More than four months have passed since I promised this post—which is now written in the light of the election of Donald Trump as US president (something that I superstitiously predicted in the frustrated hope that I would, for once, be wrong about election outcomes). Like Brexit and the presidential election, my writing has been a drawn-out, chaotic process. This post as good as represents a new article rather than an obvious sequel to the first post. Above all, it responds far more to Trump’s election than it does to Brexit—it would, after all, be the height of parochialism to consider the latter anywhere near as significant as the former.
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Right now, in the midst of Brexit and so soon after the election of Donald Trump as US president, historical perspective is not likely to yield much that is useful for helping to understand events that have only just begun to unfold. Clearly Trump and Brexit, as well as Putin, Erdoğan, Le Pen, Assad, Isis and much else besides across the world, point to the emergence of a global crisis and a treacherous future. But history will help us little to comprehend any of this in detail, how it may unfold and what may be the route out of the dark and grim cave we find ourselves in. On the other hand, history can provide an important broader perspective—and one that may even provide grounds for optimism.
Like anyone else, historians like to feel useful, so there are inevitably attempts to analyze recent events in light of the wisdom they have acquired from their expertise. One such attempt that garnered some attention (it was originally blogged at medium.com and was republished by The Huffington Post) is an article by Tobias Stone entitled (with somewhat hubristic confidence) ‘History tells us what will happen next with Brexit and Trump’.
Stone makes two broad points, which turn out to be disconnected, and arguably incompatible. The first is that comparatively small events, such as Brexit, can lead to larger events in a globally connected world. To illustrate the point, he sketches out a scenario in which Brexit is the triggering event in a chain that leads to global nuclear war. This is, of course, speculation rather than a serious claim that this ‘will happen’, and Stone himself concedes that one cannot know for sure what the outcome of Brexit will be, either for Britain or internationally. However, the general claim is sound to the point of being historical commonsense: events lead to other events, invariably in ways that are unforeseen at the time. No historian would dispute this.
Stone’s second main point is that history operates in a cyclical way. The cycle he presents is one in which a period of stability is inevitably followed by a period of destruction, from which society emerges in better shape and achieves stability again, only to descend once more into destruction; and so on. He suggests that most people are unaware of this because their understanding of the past is limited to about 50-100 years; but historians, who have a longer perspective on the past, will soon detect this cyclical pattern. Unfortunately, the only real example of this cycle he presents is one that is itself limited to the previous 100 years, encompassing the two world wars and various other events over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that culminate in the emergence of Putin, Trump and Brexit. Stone does present a disparate list of other historical events—‘the collapse of the Roman Empire, Black Death, Spanish Inquisition, Thirty Years War, War of the Roses, English Civil War’—but without explaining how these wildly different events (including one—the Black Death—that has nothing to do with human agency, and another—the Spanish Inquisition—that was not so much an event as an institution that spanned centuries) illustrate a recurring cycle to the past.
The idea that the past reveals historical cycles is a popular one. It was a common topos among classical writers, and the notion of a wheel of fortune revolving and dictating human affairs has a long pedigree. Nineteenth-century social theorists and historians, fond of understanding society in biological terms, likened human affairs to the life cycle, with inevitable stages of youth, maturity, decline, death, and new life.
But, to put it bluntly, cyclical theory is utter rubbish, based on a groundless, quasi-mystical notion that some kind of metaphysical (or, alternatively, biological) law applies to history. There is no evidence that history works in cycles and that we can use the past and a ‘cyclical model’ to predict what will happen next. Of course, if one tries hard enough (and many historians have) it is possible to impose all sorts of patterns on the past—most notoriously by those historians influenced by Marxist theories on historical development. We have a tendency (and this is arguably a psychological truth) to impose or detect patterns because we prefer seeing comprehensible order rather than incomprehensible chaos. However, these patterns, whether they are Christian providentialist history or Marxist determinism or cyclical history, almost never stand up to real scrutiny. They are fictions, telling us far more about ourselves than they do about the past. The Christian providentialist history, for example, reveals more about the mentality of its author than it does about the past; cyclical theory tells us a lot about the human predisposition to view time and the universe in an anthropocentric way, and about the desire to render history as a science operating according to identifiable laws. There is no requirement to be a postmodernist to cast scepticism upon such grand, and undeniably imaginative, historicizing theories.
One thing that history does teach us is that it is unwise to draw direct comparisons between two historical periods, particularly when they are at significant temporal remove. Any suggestion that our own time might be compared with earlier historical periods is fraught with problems. In almost every area there are fundamental, incomparable differences between our age and any previous age, whether those differences be demographic, cultural, technological, scientific, intellectual, or social. For all that there are things which approximate to constants (or at least admit only tiny change over history)—geography, the environment, biology—difference rather than similarity characterizes the overwhelming part of human life and society when viewed across historical periods. The urban, post-industrial society that we live in today, the way we work, the way we communicate, the way we socialize—none of that can be compared with any previous period except in ways that are highly general or superficial. It is, for example, undoubtedly interesting and valuable to consider the modern digital revolution in media and communications with the print revolution of the early modern period, but to approach them from a cyclical perspective—as examples, perhaps, of cycles of technological change—ends up in a ridiculous and misconceived effort to incorporate the vast differences between the two ‘revolutions’ under a single explanatory ‘law’.
The capacity for folly would seem to qualify as a human constant transcending time. However, this folly invariably manifests itself in different ways depending on the historical context. Just because in both 1618 and 1939 Europe descended into profoundly destructive warfare emanating from Germany does not mean the two events are comparable instances of a deeper cyclical law. The Thirty Years’ War and World War II were vastly different conflicts, stemming from vastly different causes, and occurring in vastly different social, political, cultural and intellectual worlds. Similarly, just because the crisis of democracy and liberalism in the 1920s and 1930s led to totalitarianism, war, genocide and devastation does not mean the same will happen again in the present crisis. The economy, society and culture of interwar Europe resembles our own in few respects. Trump, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen may well be ‘fascistic’, and it may be interesting to compare them with Hitler and Mussolini, just as it may be interesting to compare Putin with Lenin or Stalin, but there are significant limits to how far one can take such comparisons. There are far more ways in which Trump differs from Hitler than there are ways in which he resembles him. Likewise, one does not have to be fond of the Republican Party to point out that they are not remotely like the German Nazi Party. To suppose that Hitler and the Nazis, and Trump and the Republicans are fulfilling the same destined cyclical role is a nonsense. In short, cyclical theories of history are junk—entertaining junk perhaps, and revealing of the mental world from which they originate, but junk all the same.
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History can nevertheless shed light on contemporary events. A more fertile approach to understanding the past was that of the French historian, Fernand Braudel (1902-85). One of the central figures in what has come to be known as the Annales school of historiography—the influence of which on historical research cannot be overstated—Braudel was arguably the greatest historian, and his book, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949), arguably the greatest historical work of the twentieth century. The importance of The Mediterranean stems in part from its brilliant exposition of sixteenth-century Mediterranean society, economy, culture and politics, but above all from its broader structure. Braudel consciously rejected the traditional approach to history which focused on politics and events. Instead, he understood the past in terms of three different levels of historical time: geographical time, social time, and individual time. The first deals with the extremely slow, almost imperceptible, changes in geography, the environment and climate that shape human history; the second concerns demographic, social, economic and cultural structures and their gradual changes; and the third, individual time, is the domain of ‘events’, those
surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs. A history of brief, rapid, nervous fluctuations, by definition ultra-sensitive; the least tremor sets all its antennae quivering. But as such it is the most exciting of all, the richest in human interest, and also the most dangerous. We must learn to distrust this history with its still burning passions, as it was felt, described, and lived by contemporaries whose lives were as short and as short-sighted as ours. It has the dimensions of their anger, dreams, or illusions… Resounding events are often only momentary outbursts, surface manifestations of these larger movements [of geographical and social time] and explicable only in terms of them. (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. by Siân Reynolds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995; first published in French, 1949; second revised edn, 1966), p. 21.)
Traditional history fixated on events and individuals: kings and queens, statesmen, diplomats and generals, high politics, wars and revolutions. It is interesting, exciting and entertaining history, but on its own provides little understanding of the past. To understand the sixteenth-century Mediterranean world, as Braudel endeavoured to do, required attention to the longue durée, the long-term, the arena of geographical and social time. It necessitated understanding the Mediterranean as a sea with its islands and coastline, and the surrounding lands as varying regions of hills, mountains, plains and deserts. For it is this geography and climate which has shaped the social and economic culture of the Mediterranean peoples, fashioning the agriculture, the local and wider economies, the trade routes and financial systems. Only by grasping these features of the Mediterranean world—its geography, its climate, its economy, its society—is it possible to understand the individuals, politics and events that emerge from them.
Braudel’s metaphor of ‘surface disturbances, crests of foam’ suggests that most events are little more than froth. Perhaps one way of thinking about this is to offer a Braudelian adaptation of Shakespeare: events, whether wars, revolutions, political upheavals, are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing other than the larger movements of geographical and social time.
A Braudelian perspective, therefore, might regard the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit as surface manifestations of larger movements. An analysis of Trump and Brexit more plausible than the attempt to discern in them the recurrence of a cyclical stage is to consider them as reactions to rapid change (some of which might be described as progress). It is possible, for example, that they are the final, dying twitches of misogyny, white supremacy and blinkered nationalism in a world that increasingly has little place for such things; certainly, demographic, social, cultural and economic evidence suggests that possibility is more likely than that Trump and Brexit are ushering an enduring change in human history. There is a chance that these dying twitches will lead to global devastation and environmental catastrophe. But this is not inevitable, and assuming we manage to avoid such disasters, we may well find an era will follow—in five years or fifty years, who knows?—that once again embraces progressive, liberal and enlightened values suited to the demographically and culturally diverse world we live in.
The point is, to adopt this Braudelian view, that there is a flowing ocean of broad social, cultural and intellectual shifts on which Trump and Brexit are transitory crests of foam. One might consider gender history as an example. The election of Trump is undoubtedly a setback in the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights. But the long history of this struggle shows nothing cyclical about it; rather, it resembles a long and painfully slow story of progress against a background of gradual social, economic and cultural change. Trump is probably no more than a temporary setback, a desperate misogynist backlash, a brief and fleeting political manifestation of the rage and frustrations of men who are dimly aware they are almost certainly on the losing side of history. Even the misogyny of Trump and his supporters is not going to reverse female suffrage, say, or access to higher education. Despite Trump, all the historical signs are that one day in the future women will achieve equality. As Braudel put it, in ‘historical analysis… the long run always wins in the end’ (The Mediterranean, p. 1244). Individual historical actors, such as Trump, and events, such as the 2016 presidential election, are, for all their immediate and foreseeable pain, insignificant in the context of the broader tides of social and cultural change.
Despite the hopes of non-specialists that history may contain the secrets of what will happen in the future, historians have never been good at predicting the future with any precision. Any attempt to read from recent events a future sequence of events and their outcome is no more than speculative guesswork requiring no knowledge of history. Anyone could imagine, say, a scenario in which a terrorist incident on US soil in the name of Islamic fundamentalism early in the Trump presidency leads to virulent Islamophobia; or a win for Marine Le Pen that results in Frexit and further international instability. Equally, however, there may be neither a terrorist attack nor a victory for Le Pen. Whether there are or not, and what possible outcomes may arise, cannot be gleaned by looking at past historical events; they can only be based on an astute and informed assessment of current possibilities and probabilities.
But what history can illuminate are the broader and longer changes that generate events. Climate change, demographic change, social and cultural change, technological change: the long histories of these provide a better context for understanding recent events than a narrow analysis of personalities, political calculations and strategies. A recognition of this may help us avoid the despair of supposing recent events map out a road that ends only in catastrophe. And it certainly makes more sense than to view these events as manifestations of a mysterious historical law according to which humans will periodically enter into phases of self destruction. Not only is such a cyclical view nonsensical fiction, it is also likely to foster an attitude of resigned quietism.
Finally, it is worth stating that the present concerns are fourfold: to understand recent events; to avoid potential global disaster; to keep alive progressive values; and to work towards the acceptance and success of those values. History can help in these tasks, particularly those of understanding events and preserving values. This is because the past does not present a metaphysical law of inevitable cyclical return, but is rather a shared body of experience, knowledge and analysis from which to draw inspiration and understanding. It is for this reason that history, as the discipline concerned with the past, is invaluable in the present.
And since I began my first post with reference to the now deservedly Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan, I’ll end this one with a couple of lines worth keeping in mind: ‘For the loser now will be later to win, / For the times they are a-changin’.’