I am not certain how many times I have written some variation of the statement, “people that live through great transformations very often have no idea they are occurring and some die never knowing they happened.” We can imagine there were some loyal Romans living on the frontier thinking, “this is just a moment, the legions will surely return”. Some spent the remainder of their years with that false hope.
Very early on in my studies of history, this was one of the questions that intrigued me – what did people know, and when in a transformative event did they know it? These people that lived through the fall of empires, the changing of epochs, the dawn of new eras, how many of them really recognized it at the time? I had no call to reasonably expect, not as a young man pondering that question, that I may live through a great transformative period.
We seem to be at the end of something. But what, the end of days, the “end of history” or merely the end of an era?
Barrack Obama uses the phrase “end of history” harkening back to Francis Fukuyama’s theory that liberal democracy would eventually win out, that man would become enlightened enough to stop wars, suffering, oppression, and even poverty. Fukuyama was of course expanding upon enlightenment thinking and a progressive and Whiggish historiographical outlook, which itself ultimately might be traced to the idealism of Plato. The favorite bogey-men of certain segments of social media, Klaus and his pals, are certainly advocates of “end of history” thinking.
Whiggish history gives us the phrase, “right side of history”, implying one ought to endeavor in every seminal event to identify and support the “good-people team”. That naive and simplistic view of the world certainly has taken hold in bizarre ways over the last few years.
Gene Rodenberry provided us with the best dramatic depiction of what the “end of history” would look like in his Star Trek universe. It is a quaint and perhaps compelling view of the universe, a united Earth where poverty, racism, hate and even money seem to have disappeared and humans are capable of embarking a couple thousand souls on a starship for seven years without the crew displaying any signs of gossip, dissension, jealousy or anything that really resembles human nature – if we dismiss the foibles of Kirk.
Apocalyptic folks tell us we are at the “end of days” and that the world cannot continue as it is without divine intervention.
Vladimir Putin, if his words are true, would tell us we are at an end of an epoch. That the reign of the West in this era, which began perhaps with the rise of the nation-state at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 is over. The era of the cultural nation is dawning. Xi Jiping, the dictator for life of the Chinese cultural hegemon certainly agrees with Putin and appears to be hedging his bets as to if and/when he ought to act on that belief.
On the sidelines we find the Global South, nations that are not cultural nations, they seek to maintain the order of nation-states, but they are certainly jaded by the actions of the West. The elites in that region may wish to continue the cycle of Western monetary lending and impoverishment and the corruption that follows but their populations side with Russia and China. A vast majority would love nothing more than to see the entire cart kicked over. If there is a domino that determines which view of future history described above defines this transformational period it is likely the actions of the Global South. It is not inconceivable that given potential shocks of hyperinflation combined with shortages a bottom-up sentiment aversion to the current Pax Americana/Atlanticist world order might convince the elites in many nations south of the equator to change their minds about where their bread is buttered. There is no reason that nations like Brazil must align with the status quo order of the world. And if we consider India, a nation that could be a Huntington civilizational culture power it seems ludicrous that they should remain loyal to their previous chains if given a real choice.
We cannot know if this is the “end of history” or merely the end of an era. The matter seems to be in play with many actors that have yet to cast a vote. If it is the end of time, only a divine God could possibly know that. But we do sense, many of us, that this is a transformative period, and not just a small change but rather the sort that fundamentally changes almost everything.
We can sense that the battle to shape what this transformation will become is between the old status quo order centered on ideologies (better said the ideology that emerged victorious from the previous era) and a revised version of an older order still, cultural civilizations. The era of conflicts over ideologies came and went in the 20th century and attempts to analyze what is currently occurring through that lens are fatally flawed and wrong. Totalitarianism resides on both sides of the current conflict, those that seek to find and ally themselves with the “good-guy” team will search in vain.
At present, while many are focused on Ukraine, I find it more profitable to watch nations south of the equator. How will they ‘vote’ in all of this, where will they stand, and what changes (if any) will they demand. The entire Western financial scheme depends upon a monetary system that requires their continued support. In fact, all Western power depends upon it. Loans to poor and/or poorer nations used to cut contracts to purchase Western materiel, with a bit siphoned off to line the pockets of elites in the target nations. Loans repaid over time, consuming inordinate percentages of GDP. The West might have gone too far during COVID, telling poor nations to borrow billions and then shrugging when the notes came due. It was all akin to sub-prime loans on a geopolitical scale. Who, if any, will be the first to walk away toward an alternate system? Who among them will resist only to be consumed by an angry population?