History will never end
For more than thirty years now Western thought and its subsequent discourse have been dominated by a philosophical approach to human history. Hence the 20th century is commonly regarded as a clash between three competing ideologies: fascism, communism and liberal democracy. After fascism perished in 1945 and communism collapsed in 1989 the West thus concluded that history itself must have ended in liberal democracy. But instead of being witness to a world transformed into a carbon copy of the West, we see the West imploding due to the rise of modern populism.
This fact alone should have made Western observers more modest in their assessment of the world, especially after the Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Present-day reality is therefore nowhere near an outcome that was once predicted by Francis Fukuyama. So we either abandon a philosophical approach to history altogether or we search for alternative modes of thought that can be used to explain the situation we are facing today. It is also possible that the current philosophical approach to history is valid, but simply not universally applicable.
In the latter case, referring to the principles and ideas of Enlightenment should be restricted to topics such as the rule of law, international peace and justice, the legal framework within states or democratic processes within governments. Any other topic, such as the rise of populism or the financial crisis, ought to be explained by alternative takes on human history. Fortunately, a supplementary perspective exists in the form of a financial and economic approach to history, which gained notoriety over the past years by well-known experts such as Thomas Piketty and economic-historian Niall Ferguson.
Inequality however does not explain why so many women did not vote for Hillary Clinton in last year’s American elections. Moreover, only urbanised regions on the East- and West coast voted for her. Something similar happened during Brexit, which turned out in a loss for the metropolitan area of London and its inhabitants. And although Macron recently won in France, he has virtually no popular support outside major cities. Populism within the West thus represents (rural) regions and small towns feeling abandoned and neglected by government policies aimed at metropolitan areas.
A complementary approach to history
This is no surprise since elementary sociology teaches us that any society ought to apply a balanced approach by taking into account cultures of both metropolitan areas and (rural) regions. So when public discourse turns sour with vitriol against excessive individualism and rampant materialism, societies develop themselves up to a point at which this balance is lost. When this happens, urban elites are blamed for letting society slip into general moral decay as perceived by the populace outside metropolitan areas, which form a majority in any society on this planet.
Populism in the West represents (rural) regions and small towns feeling abandoned and neglected by government policies aimed at metropolitan areas
When agitated this silent majority wakes up like a sleeping giant ready to stomp anything on its path, especially urban elites, which are seen as decadent, corrupt, foreign or alien. This anger can be felt everywhere within the West these days but in itself is not something new in history. Present-day populism is therefore similar to populist movements that existed at the end of the 19th century. Back then, the West favoured its metropolitan areas as well with open borders, trade, free markets and, like today, politicians that are easily persuaded to take the interests of corporations at heart.
While populist movements in America were able to hamper excessive urban capitalism by implementing antitrust legislation for example, Europe was facing problems of its own. Although the old continent modernised its economies fairly well, Europe’s societies remained stagnant. And many lost hope after the failed revolutions of 1848. Europe’s best and brightest saw no other option but to leave for the New World, which made America truly great. Not able nor willing to change, Europe kept its archaic societies intact, ruled by dictators and their supporters, more often corrupt than not.
At the beginning of the 20th century a dictator in Vienna – an old and probably senile man – made an error in judgement. Like any dictator, he hoped that an occasional war would bolster public support for his regime. But instead all of Europe caught fire. Societies that had lasted for more than a thousand years suddenly vanished into thin air as if they had never existed. After the war millions of people in Germany, the former territories of Austria-Hungary and Russia faced fact that their lives had no meaning anymore in existential wastelands and on top of that the economy collapsed as well.
No political centre can hold its integrity under these circumstances, certainly not with communist agitators in major cities aspiring to realise a socialist utopia. In 1919 they saw their chance to grab power in the hope of emulating their comrades in Moscow. If they had done so in Berlin or Paris, the 20th century could have turned out differently. Instead, they choose to make their mark on history in Munich, near the epicentre of Europe’s heartland. It woke up the giant, which quickly morphed into fascism. And from this point of view the 20th century entails a clash between cities and regions.
The wheel of history
The second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century can thus be seen as a single historical period in which a societal process took place that was first described and analysed in the Middle Ages by Ibn Khaldun: societies develop, cities rise, prosperity grows as a result of trade up to a point at which the sleeping giant wakes up. Urban elites lose legitimacy, polarisation ensues until society catches fire and civil war erupts. After that society ends up in a weakened state in a period of reconstruction, which gives foreign powers the chance to expand their sphere of influence.
This happened to Europe after 1945. The continent had to rebuild itself, but with its economy in ruins there was no capital to do so. America swooped in to save the day by offering Marshall Aid and thereby secured one part of the continent within its sphere of influence. The rest of Europe was occupied by Stalin, perhaps with the aim of preventing that the continent would attack Russia ever again, which had happened twice after Europe unified under Napoleon and Hitler. The collapse of communism in 1989 meant that Europe regained its independence at the end of the 20th century.
Apparently, the old continent learned nothing from history because Europe immediately opted for a return to the 19th century by enacting policies that favour metropolitan areas with financial sectors and multinationals such as London, Paris, Amsterdam and Zürich. These policies proved detrimental for (rural) regions and small towns because medium-sized industrial firms left for Bangladesh, India and China. Western countries also removed restrictions and regulations for banks such as the Glass-Steagall Act in the United States, thus triggering the financial meltdown that took place in 2008.
The relationship between cities and regions constitute a circular process within history and in that sense history will never end
No wonder Western elites face such hostility these days, being perceived as enemies of the people, and there is some truth to that. Bill Clinton for example signed the NAFTA-trade agreement during the 1990s, which destroyed the economic base and livelihood of people within states that voted for Trump last year. A similar sentiment exists in Europe since its working class was abandoned by social democratic parties in exchange for free markets during the 1990s. As a result, a sleeping giant is beginning to stir and for that, modern populism should be taken as a serious warning sign.
Due to the cultural diversity of Europe however the continent is faced with many small giants that cannot be easily compared. Eastern Europe (and Hungary in particular) is re-emerging from a point in history before the Russian occupation began. Populism in this part of the continent is an expression of pre-war European culture characterised by anti-Semitism. The opposite holds for The Netherlands. This country experienced a cultural change during the 1960s affecting Dutch populism in its stance for the rights of women and gays. European populism is therefore too unfocused to make a mark on history.
America falls into a different category because its sleeping giant is big enough to make an impact on the world. And right now the heartland is seething with (righteous) anger at urbanised regions on both coasts. If this particular giant is ever to wake up from its slumber an incarnation of fascism can emerge in the 21st century. Another scenario entails fragmentation of the West by Europe falling apart and America facing a Calexit or even a New Yexit. Bottom line is that the relationship between cities and regions constitute a circular process within history and in that sense history will never end.
So the real issue today is facing the fact that a societal balance between cities and (rural) regions is lost again, caused by more than three decades of (neo)liberal policies favouring metropolitan areas. And this might sound strange to some, but the underlying problem boils down to an excess of (urban) high culture with its assumptions about freedom, markets and individualism at the expense of (rural) low culture containing societal values, the meaning of its traditions and accessible communities. As a result the wheel of history is turning again in order to correct this imbalance.
This especially applies to developing economies with growing cities and the populace leaving rural areas much like in the 19th century in the West. And just like in the past, millions will lose their way in urban life and its dislocating effects on individuals. This means that people will turn to traditional religion in order to cope with this. An example is Iran: it modernised too quickly in the 1970s, predominantly in major cities at the expense of rural regions and traditional institutions with vested interests. Furthermore, cities do seem to be places which are detrimental to mental health.
In the world of today cities anywhere on this planet therefore transform into hotspots in which extremism thrives, much like what happened in the West during the 19th and 20th century in a previous version of globalisation. The Western media do not concern themselves with this, either too preoccupied with their philosophical musings on history or assuming that everyone on this planet will end up eventually as a hipster or expat in international trade hubs, such as New York, London, Dubai or Singapore. Fact is that city life in growing economies means (dire) poverty for most of humanity.
And without modern concepts or ideas about values, community and identity these people will eventually fall back on outdated forms of Confucianism, radical Hinduism, orthodox Buddhism, medieval forms of Islam or dogmatic versions of Christianity and Judaism. Societies in turn will reinstate patriarchy. Examples are the reintroduction of slavery in the Middle East by ISIS and hate campaigns aimed at homosexuals in Africa led by evangelical Christians. Will humanity therefore be crushed again by the wheel of history in the 21st century? Fortunately, this hasn’t happened … yet.
Finding new ways
Moreover, it is possible to tackle the underlying duality of cyclical processes from a sociological and psychological point of view. This means summoning up courage to ask fundamental questions. Because, unlike politicians, no one in their right mind would start their day with coffee either as cold as ice or scolding hot. Instead, most of us wake up in the morning and begin with the question what a decent breakfast could be. The courage to ask fundamental questions, the ability to find answers and the faith we put into insights we gained, is what makes this world go round.
City life in growing economies means (dire) poverty for most of humanity
Thirty years ago however the West put its faith in its supposed historical superiority expressed so eloquently by Francis Fukuyama. It forgot basic lessons derived from human history. And it stopped thinking about itself, the world and the future altogether. Subsequently, its public discourse turned into a college philosophy class, with no real world application, except in the field of law. So without the willingness to question reality, we either stick to answers that perhaps once worked in the 19th century or turn into those who let events shape their lives without taking ownership of their futures.
This holds especially true for Europe since the Middle East and Africa still have the same borders that were once put there by the great powers of the 19th century. These borders were meant to placate the great powers and insure peace between them. But with these empires gone, the borders in Africa and the Middle East have no function anymore, except to render homage to Europe’s past. The cost of keeping these borders intact is expressed by unstable states run by dictators, regions that cannot develop socially, economically or culturally and a permanent flood of refugees to Europe.
A fundamental question for the 21st century therefore is what harmony means for our times. Any answer will provide insight into what to do with old borders, where to put new ones and assessing what kind of borders there should be. The same applies to thinking about autonomy as to find out which forms of democracy are needed in the coming decades. Answers in turn will keep underlying dualities in check or else they transform into forces of their own, ripping societies apart from within and that seems to be happening right now. So there is some work to be done before it is too late.
Although it should be admitted that urban culture enriches traditional culture, more often than not it deteriorates the bonds of trust within societies as well. So whenever urban culture tends to dominate society, traditional culture comes back with a vengeance given the fact that urban culture cannot provide those connections within communities that human beings need in order to give meaning to their lives. And this particular dynamic between (urban) high culture and (rural) low culture is currently activated by more than thirty years of hyper-liberalism and policies favouring metropolitan areas.
The result is a populist backlash stemming from (rural) regions and small towns, which is spreading like wildfire all over the Western world. For that, modern populism should be regarded as a serious warning sign of the state of contemporary society. Developing economies are affected as well by this dynamic due to growing cities and the populace leaving rural areas. From a sociological point of view history thus entails a circular process and in that sense it will never end. The best response is to examine assumptions or beliefs in order to realign the world with its future in the 21st century.