History’s a tough read, even at its best. It’s dry, it’s boring, its complicated, there are so many details to remember that it seems like one fucking thing after the other. If you’re inspired by a history book, if it made sense of the world, if it named the forces that made you suffer, if it ‘changed your life’, it’s likely a bad book.
If you’re reading history to know what happens next, you won’t know by knowing history. Whether you know the details, you know the basic outline: progress followed by regress, reforms so long delayed they provoke revolutions, true believers proven wrong, revolutionary idealists causing reactionary movements and mass death, the remains conquered by realists who understand human folly, most of whom, being realists, are indifferent to suffering.
You may not know history well, but all of us know human beings. If you think human beings are good on the whole, think about all the people you meet who are exceptions: sociopaths and psychopaths, narcissists, pathological abusers, run of the mill assholes. Now make a composite average human from the those you love and esteem, and the ones you hold in contempt. Factor in all your love and hatred, hope and fear, triumphs and defeats. That’s the average human being, who means well when it’s convenient, frames the circumstances of any story to flatter themselves, and vacillates every day from being decent person to kind of an asshole. Now, try to inspire this person to change society. Do you really think the average human being will understand the world or implement change?
And if they’re neither good at understanding nor change, what happens when you try to make them change? Some will change, and some will resist change to their dying breath, most will fuck things up out of laziness. Change is the biggest ordeal on the planet. The average person’s understanding of the world is limited at the best of times, how much more limited is it when you throw in the anxiety of not knowing their futures? If you force millions of people to change, they’ll be more disposed to make bad decisions, not less.
America’s been promised progress every decade since JFK’s New Frontier, and we never got much. Why is that? I’ve read enough history to know that I don’t know, but I do know thousands of human beings, and knowing them, I’m sure that the reason is that people are risk-averse, and they’re risk-averse because most risks don’t pay off. Every time progress is made on one front, it’s lost on another.
The last couple of months have been a soul’s balm. Widespread vaccination, economic relief, initiatives on clean energy, banning guns, mass employment, repairing infrastructure, and NO TRUMP MEGAPHONE! It’s fucking manna from the sky.
But has the temperature really gone down? Whether by police or an insane clown posse, there is a headline murder in the streets every day, and the results are broadcast 24 hours a day. Gun murder a fact of American life, and even if most Americans won’t be affected by gun violence, the threat of it is literally everywhere, and the stress makes people do unwise things from going out into the streets unmasked to protests that further tempt killers. The more risky life is, the more people get accustomed to risk, and charge like bulls into risks they’d easily avoid. Human beings avoid risks because risks risk failure.
But just as most human beings I know are risk averse, history shows that the world is risk averse too. When the world achieves any gain in rights, there’s a few days of celebration, then years of post-traumatic stress. Humiliation sets in that you’ve struggled so long only for the triumph to give you so little. When Communism fell in the Soviet Union, which killed 20-60 million people, was the Russian response rejoicing at the end of a regime that butchered their families? Not at all, many Russians refer to the 90s as a ‘Time of Troubles’, which is what they used to call a period when one third of Russians died of famine. Within ten years, they lurched back into the hands of another autocrat whom they begged to seize dictatorial powers. When the African-American community finally got some Civil Rights, was gratitude the widespread response? Of course not, it was four years of widespread rioting that gutted cities and all the opportunities civil rights should earn them. When France and Russia and Iran finally made their kings institute liberal reforms, was reform the end result? Of course not, the result was too little too late, the establishment refused the changes, and the public rebelled with revolutions that caused millions of deaths.
And of course, these are incredibly unfair generalizations. I deliberately left out America forcing Russia’s hard landing into capitalism, and white Americans’ red-lining African-Americans out of prosperity, and French & Russian & Iranian liberals who worked every day for their countrymen to avoid a revolution they knew would end in decades of dictatorship, but that’s exactly the point. The average human is kind of an asshole, and there are billions who are worse than average. When change is made, all sorts of selfish people will make arrangements for the changes to benefit them rather than benefit the people who need it most.
Will the results of these solutions truly cause a lower temperature, or will they put stressors in America’s psyche? This country’s gone conservative my entire life plus fifteen years. All it took was Obama, just a half notch left of liberal, and after two generations of conservative repression, enough air leaks in that Obama’s wave of progress unleashed a new far-left-of-progressive idea about the intersection of politics and identity which may have revolutionized the world as completely as Marx revolutionized the world with class and Luther revolutionized with faith.
We think of Trump as the main event, but neither Trump nor any reactionary movement is the main event. The right-wing doesn’t believe in progress; reactionaries only react, they can’t produce. Ta-Nehisi Coates called Trump the ‘first white President’, and that’s exactly right. Trump is as much the product of identity politics as Bell Hooks and Ibram X. Kendi, just as Mussolini was as much the result of Marxism as Lenin, and Cesare Borgia the product of the Hussites as Martin Luther. That’s not to say that writers like Kimberle Crenshaw or Judith Butler are Lenin or Martin Luther, obviously they’re not even close, but a path toward some kind of revolutionary movement is clearly being paved as we speak.
There’s no such thing as Late Capitalism, capitalism is self-generating – the real permanent revolution from the bottom up; but Late Civilization is definitely a thing. When civilizations are blank slates no longer, when the rules and expectations and customs of a society are set in stone, so too are dynamism and movement. When a country’s too weighed down with traditions, no reform can happen, and revolutionary movements come along whose leftward drift self-generates as they realize how impossible reform is without blowing the whole thing up.
This is not the 1930s or 60s thank god. We did make progress, American society’s progress was bought with the destruction of Old Europe. Once the old order fell, we could make the world as a less despotic place. Abroad and at home, it’s much easier to remake the world when 200 million already died for it. But we, for the first time in US history, are now ‘Old America,’ and there may now be no chance for reform without blowing the whole thing up and starting from scratch.
We’ll obviously see soon enough if I’m right or if I’m just talking out my ass (yet again…), but if I know anything at all about history (and I probably don’t…), this din of internet voices from under-heard demographics will coalesce around a single revolutionary, who will be as bellicose and authoritarian as the movement began peaceable and conflict-resolving.
….I hope I’m wrong, and right or wrong I’d advise keep plowing ahead on reform rather than revolution, but if history is any guide, nobody gives a fuck what I think…