Political outrage: Why all sides get it wrong about the arc of history

Is there an arc to history? The danger that we’re in right now in the U.S. is that we’re shifting from a politics of inevitability to a politics of eternity, which affects how we view history, believes historian Timothy Snyder.

Timothy Snyder: I think the word “history” is a lot more demanding of us than we think. We spend much of our time dwelling in things that aren’t history.

We have notions of the way time flows that are comfortable but basically wrong and allow us to sleepwalk and drift away from what’s actually confronting us and what we should actually be seeing and feeling.

One of those is what I call the “politics of inevitability,” or for short we could call it progress, and that’s the idea “we know the rules of history, A is always going to lead to B, the world is pretty good as it is and it’s only going to get better. That idea has been very present in the U.S. in the form of “history is over, there are no alternatives, liberal democracy is inevitable, the market is just going to bring about democracy, so there’s nothing that we really have to do.” And of course that’s a core problem: this kind of thinking takes you out of history and it says you’re not responsible, what you do as an individual doesn’t really matter very much.

Now the problem with that, or one of the many problems, is that eventually you’re going to get some kind of a shock. You might get shocked in 2008 when you figure out you can’t own a house, or you might get shocked in 2016 when somebody you don’t expect wins a presidential election, but something is going to happen in your life which is going to shock you, and suddenly this story about inevitability, about progress is no longer going to make sense to you.

And then you’re going to be vulnerable to what I call the “politics of eternity,” which is another way of dwelling in time, which isn’t history. In the politics of eternity we say “it’s not my fault; I’m an innocent victim; everything which is wrong comes from enemies from the outside, those others, those enemies over and over again come for us, attack us, try to penetrate us, hurt us. And history then just becomes a cycle where over and over and over again the innocent people are attacked by the bad guys,” basically. And the politics of eternity what also happens is that the news cycle, the daily cycle overwhelms you and it instructs you who you’re supposed to be afraid of, how you’re supposed to feel. So the danger that we’re in right now in the U.S. is we’re shifting from a politics of inevitability to a politics of eternity, and then along the way we won’t notice how we’re in history. History demands of us that we understand that it’s not inevitable to become better, it’s also not inevitable to become worse. There are certain structures and what we do within those structures of matters, and what history teaches us is what those structures are.

The Europeans have a different politics of inevitability. So the structure is the same, the overall structure is that “things are pretty good, they’re going to get better; there are rules to history we know what those rules are therefore it doesn’t matter what we do.” But the particulars are very different. The European myth goes something like this: “European nations are old; European nations are wise; European nations learned from the second world war that war was a bad thing and therefore cooperate economically to form this thing called the European Union.” Now that’s completely false. It’s just as bogus as the American idea that “the market is going to bring about capitalism and there are no alternatives.” Not a word of that European story is true, even though pretty much all Europeans believed in it. European nations are not old. European nation states have generally not really existed. The whole story of European history is actually empires breaking apart and the fragments of those empires coalescing in this unit called the European Union. There’s never really a moment in most cases where there was actually a nation state deciding for or against Europe. In fact empires shatter. There are bloody wars. If Europeans learn anything it’s that colonial wars are a bad thing and then at that point you dodge the difficulty and even the atrocity of those lost colonial wars, and you start telling yourself this story of about how you’re Europeans, and you’re peaceful, you’ve always had the nation state, et cetera.

Why does that matter? It matters because if you believe that nonsense then you might think, “Oh we can go back to the nation state, we can go back to France like Le Front Nationale says,” or “we can have Brexit and go back to the United Kingdom.” The problem with that is that France and the United Kingdom have only ever existed either as empires or as part of a European integration project, they’d never actually existed as nation states, which means that going back to them actually means jumping off into a future that you have no idea about.

So the European politics of inevitability is this story about the wise nation, it’s this fable of the wise nation which chose Europe because it’s so wise. That implies that Europeans could now choose not to be in Europe, but the thing is there never really was a nation state. So the European politics of eternity says France was always innocent; the British were always innocent; the Germans, the Russians, the Poles, the Hungarians, we were always innocent and maybe now we’d like to go back to a place, which in fact never actually existed.

So I think in the U.S. the politics of inevitability, at least from me, is meant as a general critique. There are different versions on the right and on the left and maybe the version on the right is a little more powerful. The right wing version of the politics of inevitability says “the market is everything; government should be weak, because the market is going to automatically bring about good outcomes. Even if it doesn’t look like it’s bringing about good outcomes in some secret way like God it’s mysteriously bringing about good outcomes.”

But there’s a left wing version too, there’s a left wing version, which is that “the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice,” which are very powerful words uttered by both Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. I find when I say that that’s a myth it hurts people, but it is a myth. There is no arc of history. There is no shape of history at all. History is an accumulation of structures that come to us from behind and are around us now, and history is what we do inside those structures. There’s no arc one way or the other.

But the way that things are breaking now in the U.S. is that our politics of inevitability, which we’ve held to in the last 25 years, basically this idea that “since communism ended in 1989 there are no alternatives,” basically this idea that “technology must lead to enlightenment,” this idea that “the market must lead to democracy.” Those ideas have now come back to clobber us. Neither of them ever had any foundation. Both of them are highly persuasive to a lot of people and that’s lead to some consequences, which are very dangerous for the rule of law and indeed for democracy. Believing that, for example, more market means more democracy means that you don’t regulate things that you really need to regulate, like offshore wealth or anonymous transactions or shell companies. And that creates a world, a gray zone of capitalism where, for example, a Donald Trump can begin close relationships with Russian oligarchs. If you believe that technology automatically leads to progress, then you don’t watch very carefully as certain kinds of social platforms lead people into a politics of “us and them” and destroy a sense of common factuality. The story that you’re telling yourself the whole time about how “the market or tech have to lead toward enlightenment and democracy” dulls your mind to what’s actually happening until you reach the point that we’ve reached now.

Is there an arc to history? The danger that we’re in right now in the U.S. is that we’re shifting from a politics of inevitability to a politics of eternity, believes historian Timothy Snyder. That means whether we want to or not, America is moving squarely back into history, when anything can happen. Europe too has its own politics of inevitability to deal with, as the idea of the European Union implies believing in history that simply never happened.