Historical inevitability is back in vogue for the first time since the aftermath of the Great Depression. Now as then, a rather crude form of economic determinism is the single engine of this supposed inevitability, and now as then, too, it purports to offer simple and precise answers to a range of complex social and political questions. In its heyday, midway through the previous century, reductive materialism held up simple answers for emerging problems of class and political agency in a still-developing industrial world. Now this same reductive materialist approach claims to understand the apparent divide between open and closed societies, between norms of embracing toleration, social innovation, and cultural diversity and those that would slow or arrest change in order to restore an imaginary past that sheltered fragile, insecure identities. It appears that a datum as mundane as whether an economy achieves 2 or 4 percent GDP growth per annum averaged over a decade can predict as much of the political future as anyone should need to care about. This zombie-like resurrection of yet another iteration of historical inevitability and economic determinism is intellectually unjustifiable and politically dangerous.
A few generations ago, philosophers of history reconsidered some very old philosophical (and theological) questions about historical contingency and necessity such as: Is history inevitable irrespective of individual choice and action? Is history cyclical, progressive, regressive, or directionless? What is the role of the individual, or “hero,” in history? Does history repeat itself, or merely rhyme? Can we learn from history?
Totalitarian ideologues were quick to answer: History is inevitable. Large, impersonal forces such as race and class determine history, or at least history reduced to caricatures of biology or economics. The totalitarian concept of history was cyclical. History repeats itself in periodic cycles of class or racial conflicts. The aim of totalitarian utopias was to transcend history by putting a stop to it, by massive coercion if necessary. If history is necessary, inevitable, then nothing is to be learned from it. Like the revolution of the earth around the sun, it will happen whether we understand it or not, because even if we understand it there is nothing we can do about it. If the historical process can be likened to a pregnancy, we can at most “shorten the birth pangs,” as Marx put it.
Liberals, in the European or philosophical sense of the term—well-known thinkers like Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin serve as examples—retorted that history is contingent. Individual choices do matter. Yes, modernization, conceived as some combination of attitudinal change, technological development, and social adjustment, nudges history in a certain direction, often back then called “progressive.” But there is no inevitability of “progress.” Moreover, history does not, or at any rate need not, repeat itself; “some people believe that history repeats itself, others read the Economist,” the advertisement for the liberal magazine went. Liberals believed that much could be learned from history, especially from past mistakes and wrong turns. And indeed, at the end of World War II liberal policymakers in the West set out to construct a political, social, and global order that would institutionally prevent repetitions of the mistakes of the first half of the 20th century. It is not obvious that they failed.
Unfortunately, those persuaded of this liberal philosophy of history in due course entered a “post-historical” phase. The end of the Cold War contributed to this turn of mind, but its origins predated those years. The belief in individual and collective free will became reified into the necessity of historical progress—that great arc of history, someone recently said, bending inevitably toward justice. (That is a position some philosophers call “moral realism,” the latest reincarnation of 19th-century Whig progressivism: history as the story of the survival of the most morally fit societies.1) With progressive change eventually inevitable, despite acknowledged historical twists and turns, history obviously would not repeat itself. For example, the better angels of our nature will continue to lead humanity away from its violent barbarian past to a pacifist progressive future without human agency or vigilance.2 Nevertheless, these thinkers converged on a similar conclusion to that of totalitarian philosophy of history: There is nothing to learn from history, and individuals do not matter.
Accordingly, studying history and the philosophy of history was perceived as redundant at best and regressive if it got in the way of the modernizing agenda of constructing a progressive world of empathetic equality. That agenda privileged solving the age-old problems of human existence through the technocratic mastery of marketing (the most popular major at American colleges), computer science, engineering, and management. The contingency that civilization might have to fall back on its historical lessons when the godly engine of economic progress jumped the track did not appear realistic.
The economic track jump of 2007-09 and the political track jump of 2016-17 that followed—not inevitably, as we shall see below, but followed all the same—together mark “Santayana’s revenge,” namely, the return of history to haunt those who denied it. From the perspective of the philosophy of history, contemporary populism is an extreme if deviant version of post-historical progressivism in the sense that it is entirely ahistorical. It is not just ignorant of the mistakes of the past that it unwittingly attempts to repeat, but at least in its American version it lacks any historical orientation in time, any historical consciousness at all beyond a vaguely reactionary, hence mostly inarticulate, authoritarian conviction that history has lately been very regressive; but that a great leader may halt the decline if not return us to a tribal Eden.
Thanks to the few totalitarians among us, the decadent “inevitability” progressives who used to be more subtle-thinking liberals, and the new populists, a sense of helplessness seems to have overtaken Western societies. Even members of the educated and sometimes privileged thinking classes have deemed themselves powerless as they watched recession, slow growth, and rising inequality undermine social comity and trust, and then spread out over borders to crack the postwar liberal world order itself. A wave of irrational political passions has propelled to power vulgar and vile populist politicians that remind—rhyme but not repeat—us of some of the odious characters who came to power in Europe after the previous global recession. Now as then we behold an oxymoronic nationalist international in formation, and if we recall any history at all, we sense a noxiousness spreading in our body politic.
This self-inflicted sense of helplessness fits a belief in historical inevitability no less than the sense of historical déjà vu fit a cyclical concept of the history of the past two centuries.3 Today’s populists, like the Marxist ideologists of old, promote a narrative that presents their march through history as inevitable. Their opponents fear that such a march would undo at least Samuel Huntington’s “third wave” of democratization that began in the mid-1970s, but the populists, knowing nothing of that writer or his work, think that they themselves are the true vanguard of democracy. Having turned liberalism on its head to render democracy something between a cult and a mob, they declare that resistance is futile. And indeed, before the populist wave crashed against the historical sea barriers of continental Europe this past June, Marine Le Pen fancied herself as surfing the same wave as Putin in Russia, Orban in Hungary, Kaczynski in Poland, Modi in India, and Erdogan in Turkey, as well as the Brexiteers in Britain and Trump in America. A lot of people who feared she was correct took the prospect very seriously, for they had become inured to the idea of inevitability.
If the politics of self-destructive passions are inevitable and economically determined, the most that rational policymakers can hope for is to moderate the populism of the Right, as in Larry Summers’s “Responsible Nationalism,” or absorb the populism on the Left, as in Robert Reich’s “New Populism.” The likes of Summers and Reich (and one can mention the Democratic effort to adopt some of Trump’s vacuous populist rhetoric, as in their promises of a “better deal”) may perceive themselves as being in a situation not unlike that of the biblical Aaron, who, facing an agitated and hell-bent-on-sin mob, assisted in committing the lesser sin of worshipping a golden calf as an image of God in order to prevent the mob from committing the graver sin of worshipping false gods. But there is no economically determined, historically inevitable populist wave rising up before us, and so it would be far better to preempt illiberalism than attempt to moderate it.
Let us now look more closely at the case for economically determined, historically cyclical inevitability as an explanation of the past ten years. As Sidney Hook advised years ago, one must debunk a bad idea at its most articulate if one expects to debunk it successfully.
As Marx foresaw, capitalism is a wonderful force for innovation, economic growth, and the globalization of prosperity through trade. Since the end of the Cold War, the global economy underwent what Richard Baldwin called the great convergence and consequently experienced the largest reduction in poverty in world history.4 The gap between the global rich and poor has contracted to levels not seen since the 18th century, when greater global equality resulted from universal poverty. (That doesn’t necessarily mean that inequality within societies has contracted; in some cases it has and in others it has grown, depending on specific contexts.)
Unfortunately, however, global capitalism also has a fatal flow: It is given to unpredictable and, yes, inevitable financial recessions. When capital managers make different mistakes at different times, economies compensate and remain at an overall equilibrium. But when, sooner or later, they all over-extend credit in more or less the same way at more or less the same time, the global economy keels over. Technocratic and political elites cannot prevent misallocations of credit or effectively reverse them once it becomes apparent that they have happened. Instead, elites react to severe economic downturns by attempting to preserve their own social and economic status, leading them to block social mobility because, in a close-to-zero-sum game, upward mobility for some necessitates downward mobility for others. In short, when the pie stops growing, the elites “rig” the rules of the socio-economic game, as Donald Trump and Robert Reich agree.
As this process continues, the argument goes, the elite become increasingly concentrated, closed, and alienated from those below them in the social hierarchy. This short-term elite strategy inevitably leads to the long-term self-destruction of the elites as a class, because it generates a backlash from groups whose mobility is blocked or pushed downward. The “revolt of the masses” pushes back through the political extremes of the Right and Left. The Right tends to aim downward at those even weaker and more unfortunate than the right-wing vanguard; the Left tends to aim upward at the elites. The combination is toxic; the center cannot hold.
Prolonged recessions undermine personal, professional, and vocational security and identity. Consequently, they awaken from their evolutionary slumber parts of the psyche that were useful when our simian ancestors lived in small tribes and were subjected to extreme natural selection. Sensing existential threat, people look to their tribe for protection; thus enfolded in the group, they look for a scapegoat upon whom to lay responsibility for their troubles, and seek out other tribes to attack to ensure group solidarity. They sometimes engage in extreme risk-taking, flocking to a possibly pathological chieftain who lacks empathy in the hope that he will successfully lead the fight for survival. So instead of facilitating trade and migration to stimulate the global economy and generate growth that can shorten and moderate the severity of recessions, instinctively people limit them to rely on their own flints and scrapers to conquer the neighboring waterhole.
Once these archaic demons awake, the argument continues, it is difficult to lay them back to rest, even when the economy is well on its way to recovery. This turns a bad economic situation into a catastrophe. A vicious cycle of economic decline, breakdown of trade, economic and political hostilities, and isolation takes over. When personal identity is linked to the market value of one’s labor and that market generates little demand, people look for alternative identities. When being human, a reflection of the image of God, is too universal or unconvincing in post-religious societies, constructed tribes, races, nations, and ethnicities create the illusion of filling in the void.5
Historically, this downward economic and political spiral has ended in wars. War opens alternative channels for upward mobility, which increase with economic reconstruction after the war decimates the former elites. The economy improves and so does prosperity, trade, and migration, generating a virtuous cycle of increasing prosperity and social and economic openness, until the next inevitably unexpected financial recession—and so on and on. Arguably the world economy is now in the fourth or fifth iteration of such a cycle. Marx’s mistake was to impose an eschatological-messianic Judeo-Christian linear narrative on cyclical, economically determined, history. There is no historical equivalent of nirvana, no escape from the historical cycle of destruction and rebirth. Central planning only makes things worse because it consistently misallocates capital and blocks innovation, thus generating sustained decline or, at best, low growth.
This inevitable cycle of ideal eternal history (to borrow Vico’s term) is independent of human volition. Nobody wills it, yet no one can stop it. Economic risk cannot be managed and controlled indefinitely. During recessions, individual members of the elite concentrate wealth and power and use it to block upward mobility despite the long-term self-destructiveness of this strategy for the elite as a class. It plays out a lot like a classical Greek tragedy. Since behind the thin veneer of civilization people are irrational, over-grown simians, when subjected to economic pressure they react as though they were under selective evolutionary pressure and turn tribal, xenophobic, authoritarian, and, given the context of the modern global economy, self-destructive. Reasoning with people in this state is futile, for they are too consumed by passions, fear, and hate to act in their own enlightened self-interest. Passions trump rationality; De Maistre gets his last laugh at the ideals of the Enlightenment; modern populist democracy that commenced with Robespierre concludes with Trump.
This argument can sound pretty convincing. But then all determinist arguments can sound convincing—Marx using class, Freud deploying the unconscious, some contemporary sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists brandishing the double helix. And so now to debunk.
Examining whether humanity is imprisoned in history like mice in a treadmill, cyclically running forward only to stay put, requires understanding a conceptual distinction between historical necessity and historical contingency. I have suggested that we can base this distinction on the sensitivity of historical events to initial conditions.6 Processes that would have turned out entirely different had things been slightly different, like the proverbial “butterfly effect” when the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil cause a tornado in Texas, or as in the saying “for want of a nail, the kingdom fell,” are contingent. Necessary processes are insensitive to initial conditions, often because they are overdetermined—in other words, when multiple causes lead to the same effect. For example, a firing squad overdetermines execution because of the causal redundancy of most members of the firing squad. That makes the outcome necessary.
There can also be such phenomena as tipping points, such that we can reach a kind of point of no return after which only very improbable heroic exercises of agency can obviate a particular outcome. That means that agency that might have been evoked before the point of no return, but wasn’t, makes the outcome contingent after all. But even granting the complexities, for all practical political purposes the basic distinction makes useful sense.
There is no denying that the Great Recession of 2007-09 and the anemic recovery in North America and Europe were necessary conditions for the current crisis of liberal democracy. But they were not sufficient conditions. Very small, even minute, differences in initial conditions could have led to entirely different political results. Understanding these historical contingencies is useful not just for avoiding the fatalistic conclusion that periodic civilizational breakdown is our inevitable destiny, but more importantly for designing institutions to better withstand the kind of self-destructive pressures that economic recessions generate and will continue to generate.
The contingency of election results on both sides of the Atlantic is manifest in the different outcomes of very similar distributions of votes in different electoral systems. A substantial minority of voters sufficed to decide the U.S. presidential election. An even smaller minority of votes gave absolute parliamentary majority to anti-liberal populists in Poland. The populist Austrian candidate for the presidency lost with an almost identical percentage of votes to the one that allowed Trump to win. If the United States had an Austrian or French electoral system with two rounds, no candidates other than Trump and Clinton would have been permitted in the final round. In that scenario, if only most of the principled Green voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania had voted in the second round for what they considered the lesser evil, we would have a different President today and the Greens would have preserved the U.S. commitment to the Paris Accord.
Though illiberal governments assumed power in Hungary and Poland before the Brexit vote in the summer of 2016, Brexit signaled that the crisis has reached the Western core. But Brexit did not have to happen. It resulted from Prime Minister David Cameron’s “gambler’s ruin”; he believed he had a sure thing, bet the farm on it, and lost everything. Theresa May, amazingly, followed with a similar massive misjudgment, leading one to wonder if Tory cock-ups comprise the new normal in Britain. May has not lost everything, yet; and she doesn’t have to. She has real choices.
So did Cameron. He could have continued to tolerate a Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party and the loss of some votes to UKIP. The British tradition of government does not include plebiscites, for good reasons. Plebiscites oversimplify complex issues. The English who voted against the European Union had irreconcilable political agendas and different party affiliations. Some wanted a deregulated Singapore on the Northern Sea if they could only gain export markets; others wanted Little England without foreigners and edible food. Still others were punks who would have voted for anything that would have upset the establishment, abolished the monarchy, disestablished the Anglican Church, or replaced the national anthem with the Sex Pistols’ “God Shave the Queen.” Any vote that did not oversimplify the issue into a “yes” or “no” choice would have fragmented the Brexit vote. If it were not for the ruinous gamble of a single politician on a plebiscite, one nitwit butterfly flapping its wings, there would have been no perception of political crisis in Western Europe.
Other contingent “small” decisions by leaders, less dramatic and singular than Cameron’s, are just as independent of the large, impersonal economic forces that have facilitated, but not made inevitable, a crisis of liberal democracy. Nothing and nobody forced the European Union to unconditionally continue to subsidize and prop up hostile illiberal regimes in Hungary and Poland. EU leaders misjudged the durability of illiberal democracy and the extent to which governments in countries with weak civil society and nascent liberal institutions, such as an independent judiciary and a free press, can entrench themselves once they assume power. When they eliminate or weaken checks and balances such as constitutional courts, change the electoral rules, and gain control over the mass media, they can maintain the semblance of elections without fair political competition.
European leaders could have done then what French President Emmanuel Macron is doing now: use the imbalance of political and economic power to isolate the illiberal Hungarian and Polish regimes, not just from Western Europe but also from the other post-Communist countries, and then apply pressure at their Achilles’ heel. For example, despite its anti-immigrant rhetoric, Poland is actually the largest source of immigrant labor in the European Union, and it depends on taxes and remittances from its citizens abroad. Poland is also collecting taxes from Ukrainian workers who receive work permits in Poland to work elsewhere in Europe as work “transfers.” Conditionalizing such membership benefits on adherence to the rules of the club could have preempted the anti-liberal slide, or at the very least limited it.
Similarly, there is little doubt that Russia has been using a variety of dark arts to underwrite, support, and promote extremist anti-liberal and anti-democratic political parties, movements, and ideologies. Some of the dark arts are old and Soviet: underwriting fronts through intermediaries; bribing politicians who can be useful; using ideology to recruit useful idiots and fellow travelers; and collecting compromising materials for blackmail. Other methods are new, especially the use of cyber warfare technologies to spread disinformation, divide, fragment, and manipulate, a much more effective replacement for spreading rumors by word of mouth.
All that said, Vladimir Putin is not a fascist or a reactionary nationalist today any more than he was a Communist a generation ago. After totalitarianism, ideologies are distinguished by their usefulness, not their veracity. Ideology does not have to be coherent to be useful for manipulating others. Russia promotes at the same time the economically and culturally contradictory agendas of the extreme Right and Left. It promotes nationalism and decries supra-national alliances and organizations like NATO, but condemns Ukrainian, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Georgian nationalisms as fascist, even while supporting fascist movements across the Western world. This is not obvious only to people who are not paying attention.
The acquisition of corrupt politicians has been going on since Putin consolidated power in the early 2000s. Gerhard Schroeder’s facile transition from representing Russian interests as German Chancellor to becoming an employee of the Russian state was an early and obvious harbinger of this Russian methodology. The use of Russian energy companies and European banks and public relations firms as conduits for funds for political influence has also been going on at least since the mid-2000s. Open societies are and will continue to be vulnerable to such manipulative interventions in ways that closed, authoritarian societies are not. Yet overconfidence in the stability and resilience of liberal democracy, and failure to understand the threat that cheap and mostly invisible methods can pose to rich and militarily mighty states, have allowed and encouraged the expanded and effective use of these methods. Nobody seems to recall the plagiarized rewrite of ridiculous fake news by the Russian secret police more than a century ago, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Designed to manipulate anti-Semitism to dissuade disaffected Russians from joining revolutionary movements, it did not save the Czar but acquired a life of its own, and has been used by other autocratic regimes as one of the most destructively effective propaganda tools in history.
Isolationist disinterest in Europe, timidity, and indecision have not helped, either. Better vigilance and understanding of this new Russian challenge, and of its old and new methods of operation, could have preempted their effective success.
Since the current crisis of liberal democracy was not inevitable or economically determined, it is possible to consider what we can learn from the past decade to devise institutional reforms that may preserve the eventual remission and preempt another dysfunctional reaction when the next economic cycle hits a recession, as it very likely will. Much as the order created in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II preserved and expanded liberal democracy in North America and much of Europe, moderating the effects of the economic crisis in whose political echoes we live, lessons from the current episode could lead to preemptive “circuit breakers” better attuned to the current and likely future conditions. “You have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice,” Bob Dylan warned, so it’s better to pay a little attention now to planning for the future than to pay a big bill later.
Odysseus famously ordered his sailors to bind him to the ship’s mast before he heard the sirens sing because he knew he would not be able to control his passions once he heard them. Political theorist Jon Elster suggested that constitutions resemble Odysseus’s bonds; the state binds itself when it is sober but can foresee the possibility of intoxication by irrational passions. For example, the deflationary effects of tightening credit in the 1930s and inflationary effects of loosening monetary policies under populist governments led to the construction of politically and institutionally independent central banks that set interest rates. As much as tightening credit during a recession is a destructive yet intuitive response, restrictions on trade and labor mobility—protectionism and immigration restrictions, nationalization and central planning—are instinctive responses to recessions that deepen and prolong them, and then spread them around the globe. So international trade and labor mobility could benefit from similar constitutionally independent boards to protect the global economy from self-destructive political passions. We have a framework organization in the WTO that could facilitate international agreement to create such a board.
On the national level, some propose an “immigration algorithm” that would factor in various economic variables and produce an optimal immigration level and distribution for economic growth, without political passions and a bloated immigration bureaucracy. Algorithms are as good or bad as the theories and assumptions of those who write them, but at least they are immune to political pressure and short-term self-destructive passions. They may preempt the “Japanese Disease,” of deflation and low growth that have lasted for a generation as a result of severe immigration restrictions in combination with an aging indigenous population.
If social security and the welfare bureaucracy did not suffice to calm the economic anxieties that feed political extremism, it may be time to try something like guaranteed universal basic income. This is an old idea, at various points going under the name of a negative income tax or a guaranteed minimum wage. Perhaps it is an old idea whose time has come: Such an innovation can reduce economic anxiety and save on the administrative overhead of welfare. It may also encourage unemployment, be prohibitively expensive, and have unwanted cultural consequences. But it is worth thinking through, if for no other reason that even expensive innovations may end up much cheaper than the wages of populist economics.
The sizes of the large minorities of voters that supported populist candidates in the U.S., Austrian, and French (Left and Right together) elections, and in the Polish and French parliamentary elections, were quite similar. In France, when no candidate wins a decisive majority in the first round, a second round decides between the top two contenders. This system allows voters to vote idealistically in the first round and strategically in the second round. When voters vote for the lesser evil or the second-best candidate in the second round, the more centrist candidate tends to have a broader appeal than an extremist. There are exceptions, but second-ballot systems are generally less conducive to extremism than proportional representation systems where extremist minorities can become ruling majorities. Revising constitutions to adopt second-ballot electoral systems may preempt minority extremist parties from achieving electoral majorities.
The use of plebiscites by populists and totalitarians to produce illiberal results via over-simplified questions with only “yes” or “no” options, and to appeal to visceral emotions, has been known since their frequent use by interwar fascists. After Brexit and the failure of Renzi’s plebiscite in Italy, it is unlikely that non-populist politicians will try them again—that would amount to carelessness, not just misfortune. It would be even better, pace California and Switzerland, to prohibit them altogether on every level from the municipal to the national. Democratic representatives are paid to deal with complex issues and negotiate compromises; they should do their job.
Ancient direct democracy justly acquired a bad reputation because it was associated with the manipulation of passions by unscrupulous demagogues who sometimes betrayed their cities to their enemies, and always put their personal interests before those of their polities. Demagoguery as the doppelgänger of direct democracy led to the self-destruction of Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic. The agora and forum were not the ideal rational spaces of deliberative democracy that Hannah Arendt or Jürgen Habermas made them out to be, a lesson the American founders took to heart. They designed the U.S. Constitution to resist the demagogic aspect of democracy and preempt its self-destruction via a multi-layered system of representative government and separation of powers.
However, just as the invention of the radio facilitated the return of demagoguery in a totalitarian guise in the 1930s by reconstructing the demagogic forum on the airways, the internet has recreated the forum in the cloud. In the ancient forum, the demagogues were expected to have superb knowledge of their language and a mastery of rhetoric, and their speeches were longer than 140 characters. They had their gangs and mobs, but no armies of bots and trolls programmed to spread disinformation. Legislative innovations must regulate the internet, block disinformation, or warn readers of dangerous websites, while protecting freedom of speech and political expression, much like the 1927 “Wireless Act” regulated the U.S. radio industry in its infancy.7 European states and American internet companies have already begun such efforts. They are much cheaper than building ships and airplanes, but are far more effective in defending liberal democracy against its current adversaries.
Social mobility is the best antidote to class resentment and populism. Economic growth and growth-promoting policies like deregulation, free trade, and labor mobility can encourage it, but when the economic pie does not grow and “all the boats” do not rise in tandem, it is prudent and in the elite’s own enlightened interest to introduce legal mechanisms to guarantee social mobility. One concept here is to retool affirmative action to be based on class rather than ethnic background. To prevent the entrenchment of an inherited class, instead of preferring the “legacy” children of alumni, universities should do the opposite, disadvantaging them in admission to their parents’ own schools. The scope of the phenomenon may be overblown in popular consciousness, but this is exactly why total transparency in admission criteria is necessary. Likewise, Federal employment and contractors should be prohibited from hiring more than a modest percentage of employees from among the alumni of any single school.
As Wynne McLaughlin, author of The Bone Feud, put it, “maybe history wouldn’t have to repeat itself if we listened once in a while.” If people learn only from their personal historical experience, every two generations they repeat the mistakes nobody remembers. Much of the resistance to populism in continental Europe today benefits from lingering memories of previous experiments with populist and nationalist politics before and during World War II. A comparison of the demographics of the supporters of Trump, Brexit, and France’s Le Pen is instructive: They all appeal to the uneducated and the rural as opposed to urban, educated, and professional voters.
There is a huge gap in the support for xenophobic nationalism among old people. Older French voters who remember Pétain, Laval, and the Nazi occupation, or who lived sufficiently close to Vichy to receive and retain the memories of others, are the least nationalist voters in France. Macron (a former assistant of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur who specialized in the phenomenology of historical memory and narration) was wise to remind voters of their history by visiting Oradour-sur-Glane immediately before the elections. Old Americans and English do not have personal memories of living in anything but liberal democracy. Globally, younger voters do not have personal memories of the collapse of communism or the earlier crisis of social democracy and the stagflation of the 1970s. This means that societies must find ways to transmit historical experiences and lessons from one generation to the next, and from one society to another, by studying history.
Democratic philosophers at least since Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill have warned that democracy can thrive only when voters are educated. An educated citizenship is the “infrastructure” of democracy. Scolding populists for being historically ignorant when they are in the grip of fear, anxiety, and personal insecurity is useless or even counterproductive: When formal education is used for blocking social mobility, accusing somebody of historical ignorance or economic illiteracy is interpreted as the condescending assertion of class superiority that begets resentment rather than consideration. Ignorance needs to be preempted before it becomes a badge of honor.
There are two arguments against investing resources in historical education. If the purpose of education is exclusively vocational and there are few “jobs” in “history,” it is irrational to spend time and resources studying it. Donald Trump himself has said so: He is “not interested” in the past. If “education” is devoid of content, a euphemism for purchasing a commodified, homogenized, and branded social class and alumni network, only a minority of citizens can benefit from formal education in a static economy. In societies whose social structure is more or less frozen, an increase in education does not expand the middle or higher classes. It only makes the entrance into the middle and upper classes more costly and competitive. Most students will have little or no return on an investment in education.
Populist policies and xenophobic international conflicts are not exactly cheap—they are much costlier than historical education. The experience of 2016-17 should serve as a “Sputnik” moment for education in history and the social sciences in the West, as the Soviet launching of Sputnik forced the United States to re-examine American education in STEM subjects and foreign languages. The ease with which Russia was able to undermine Western democracy in the past year should lead Western democracies to re-examine the quality and type of education they provide in history and the social sciences. Historical education can work as a circuit breaker for destructive political ideas that were tried and failed miserably.
An older purpose of education was to build character, especially by teaching young people how to deal with strong emotions—“sentimental education,” it was called in archaic English. It may still prove useful to teach them how to deal with fear and failure without seeking scapegoats. Education may also offer training in critical thinking, distinguishing reality from fiction, and evidence-based assertions from mere strong emotions. If we are afraid and feel insecure, it does not imply that minorities who look different want to poison our wells, rape, or kill us. They may just be interested in selling us spicy food.
Unlike earlier outbreaks of xenophobia and populism, at least for now, there are no significant intellectual inspirations, legitimizations, or fellow travelers. Contemporary populism is more anti-intellectual than anti- anything else. I do not envy future historians who will have to write an intellectual history of contemporary populism on the basis of tweets.
Yet philosophical schools—no need to mention any specific names—that reduce truth to power relations and deny objective reality can now observe how their worldview works in practice. What has posed as very progressive, even radically so, has given rise to demons of a very different persuasion. The inability (or unwillingness) to distinguish fiction from reality, the transmutation of strong emotions (a.k.a. authentic subjectivity) and wishful thinking into perceived truth, and the argument against the very significance of truth have been the hallmarks not just of contemporary authoritarian and populist politics, but also of “reality shows” and wrestling matches, carefully scripted situations that are presented as authentic and spontaneous human interactions. Reality shows and the World Wrestling Federation are the cultural and institutional contexts from which current American populism has emerged. Voters may have believed on some level that they would become a part of a reality show where excitement and drama follow in quick succession, all problems have easy solutions, and political truth is whatever the viewers want it to be. The duty of intellectuals in such a cultural milieu, to borrow Havel’s expression, is to live in truth, to uphold the ideal of searching for the truth in public, expose the lies of the powers that be, and act on their knowledge.
Marx famously compared Napoleon Bonaparte with Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) to observe that when history repeats itself it does so first as tragedy and then as farce. Political scientist Shlomo Avineri suggested that history repeats itself for the third time as theater of the absurd, referring to Paris in 1968. Now, the fourth rerun of history seems to be as a “reality show.” Indeed, President Macron, too clever by half for his guests, escorted the Trumps to the grave of Napoleon in Les Invalides.
Tragedies end when the choices of the heroes leave them dead on Saint Helena. Farces ends when the clown starts taking his lines literally and seriously, stops being funny, and ends up in exile after losing Sedan while humorless Prussians borrow Versailles to declare a united Imperial Germany, the prerequisite for the First World War and the self-destruction of Europe. An absurd play ends because the audience grows tired of waiting for somebody or something to arrive, the workers go back to work, the students to study, and de Gaulle wins by a landslide. A reality show ends when sub-professional actors lose control of the script, reality invades, the actors improvise without talent or skill, and the show needs to be cancelled. La commedia è finita!
1See Peter Railton, “Moral realism,” The Philosophical Review (April 1986), pp. 163-207.
2Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, (Penguin Books, 2012).
3For an overview see Nikil Saval, “Globalisation: the rise and fall of an idea that swept the world,” The Guardian, July 14, 2017. Saval notes that globalization had extensive benefits mainly for six Asian countries, but fails to name them, so that the reader misses that they comprise the majority of humanity. For a more academic and nuanced approaches see Dani Rodrick’s work, especially “Populism and the Economics of Globalization,” NBER Working Paper No. 23559, June 2017. See also Harold James, The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalization Cycle (Harvard University Press, 2009). Even the worldview of Steven Bannon, such as it is, seems to have been inspired by a cyclical philosophy of history, namely William Strauss & Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy—What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny (Broadway Books, 1997).
4Richard Baldwin, The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalization (Harvard University Press, 2016).
5See Małgorzata Fidelis, “Right-Wing Populism and the New Morality: A Historical Reflection,” Aspen Review Central Europe (2017), pp. 60-67.
6Aviezer Tucker, Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography (Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 220-39 and Yemima Ben-Menahem, “Historical contingency,” Ratio (1997), pp. 99-107. Another debate has been about whether human and natural history is contingent or necessary. Stephen Jay Gould was a noted exponent of contingency while Richard Dawkins tended to advocate necessity. Some recent contributions to these debates include Rob Inkpen & Derek Turner, “The topography of historical contingency,” Journal of the Philosophy of History (2012), pp. 1-19; Kim Sterelny, “Contingency and History,” Philosophy of Science (October 2016), pp. 521-39. I argued that if history had a single contingent episode, technically all that followed must be contingent. Yet, historical episodes may be considered contingent or necessary in relation to causes. Historians need then to assume a historical counterfactual, “erasing” a cause and examining how different would have been the effects. If very different, the effects were contingent on the cause, if similar, there is a strong reason to claim they were necessary. Historical evidence may or may not suffice to support such counterfactuals. For example, rules of succession allow us to examine with confidence the contingency or necessity of some processes. We know for sure that had President Eisenhower died in office, Richard Nixon would have become President in the 1950s. Given everything that we know of Nixon, we can surmise how much were the policies of the Eisenhower Administration contingent on him and to what extent they were necessary irrespective of who happened to be President, over-determined by larger economic, social, and geo-political forces. On the usefulness of historical counterfactuals see the recent special issue of The Journal of Philosophy of History, Volume 10 No. 3 (2016) with contributions by myself, Alexander Maar, Yemima Ben-Menahem, Gavriel Rosenfeld, Daniel Woolf, Cass Sunstein, Daniel Nolan, and Richard Evans.
7Konrad Niklewicz, “Taming the Beast,” Aspen Review Central Europe (2017), pp. 16-21.