the sky, or historical events. This is not the sin merely of conspiracy theorists and astrologers, we all do it. It's our way of exorcising uncertainty, that difficult state of affairs to exist in. But that uncomfortable uncertainty is history's only constant state.

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If history is moving towards a particularly dark place not out of chance, but out of some an inner logic, that can attribute some meaning to our predicament.

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There may be evolutionary psychology reasons for why humans have an aversion to uncertainty - being able to predict the future, even roughly, is clearly advantageous for survival. But there are also cultural reasons behind our uneasiness with uncertainty. We value knowledge, confidence, assertiveness, rather than ambiguity and admission of ignorance. Even in realm of opinion writing, as an editor I am aware of the fact that an article comes across a lot stronger if it avoids qualifying its claims with "perhaps", "maybe", "we just don't know". There's also a certain comfort in knowing something about the future, even if that's bad news. If history is really entering an era of anti-democratic trends and the first shots of the 3rd World War have already been fired, we want to know, rather than be caught by surprise later.

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There may be some trends in political development, sure, but those are not revealing of some deeper overarching story about what's happening, and neither do trends suggest any sense of inevitability.

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Nietzsche claimed that people can only bear suffering if there is a meaning attached to it. Pointless suffering is much harder on the soul. If history is moving towards a particularly dark place not out of chance, but out of some an inner logic, that can attribute some meaning to our predicament. It's cold comfort, perhaps, to be told that we are in a pre-war period because of the aims of history, rather than because things just happened to turn out this way for reasons that are entirely contingent, but some comfort it is.

However, I would argue that a more accurate, and indeed more comforting thought, is that the future is entirely uncertain, everything is contingent, and that change and human decision-making - good and bad - are what drive history. There may be some trends in political development, sure, but those are not revealing of some deeper overarching story about what's happening, and neither do trends suggest any sense of inevitability.

When the U.K.'s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked what the greatest challenge for a statesman was he replied: "Events, dear boy, events". Looking ahead to this year's elections - the biggest election year in the history of the planet - it can seem like some of the most consequential outcomes are already a given. Modi will stay in power in India. Putin will stay in power in Russia. In the U.K. the conservative rule of nearly 15 years will come to an end, and Trump, who is now all but certainly the Republican nominee, is only a margin of error away from making his big return. But a lot can still happen that throws off even these relatively secure bets. Humans are fragile creatures, and events can shatter their plans.

Admitting to the uncertainty and contingency of events that shape history can be terrifying. Certainty, even of a relatively grim future, can seem more reassuring. But seeing history as a place where anything can happen is also liberating. There may be no arc of the moral universe trending towards justice, but simultaneously, we are free of inevitability, constraining our desire to improve. This means that the future is open, and more favourable outcomes yet live as possibilities.

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