In Greek tragedy, hubris inevitably leads to catastrophe. Many fear that we are now enacting just such a tragedy, with the hubris of liberal western elites giving way to global meltdown.
Since 1989 elites in the west have come to believe in the “end of history” narrative, according to which liberal democracy and free market capitalism have won over all rival social systems, and the world is therefore bound to become a global community managed through free markets and democratic politics. Pockets of heresy may endure — but, because they will suffer from poverty and violence, they will eventually see the light, open their borders, and liberalise their markets and politics.
However, since the global financial crisis of 2008 people all over the world have lost faith in the liberal recipe, and in 2016 even voters in the UK and the US rejected it. No wonder western elites feel disorientated. A bit like the Soviet elite in the 1980s, they do not understand how history deviated from its preordained course, and they lack an alternative prism to interpret reality. Disorientation causes them to think in apocalyptic terms, as if the failure of history to come to its envisioned happy ending can only mean that it is hurtling towards Armageddon.
Yet reality is not a Greek tragedy, and at the start of 2017 even liberal elites have reasons to look around with some optimism. In Greek tragedy, catastrophe precedes awakening — when Icarus finally realises how mistaken his hubris was, he is already in freefall and can do nothing about it. By contrast, in 2016 awakening has preceded catastrophe, which gives hope of a softer landing. The cardinal fact about the world of January 2017 is that it is still in very good shape.
Over the past decades, humankind’s three greatest achievements have been to bring plague, famine and war under control. Modern medicine has been so successful in its war against epidemics that today, for the first time in history, most humans live long enough to succumb to cancer, heart attacks and old age rather than dying young from infection. Even more remarkably, in 2016 famine has caused far fewer deaths than obesity. Indeed, natural famine — resulting from an objective lack of food — has almost completely disappeared. Only political famine persists. If people in Syria or North Korea still starve to death, it is not because humankind cannot produce and transport enough food to sustain them, but because some government wants them to starve.
As for war, despite horrendous conflicts in a number of hotspots, mortality from human violence is comparatively lower than in any previous time in history, with fewer people dying from war and crime combined than from suicide or from car accidents. To realise how peaceful and prosperous 2016 has been, you just need to recall where humankind was 100 years earlier.
Of course, a string of wrong decisions, combined with the growing threats of climate change and technological disruption, may well result in catastrophe. But this is not inevitable. In the second part of the 20th century humankind — and that includes the Soviets and the Chinese communists — rose to the challenge posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In the coming decades humans of all cultures and political opinions could well rise to the new challenges posed by global warming and artificial intelligence.
The fact that western elites are waking up from their dream of the end of history may actually increase our chances of confronting global problems successfully. Part of that dream was the notion that these elites knew best what is good for humanity. This resulted in serious geopolitical blunders, such as the eastward expansion of Nato and the invasion of Iraq. A more humble stance in Washington and Brussels may go a long way towards fostering international co-operation.
Finally, whereas in previous crises in the 1930s and 1960s liberal beliefs were challenged by the rival ideologies of fascism and communism, today there are no real challengers. For all the disillusionment with liberal democracy and free markets, nobody has yet formulated an alternative vision that enjoys any kind of global appeal. Russian president Vladimir Putin is not Stalin — he has no ideology that might attract unemployed Greeks, disgruntled Mexicans or starry-eyed students in Cambridge. Isis has even less appeal to anyone outside the lunatic fringes. In the absence of alternative global ideologies, then, there is less chance of global ideological warfare. Instead, the coming years might well be characterised by intense soul-searching and by attempts to formulate new social and political visions. Indeed, liberalism might yet reinvent itself, just as it did in the wake of the crises of the 1930s and 1960s, emerging more attractive than ever before.
So how should we proceed in 2017? The first step is to tone down the prophecies of doom, and swap panic for bewilderment. Panic is a form of hubris. It comes from the feeling that one knows exactly where the world is heading. Bewilderment is more humble and therefore more clear-sighted. If you feel tempted to declare that the apocalypse is upon us, try telling yourself instead: “The truth is, I just don’t understand what’s going on in the world.”
The writer lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is the author of ‘Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus’
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