Politics / History / 

15 Jan 2019

Learning History the Hard Way

It is not exactly an original idea that history seems to repeat itself; one of Marx’s most frequently-quoted lines is that it happens “first as tragedy, then as farce”. Except that sometimes it’s first as tragedy, then again as tragedy, and again… there’s little farcical about it, if it’s your first time through.

Janan Ganesh, writing for FT (paywalled, but you can get around it by searching) back in December, shortly after the death of George H.W. Bush, suggests that the current rise of populism is rooted in our increasing historical distance from the lessons of the Second World War.

Social order is to some extent self-cancelling. The longer people have it, the more they take it for granted. Historic events that warn them against such complacency pass from living memory to folklore to something more like rumour. Ideas that would have made their forebears shiver become credible, even exciting. Think of the antic glee at the prospect of war in Britain in 1914. It defies understanding, until you remember the country’s inexperience of mass-mobilised conflict since Napoleonic times.

The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) were just under a century removed from the beginning of the Great War, meaning that if you were a person of draftable age in 1914, it had firmly passed into history. The last veteran of the Battle of Waterloo died in 1898, while the last veteran of the wars overall died in 1902.

As of the start of 2019, we no longer have anyone left alive who fought in the Great War; it is now as remote to us as Waterloo was to the men on the Western Front. The Second World War, of course, is next. But the men and women with firsthand knowledge have largely already left public life and its various leadership roles to their children, and in many cases to their children, so the effect of this collective ‘forgetting’ is already happening.

How telling that the populist fever in US politics flared in the 1990s, when power passed from the war generation to its children. Newt Gingrich, that smash-it-all-up merchant, was the first Speaker of the House of Representatives born after the Depression. What his predecessors saw as a concert of grown-ups against the extremes, he saw as a venal, backslapping Washington ripe for “revolution”.

Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post builds on this, in the context of France’s ongoing “gilets jaunes” protests, which cut across traditional left/right politics and have “a somewhat inchoate mix of ideologies”, but can be broadly termed ‘populist’.

The unrest in France underscores an atmosphere of uncertainty and crisis looming over Western societies. Widening economic inequality and deepening political polarization are straining democracies built through decades of moderating, consensus politics.

Increasingly, that consensus is being rejected; the reasons for making the compromises on which modern democratic societies rest have been forgotten.

Moderation and consensus politics, like truth itself, are no longer in style.

On one hand, to a public that has never known the dangers of populism, a firebrand who promises change is far more appealing than cookie-cutter, boffinesque ‘insiders’. On the other, elites whose greed and rapaciousness might have once been curtailed by the dim recollection of what can happen if they overfeed themselves at the public trough – of relatives, perhaps, who did this and ended up being torn apart by those left hungry – no longer feel constrained, and take whatever they can grab, even using the apparatus of the state to pillage where they can.

And so we have an increasingly destructive oscillation, fueled by public anger and discontent, and no longer buffered by a broad understanding that the preservation of society and government is more important than achieving short-term policy goals or self-enrichment.

Again, Ganesh in FT:

[I]t is not so much the malevolence [of populist politics] as the innocence that unnerves: the assumption that real life comes with a fuse or fail-safe that will shut down an ideological adventure if it ever runs out of control.

It seems unlikely to me that the population will suddenly wake up one day and realize they have been playing with the political equivalent of matches in a very dry house. More likely, we’ll have to get burned, and learn it the hard way. How badly burned we’ll get in the process is the question.