2016, as I reflected on at least one occasion, was a year that seemed to represent a return to old-fashioned l’histoire événementielle, where world-changing developments occurred at the sort of pace with which we humans feel naturally comfortable (indeed, sometimes a bit faster than we might have preferred) rather than unfolding over decades or centuries. Both Brexit and the election of Trump represented, or appeared to represent, the sorts of dramatic turning-points that make for an exciting narrative, played out on a human timescale. But in addition – and this is something that I noted in passing, but could have made more of – it seems to represent, or can be claimed as, a series of events driven by humans and human-level factors, rather than vast, mysterious and impersonal forces and processes. Indeed, the force of the ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ slogans is precisely that of a revolt against those who surrendered to abstract ideas like globalisation and the march of automation, in the false belief that they are more powerful than any human agency; we are presented with a reclaiming and repurposing of the progressive idea that something else besides eternal capitalism is still possible.
It struck me this morning that there may be a connection here to the sudden popularity of historical analogies, especially classical analogies, for contemporary political developments. Such evocations of the past, with claims about its immediate relevance, are in fact the evocation of a specific and tendentious kind of account of the past: a thoroughly old-fashioned political history, focused on the actions and decisions of a few larger-than-life individuals. Trump as Nero, or Cleon, or Hitler, or whatever, is ascribed the status of one of Hegel’s great historical men, capable of shaping the destiny of humanity; politics is presented as a drama of personalities, conflicts and individual pathology. International affairs are understood in terms of the motives and idiosyncrasies of Putin and a few others, nothing more abstract or complicated. Brexit is presented as the achievement of a few men – Newsnight editor Ian Katz’s view, expressed on Twitter, that Farage is “a major figure who’s changed course of Britain’s history”, or the self-serving accounts of someone like Banks – and/or as the failure of a few others to seize the moment or read the public mood.
It’s easy enough to see why the supporters of these individuals, and the cheer-leaders for these developments, should adopt such a perspective. It offers them the hope of change driven by human choice rather than vast impersonal forces – hence, of the sort of change that they might actually want, because there are now people in power who have promised them that it’s possible, and the sort of change they believe could then be reversed if it doesn’t turn out quite as planned. The world appears as malleable and controllable; the problems that other politicians claimed were intractable can in fact be solved through decisive action if only someone has the will and the courage. The forces of the market, of globalisation, of climate change and all the rest are revealed as paper tigers, invented by the elites as an excuse for self-interested inaction and personal enrichment.
The attraction for journalists, meanwhile, is that it makes the narrative more dramatic, conflict-based and focused on individuals; so, their default methods of interviewing individuals, retelling gossip and speculating on personalities and motives can be presented as the most appropriate and effective way to understand the situation, rather than a dereliction of the duty to interpret and explain.
Why, however, are the people opposed to such developments and/or with little sympathy for these larger-than-life individuals buying into this sort of narrative? These thoughts were originally prompted by Danielle Allen‘s piece in the Washington Post on reading Cicero’s De Officiis in the time of Trump. Of course, a focus on the individual makes sense insofar as the aim of that article is to offer a model for maintaining clarity of mind in the face of the maelstrom – but it still buys into a presentation of current US politics not just as resembling the fall of the Roman Republic but as resembling the Fall of the Republic understood, as Cicero did and as very old-fashioned political history does, as a clash of key individuals and their ambitions, rather than the product of longer-term structural changes that figures like Cicero manifestly failed to recognise or understand.
Does a reheated Great Man theory of history make it easier to see current developments as an accident, the result of a few personality quirks happening to chime with the historical moment, rather than a historic defeat for progressive values? Is the idea that the world is simpler than we thought and can be reshaped by the heroic action of individuals actually just as attractive to some on the left – we simply need to give the opportunity to the right individuals, a Sanders or a newly Trumpified Corbyn, in order to solve all those nasty issues with inequality, exclusion and climate change? Or is this a reaction of panic, trying to make sense of a terrifying turn of events by grasping traditional, familiar modes of historical analysis in the way that people persist in reaching for their guns when playing Call of Cthulhu?
It isn’t a universal reaction – and perhaps it makes more sense, psychologically, when one considers that the main alternative appears to be replacing the idea of globalisation as a force of irresistible transformation before which we must all bow with the idea of the Will of the People, variously characterised, as the immovable object around which we must all contort ourselves. The choice between despairing capitulation to such a force and an exaggerated belief in human capacity isn’t necessarily straightforward.
I’m reminded of the idea that the rise of postmodernism was in part a response to the failure of capitalism’s crises in the 1970s to produce revolution: the apparent failure of the conventional Marxist narrative of historical development led to a scepticism about grand narratives in general as an alternative to having to accept the triumphal claims of neoliberalism (or, as a tacit acceptance of them while trying to move the debate in a different direction). Now that the Fukuyama-esque narrative of the inexorable victory of capitalism and liberal democracy seems to have run into trouble as well, with a violent lurch into what looks like some version of the past – or, more likely, into something new and unexpected that we’re trying to make sense of by recourse to historical comparisons – we’re all scrabbling around for a response.
Perceiving the world as being at the mercy of the whims and tantrums of a few powerful individuals scarcely seems like a comforting view of things – but perhaps at a deeper level it works because it offers us familiar story patterns as a means of making sense of the situation. Our current predicament is raised to the level of tragedy and drama, with great deeds and decisive events; and monsters can be slain, and tyrants don’t live for ever. The alternative is to acknowledge uncertainty, as everything apparently solid evaporates and the ground beneath our feet starts to crumble…
[It belatedly occurs to me that this conclusion comes close to some of the ideas about the liquid world developed by the late Zygmunt Bauman, and if the bulk of this post hadn’t already been sketched out last week, I might have engaged more with that – though it’s some years since I read him.]
[Update 11/1: yes, I think I’m being trolled by events. Or possibly the ghost of Suetonius.]
[Update 2, 11/1: re the history of events thing, this is exaggerated but very funny: https://twitter.com/cbracy/status/819030498701778944]