Sunday, 31 December 2017

Are we now in the endgame of a 'Period of History'?

We live in 'interesting' times - I'm sure you've noticed! The politics of the Western World seems to have taken some pretty big leaps of late, and it's showing no signs of stopping. History often gets divided up into different 'periods' or 'cycles' - times where things seem to be moving in one direction, defined and punctuated by changes of direction. The fascinating thing, of course, is that you never know exactly where you are within or between such 'periods' while you're actually living through it - such definitions come much later. Different historians will have different opinions on the 'periods', what really happened and why, what the start and end points were and why, and so on. In some ways it's just a matter of administrative convenience for historians themselves to have such definitions in order to limit their particular studies (or just a shorthand to make vague points to each other), and I'm certainly not about to claim any great insight into such things. These are just a few vague thoughts of my own about the longer term picture of where we have been and where we may going.

So let's start by going back a bit - to the general period known as the 'Industrial Revolution'. Of course, within that there are many different things going on, and many different little 'sub-periods' where particular trends were developing. Any 'period' can be seen an any number of ways, obviously - did the 'English Civil War period' end at Worcester in 1651, or in London in 1660 (or perhaps 1688), or at Culloden in 1746? Depends how you want to look at it, of course. You can speculate about the 'Industrial Revolution'  really beginning in the 'Agricultural Revolution', and exactly where and why its precise end came, but for my purposes here, I'm just going to think of it in terms of some of the great social and political changes. In short, Britain went from being a largely agricultural and rural society to being a largely industrial and urban society. Within that process came another - the gradual development, from small beginnings, of ideas like 'Human Rights' and 'Workers Rights', and even 'Equality'.

Obviously you can't look at those things in isolation - there were many movements and circumstances that brought these things about, and there were many differences across Europe and the Wider World, in technology, philosophy, politics and even art. All these things were tied together, influencing one another in various ways. It's also important to understand that, though there may appear to be definite changes between the period and the periods before and after, they didn't happen overnight, and as they were happening nobody knew what the future would really bring -in no way could someone at the time have looked at a single event or moment and said 'here endeth...', and in no way could we make any such a definitive statement now. I think we can speculate about a few aspects, though.

So where did the 'Industrial Revolution' period end - well I don't think it unreasonable to look at a fairly commonly used punctuation point of the First World War, and the great social changes brought about by what could, perhaps, be defined as the ultimate expression of the 'industrialism' that had developed - Industrial Warfare, on a truly industrial scale of mechanised slaughter. Of course, there were other factors - the 'old order' of established aristocratic power and money had been under threat from 'new money' industrial ideas for a while, and the awakening of ideas about human beings being worthy of consideration as human beings were already bringing about changes in government thinking with 'People's Budgets' and the like (and expanding the electorate was always going to make those kinds of things irreversible). The war itself, and all of its human and financial costs, brought the whole thing pretty spectacularly crashing down in many ways in quite a short period, though, even though what happened socially and politically as a result may well have been almost inevitable anyway.

Much has been written by many about the great changes that happened next socially, alongside the continuance of 'total war' into the next great global conflict just decades later - I'm not about to go into detail about all that here. At what point did that next 'post Industrial Revolution' period really stop, though? Looking back I think there's a natural tendency to see the two World Wars as convenient bookends of a 'period', with the social changes of the 1960's (Note: Would that be the 'long 1960s' or the 'short 1960s'? Aargh!) being the start of a whole new phase. In a sense that's fair enough, but in the further future will historians be commonly using that, or will they say more commonly that we are now really still within that same 'period', and still really fighting those same kind of battles around 'rights' and 'society', in much the same way (socially and politically) as we have been for the last century.

You could say that the 20th century, and the early part of the 21st, in much of the developed world at least, has (socially) been very much about the development and implementation of the idea of 'Human Rights'. By that I mean those in more senior positions throughout society going from seeing people as mere 'minions' and 'fodder' towards seeing them (or being forced to see them, perhaps) as 'of equal worth' as human beings even if they are currently 'lower' positions within society. It's gone from the very basic 'they still need and deserve money if they're sick, or they'll die' kind of moral argument to the details of ideas like paid parental leave, holiday pay, health and safety rules, and so. Alongside that has, increasingly over the 'period', developed the idea of 'people' meaning 'everyone', rather than 'straight white men from respectable backgrounds'. Now it would be foolish to claim that that idea is now universal, even in the most developed nations, but it's very much what society has been pushing towards. Importantly for where we are now, it's the kind of idea that many of those who are now 'young adults' have effectively grown up with as both a universal principle that should apply and a virtue for all to aspire to.

Alongside that has come something of a move away from the kind of 'nationalism' that developed in the nineteenth century in Europe. Really, you could perhaps argue that that long, slow process really began in the Great War - the futility of war between nations, for little more than supposed 'national glory' (and even 'purity'), certainly became apparent to some involved quite quickly. Unfortunately, it was inevitably somewhat stunted in the early part of the twentieth century by the wars themselves, and the (sometimes understandable) need to push 'patriotism' among the public as part of the required motivational process to actually win those wars. After the guns had stopped firing, both in 1918 and 1945/6, a gradual move towards greater international cooperation began (clearly post 1918 it wasn't exactly overwhelming in its success by any measure, but it did happen). This has accelerate with technology, and the ever increasing ability to quickly and easily communicate with the world and move around the world. People in every part of society are now far more 'international' than they ever were, and our younger adults have again grown up in this world - a 'world' (at least in their proximity) where those old barriers of isolated nationality and borders are really beginning to be seen as something strange and unwelcome, and from the past.

What we have is a growing new generation across the Western World, who are mostly accustomed to thinking, in effect, of 'all humanity as one' in a much more instinctive way than ever before in human history (although in a sense you could also say that it is partly a rolling back of those stricter nineteenth century ideas of 'nationalism'). Many will have visited different countries (often several of them), and even more will be aware of what's going on there through both 24 hour rolling news and the personal contact of social media, and instinctively aware of various 'cultural' aspects of many nations through television. The increasingly free movement of people (not just through EU rules, but simply through transport technology and cultural readiness to travel) has not only brought them personal contact with people of from many nations (not just European), but also regular contact with their culture through food and so on. Younger generations have really not known any different. To put it simply, for the new generation, many foreign countries, at least within the sphere of the Western World, are almost no longer 'foreign' at all. Certainly not in the way that they once quite recently were, and that generational difference is key to what is happening now (as we know from voting demographic statistics).

This growing 'internationalism' is something that some will argue is inevitable with communication and travel technology, and what they would also probably suggest is inevitable from that in the sense of the 'globalisation' of trade. On the other hand, some others seem to be fighting against it, trying to bring back those nineteenth century ideas of nationalism, national pride, and 'hard' national borders. This is a process that's been gradually growing since the beginning of the twentieth century, and the battle against it is the same - in a way we can see the worst of what that opposition did between the wars in Germany, but let's not pretend that it was in any way unique. It often wasn't just a fight for 'national pride' and 'national purity' either, but a fight against rights and freedoms of the individual. An irony, perhaps, is that it manifested itself most notably in opposition to what some might see as the ultimate expression of 'rights for all', Communism, just at the same time as practical Communism as a system was proving itself to be anything but that anyway.

None of this 'nationalistic' stuff has really ever gone away, and neither has the idea of 'individual selfishness' that essentially underpins the desire to rail against people being considered 'equal' and worthy of 'human rights' - they've been 'defeated in battle' several times, and been gradually rolled back within society, but they've still been hanging around there in the background. Indeed, I think it's fair to say that most of us have been somewhat complacent about their apparent diminishing to a tiny little rump of scattered 'radicals'. Each time they have raised their head over the last century, there has been, I suspect, a genuine desire to bring them to an end among some, but not among enough of society for it to actually happen once and for all. Today, though, I think we might really be in the final battle - the endgame in this 'period' of our history.

Before going any further, I think it's vital to remind ourselves that the generational differences are in no way 'universal' - they are 'statistical trends', but there are people of all ages on all 'sides'. I think those trends are themselves significant, though - what happens in terms of major shifts within society is very much a 'numbers game', and right at this moment in history we are at a critical point of reasonably balanced numbers that could lead us in either direction. There's nothing to be complacent about at all here - if this is indeed the endgame for the period we have been in for the last century or so, the fact that the numbers seem to be trending in one particular direction at the moment among the next generation certainly doesn't mean that they must stay that way.

What we have seen through the new rise of the nationalism agenda, notably (but not solely) with Brexit, is something of a generational divide (not in any way universal, I repeat), and either current generation could yet 'win' in the end. The reasons for that are complicated - education may be one factor, with often an increased emphasis in more recent times on things like 'assessing evidence' and 'critical thinking', as opposed to the usually more 'shut up, listen and repeat' approaches of the past. Some might call that 'indoctrination', I guess (it's a term some throw around about why so many relative 'youngsters' disagree with them), while others may call it a kind of 'enlightenment' in giving people the tools to think for themselves rather than simply accepting what they are told at face value. It may be significant that those in power suddenly seem so keen on 'traditional values' in education, though, and at this point there is still time for them to change our future direction by teaching a yet younger generation to accept their 'wisdom' without question.

It's not just that, though, and that might not even be the most significant issue. Statistically, this is the first generation in a very long time to have never really experienced war first hand. There have been a few distant conflicts, but we've not been 'at war' with another 'nation' for a long time. The defensive and 'patriotic' mindset that 'national' war inevitably creates is well beyond the experience of the new generations. While for the generation most likely to be supporting the likes of Brexit (and Trump, as another example of the same kind of thing, and supporters of one often seem to be supporters of the other) it was something very recent, and something they grew up with as a shadow looming over them - a close shadow that they personally reacted to 'first hand'. For most people under the age of 40 or so it's something that happened a couple of generations or so. It is interesting that, as I understand it, the generation who actually fought in the last war tended to be rather pro-EU, for example - it is their children's generation that perhaps grew up with the 'idea' of war between nations, and its hangover of all those 'patriotic' films and so on, but not so much of the direct experience of the reality of it who are mostly falling on the side of nationalism now.

That same kind of age divide (yet again I say not universal - it's really important to remember that individuals are not just 'statistics') coincides with not only the post war internationalist political consensus that has brought us the EU, but with the technological advancements that have brought different peoples so much closer in such a practical, everyday way. In order to defeat that trend, those who favour a return to the deeply nation-based thinking of the past have to overcome the fact that it really isn't the experience of most younger people. We can see the attempts to do that all around us, and at least some of it has been imported to the UK from the US. The revering of militarism, the use of political terminology, the increase in 'flag-waving' - these are all things that had largely disappeared from the UK, really before my generation of the now middle-aged came along.

We grew up seeing the poppy, for example, as a symbol of remembrance, sorrow, and, by virtue of the futility of war, of peace. Now, though, there has been a strong push by the nationalistic forces to see it as a symbol of 'national pride', and of 'patriotism' and of 'victory'. And it is working - you can see it in the very different way that 'society' as a whole seems to treat such things. It's no accident that this push has come at the same time as Brexit, and at the same time as a lurch towards nationalism (on the right and left of politics, to an extent - there's little of the old language of 'international brotherhood' being heard at the forefront of the modern 'socialist' movement now, and much more about the 'legitimate concerns on immigration' and the like). There is a concerted push towards nationalism (and associated ideas of universal Equality and 'Human Rights' being a negative thing) happening, and we're kidding ourselves if we think that it isn't working, for the moment at least. They are trying to win over the population, or at least the vast majority of it, in order to reverse the internationalist trend, and they have been succeeding.

So who are the 'they' behind this - the ones who have been coordinating the campaign and driving it forwards? That's a question well worth asking, I think. It's not just about those who have been persuaded, of course, but about those who are persuading them. In some cases, they are the same old suspects who have been trying to do the same for the last century - those groups who hailed certain European regimes as they rose and pushed us towards the last global war. In some cases, it is those who see that the inevitable consequence of ever closer international cooperation is the loss of their ability to control their own little 'pond' for their own personal benefit, while also losing their ability to use differences between different international jurisdictions to make money without having to pay their tax dues to anyone.

They like, of course, to spread the accusation of the 'Liberal Elite' alongside the accusations of 'unpatriotic' and 'traitors' and so on, but the reality is quite different. It is not the more recent relatively 'Liberal' forces that are the 'elite' - it is the rise of those forces that threatens the personal positions of power, influence and wealth of the real 'elite'. Their move to create a 'nationalist coup' across the western world is driven by nothing more than a fear of losing their own position of privileged. In a sense, this goes back to the very beginnings of this 'period of history' - the time when the 'old order' apparently collapsed. Understanding that is key to understanding what is happening now. Yes, the old aristocratic structure of power and position did 'collapse', but that doesn't mean it disappeared altogether - it just changed from 'birth' to 'wealth' as the last remnants of 'old money' and the cream of the 'new money' that had helped bring about their downfall effectively joined forces to preserve their wealth and power.

It's important to note that they didn't entirely succeed - while they maintained much of their wealth and continued to exert a certain amount of control and influence, they were no longer able to control actual governments in quite the same way. They could no longer guarantee governments that would help them preserve their considerable wealth and income against taxation by and for 'the people', for example, and had to become far more aggressive about hiding it elsewhere (and now the end of that is apparent on the horizon for them). They could be challenged, and you could perhaps say that the story of the rise of rights, equality and internationalism over the last hundred years has been the story of that challenge - the challenge of the people, through democracy and increasingly across borders, against the iron fist of the 'elite' who have kept hanging on. That challenge hasn't been entirely successful either, of course. Yet. Maybe this is the moment where it might be, and maybe that is why they are driving those forces of nationalism so hard now.

We can't pretend that the forces of democracy, in their attempts at fighting off that old 'elite', have been entirely successful in bringing people with them, or in treating people with the kind of 'Human Rights' and 'Equality' respect that they should have done. One of the things that has opened the door is the very real feeling that this brave new international world has 'left people behind' that while some have been given the opportunity to embrace this new world of international travel and communication, others have found themselves watching from the sidelines as they see their own world left to crumble around them. Is it any wonder that they think that maybe this new international world isn't really the great thing that they have been told, or that these universal 'Human Rights' and 'Equalities' are really happening at their expense, or even that they think fondly back to a time when things were simpler for them in terms of knowing who 'the enemy' was? We who oppose the forces of nationalism have to recognise and address this, without condemning those who have been drawn in by the alluring promises offered by the forces of nationalism. We have to understand that it is our own failure to move everyone forward with us that has opened the door for those who now seek to undo what we have spent the last century moving towards.

This might well be their very last chance, though, and that is why I think this may be the endgame of the period we have been living through over the last century. Fail to change the recent direction of travel completely now, when the generational balance is as good for them as it ever would be if things go on as they have been, and their ideas of nationalistic divisions between the people of this planet might be on a gradual, terminal downward spiral. This might well really be their last hurrah - if they lose this time, there may well not be enough people who share their instincts to ever seriously challenge the direction of human progress again (or at least not for many decades to come - circumstances can always change, especially with something like climate change, and all that could mean for things like food production, looming on the horizon). And if they don't succeed, and their ideas are finally dismissed from being taken seriously, the change in direction of society could be a decisive turn towards true internationalism and true equality in a way that humanity is yet to experience - we could be on the cusp of a genuinely a new period of history.

Things could go either way from here, though, especially in view of the fact that the power is now in the hands of the forces of nationalism in several internationally critical countries (most notably the UK and USA, but there are others). The next period of history could be one of increased internationalism, cooperation, rights and equalities spreading around the world, or it could be one of increased nationalism, entrenchment, separation, suspicion, and perhaps ultimately large scale war. Everyone will have their own view of which is better and what the positive and negative effects on society and the world might be, of course, as I have mine, but the tipping point between them does seem in many ways to be upon us in our immediate future, and what we do now could set the direction we travel as a society for the next hundred years or more. These social and political battles that we are engaged in today could very well be that important to the future for generations to come, and that is obviously why it is so vitally important for us to win them, and win them decisively.