Grand Cycles of History: The Age of Populist Dystopia

In which J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a quick spin through the ideas about the nature of historical inevitability and ends up in the populist dystopia of Donald Trump and the recent Italian election.

Many years ago when I was a first-year student at university, a history lecturer deeply steeped in the classics first introduced our class to the idea of grand cycles in history.

He contrasted, for example, the idea that the ancient Greeks had held, that history repeats and repeats in a cycle, endlessly bringing new claimants to the human circus, but that it was always the same ride. Interestingly, there are interesting echoes of this approach in the realpolitik school of history and international relations, as exemplified by people like Leo Strauss and Henry Kissinger, along with a whole roster of diplomatic practitioners such as Otto von Bismarck and Charles Talleyrand.

By contrast, the early Christians introduced the teleological approach, the idea that human existence was in the service of a larger, grand idea. There was a purpose and a goal, and that everything was a part of that process as it unfolded. In a curious way, the Marxist approach to history and society appropriated this idea, but adding its famous thesis-antithesis-synthesis formulation, along with that economic substrate that powered the machinery of history in its teleological ascent of mankind.

Then, on into the 18th century, the writers, thinkers and politicians of the Enlightenment – and the people and political movements they deeply influenced such as the drafters of the American Constitution – believed in the real possibilities of human advancement and progress. For them – with proper guidance – a better world could be constructed; one that would be more just, fairer, and more prosperous, even if checks on human ambition also needed to be put firmly in place in order to prevent the absolutism and fanaticism that, far too often, had held people in check or destroyed all before it throughout human history.

Closer to our own time, German historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler, in The Decline of the West, writing near the end of World War I (and surveying that vast wastage of human life and the growing collapse of governments sweeping across Europe) argued that any culture was a “super-organism” that had a limited and largely predictable lifespan. Moreover, he predicted that, by the year 2000 or thereabouts, Western civilisation would enter a period of pre-death emergency and that the countering of this would necessitate Caesarism (extra-constitutional omnipotence of the executive branch of the central government).

Coming right behind Spengler, British historian Arnold Toynbee offered the idea of “challenge and response” as a way to evaluate the success or failure of the successive civilizations he had studied.

While Toynbee’s writings have fallen out of favour over the years, his ideas have found an echo in the ecologically rooted ideas of writers such as biologist Jared Diamond on the question of how elites make decisions at critical moments and respond well or badly to environmental challenges. Diamond had written in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed that if a civilisation’s elites (whether it is the modern global capitalism all around us or that tiny, isolated population of Easter Island) are insulated from problems in society and not actively engaged in its challenges, they are more apt to make mistakes. Fatal ones.

It is possible to draw from Diamond’s writing the view that elites will not mount effective responses to their respective societies’ challenges unless their knowledge, sympathy, and self-interest sufficiently overlap those of the broader societies they exist within.

In our own time, the collapse of the Soviet Union triggered the triumphalism most exemplified by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. In essence, Fukuyama had argued that with its fundamental flaws and failures, state socialism had now been consigned to that famous ash can of history. Instead, the future would be one of an increasingly prosperous global liberal democratic order, together with an increasingly benign capitalism helping all to prosper.

Well, of course, things haven’t quite turned out that way after all. Instead, both Russia and China, despite having largely moved on from their old economic orthodoxies, have now increasingly moved into political universes where the economies are subject to networks of oligarchies and semi-state enterprises, while speech is increasingly harshly regulated, political opposition is largely eliminated, and where the top leadership is free to make themselves rulers for life.

An initial flurry of enthusiasm that both of those nations would join the political movements punted by Fukuyama has now faded to virtual invisibility – and together these two nations represent nearly a quarter of the globe’s total humanity.

Meanwhile, the rush of politically liberated societies that came along in the further reaches of the sphere of the former Soviet Union are increasingly sliding into the kinds of government that hold alarmingly autocratic tendencies based on populist urges. In such countries as Poland and Hungary, a tolerance of minorities and immigrants, along with free speech, are increasingly coming under threat. This doesn’t even include various former Soviet republics where those vaunted liberal democratic flowers scarcely took root in the first place. And a relatively democratic state like Turkey that has had a longing to join the West and its institutions for decades has now gone the other way as well, in the aftermath of a semi-coup.

And then there is the rest of the West. Long departed now is that euphoric sense of triumph following the fall of the Berlin Wall and George HW Bush’s proclamation of the new international order. Instead, the rise of populism in its varied guises has increasingly shaped the politics of western nations. Donald Trump’s success in the US, no matter how problematic the actual victory really was or how problematic some of his policies are for his supposed supporters, has pointed out clearly just how disaffected a significant share of the American electorate really is and how left out of the national consensus they believed they were.

It is easy to call Trump a populist and an authoritarian wannabe, but his victory points to the fact that populism can come in many forms and from many different political positions as it draws on the unscratched itches of a share of the electorate. Still, it is important to remember that Trump’s contemporary populism is – save for the focus on immigration and a particularly angry form of inward-looking, industrial protectionism – of a very different character than the distinctly leftist, socialist populism of a century earlier that flourished in the agrarian and mining regions of the Midwest, the Plains states, and among the mining towns of the Rocky Mountain states where populism first became a potent political force.

As an aside, in contemplating an American post-Trump future, the other day, columnist David Brooks had mused in the New York Times,

What happens to American politics after Donald Trump? Do we snap back to normal or do things spin ever more widely out of control?

The best indicator we have so far is the example of Italy since the reign of Silvio Berlusconi. And the main lesson there is that once the norms of acceptable behavior are violated and once the institutions of government are weakened, it is very hard to re-establish them. Instead, you get this cycle of ever more extreme behavior, as politicians compete to be the most radical outsider. The political center collapses, the normal left/right political categories cease to apply and you see the rise of strange new political groups that are crazier than anything you could have imagined before.

If America follows the Italian example, by 2025 we’ll look back at Trump nostalgically as some sort of beacon of relative normalcy. And by the way, if America follows the Italian example, Trump will never go away.”

We shall deal with Italy a bit more, and just what it may mean, in just a few paragraphs further down.

The relative success of Marine Le Pen’s movement in France, or the new Alternative for Germany party in that nation in harvesting shares of the electorate similarly illustrates how significant portions of an electorate can feel thoroughly cut off from their “betters” and their country’s government. They can become, or have already become, convinced their national elites are not listening to their issues – such as immigration, the decline of certain parts of the old industrial regions, and the allegiance to multinational and international financial and political institutions such as the EU and the WTO – that engage and enrage them.

As columnist EJ Dionne noted in a recent column in The Washington Post,

The historian Richard Hofstadter was a critic of the populists, yet in his classic 1955 book The Age of Reform, he recognised that ruling classes can be pushed in two quite different directions. ‘One of the primary tests of the mood of a society at any given time,’ he wrote, ‘is whether its comfortable people tend to identify, psychologically, with the power and achievements of the very successful or with the needs and sufferings of the underprivileged.’ Populism takes root when those in charge reject the second option.”

And that, of course, takes us directly to the most recent Western election, the one in Italy where we may find some potential straws in the wind for larger prospects. This time around, the traditional centrists in Italy took a severe beating at the voting booths across the country. Instead, an array of fractious populist parties of warring political persuasions took the lion’s share of Italians’ votes, although they will surely find it hard to coalesce into a governing coalition.

First of all, the Five Star Movement and a far-right, anti-immigrant League Party polled 32.2% and 17.7% respectively. (Silvio Berlusconi’s return to politics with a semi-centrist party clearly was disappointing, garnering less than 14%. Nevertheless, he still seems to be holding out hopes of being a coalition kingmaker among all these protesting, anti-establishment movements by virtue of his personality.)

Neither the League nor the Five Star Movement is supportive of the EU and both seem favourably disposed towards a strengthened Russia. Crucially, perhaps, neither has particularly coherent fiscal policies and governmental financial policies on offer to deal with the country’s still-stodgy economic circumstances. All of that predicts a rough, unstable political life in Italy in the near future.

Importantly, their respective populist political wellsprings are rather different. The Five Star Movement swept southern Italy by speaking to the deep economic discontents of the people in that region over their marginalisation, and the ongoing presence of those organised crime rings. In contrast, the League rode to their vote total on the back of some deep anger over this new wave of immigration into Italy – primarily from North Africa – thereby quadrupling its voter share.

Meanwhile, the centre-left gained 18.9% but, in the process, shed a quarter of their previous vote total. As Dionne calls it,

The bottom line: Yes, there was a backlash against immigration, but above all, Italians were furious at politicians of the old parties and disheartened over the long-term economic decline of their country. Populism may well get Italy into a lot of trouble, but it’s not hard to see why Italians are sick of what they’ve had. Elites need to pay attention.”

In sum, what these circumstances point to is the gradual decay of the old political landscapes, and the rise of one or another brand of populist politics in varied nations (either within older parties as with the Republicans in the US, or with newer forces in Italy. Meanwhile, the rise of lifetime authoritarians in countries as varied as China, Russia and Turkey (and perhaps The Philippines and others as well) all point to the continuing decline in the attractiveness of the liberal democratic ideal for broad swathes of the globe.

And none of this bodes well for the kind of benign future Francis Fukuyama had laid out so hopefully where international strife declined, prosperity reached ever further into lower and working class populations, and the acceptance of liberal democracy and globalisation became the norm. Perhaps now is the time to reread our Spengler and those other deeply pessimistic writers and devotees of those long cycles of history instead, in order to search for clues as to our potential future. DM

Photo: Italian former prime minister and leader of ‘Forza Italia’ party Silvio Berlusconi (C) at the hotel Vesuvio in Naples, Italy, 03 March 2018. EPA-EFE/CIRO FUSCO


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