Much of the angst in the English-speaking world, from Trump to Brexit and everything in between, comes from the disillusionment that inevitably follows a spate of unwarranted optimism. “Irrational exuberance,” to quote Alan Greenspan’s famous phrase, has come to define the early 21st century, by which I mean the world since 1989.
For those who don’t know, historians generally divide the modern era into a “long 19th century,” stretching from the French Revolution to the end of WWI (1789-1917), and a “short 20th century,” from the Russian Revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall (1917-1989). Everything since has, historically speaking, been the 21st century, regardless of chronology.
The end of the Cold War was a big deal. A really big deal. It purportedly brought to a close roughly a thousand years of absolutely brutal intra-European conflict that, thanks to the post-Columbian conquests, eventually spread round the globe. I say purportedly because we can only view history from the moving platform of the present, which continually changes our point of view.
More importantly, the collapse of the Cold War ended the simmering stalemate that had governed international relations since 1945. Policymakers in the 20th century were petrified of change — see the “domino theory” — for fear that it would tip the balance of power in the wrong direction. The United States and her allies propped up numerous failing dictators simply to prevent those countries from having a historical moment that might go the wrong way.
It sounds like I am being critical. I am not. Communism was terrible for humanity, and I can prove it. History provided us with not one but two experiments, one in the East and one in the West. We took two previously stable nations and split them in half. We gave one side to communism and the other to democratic capitalism. The results were West Germany and North Korea.
The historical 21st century started when the balance of power — that simmering stalemate I mentioned — suddenly shifted. Within months of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iraq invaded Kuwait, proving that the desire for conquest had never abated. It had simply been put on hold.
Markets previously kept behind the Iron Curtain were suddenly opened. The globalized economy exploded, fed by the internet and an almost religious belief in deregulation. Smart people everywhere — particularly in the 90s — had a sense that humanity had turned a corner, that we’d narrowly avoided thermonuclear holocaust and were on a path to… well, if not utopia, at least something better than had ever existed before.
The smartest people in the world believed that. You saw it reflected in book titles, which reveal the latest intellectual fads. A whole spate came out declaring the “end” of everything: Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man,” Horgan’s “The End of Science,” and on and on. (“The End of…” was as popular a book title in the 90s as “The Girl…” is now — The Girl on the Train, The Girl with All the Gifts, Gone Girl, etc., which suggests a different cultural fixation.)
On 9/11/2001, history fought back. Freed from its chains to the world’s nuclear arsenal, War — which has characterized our species since its inception — returned as a way of life. During his final year in office, President Obama’s nominally peace-loving administration dropped over 16,300 precision-guided, high-yield bombs, or one every 30 minutes.
Capitalism, which seemed the only choice after communism, started to wobble, first with the collapse of Enron and WorldCom and then the entire housing market. Environmental decay escalated, as witnessed by Hurricane Katrina and the Fukushima disaster. Even the seemingly benign smart phone and internet revolution turned into an attack on democracy, the automated mass invasion of privacy — an organized conquest, to be sure, carried out with the tacit approval of world governments, who were never very fond of the idea to begin with.
More recently, we’ve discovered our racial woes have not, in fact, been quietly improving, despite every formal prohibition known to man. With the Iron Curtain lifted, people are free to move across borders in numbers never before contemplated. Since the 1990s, the United States has let in an average of one million people per year through legal migration, the largest by far of any period of this country’s history, eclipsing the previous boom years of 1880-1920.
I’m not suggesting that is good or bad. I’m simply describing the scale of human migration that has taken place, which is unprecedented.
Sovereign debt is soaring, the middle class is shrinking, and democracy itself is on the wane, experienced acutely in the U.S. — from the resurgence of gerrymandering in the late 90s, to the Patriot Act and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision — but also globally in, for example, the uncertain accomplishments of the Arab Spring, which reversed the revolutionary trend toward democracy seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It’s easy to pick a couple of bogeymen and elevate them to Cause status. (See the video below for one analysis.) But really, it’s not that things are terrible. As scholar Steven Pinker likes to point out, on almost any objective measure — real income, life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, violent deaths per 1,000 people, etc. — we’re still doing very well, far better than at any other era in history, which suggests the problem is one of expectation.
Maybe we shouldn’t have been quite so irrationally exuberant.
Not that optimism isn’t useful. Like democracy, it’s better than any of the alternatives. But progress requires optimism be tempered by practicality, an acknowledgement of the phantoms in our basement, which we inherited from the past, and of the cackling imps that hide under our hearts, the ones no one wants to believe live inside them. It’s always the other guys who are bad, never ourselves or our tribe — or if they are, it’s because the other guys started it!
In the old days, we blamed the devil. What we need now is a new narrative, a persistent totem that reminds us, continually, what paves the road to hell, that meaning well and doing good are not the same, and that if we actually care to make the world a better place, we need to do what does work, not what should.
On four possible causes of our historical moment: