The respected historian Eric Hobsbawm, in an attempt to understand the character of the last two centuries, made two observations that defined his work. First, there was a ‘long nineteenth century’ a 125 year period of relative stability from the French Revolution in 1789 until the First World War in 1914. Second, there was a short Twentieth Century of dynamic turmoil from 1914 to 1989 when the Cold War ended. Hobsbawm made these observations so we could see the similarities and differences not just between dates and events, but between forces of history. This eye for history’s great sweep was part of the reason he was so respected.
Grouping periods of time like this allows us to see that the world of 1913 had more in common with 1870 than with 1945. It also allows us to isolate turning points, where old things ended and new things began.
Contemporary historian Adam Tooze reinforces the idea the First World War was the start of something new by singling out the American Presidential Election of 1916 as the first that had international affairs at its heart. The winner, Woodrow Wilson, started a century-long trend in the West for international cooperation and institution building around the principle of liberal democracy [with varying success]. After the Second World War this trend was underwritten economically by the power of the American Dollar and the Federal Reserve.
And this lasted beyond the year 2000. Future historians will look back on our times and find better reasons to associate the landmark events of 2016, 2008 and 2001 with the passing of the twentieth century and the landmark events of 2020 as having more in common with what happened next. They will talk of a long twentieth century from 1914–2020.
In the past twenty years we limped from the shock of 9/11, to the lies of the Iraq War, to the betrayal of the financial crisis and the slow political crisis that exploded with the Trump/Brexit elections of 2016. In March 2020 this long century finally ended and for the first time, we were engulfed by the spirit of the 21st century. From now on, and for the first time in several generations, we have no choice but to think and create new ideas, stories, hierarchies and networks around which to organise our world.
Ten years ago, there was global cooperation to resuscitate the global economy by printing digital money and giving it directly to banks, know as quantitative easing. This created a new bubble where easy cash sloshed about the world of high finance notably in, but not limited to, the high stock market valuations of tech companies that did not make a profit.
Now this bubble has popped and the money disappeared. It was hoped the money would trickle down but no material difference has been made in the global economy by quantitative easing. Productivity, purchasing power, wages and infrastructure have all stagnated. Above all, people do not feel the economy is more secure. It has been a failure.
Moreover, interest rates have remained at near-zero for more than a decade, as a sort of life support machine to a brain-dead economy. Apart from a pure pump of imagined cash, cutting interest rates is the main way central banks, like the Federal Reserve, stimulate the economy. This is no longer possible and we stare negative interest rates in the face. This financial system is broken.
Since 1980 the power of government, and by extension the public, to influence events has been dismantled in favour of free-market solutions. This would be great if it created a more productive and balanced economy or improved the quality of life of people without the need for credit cards, second jobs or anti-depressants. But it hasn’t and government is left powerless against the behaviour of the market.
In 1945, 1969 and just about in 2009, international governments could bash heads together and create a plan to cooperate across borders to tackle certain problems. But now governments stand alone, because they are nationalist.
By 2020, government has repelled the competent from joining it and ignored the voiceless for so long that all that remains is the imagination-based wasteland that is the British Conservative Party and Trump administration. They laugh off proposals such as a ‘Green New Deal’ as too expensive and ‘socialist’. But waste no time in providing trillions or even ‘unlimited’ amounts of money when it is too late. They are idealess.
Both the Conservative Party and President Trump brag about their shallow victories yet drag us all into their deep defeats. They win elections by a combination of some friend’s money and a style of public relations that presents their candidates as either the sympathetic victim to whom we inexplicably owe our loyalty or pre-destined heroes who kill mice and tell us they were dragons. They exist to wave the flag, ignore and blame.
Inventions like the internal combustion engine and resources such as oil near the end of their viability. Its death throes are underwritten by the quickening ecological collapse caused by climate change. When the global recession and pandemic which started this month both end our current trends in technology will accelerate and drive the new normal. We will look back at commuting for an hour to work in an office, burning gas for fuel and eating animals as part of an embarrassingly twentieth-century way of life.
At the heart of everything is identity. And more than ever our identity is individual and digital. The shape of our face, our credit history, what food we eat and what content we watch is increasingly related and cross-referenced. No longer will we distinguish between the things we do online and IRL. It will be the same.
The 21st Century
At that point, even our oldest principles like democracy, freedom and security will need new institutions, rules and consensus if something like chaos is to be avoided. Niall Ferguson, another historian, published the book ‘The Square and the Tower’ in 2017. In it, he tells the history of the modern world as between powerful hierarchies with authority [the tower] and networks of influence and relationships that bind us weakly or strongly to any number of other things [the square]. We ought to think in these terms now, act positively, look forward and remember all our lessons of history. If we fail then our children will think back on the year 2020 and shake their heads in the same way we might when we imagine the poor soldiers of 1914 who rode horses down the mouths of machine guns, not knowing they had already left the old world behind for good.