The New Edwardians

Jennifer Welsh’s The Return of History, and the limits of progress.

The title of Jennifer Welsh’s book, The Return of History: Conflict, Migration and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century, would make little sense without the lingering influence of Francis Fukuyama’s bold 1989 declaration that history had ended. In that year, Fukuyama, a political theorist, penned an essay boldly declaring that the major ideological contests of the 19th and 20th centuries were over, and liberal democracy had won:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

His subsequent 1991 book, The End of History and the Last Man, followed up on this controversial thesis with a call for western optimism, a return to a pre-1914 belief in progress, as defined by Robert McKenzie in 1880, as “continual advancement from a lower to a higher platform of intelligence and well-being.”

For Fukuyama, the reasons for optimism were many. In the international arena, the collapse of communism and the triumph of liberal democracy would mean the gradual decline of warfare. Pointing out that liberal democracies, such as the United States and Canada, never went to war with one another, Fukuyama naturally concluded that more liberal democracies meant fewer wars. Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama predicted that Russia itself would not “pick up where the czars left off,” but would evolve into a more peaceful and cooperative state in the international arena.

International optimism was paired with economic optimism. As the capacity of the modern industrialized world to fulfil every consumerist wish and comfort increased, so did prosperity and equality. Liberal democracies offered a kind of consumerist homogenization based on the satisfaction of economic desires. For Fukuyama, this not only ended ideological divisions, but also created, in western democracies, a kind of classless society—one in which everyone aspired to be middle class. Inequalities would persist, Fukuyama predicted, but they would be relatively minor and short-lived, especially as discrimination against racial minorities, women and the handicapped was gradually reduced.

Fukuyama’s optimism was echoed by political scientists and other analysts, such as Joseph Nye and Timothy Garton Ash, who argued that the combination of the decline of military conflict and the rise of economic prosperity in the West would result in the triumph of soft power as the future coin of international influence. In the new post–Cold War era, countries wielded influence through their economic prosperity, serving as examples worthy of emulation to those still struggling to create their own liberal democratic states. From this perspective, scholars predicted the rise of the European Union as a global power, whose enviable social and economic life would compensate for the lack of military might.

By now, it is rather commonplace to critique Fukuyama’s End of History—the book has become something of a cautionary tale for social scientists. Indeed, a cursory search through books and articles on the 25th anniversary of the publication of Fukuyama’s essay finds numerous titles such as “It’s Still Not the End of History,” or “History Is So Not Over.”

Of the authors who have contended with Fukuyama’s intellectual legacy, Jennifer Welsh is in the company of the most reasonable and reflective. The Return of History tells a detailed and fact-laden story of the way in which the post-1989 world has and (more commonly) has not lived up to Fukuyama’s expectations. Each chapter of her book is devoted to a particular modern problem faced by liberal democracies: the recent refugee crises, Russia’s increasing authoritarianism, the rise of global wealth inequalities. Although it is never stated, the implied conclusion from all of these chapters is that history is still continuing, in the sense that Fukuyama’s promised triumph of liberal democracy has not happened—events continue to threaten liberal hegemony. In other words, as Welsh’s title argues, history has returned.

But is history simply continuing on, or is it repeating itself? Welsh is not entirely clear. As an epigraph to the book, she uses Karl Marx’s famous quote: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Marx was quite specific in his reference: he believed that the arrogant petty dictator Louis Napoleon, who was elected in 1848 and declared himself Napoleon III in 1852, was but a poor, farcical imitation of his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte. What historical moment are we repeating today? Welsh never elaborates.

To my mind, Welsh does point us in the right direction—to look at how our own era in history is a return to the past. In my own view, the present-day commemorations of the centennial of World War One offer the western world the opportunity to compare the turn of the 21st century with the turn of the 20th century. In many ways, we have indeed “returned” to the past, to a world much like that before World War One. Then, as now, a multipolar international system often resulted in brutal local wars with attendant humanitarian tragedies; then, as now, radical wealth inequality rendered many governments near plutocracies; and then, as now, a kind of optimism about the power of technology and progress led people to believe that a world of peace and prosperity for all was on its way.

In fact, even in proclaiming the end of history, we repeat history. In the years preceding the bloodletting of 1914, the international peace movement was born. From the second half of the 19th century and on, European observers of politics and society were confidently declaring that the growth of civilization corresponded to the shrinking of violence. Henry Thomas Buckle was one of the first 19th-century scholars to proclaim that Europe’s superior civilization was making it less warlike. Later, Norman Angell, in his 1910 book, The Great Illusion: A Study of the Relation of Military Power in Nations to Their Economic and Social Advantage, argued that education and superior civilization were making war less palatable, leading to the “unity and interdependence of the modern world.” The Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907 promoted laws of warfare and the peaceful resolution of conflict. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was established in 1910. All of this testified to a belief that civilization was to triumph over barbarism.

It took very little time for that belief to be challenged. Just three years after the foundation of the Carnegie Endowment, war broke out in the Balkans and raged from 1912 to 1913, accompanied by terrible atrocities, challenging the optimism of the peace movement. Norman Angell and the Carnegie Endowment wrote lengthy analyses of the situation in the Balkans and concluded, unsurprisingly, that war fever, propaganda, nationalism, the massacre of civilians, the ethnic cleansing of rival groups—these were all the products of insufficient civilization, of Balkan backwardness. In its report on the Balkan Wars in 1913, the Carnegie Endowment wrote with staggering arrogance: “the Great Powers are manifestly unwilling to make war. Each one of them, Germany, England, France, and the United States, to name a few, has discovered the obvious truth that the richest country has the most to lose by war.”

The events of 1914 proved shocking for the civilizational optimists, but their shock was a product of their wilful blindness, not just to the Balkan cautionary tale, but to the lessons of imperialism. Well before 1914, Europe itself had utilized the most brutal tactics in its own imperial ventures. By 1867, Europeans controlled 67 percent of the globe, and by the close of the 19th century Europeans (including Russia and the United States) ruled approximately 80 percent of the planet’s territory. In the fierce competition for new territory, known as the “Scramble for Africa,” and in the rival expansionisms of Russian and Britain in Central Asia, known as the “Great Game,” Europeans were engaged in the kind of bloody warfare that they professed to have left behind. Technology, in the form of steam-powered “gun boats,” allowed naval power to penetrate deep inland, and was decisive in conflicts such as the First Opium War in China, 1839–1842. Better bullets and “repeating rifles” were manufactured by the millions for the major European armies—Hiram Maxim’s version of the machine gun could fire eleven bullets a second. The new guns were put to brutally effective use in Africa and Asia, especially in suppressing revolts such as the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Under Belgium’s control of the Congo, it is estimated that imperial conquest reduced the Congo’s population from 20 million to 10 million between 1880 and 1920. The Russians harassed and killed the native populations of Central Asia in their expansion eastward, and used scorched-earth tactics in Chechnya, razing forests to the ground and building enormous military fortresses in the clearings. A poem by Hillaire Belloc, written in 1898, captured the power wrought by superior technology in imperial settings: “Whatever happens we have got the Maxim Gun, and they have not.”

In other words, the parallels with our own era are striking. Those who had faith in Fukuyama and Nye were shocked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russia has, unfortunately for Fukuyama, indeed picked up where the czars left off, using raw hard power to achieve its ends. And, as in 1914, surprise at the return of warfare in Europe was the product of wilful blindness. After all, hard power had been deployed in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan in almost the very first days after the end of the Cold War.

If we consider the modern rise of wealth inequality, a similar comparison can be made to the years before 1914. Those who decry the rise of a “new Gilded Age” are referring to the original Gilded Age, the era of wealth and luxury that dominated the western world up until World War One. The point is proven statistically by the recently published Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty: before 1914, the one percent had 20 percent of all income in the United States and Britain; in 1950, the one percent had ten percent of the income, and now the United States is back to its pre-war income distribution, with Europe following closely behind.

There are many aspects of the old Gilded Age that will seem familiar to us today. The years before 1914 were like our own: dominated by rapid technological and scientific progress that radically altered the daily lives of those living in the western world. It was an era of burgeoning consumerism: new shopping districts and department stores provided the middle and upper classes with a wealth of newly cheap and mass produced goods: linen bedsheets, tablecloths, fresh cheap reproductions of known artistic masterpieces, ready-made cotton clothing. Trains, steamships and the motor car all meant that more places were accessible to more people, including places of leisure, such as the seaside or the country.

But the Gilded Age is best remembered not as the age of the middle classes, but, like our own age, as the age of the wealthiest. Toward the end of the 19th century, a new breed of upper class men appeared: self-made entrepreneurs who rose from obscure origins to the pinnacles of wealth. Werner Siemens, born the son of an ordinary farmer in 1816, joined the Prussian army to learn engineering. He used his training to found a small company, Siemens, which soon became one of the largest in the world. Similarly, William Hesketh Lever began as the son of an ordinary grocer, but soon developed and marketed a popular form of soap that propelled his small company to world-wide greatness—Unilever is a descendant of his Lever empire. The Michelin brothers, Louis Renault, Henry Ford, Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz are just a few more names of the Gilded Age inventors and industrialists who went on to create products and found industrial empires that are still with us.

As a class, these wealthy families lived in open and ostentatious luxury: luxury hotels, seaside resorts, spas and casinos. They—and their social peers—often travelled with armies of servants in private railway cars. The ill-fated Titanic had expensive “millionaire suites.” Homes contained dining rooms built to seat up to 100 guests, and thousands of acres of land were carefully tended. Beyond entertainment and extravagance, wealth was also leveraged into economic and political power through bribery, through legal representation and through simply befriending those with political influence.

Our own Gilded Age has its luxury suites on airplanes and its estates on 1,800-acre ranches in California. These days, we can find endless news stories decrying the extravagance, tastelessness and hideous excesses of the super rich. Welsh cites scholarship that money is now buying influence, just as it did more than 100 years ago. The rising power of the one percent is seen as the enemy of the middle class—the middle class and the upper class engaged in a kind of war for pre-eminence.

As in the first Gilded Age, however, we moderns fail to consider the link between the consumerism and spending of the middle classes and the wealth of the richest. The very gadgets and consumer items that Fukuyama celebrated in 1989, and that the middle classes enjoy today, build the fortunes of CEOs and others, especially in the technology industry. In our uncritical celebration of the progress and comfort capitalism can bring, and in our unreflective adoration of new and better products and technologies, we are implicitly accepting greed as the normal goal of human striving. That often unthinking greed is then at the root of inequality—some may have less, and some more, and the aim is to work hard enough to have more, rather than less. Few hate the one percent. Most would simply like to be more like them. The question at the heart of economic equality is a question of values—one that liberal democracies are hard pressed to answer, because liberal democracies are focused more on fulfilling individual desires, politically and economically, and far less on developing an ethical world view based on self-sacrifice and self-denial.

By now, it is clear to all that the problems of the post–Cold War era will not be solved by history alone. Welsh is quite correct: persistent inequality, humanitarian crises and international conflict require an active assessment of the ideals of liberal democracy. To get modern liberal democracy to take in more refugees from the Middle East, or to rein in the wealth of the one percent, Welsh would like us to forego “the private pleasures of consumerism” and embrace “cultivating the public good,” at home and abroad. But the problem remains—what are our ideals? What are the values that come together to define a public good? If liberal democracy must be defended, we must develop some collective moral system that strengthens and undergirds our liberal democratic world view.

The Return of History makes this plain, even where Welsh herself avoids the deeper complexities of many issues. In her analysis of the rise of ISIS, for instance, Welsh correctly points out that the West cannot understand terrorism because it cannot believe that “religion could matter.” Her later description of ISIS recruits as uninterested in Islam, and even as “petty criminals,” commits the very error she criticizes earlier in the book. ISIS has a system of values, one that attracts recruits. We may find it abhorrent, but we need to understand it, and counter it with an articulated system of our own. In similar fashion, Welsh correctly perceives that our approach to economic and humanitarian problems, such as refugee resettlement or wealth inequality, requires moral solutions. Liberal democracies, she argues, cannot simply emphasize growth or productivity, but must also emphasize fairness. As any parent knows, however, the word “fair” is subject to constant redefinition. From the extreme left to the extreme right of the liberal ideological spectrum, the articulation of what is fair will vary widely. Invoking fairness will only get us so far. We need a sustained values system that gets us to see beyond our own immediate desires and comfort and leads us to give up something for the sake of others. And that requires much collective examination of conscience.

Up until August of 1914, the western world had tremendous faith in technological innovation and scientific knowledge to bring progress, comfort and peace to the world. That faith proved illusory, and the 20th century revealed the need for a sustained, coherent articulation of the value of every individual as against the tyranny of states, the brutality of armies and the ravages of poverty. Larger questions have now returned: we must now consider the question of evil, the sin of greed, the ­tragedy of selfishness. The Return of History clearly reveals that we too can no longer rest on the faith that progress will save us. History will only judge the moral choices we have made, and progress will only result from the values we have enacted.