There's a new horizon in history: "panic time"

It's no longer enough to think of history moving in series of events. Thanks to the Great Uncertainty, we now have to look at the moments when time breaks down.

In the final post in this series about what we have called "The Great Uncertainty" we seek to introduce to the discussion some questions about time. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Historians routinely think about the unfolding of time when recounting the events of the past. But social scientists are not schooled in the same way and often they don’t reflect enough about time and, above all, the different tempos at which processes unfold.

The historian who can most help us here is Fernand Braudel, a Frenchman who became the leading figure in the so-called Annales School which devoted itself to the exposition of long-term social history. In 1949 he published a major historical account of the "world" created by the Mediterranean Sea. In his book he set out a very sophisticated way of thinking about "social time", specifically linking the practices of historical subjects to different dynamics calibrated according to three different concepts of time – or time horizons.

The first of these horizons is that of histoire événementielle, or the short time-span of single events, or chains of events, with all of their distinctive individuality and capriciousness. The second is the conjoncture, or conjuncture. This seeks to capture the location of the short term in a wider temporal horizon and identify trends occurring over a period of maybe 10-15 years, perhaps somewhat longer. The third notion, within which the conjuncture should in turn be considered, is the longue durée. This consists of regularities and patterns of action that conceivably span centuries and, by virtue of their duration, are best comprehended as mentalités, or mental frameworks, that guide how human beings handle the natural and social circumstances in which they find themselves.

So why are we inviting you to think about these various Braudelian notions of time? Do they ring any bells as you recall the three processes of major structural change that we claim have created the present uncertain era? We think they should, because we suggest that it makes sense to regard each of the three constituent processes (of financial crisis, shifting economic power and environmental threat) as unfolding in turn in accordance with each of these three different time horizons (or temporalities). Let’s explain.

The financial crisis is a chain of events which has a beginning and, for all that this is hard to discern at the moment, will have an end. This crisis will certainly have done a lot of economic, social and political damage by the time it ends, but it will eventually be brought to a conclusion, even if, as we said in our first post, its short-term history lasts for an awkward period of years.

By comparison, in Braudel’s terms shifting economic power represents a conjuncture. It’s a process that doesn’t easily lend itself to start-dates and finishing-dates, although we can now see that we are well advanced in the remaking of a world of Western economic dominance that peaked in the couple of decades following the ending of the Second World War in 1945. As again we argued earlier, it is still far from clear how these shifts will play out in precise fashion or even when the shift will settle into a new and recognisable shape. But the trend is manifest.

As for environmental threat and the growing challenge to the well-being of the planet represented by accelerating climate change, this is classically the stuff of the longue durée, the unfolding of change over a period of centuries (even if, once certain tipping points are reached, we move from the longue durée into the conjoncturel). From when do we conventionally date the beginning of industrialisation? When did oil first become the basis of the global economy? Whatever the answers, it’s surely becoming ever more likely that we will come to judge that an entire industrial-cum-economic civilisation of long standing has cumulatively undermined itself by its very success and global spread. It will need to be re-thought (or, in Braudel’s conception, its dominant mentalité will need to be reframed) via some of the painful, demanding means that we tried to begin to think about in the previous post in the series.

From a contemporary perspective, we should also add in to this complexity a fourth, and new, conception of time, that of "emergency time", or just as aptly "panic time", when something really dramatic and unexpected takes place and no play book exists for leaders to pick up in order to shape a response. This is the kind of time that was sparked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers on 15 September 2008 when for a few days nobody knew if the global financial system would survive or whether, as former US President George W. Bush crudely but accurately put it, ‘this sucker could go down’. It’s easy to imagine that emergencies like this will occur again.

We’ve approached this discussion analytically, seeking to separate out different processes of change against different time-scales. But it’s obvious too that, in the practical world of governance and politics, all of these four types of uncertainty need to be addressed – and addressed in fact simultaneously. Indeed, in the worst-case scenario they may all be coming to a head at the same time, and on our watch. Unfortunately, in such circumstances we don’t have the luxury of "waiting and seeing" on the really hard issues that have surfaced in the realms of the conjuncture or the longue durée and, in the meantime, seeking just to manage our way through the easy stuff, that is, the emergencies and the histoire événementielle they add up to!

There is one final aspect to the question of time which is worth mentioning. In thinking about all of this, we should surely show a bit more sympathy to elected politicians, wherever they exist, who are seriously trying to handle these multiple uncertainties in democratic fashion. Several years ago, the eminent American political theorist, Sheldon Wolin, noted that political time was out of synch with the temporalities, rhythms and pace governing economies, societies and cultures. He meant that in democracies political time requires an element of leisure; in particular, it needs to allow for deliberation and the negotiation of compromises between competing interests and views.

So here’s the lesson: if we are collectively to chart some kind of workable way through The Great Uncertainty, we need to be sure to find the time to talk all of this through as concerned members of global society.

A money dealer covers his face with his hands at a Tokyo foreign exchange market on October 25, 2010. Photograph: Getty Images

Professors Colin Hay and Tony Payne are Directors of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Sheffield.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle