A Point of View: The endless obsession with what might be
- 26 December 2011
- From the section Magazine
If we can stop thinking about what the future might bring and embrace the present for what it is, we would be a lot better off, writes John Gray.
It's been some time now since history didn't end. Twenty-odd years ago, when the Berlin Wall was coming down, there were many who believed that there would be no more serious conflicts.
The American writer Francis Fukuyama, who promoted the idea of the end of history in the autumn of 1989, declared that the chief threat in future would be boredom. A new era, different from any before, had arrived.
Of course it hadn't. The end of the Soviet Union was followed by conflicts and upheavals of the sort that happen when empires fall apart - war in the Caucasus and economic collapse in Russia, for example.
In any realistic perspective the idea that a single event - however large - could mark the end of human conflict was absurd. But those who were seduced by the idea were not thinking in realistic terms.
They were swayed by a myth - a myth of progress in which humanity is converging on a universal set of institutions and values. The process might be slow and faltering and at times go into reverse, but eventually the whole of humankind would live under the same enlightened system of government.
When you're inside a myth it looks like fact, and for those who were inside the myth of the end of history it seems to have given a kind of peace of mind. Actually history was on the move again. But since it was clearly moving into difficult territory, it was more comfortable to believe that the past no longer mattered.
Something similar seems to be happening today. For many people, the idea that the institutions that have been set up in Europe since the end of World War II might be breaking up is too horrific even to contemplate.
European institutions have preserved the peace for more than a generation and presided over a steady growth in prosperity. The very idea that they could now break up challenges the prevailing belief in steady improvement, which is the faith of practical men and women who imagine they have no religion.
As progress continues, these supposedly hard-headed people believe the gains that have been made in the past will be conserved, while lingering evils will gradually diminish.
The implication is that sudden shifts are relatively rare in history. But consider continental Europe over the past 70 years - until recently a normal human lifetime. Unless they were Swedish or Swiss, an ordinary European man or woman lived during that period under several quite different systems of government.
Nearly all of Europe, some of it democratic, succumbed for a time to Nazism or fascism. Half of Europe moved from Nazism to communism with only a brief interval of democracy. Most of that half, though not Russia, became functioning democracies after the end of the Cold War.
Not only have political forms changed during a normal lifetime, systems of law and banking have come and gone along with national currencies. The entire framework in which life was lived has changed not once, but several times. In any longer historical perspective discontinuities of these kinds are normal.
It is periods of stability, such as the one that existed in at least the western half of Europe from the end of WWII up to the present, that are exceptional. When trying to understand what it means to live through a time of discontinuity, it's often best to read the accounts of people who experienced a period of this kind. Here the writer Arthur Koestler is an illuminating example.
Born in 1905 into a prosperous, highly-educated family in Budapest, Koestler grew up in the chaos that followed WWI - when Central and Eastern Europe had become a battlefield of warring social and ethnic groups.
As the economy swung from inflation to deflation and back to hyperinflation, the middle classes were ruined while workers suffered mass unemployment.
Politics splintered into extremist parties with moderate groupings powerless to hold the centre ground. The old order had gone and there was no agreement on what might replace it. Steady, incremental improvement presupposes a background of stable institutions and some agreement on shared values.
In inter-war Europe, these conditions were lacking. As a result gradual progress was just another utopia. Believing that any kind of improvement would only be possible after a cataclysmic upheaval, Koestler became a communist.
He went on to have an adventurous and dangerous life travelling throughout Europe and the Soviet Union, being captured by Franco's forces in Spain during the Civil War and sentenced to death only to be exchanged at almost the last moment for a Nationalist prisoner who was in Republican hands.
After he was freed, Koestler settled in France, where he was interned in a concentration camp at the outbreak of war and then escaped to Britain via North Africa after joining and quickly deserting the Foreign Legion.
Koestler's book Scum Of The Earth, published in 1941, describes the sudden disintegration he witnessed in France as it fell to the Nazis. Searching for a metaphor to capture the collapse, Koestler turned to the world of insects.
He writes that when he heard the news of the evacuation of Sedan, where French and British forces had been resisting the German advance, he was reading the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck's Life of the Termites, a study of the insect.
Describing the termites, Maeterlinck wrote: "Their work is done under the cover of silence and only an alert ear is able to recognise the noise of the nibbling of millions of jaws in the night, which devour the building and prepare for its collapse.
"A planter enters his house after an absence of five or six days. Everything is apparently as he left it. He sits down on a chair. It collapses. He grabs the table to regain his balance. It falls to pieces under his hands. He leans against the central pillar, which gives way and brings down the roof in a cloud of dust."
Koestler wrote that his experience when hearing of the evacuation of Sedan was similar to the planters. "This was the moment when the chair under us broke down. What came after was just staggering and swaying about in a collapsing house where everything you tried to hold onto turned into a handful of dust under your touch."
Koestler has been criticised for looking for total solutions to human problems, a trait he recognised in himself. But when he argued that any kind of improvement in Europe could come only after devastating conflict, he was not indulging a taste for absolutes.
He was recognising a fact - the civilisation from which he sprang was in a life-and-death crisis. As a communist, he cast himself as a mortal enemy of bourgeois life. But at another and deeper level, Koestler turned to communism to renew bourgeois civilisation in a more durable form.
He soon came to see that the Soviet experiment was a dead end. Even so, Koestler's attachment to communism was a response to a genuine predicament.
In Europe between the two world wars, it was the idea of gradual progress that was truly fantastic. Recognising and acting on this fact, sometimes at the risk of his life, Koestler was for all his faults a heroic figure.
The idea of progress and the idea of utopia may seem to be at odds. Progress is open-ended, many like to think, while utopia signifies a condition of static perfection. Actually both presuppose an end to conflict and change of any fundamental kind.
Utopias need not be fixed and immobile. Marx refused to speculate on the precise nature of a communist future. But never doubting that the basic causes of human conflict would be removed forever along with capitalism, he was still a utopian thinker.
Follies and delusions
While constantly urging the necessity for change, believers in gradual progress also assume that fundamental conflicts will wither away. Along with Marx, they imagine a radical alteration in human existence as a consequence of which the recurrent struggles that have shaped human life throughout the ages will be no more.
In different ways utopian thinkers and believers in gradual progress both look forward to an end to history as it has always been.
The response to the current crisis in Europe shows the continuing hold of this myth. History, many seem to think, is something that happens only to previous generations. We, the product of centuries of progress, could not conceivably be repeating the follies and delusions that led to disaster so often in the past.
Yet if you step back a little and look at the situation from a more detached perspective, it seems clear that no solution to Europe's problems can be found within existing institutions. Rather like the planter's house Koestler read about in the book on termites, European structures are eaten away by debt. Wherever Europe's elites turn for support, the pillars begin to shake and crumble.
Our leaders insist there is no alternative to propping up these deeply eroded constructions since their collapse would cause a financial and economic earthquake. This may well be right, but shoring up a structure that is inherently unsound only ensures a larger collapse some time later.
Eventually every utopian project comes to grief. And while it started as a benign creation, the European project has long since acquired an unmistakably utopian quality. The efforts that are being made to renew the project are only accelerating its demise.
In a curious irony, the impact of the austerity measures that are being taken to curb European debt is to undermine bourgeois life in something like the way it was undermined in the inter-war years.
The effect is not yet anything like as extreme as it was then. Cutting back public services, savaging pension entitlements and imposing a regime of near zero interest rates that guarantees negative returns for ordinary savers does not have the same devastating impact as hyperinflation or full scale deflation.
But the disappearance of any kind of security for the majority, and vanishing opportunities for young people are not fundamentally dissimilar to what was happening in Europe 70 years ago. Our rulers, it seems, have decided to save the banking system at the cost of sacrificing the living standards of the majority. It remains to be seen whether one can survive without the other.
We seem to be approaching one of those periods of discontinuity that have happened so often in the past. It may seem unthinkable that the European banking system could implode, or that a global currency like the euro could dissolve into nothing.
Yet something very much like that was the experience of citizens of the former Soviet Union when it suddenly melted down, and there is nothing to say something similar could not happen again.
For believers in progress it must be a dispiriting prospect. But if you can shake off this secular myth you will see there is no need to despair. The breakdown of a particular set of human arrangements is not after all the end of the world.
Surely we would be better off if we put an end to our obsession with endings. Humans are sturdy creatures built to withstand regular disruption. Conflict never ceases, but neither does human resourcefulness, adaptability or courage.
We tend to look forward to a future state of fulfilment in which all turmoil has ceased. Some such condition of equilibrium was envisioned by the American prophet of the end of history with whom I began.
As Fukuyama admitted, it's not an altogether appealing vision. But living in fear of the end is as stultifying as living in hope of it. Either way our lives are spent in the shadow of a future that's bound to be largely imaginary.
Without the faith that the future can be better than the past, many people say they could not go on. But when we look to the future to give meaning to our lives, we lose the meaning we can make for ourselves here and now.
The task that faces us is no different from the one that has always faced human beings - renewing our lives in the face of recurring evils. Happily, the end never comes. Looking to an end-time is a way of failing to cherish the present - the only time that is truly our own.