Anti-History: The Politics of Inevitability

The end of Cold War signified to many people around the world that history was over. Or, as Francis Fukuyama stated in the title of his seminal book The End of History and the Last Man, it was a moment where the old arguments about political ideology ceased. The options of Communism or Fascism, of strongmen dictators had been vanquished and left to time’s dusty store room. The only viable option for the world now was Liberal Democracy. 

The political historian Timothy Snyder tells us that the Politics of Inevitability came out of this time and the theory follows that all we needed to do was wait for Liberal Democracy to arrive and bloom.

Inevitability Politics informs us that the world is willfully and automatically moving forward, without fear of the past. We assumed progress was just a passage of time; that capitalism would turn into Liberal Democracy without a need to guide it: no need to fine tune it, no need to iron out the bumps. All we had to do was sit back and wait.

A central notion of this progress was that Globalization would increase and the countries of the world would become more like us on the march to Liberal Democracy. However, this didn’t happen and we instead saw in many places a retreat to Authoritarianism. Eventually, Plague Island and the United States of Amnesia began this retreat, too.  

But why?

Snyder reminds us that this kind of politics was ultimately a disaster as it dulled our abilities and responsibilities to partake in politics beyond the voting booth, as we already assumed that time would take care of it all – that everything would turn out alright. We lowered our guard. We became susceptible to those forces that the ‘end of history’ doctrine told us were no more.

Tony Blair, 1997

New Labour was a party built on this ideology. New Labour: not ‘old’ but ‘new’. Not a part of the party’s Socialist past. This was something else, and this train only went forward. The future was too bright and hopeful for the need to look back. All we had to do was get on and enjoy the ride – the future was coming on the crest of the ‘Cool Britannia’ wave.

Tony Blair and prominent members of the British Shadow Cabinet, prior to the 1997 landslide victory.

However, the optimism of New Labour was really a case of more of the same old thing dressed up in a Ted Baker shirt, relaxed, smiling and holding a pint. It had a central doctrine which called for change and a different future although secretly, little did change. The feel-good factor was built on deregulation and over-borrowing: the newly-built hospitals that bought such national pride at first, and demonstrated how very different New Labour was to the years of Conservative rule that preceded it, sadly saddled the county with PFI debt. (Private Finance Initiative. This is a way of financing public spending projects without needing to find the money immediately from the public purse. However, it leads to crippling interest and long-term debt, which ultimately, the public have had to carry the financial burden of, over a longer period). Arguably, it was the disastrous Iraq War that buried this brand of party, and continues to tarnish it today.

Technology played it’s part in this perception of a new future. The internet furthered the goals of Globalisation and integration through linking people from different countries, and allowing new and exciting ideas to be shared across continents, between people who would have never otherwise met. As well as this, the internet also allowed history to remain. It allowed those old ideas that were once thought to have been condemned to the past to keep breathing. It allowed the vanquished to organize and laid poison as much as it spread light (i.e. it allowed disparate right-wing groups to regroup and organise).

The assumed progress and assured end point were a mirage, an illusion. Eventually, it just could not hold. The glorious final Liberal Democracy was not reached and never materialised. The future was no different to the past. We merely had more of the same and people felt lost and let down. Worst of all, they were cheated into trusting; spun into believing. We knew there were advisors like Alastair Campbell (the political ‘Spin Doctor’) who tried to make the pill less bitter to swallow, so we were aware to a degree of what was happening, and the government knew that we knew. The party began to lose momentum and stagnation set in, as we were left disengaged and directionless.

What we needed was strong leaders to realign us and take us forward. However, what we actually got was strong personalities with personal agendas. 

The motion of progress started to fall apart in different parts of the country at different times, and people felt out of sync with this assumed progress. Many people were left thinking, ‘If everything is so good for everyone else why is it not good for me?’ More and more people lost their appetite for the new dash to the future, instead wanting something more certain. Something more grounded in tradition which was built upon solid foundations. The old and recognizable became a safer bet than the new and unknown.

Slowly, Inevitability gave way to Eternity Politics. In a PMQs session in 2005, before he became Prime Minister, David Cameron sarcastically said of Tony Blair that, “He was the future once.” Of course, Cameron went on to become Prime Minister in 2010 in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. It was Cameron who promised the public a referendum on whether we should leave or remain in the European Union. He never actually believed that he would get the vote because he secured an unexpected majority in 2015, leading an all-Tory government. He thought he would be in another coalition, and that the Lib Dems would veto an EU referendum. Cameron was effectively backed into a corner to execute a manifesto pledge, which has divided the country and left a legacy that we are still grappling with. The idea of leaving Europe whet the appetites of some people seeking comfort in the past and supposed former glories. (We will discuss Brexit in more detail in our next Note).

David Cameron announces his resignation after the results of the Brexit referendum, June 2016

Whilst Inevitability tells us the only way is forward and that there is no past, Eternity Politics tells us there is a great and glorious past that we have been cruelly cut off from, but that we can regain. It tells us our state is the greatest; we are an exceptional people in our city on a hill. But we are held back by counter-active forces and ideas that are out of control: feminism, cultural integration, equality, anti-racism, climate change, attacks on freedom of speech – all of it. The Politics of Eternity tells us it was better before. We want things to be how they were before because the ‘now’ is sick and only getting worse. Eternity sells us victimhood. Eternity grounds us in the present with a future made up of a past greatness. 

Politicians caught on to this kind of politics. They saw a directionless, increasingly angry and frustrated populous, who needed something to believe in and leaders to follow. They recognised that people wanted to feel proud of themselves, their nation and their history once more – no more apologising for their ancestor’s past behaviours. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson were exponents of this here on Plague Island, and Donald Trump became the face of Eternity Politics in the Big Country, with his election slogan of ‘Make America Great Again’ – a fine example of Eternity Politics encapsulated in a simple and easy to understand slogan, itself an echo of Ronald Reagan’s past election slogan. 

Brexit and the Eternal Boris Johnson follows on from this note. There, we have written about the Eternity Politics in the context of Boris Johnson and Brexit.

~ L&A 3.2.21 ~

Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, (Free Press, 1992)

Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, (Penguin, 2017)

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