My first memory of a historic event is from 2001. I was nine years old and just home from school. Sitting in front of the TV in my mum’s living room I watched an aeroplane fly out of a cloudless blue sky and into the side of a tall building in New York. Then another aeroplane did the same thing. It looked like the end of the world.
The terror attacks on 9/11 were a fittingly apocalyptic introduction to current affairs. The politics of the 21st century is haunted by intimations of looming world-historic crisis. That memory of two apparently invulnerable skyscrapers (the archetypal image of capitalism) collapsing into clouds of dust set the tone for the next two decades of financial disaster, populist demagogues and, most frighteningly, climate crisis.
We all have a sense, however vague, of our position within history: a set of assumptions about how the past, present and future join together. Our understanding of the world’s direction of travel – decline, progress, cycle, apocalypse – is shaped by the events we see happening around us, but also by politics.
“As gravity bends light so power bends time,” writes the historian Christopher Clark in his 2018 book Time and Power. In it, he examines how four major figures from German history – Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg-Prussia, Frederick the Great, Otto von Bismarck and Adolf Hitler – used “cultural choices, public rituals, or the deployment of arguments or of metaphors and other figurative language” to influence perceptions of history. “Chronopolitics” is the voguish term used to describe this process. The chronopolitics of the modern West is defined against a prevailing mood of historical terminus.
In the 50 years following the end of the Second World War one idea dominated the chronopolitics of the liberal West: progress. As early as the 1950s, the sociologist Daniel Bell observed that “economic growth has become the secular religion of advancing industrial societies”. For Francis Fukuyama, writing in the early 1990s, the vaunted triumph of liberal capitalist democracy represented the “end of history”.
I had never heard of the “end of history” when I watched the World Trade Center collapse. But in newspapers across the world, columnists pointed out that Fukuyama’s idea looked shaky. Today, narratives of liberal progress could hardly be less fashionable.
There is a chronopolitical void to fill. While the idea of liberal progress has its defenders, such as the psychologist Steven Pinker, they are sailing against the wind. Scan the bookshelves: How Democracies Die, How Democracy Ends, How Will Capitalism End?, The End of the American Century – the prevailing mood is one of democratic crisis and liberal denouement.
On the left, “late capitalism” is perhaps the most popular diagnosis of our historical condition. The term has been used by left-wing thinkers for almost a century but in the past few years new radical publications such as Jacobin and n+1 have helped push it into wider consciousness. Today it has reached the status of a meme. On Twitter, “late capitalism” describes the perceived absurdities or excesses of a decadent economic system, from pumpkin spice lattes to mistreated Uber drivers.
Used pessimistically, the term conjures a dystopian feeling that we are stuck in a political nightmare that will never end. In Capitalist Realism Mark Fisher evoked a “sense of exhaustion, of cultural and political sterility”. Optimists, on the other hand, look forward to “post-capitalism”. The social-media pundit Aaron Bastani imagines an age of “fully automated luxury communism” where technological advances will free us from work.
In his book PostCapitalism Paul Mason predicts “the emergence of a new kind of human being”. It is a surprisingly popular view. Inventing the Future by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek proposes that post-capitalism will “unveil the space to create new modes of being”. Like Christianity, the post-capitalist left promises a paradisal future and spiritual transformation lying in wait just beyond the end of history.
Many movements of the populist right are motivated by the idea that history is cyclical. Christopher Clark points out that Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon subscribes to the view expounded in William Strauss and Neil Howe’s book The Fourth Turning (1996) that history operates in 80- to 100-year cycles. It is an idea that Trump grasps intuitively: “Make America great again.”
On this side of the Atlantic, Brexiteers dream of “taking back control” while Boris Johnson thinks of the EU as a resurrected Roman empire (in The Dream of Rome) and casts himself as Winston Churchill reincarnate (in The Churchill Factor).
Much further to the right, extremists such as Anders Behring Breivik believe themselves to belong to the Knights Templar, the historical foes of Islam. For Western societies, the political myth of a return to a vanished age of heroes is an ancient one – it is two millennia since Virgil announced Augustus would bring a golden age to Rome.
Perhaps none of our contemporary historical myths will fill Fukuyama’s vacuum. History faces a new and existential threat: climate change. Liberals must adapt to the idea that unlimited economic progress may be destroying civilisation. Conservatives will struggle to find a place for an unprecedented event such as a global climate crisis in a cyclical view of history. And is it really possible to dream of a socialist utopia on the other side of a climate apocalypse?
For the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, climate change represents the end of history in a more fundamental way than Fukuyama could have dreamed of. If all human actions have eventually contributed to climate crisis then it represents “the terminus of history. For if the entirety of our past is contained within the present, then temporality is drained of significance.” It is a historical idea our politics has barely begun to grapple with.
This article appears in the 13 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Britain was sold