What always irritated me the most about Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis was not the way it reinforced the idea that “there is no alternative” to neoliberalism. Rather, it was the way it suggested that there was some fundamental difference between Us and Every Single Person Who Lived Before Us. We are the Present and they are History. Even as Fukuyama strongly rejected criticisms of his book, which he felt misunderstood his point, he was quite clear that there was some fundamental difference between events as we experience them and events as they used to be:
What I suggested had come to an end was not events, even large and grave events, but History: that is, history understood as a single, coherent, evolutionary process, when taking into account the experience of all peoples in all times.
This annoyed me so much in part because it’s so easy to believe. The figures of history do seem quite unlike ourselves. It’s hard to believe that Socrates or Cleopatra or Marx ate, slept, and shat just the same way we do. I mean, it can be difficult enough to empathize with people who are alive today. It’s even harder—for me, at least—to fully appreciate that previous “presents” were just as present as our own.
When I look at our time, I try to look at it the way we look at ancient civilizations. Let’s assume that human beings will be around for another several thousand years at least. What do we look like to them? Clearly the idea that we were somehow uniquely different from those a hundred years before us will seem ludicrous to them, no matter what happens or doesn’t happen over the next several millennia. There are a few things I always wonder: Which things that we cared a lot about will seem completely trivial? And which things will it seem extraordinary not to have cared about? If I had to predict, I’d say that they’d be amazed we spent so much time talking about Paul Manafort and Michael Avenatti even as we tortured billions of animals to death and stood by watching the planet boil. Animal welfare, climate change, nuclear weapons, borders–our failures to do anything on these fronts will seem like a deep moral deficiency.
Understanding yourself as a person in history confers a great sense of responsibility. It’s interesting to daydream about questions like “If you had been alive in 1922, and had the freedom to act, what would you do to prevent the rise of Hitler?” What would you have done had you been alive in Time & Place X, Y, or Z? Now, the question doesn’t really make much sense, since “who you are” comes from the fact that you’re here, now, and have lived the life you’ve lived instead of some other life. But the exercise is still useful even if we can’t suspend the laws of the universe, because in some ways we have been plopped down in history and do face that exact question. Given that you are here, in a particular moment and place, an unchangeable past behind you and an unknowable future before you, what will you do? Any life is a historical blip (as Craig Ferguson says, your lifespan is two numbers separated by a hyphen, and this is the hyphen), and as individuals we almost certainly can’t change the course of history alone. But the decisions people make do matter.
One of history’s main lessons is “don’t be the person who grudgingly accepts the inevitability of atrocious things.” The liberals who cautioned Martin Luther King to “go slow” were cowards, and the civil rights protesters changed the country by refusing to tolerate the intolerable. The people who gathered and attacked the first black family who moved to Cicero, Illinois… these were not the people you want to be. Same with the ordinary Germans who were afraid to speak up each contributed to a human catastrophe, and today we admire those like Sophie Scholl and the Man Who Wouldn’t Heil. (He has an equivalent today: Jordan Blue, the bullied gay student who refused to participate when his fellow students all decided to do the Nazi salute.) The “good men who do nothing” are not very good at all, because being good in part depends on what you do in response to your circumstances.
I am not saying that “everyone must be an activist.” Many people do not have the time or health. But I do think knowledge confers duty: As we try to look at our lives from the perspective of future people, aliens, or ourselves on our deathbeds, what decisions do we think we should make? I am not religious, but I often wonder how I would “justify myself” if there were a day of judgment. What were you for? What good were you? Did you sit idly by? I believe strongly that life should be full of pleasure, and that there’s nothing helpful about living every day wracked with guilt over things you haven’t done. But I also know that history doesn’t just happen. It’s made by the sum total of the things people do, and I am a person, and you are a person, and we are the ones who decide what we do. 62,000 people lived rather than died because Carl Lutz was a good person who used his opportunities well. Because we are limited by our context, we each have constraints to our actions (I cannot go back and become Carl Lutz), but those constraints are also unknowable, and the only way to guarantee that a project fails is to resign yourself to its failure.
Try to look at our time as an outsider rather than a participant, and you’ll see how mad it all looks. These days, parts of the conservative press have switched from denying that climate change is happening to insisting that it won’t substantially impede GDP growth. The Wall Street Journal ran a column recently insisting that NINE DEGREES of average warming would be fine, because the economy could still expand. Did the article give any consideration to the billions of lives that would be disrupted, the refugees that would be generated, the people who would burn alive in new fires, or see their cities flooded? It didn’t. The right-wing press is pathological: growth at all costs, without ever wondering where it will stop or how you can have limitless expansion on a finite planet. Capitalism is a “paperclip maximizer“: It eats everything alive, and makes up whatever arguments are necessary to justify the ceaseless quest for maximizing productivity and revenue. It will do so even if it inflicts mass human suffering. What will this look like in the rear view mirror? How will we see columns that said the god of “GDP” must be served no matter the cost, that it is okay to kill every coral reef on earth if we can keep building new factories? I feel this will look like an age of lunacy, like we were members of a death-cult that made up rationalizations for its own destruction.
In a way, though, you and I are fortunate to live at this particular moment. If you are reading Current Affairs, you are better off than nearly everyone who has ever lived, and not just because this is such a fine magazine. By saying “you’re better off” I don’t mean to sound like Steven Pinker. Instead, I mean what Terry Eagleton means when he says that “A socialist is just someone who is unable to get over his or her astonishment that most people who have lived and died have spent lives of wretched, fruitless, unremitting toil.” Most human lives have been unremitting toil. Some have been nonstop pain and suffering. Your toil has at least remitted for the time it takes to read this article. (Unless you are our copy editor, Eli Massey, for whom reading this article is the toil.) We live comparatively privileged lives: Chattel slavery is no longer legal (though slavery is still present around the world), people live longer, there is less torture. Yet we also face serious existential problems that prior generations did not face: Will we be able to keep our planet alive? Will we be able to permanently prevent the use of civilization-destroying weapons? We have the curse of living in interesting times: you have had the misfortune to be born at a critical moment, when what is done right now will matter quite a lot. Climate change was barely discussed by Democratic candidates in 2016. Now Californians are being burned alive in record numbers.
What would you do if you found yourself dumped arbitrarily into a particular historical moment, and had to do your best to steer things along the right course, given your limited powers? Well, that’s exactly what has happened. Here we are, in the pages of history, our actions writing the chapters. What are we going to do?
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