2016 and the end of the end of history

As we near the end of 2016 history is everywhere. Everyone seems agreed that it was the year that marked the end of something – but of what exactly?

Does Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton mark the end of neoliberalism? Does the fact that it happened 27 years to the day from the fall of the Berlin Wall mark the end of the post-Cold War era or the start of a new counter-revolution? Does the vote for Brexit mean a return to the ‘golden age of free trade’ or the protectionist, fear-ridden politics of the 1930s?

Does the West’s failure in Syria and the rebirth of Russian power in the Middle East mark the end of American hegemony? Does all of it mean that the Age of the Internet is experiencing the same upheavals as the Age of Discovery?

Both Trump and Brexit appealed to the past for their core support. Nostalgia was weaponised through slogans like ‘take back control’ as they promised to Make America (or Britain) Great Again. The same arguments were made in reverse in the first European referendum – the sense of national decline, of losing an empire without finding a role was a big reason why people voted yes to Europe then – but the Brexiteers harked back to a supposed golden age before 1975.

Trump appealed to the common man and promptly appointed the richest Cabinet since the Gilded Age. One young Republican with no sense of history or irony celebrated the great news that the party was set to control the presidency, both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court for the first time since 1929.

The sense of history being made was such that in the week before Christmas Radio 4’s Today programme asked five distinguished historians to make their case for which year 2016 most closely resembled. For Margaret Macmillan, the scary answer was 1914: a year in which the world seemed so stable and manageable but over-confidence in the ability of politicians and diplomats to resolve national differences saw the warning signs ignored until they were too late.

Andrew Roberts put the more hopeful case for 1848. Just as that year that saw a wave of revolutions in Europe halted at the borders of Britain, so presidential elections in Austria and (he hopes) France will put a stop to the very different revolutions seen this year.

Anne Curry argued for 1420, the year the French king accepted Henry V as his heir in the Treaty of Troyes. If Henry had not died two years later leaving only a nine-month old son as his heir, England and France would have had the same king in perpetuity.

Peter Frankopan put the case for 1498, the year that Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and opened up new trade routes to the Indies and Asia. Up to that point, as he relates in his brilliant The Silk Roads, the centre of the world was the Middle East and Central Asia but this was the year the old order changed and Europe was transformed from backwater to the heart of global trade routes.

Yuval Noah Harari asked whether 2016 was the year that Westerners lost faith in the liberal story and the counterpoint to 1989, when it seemed that communism had lost and the world was inevitably marching towards free market capitalism and liberal democracy. But he hedged his bets by also drawing parallels with 1968, 1933 and 1914, years when faith was lost only to be regained.

It should be obvious by now that the momentous events of 2016 echo those of any number of other years. The sense of the end of an era got me wondering what Eric Hobsbawm would have made of it: what would have followed The Age of Extremes, his ‘short 20th century’ from 1914 to 1991? Perhaps Marx was right about Hegel being wrong about history and we are now living in The Age of Farce?

Most of all though they made me think of Francis Fukuyama and the comparison I’m sure he must be heartily sick of hearing with his ‘the end of history’. As he originally put the argument just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was not saying that momentous events would stop happening but that humanity had evolved to a point where liberal democracy would be the final form of government.

If that seemed plausible in the wake of the rapid globalisation that followed 1989, the rise of radical Islam and authoritarian government in Russia and China had cast doubt on that theory even before 2016. ‘The end of the end of history’ was first proposed in the wake of the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001, faith in free market capitalism collapsed in 2008 and this year’s victories for American and European populism seem to mark the rise of illiberal democracy. But if America is really about to turn its back on doing anything about climate change – and Trump really thinks there is no point having nuclear weapons if you don’t use them – maybe we are witnessing the beginning of the end of history by other means?

A very different ‘end of history’ proposed by Baudrillard raises another sort of comparison that’s been ubiquitous this year. The postmodernist philosopher argued that any idea of an end was an illusion and with it any idea of progress towards an end. A year of Brexit and Trump, social media echo chambers and fake news has also seen the rise of a whole series of other posts: post-truth, post-liberal, post-expert, post-work, post-crisis and post-capitalist.

But I can’t resist one final historical comparison. Maybe 2016 is really more like 383, the year that saw the start of the First Brexit. This, after all, was the year that marked the beginning of end of rule from Europe of This Sceptered Isle with the withdrawal of Roman troops from Northern and Western Britain. Trampling quickly over the historical nuances, a European Empire that was collapsing from within and assailed by enemies from without pulled back from Britain. We took our country back and some people even claim that we lived longer. So much for people like me who’ve argued that by voting for Brexit England had made a shameful conquest of itself.

However, as Theresa May’s finger hovers over the Article 50 button she might want to consider that the First Brexit took a little longer than two years to complete. It was 27 years, to be exact, before Roman magistrates were expelled from Britain. And far from giving us control of our borders, the First Brexit was followed by a surge of immigration by Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Picts and Scotii (who, cunningly, were Irish).

Oh, and this was also the beginning of the (historically disputed) Dark Ages. But then what did the Romans (or the European Union or Obama) ever do for us?

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2 Comments on “2016 and the end of the end of history”

  1. The article’s an apt illustration of how elusive history is before it happens, no matter what kind of filter learned persons adopt to try and predict what will be most significant. Most of the political dynamic has occurred previously, both here (US) and abroad. Humans haven’t changed since the Ice Age in terms of psychology, while technology changes constantly. We could just as easily be Europe in 1340, completely unaware of an impending pandemic capable of wiping out half the population before we can invent a vaccine, because so many will be superstitious about the cure, or consumed by fantasies about “the last days”.

  2. julesbirch says:

    Thanks for the comment – and yes, think that’s the basis of the 1914 comparisons too, complacency and the assumption that things will work themselves out because they always do being the common elements. In a UK context I also had 1640 suggested on twitter – a full blown crisis in Europe while Britain tears itself to pieces and Ireland gets the collateral damage


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