The persistence of the past



Last year was an annus horribilis for the West. The economies of Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Italy collapsed under the weight of public debt; the Eurozone contemplated break up; anarchists occupied Wall Street; and Britain was gripped by urban riots. It was against this backdrop that History Today co-sponsored a conference held in November on the subject of ‘History: What is it Good For?’ Questions that came up were what use are historical studies at a time of crisis? Can historians offer the public words of comfort or suggest a way out of this mess?

The West ought to count its blessings: this is by no means the hardest time in its history. The German Peasants’ War of the 1520s, the US Bank War of the 1830s (when President Andrew Jackson attempted to destroy America’s sole national bank) or the Great Depression of the 1930s were considerably worse. Compare Britain’s recession and the rise of the Occupy movement with the conditions of 1819, when the country was gripped by mass unemployment, starvation and social disorder. In August of that year a crowd of 80,000 gathered at St Peter’s Field in Manchester to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. Cavalry charged the crowd with sabres drawn, killing 15 and injuring as many as 700. The ‘Peterloo Massacre’ makes the largely cerebral debate over whether or not to clear protestors from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral seem small fry.

Western history is composed of a series of booms and busts, of periods of social peace bookended by political crises. Why then does the collapse of 2011 – a crisis cushioned by generous welfare provision and relatively high levels of personal wealth – feel so surprising and traumatic?

The blame lies partly with the psychology of contemporary democracies. The end of the Cold War and the global sweep of democratic capitalism in the 1990s gave the impression that history was at an end. Humanity had settled upon the perfect form of self-government and wealth creation. The problem wasn’t just that democracy promised the world more than it could deliver but that it also invented a fictional history for itself. Liberal democracy claimed to be the end product of the evolution of man from serf to citizen. This narrative was so compelling that it convinced millions that freedom and prosperity were ever thus and ever would be. Alas, this is not the case. Chaos and poverty are the historical norms of western civilisation, not peace and plenty.

Ireland’s recent economic collapse, for example, merely turned the clock back to the condition the country was in prior to the 1990s. Throughout the 19th century bad British governance sparked famine and mass migration. After independence Ireland experimented disastrously with protectionism and nationalisation. By the 1980s unemployment was stuck at 18 per cent (compared with a high of 14 per cent in 2011) and the International Monetary Fund considered imposing spending limits on the ‘sick man of Europe’. The Celtic Tiger boom of the 1990s gave a new generation of Irish consumers a false sense of economic security. It was a brief detour in a longer history of mismanagement and stagnation.

Likewise, the fall of Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in November 2011 was treated as the final act of a particularly outrageous opera. But Berlusconi’s corruption and incompetence reflected the norm of Italian political culture. Moreover, the fact that he is the longest serving prime minister in postwar Italian history made many of his younger compatriots forget that before Berlusconi the chaos was even greater. From 1968 to 1980 there were 17 different Italian governments. Of the two longest serving prime ministers in the 1970s, one was widely considered a tool of the Mafia and another was assassinated by Marxist terrorists.

Historians cannot offer a way out of the West’s problems, if only because the factors of context, personality and events make it difficult to predict anything with accuracy. What history does teach us is that no social order is cast in stone: empires, even the good ones, rise and fall. As we enter 2012 historians should use their learning to brace the public for yet more change. History isn’t over yet.