An Experiment in Political History

I am going to leave reactions to yesterday’s insane “healthcare” bill (actually a massive tax cut for the wealthy) to other and write instead about a topic about which I know very little: theories of history. When I say I know very little, I mean it. I have a laywoman’s understanding that 1) there are different theories about how the world works that can be understood through different models of history and 2) that those models of history are The Great Man theory, the Movement theory and the Cataclysmic Event theory.

The Great Man theory is idea that extraordinary individuals (some good, some bad) have shaped human history, and that we can look to the lives of these Great (mostly) Men to understand our civilizations. Most commonly understood Great Men would include Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Abraham, Jesus Christ, Constantine, Henry VIII, Luther, Shakespeare, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, Hitler, Stalin, Martin Luther King Jr. and so forth.

The Movement Theory is the idea that great movements of people have had the greatest impact on human history and civilization, including mass migration (out of Africa, for example, or into North America, in prehistory), mass conversion (to Christianity or to Communism), and political movements (the Temperance Movement, Civil Rights movements, labor movements). You could call this the Howard Zinn theory but that would suggest that there was a great man behind it (*wink*).

The Cataclysmic Event theory is the idea that it is, well, cataclysmic events that shape human history and civilizations. Examples would include (mythologically) the Tower of Babel, the Ice Age, the Black Death, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the Chicago Fire, the 1906 Earthquake, Chernobyl, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, and any number of other natural disasters or plagues which have scourged humanity through time.

Francis Fukuyama wrote a widely lambasted book called The End of History and the Last of Man. Wikipedia says, “he argued that the progression of human history as a struggle between ideologies is largely at an end, with the world settling on liberal democracy after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Fukuyama predicted the eventual global triumph of political and economic liberalism.” I didn’t read the book and I don’t think it’s true, but it seems to posit (in that summary at least) that another theory of history might be that ideologies drive human civilization, such as barbarism, dynastism, Christianity, Communism, or liberalism.

I am describing these overly simplistic views of history because I think that we are living in a moment in which all four models are in robust action. We have five Great “Men”: Trump, Putin, Xi, Kim Jung Il, and Angela Merkel. We have mass movements both positive (progressive movements) and negative (hackers, nationalists). We have one certain cataclysm, climate change, and at least one threatened cataclysm, nuclear war. We have warring ideologies: liberal democracy, nationalist populism, and authoritarianism (among others)

We are living in an experiment of history. We can identify the major factors that affect the future of human civilization at this moment. Obviously, this isn’t a scientific experiment; there’s no control human civilization we can compare against. But with all four models are currently in play right now, we can try to understand the balance they are held in, and whether one model or another is in fact dominant.

I have no prediction as to the outcome. I hope that by recognizing that the four models exist, we can aim to keep them in balance. They are a natural check on one another, and that’s probably a good thing.

****By the way, there’s no particular reason why I am thinking about this. I just am. For those of you who wonder why I started a blog in November and then promptly stopped writing: Don’t worry, I haven’t. I have been working on two books, and spending lots of time thinking about other things. I happened to think about this today and I thought I’d share. Let me know what you think.