Wednesday, 12 January 2011

We are the Unhistorical Generation

In the final days of the Cold War, not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, an American political theorist by the name of Francis Fukuyama published an article in a moderately prestigious foreign affairs journal titled ‘The End of History.’ It was the sort of article that people who know about things without knowing about anything in particular were very enthusiastic about, and its popularity no doubt endures on undergraduate syllabuses for the sort of classes that you can spend a semester in only to conclude that the course description with all the adjectives in quotation marks and no nouns was in fact less vague than the course itself.

But I digress. The point, and by that I mean what Fukuyama was getting at in his article, is that History Is Over. Of course, he doesn’t mean that things have stopped happening, but he does mean that interesting things have stopped happening.

Now naturally you will object that plenty of interesting things have happened since 1989. There were two Gulf Wars, 9-11, two rather nasty recessions, Bill Clinton did something to someone that seriously impugns his ability to stop someone in the Balkans from doing something to someone in the Balkans, NAFTA, Avatar, the Giants won the World Series, and so it goes. Well it’s not a bad objection, but more on that later, before you start getting all objectionable let me tell you why History Is Over.

The basic idea is that all human history up to this point has been a seething ideological conflict just sort of bubbling away until the chaff of backwards ignorance boils away leaving us with Democracy/Capitalism. Tribalism, Feudalism, Royalism, Fascism, Communism, all fall by the wayside, the struggle is won and the world is now safe for the best of all possible worlds, namely liberal democracy and the free market. Once you’ve got a Capitalist Democracy and all of the attendant rights and entitlements there is simply no going back. Everyone pretty much gets along and buys things and we don’t really want that to change. History from this point will no longer be about things changing, if anything happens at all, things will be the same and become more so.

This isn’t to say that there won’t be problems. There are going to be Iraqs and Irans, sex scandals and the occasional Kim Jong Il, but Democracies and Market Economies have been popping up all over the world ever since the Original Thirteen opened up the maiden shop and started franchising and they’ll keep popping until every last reluctant obstructionist dreg of the primitive and deluded ideologies which proceeded our obviously superior way of doing things has been swept into the rubbish bin of history.

‘History’ will become a term of abuse for the rubbish heap of prototypes and beta versions of people, ideas and lifestyles that never made it out of R&R. The Greeks, the Romans, European, Chinese and Indian empires, all no better than errors in the cosmic game of trial and error that has led us faithfully onward and upward to our heavenly resting place in Democracy American Style.

But be that as it may, whether Fukuyama is right or not is beside the point. The fact that some Neo-Con hung up the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner a bit early is not what interests me. The grain of intrigue here is that, ‘End of History’ or no ‘End of History,’ a distinctly twilight of the world pallor seems to hang in the air. Apocalyptic speculation hasn’t been so rampant since 1945, and the best that most people can say about the global political situation is ‘I dunno, stalemate I guess.’ Call it anomie, ennui, apathy, disappointment, disillusionment, depression, despair or simple indifference, the temptation seems to be to call it a world and be done with it.

Whether Fukuyama was, against all odds, a prophet of our time, a modern Zarathustra throwing over the idol of ‘things could be different than they are, maybe even better,’ whether our metastasised egos have finally throttled our better angels, or whether disenchantment with the revolutionary ways of the Beats, Hippies, Abolitionists, Communists, Utopians, Suffragettes and our parents who have been pouring out of the woodwork since 1776 with harebrained schemes for building a better world has finally dripped into the nether-regions of our collective psyche, whatever the reasons for it, the present generation seems oddly convinced that while they can make the world a better place, they will not make it a different place.

But you object. ‘Well my good man, your conniving sophistical subtleties notwithstanding, I,’ you say, ‘am not convinced that there is a problem here. In fact, I am not convinced that you’ve said anything at all. Your argument, to the extent that I can discern an argument here, seems to be entirely based on a dimly understood article from the eighties and a series of irrelevant distinctions in vocabulary and verb tense that, I confess, are all Greek to me. My honest opinion, dear sir, is that if you have a point to make, make it. And throw in an example by way of illustration, why don’t you!’

Well, that was quite the indelicate intrusion into the flow of my thoughts, dear reader, but if you insist, and it seems you are adamant, I will answer your objection as best I can.

My point is that insofar as History is conceived of as a dynamic battle of ideologies, the sustained questioning of the way we live and why, supported by a genuine willingness to try radically different patterns of thought and action, particularly vis a vis our basic assumptions about life the universe and everything, I suspect, based on my rather provisional membership in modern human society, that we as a culture are no longer playing that game. I’ll emphasise that this is really no better than a hunch, but as I see it, the great creative uncertainty that brought us the clash of Religion and Science, Democracy and Totalitarianism, Capitalism and Communism, is no longer alive in the [Post]-Post-Modern soul. To say nothing of what may actually happen, and I do say nothing on that subject, we are a decidedly Unhistorical generation.

Barring climatic or nuclear catastrophe, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the historians of the future look on the end of the Cold War in much the same way we look on the Fall of the Roman Empire; the last interesting thing to happen for a good long while.


  1. Well that sounds wonderful! Progress!!

  2. I understand what you're trying to say (By the way, sorry I couldn't make it to the party... I really wanted to see you and Steven again), but I don't think that humans have come to a plateau, at least not yet.
    Our recorded history is bleak and largely uneventful, say, before 2000 BCE. After that, human progress has been snowballing up until today. I don't think that it would be an overstatement to say that the last 200 years have been the most eventful in the history of humanity, considering technological improvements and mental evolution/increased consciousness. Even though the casualties of war are significantly lesser today than they were seventy years ago, I think that war is starting to become less of a marker of human advancement.
    You've probably heard a thousand times already that X technology did not exist Y years ago (Ex: Cell Phones, 20; General Population's Access to the Internet, 20), but I think that this is merely the beginning. I know that is not an extreme idea, but I think that our rapidly evolving technology is also changing the other aspects of human advancement.
    I would say that the primary human goal is to increase our population, as is with any other species. Keeping it simple, other measures of human advancement would be technological, territorial, and mental.
    - The human population is definitely increasing.
    - Human technologically has advanced more in the last twenty years than in the rest of history.
    - Territorial advancement has ceased, but only because of our current technological restraints.
    - Although I'm introverted and think most people suck/are dumb, the population has arguably attained a higher state of consciousness in the past one hundred years than the rest of our history.

    To reference what you were saying, the struggle between Communism and Capitalism is not over. The struggle between Democracy and Totalitarianism is not over (Although one of the two is certainly losing...). The struggle between religion and science is not over. The struggle between Lutheran Christians and Latter Day Saint Christians and Some-Other-Bullshit-Sect Christians is not over. The struggle between Christianity and Catholicism and Hinduism and Islam and Buddhism and Sikhism and Shintoism and Confucianism is not over. There is still conflict to be had and losers to be declared.
    What I am trying to say is that human advancement, in all areas, has been under the snowball effect for the last two hundred years than the 20,000. To think that one hundred years ago, people still sent physical letters to each other as the preferred and most convenient forms of communication is something that I think that this generation has forgotten because it is moving so rapidly. All we have to do is press a fucking button and we can see and talk to somebody on the other side of the world.
    All of this leads me to believe that humanity still has a few chapters left in its history book.

    I hope to hear from you soon!

    *Didn't spell or grammar check because I'm lazy*