These Exceptional Times?

Liberal opinion is that we are living in exceptional times: the decline of centre-right and centre-left parties, reinforced recently by the election results in Bavaria and Hessen; the rise of nationalism in Eastern Europe; the election of Donald Trump; the resurgence of Russia, and indeed the rise of militant Islam and of Chinese power. Nothing like this was supposed to happen when Francis Fukuyama published his book The End of History and the Last Man in 1992.

According to his thesis, the struggle between ideologies was at an end, and the world had decided on ‘liberal democracy’.  Those who were foolish enough to believe this are now baffled, distraught, depressed: quite unable to understand what has gone wrong.

I would argue that it is not these very recent years that are exceptional, but the century and a half or more that preceded them, and we need to consider this exceptionalism if we are to understand what is happening now, and devise routes forward.

As a long-standing Green, I hold the view that changing anything changes everything, and below are a few bullet points listing changes that I would argue require radical re-thinking of political ideas, most of which pre-date these developments: –

  • Improvements in public health from the mid-nineteenth century onwards in industrialised countries, leading to a huge decrease in infant and child mortality and thus to a massive increase in population. It is now considered “unnatural” for children to die before their parents, whereas of course the opposite is in fact the case. If anything is “unnatural”, it is the present situation, where parents in developed countries assume that all their offspring will survive.
  • Again in the industrialised countries the spread of a gas supply and then of electricity to domestic dwellings, revolutionizing women’s lives, and enabling the spread of literacy.       
  • So, has modern life become much easier for everyone in developed countries? Well, the advent of the internal combustion engine might have seemed to be a good thing. It has obvious repercussions for mobility, but much of it is not entirely voluntary. Having to get up at five in the morning to commute to work, is not the leisure-filled future that I remember being promised in the 1960s and 70s. (I hasten to add that I have not done this, as I always took care to live near public transport.) As well as making for a long and tiring day, this has huge implications for communities. 
  • Neither of my parents ever set foot outside the UK. Not because they had no desire to do so, but because they could not afford it. The advent of cheap air travel has revolutionized the holiday habits of huge numbers of people. Do they perhaps believe that a short holiday gives them some insight into the countries that they visit? This could be a dangerous delusion. Mass tourism is damaging both cities and the natural environment.     
  • To turn to medicine, as distinct from public health measures, we live in what I would classify as an analgesic society. Apparently nobody should suffer any pain, and all diseases should be cured. Younger doctors seem to regard death, even that of a 95-year old, as a failure.    
  • What of the World Wide Web? I am wary of attributing too much power to this in the developed world, considering it to be a continuation of the spread of mass literacy from the nineteenth century onwards. The greater impact, in my opinion, is in poorer countries. Even in remote villages in which women are still walking several miles a day to fetch water, and are cooking over open fires, many people have smart phones, on which they see how those of us in developed countries live. This must surely be a driver of the mass migration currently underway.

How aware are most people of the exceptional nature of the world we live in? Clearly most politicians are not, so it is perhaps reasonable to assume that this is true of the bulk of the population. In my observation, human beings, myself included, become accustomed very quickly to a more comfortable state of affairs, and assume that it will go on indefinitely. There is moreover a problem with changes that have taken place too long ago to be remembered by younger generations but not so long ago as to be on the history syllabus. For example, having grown up in the countryside in the 1950s I am often struck by how frequently we hear modern, agrichemical-based agriculture referred to as “conventional” when in fact it is younger than I am.

I come back to the nature of conventional politics. All of the political parties, except the Greens (and many of them have departed from their original ideas) are promoting ideas which pre-date the twentieth century. No wonder they are in trouble.

Should we not therefore be stressing these two factors:

  1. Those of us who live in developed countries have become accustomed to living in what are in fact highly exceptional times and have made the mistake of assuming that this is the new norm. Recent developments mean that we are now again living in a world quite unlike this, one in which conflicts raged and heads often rolled. 
  2. The political ideologies that are presented to us by the conventional parties pre-date all of the changes listed above, and are no longer fit for purpose. This was recognized by those who established Green parties during the 1970s and 80s. Those of us who were involved in that movement are forced, I think, to acknowledge that we failed to have the impact that we hoped for. Was this because the message was ahead of its time, or was it that we became too involved in the existing political process? Is the time (and technology) now ripe for radical change? If so, should we follow the route of groups such as Extinction Rebellion, making use of social media to reach out to and mobilise large numbers of people?

Susan Miles
December 2018