We live in the age of… well, of many things. Post-factual or post-truth politics, extremism, demagogues, ethnic tensions, religious tensions, political Islam, the refugee crisis, the Euro crisis, the Greek debt crisis, Brexit, Web 2.0, Cyber warfare, Donald Trump, Erdogan, Putin, Merkel. One cannot help but wonder whether it is time to abandon, if not all, many well-established political thoughts, theories, and ideas. If the world has changed as much as it seems, they are perhaps useless or, even more problematic, misleading.
There are different approaches to read and structure history. Some identify corner stones/landmark events without trying to deduct any forecasts, some identify circles of constant progress and decline (e.g. Neil Howe and William Strauss, who inspired Steve Bannon), others think of it as continuous progress (Hegel and the Whig historiography or, more recently, Steven Pinker in his book on Violence).
Regardless of the mindset one adopts, history is a battlefield. It can be a great teacher but also, if improperly used, perhaps deliberately abused, worsen our decision-making capabilities by distracting us from pressing problems and by cementing false narratives.
Looking back may thus be a source of tranquility or of calamity. One may cite past episodes as a reminder that the world was about to end or at least fall into dispair before. Doomsday was here already, and not only once. Remember when we were afraid that the Y2K bug would trigger nuclear warheads? That the world was holding its breath during the Cuba missile crisis? Remember how often economists said that hyperinflation was only a matter of months and that the Euro would soon crash? The alarming news on the forest dieback? That already ancient philosophers lamented the breakdown of values and virtue among the youth?
History reapeats itself says a common phrase. It may sound cunning, but actually it does not say a lot. If you keep searching, if you are are ready to look only superficially or to exaggerate, if you creatively (mis-)construe the past, you will always find historic similarities. In this sense, „history repeating“ merely shows what you are focusing on right now. If you are worried about ethnic tensions and the influx of refugees, you may draw parallels to the last days of (decadent) Rome. Racism and the hostilities towards Muslim as a return of the ghosts of Germany’s or Austria’s Nazi past (I’ve never liked the comparison between Islamophobia and hatred against jews; it’s degrading the latter’s fate). If you fear hyperinflation or an economic crash in general, you may cite the Tulip mania during the 1630s. The list could go on endlessly, the bazaar of fear and sorrows is well-stocked these days.
At the same time, one may reject such thoughts and go into the opposite direction by asking whether we are we living in an entirely new and unparalleled age. (obviously, the fact that this has been done before does not change the answer; it may well be the case that the world has fundamentally changed twice, three times or a hundred times already). Just like one will always find parallels, one may also look for the hitherto unknown, the unprecedented: The internet in general and Web 2.0 in particular. The entirely new level of economic and social inter-connectedness, also known as globalization. The rise of Islamic terrorism along (which is indeed different from previous forms of terror, in particular by focusing on the civil population as such and not selected targets such as political or other leaders) with (modern) political Islam and the growth of the Muslim population in many European countries, many of them politically, socially, and culturally alienated. Global military and economic competition. Rapid technological progress, be it artificial intelligence or biomedicine (we are distubingly close to „design“ babies or „produce“ human organs). The end of borders, at least as we know it. The breakup of states, often former colonies or otherwise non-independent, throughout the Middle East or Sub-Saharan Africa after the demise of authoritarian regimes and the resulting flows of people trying to enter Europe. The steady increase in the number of states, from around 60 after World War II to 193 (or arguably more, if one counts non-UN members such as the Turkish Republic of Nothern Cyprus, Palestine, or Kosovo). The world is no longer dominated by European (geographically or, in the case of the US, culturally) states as it has been throughout the modern era starting with the peace of Westphalia but composed of various sub-centers circling around geographical powers. We already live in an age of multi-polarity, or even global anarchy, feared among strategists, some just don’t want to see it.
This is where things get tricky. We can only try to transplant political thought from earlier times and framed in different political contexts (e.g. the European balance of power approach from Europe to the world as a whole) to the contemporary political landscape. Mutatis mutandis, adapted to the different circumstances of course, but still. If everything has been said, we can only try to figure out what Montesqieu, Hegel, Rousseau, or Kant can tell us in the year 2017; not much, perhaps, but better than nothing: we need orientation and where else to look at then past ideas and concepts?
The old order is no more, its last remnants are evaporating rapidly. We can obviously neither re-erect it nor start from scratch. There are no alternatives to using old theories and thoughts. Yet, we need to be aware that applying history’s lessons to the present can only take us this far. The Age of Extremes, to borrow from Eric Hobsbawm, has never been over, the extremes were never gone. Even more, they altered their appearance and, in so doing, they have become even more extreme. There will always be limits in what we know and what we can know. Uncertainty and its little cousin skepticism reign. At a certain point in time, however, what may now feel daunting or overwhelming will probably have evolved into the (new) normal. In hindsight, the past is pleasantly predictable.