“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.” So the saying goes in an essay I read a short time ago. The article is about the rise of nation states, the separation of church from the state and the placing of the kings under law – all of it at least in theory, in practice the whole thirty years war leading to the Peace of Westphalia was messier. And it’s about their collapse, as a world order founded almost four-hundred years ago breaks down around us all.
While history now is not repeating itself, it certainly does appear to be rhyming. The points are interesting: comparing the establishment Catholics with their twenty-five year round-table, the Council of Trent, to the new nobility at Davos World Economic Forum – shorter, we have terrible attention spans these days and always have someplace else to be, where the medieval Catholics probably were fine wasting a quarter century on a meeting. What else were they doing anyhow? The Protestants are the “Tea Party” or the “Resistance” I suppose; Gutenberg becomes cyberspace; of course in this picture I’m terrified to ask, who is Frederick V? Has the war only started? And who will bring about our new peace?
Westphalia, its enlightenment and reformation and renaissance were profoundly liberal – the expansion of access to knowledge and new rights; the containing of the kings and nobles; the advance of literacy and prosperity; more importantly, at long last the mastery of man over himself, self-ownership – responsible only to his reason and his discipline, drawn together in a ‘modern’ world that he was stitching together using pieces of a fabric frayed by a thousand years of war and poverty.
Modernity brought us eventually art and literature and science; man on the moon, nuclear fusion, light at the flick of a switch, controlling our environments – even in Africa – the cat scan and MRI, measles vaccines. The computer and the internet. Tools product of the opening of the human mind.
But what happens when that mind closes? Post-modernity is shaping up to be remarkably illiberal. We lost our nerve, our confidence, our discipline – started throwing bad money after good: layer after layer of debt paving over the ruins of institutions that no longer even bother trying. Why would they? It never worked for most folks anyway, they did not prove sustainable – those systems built painstakingly over time. Tools of oppression, they are now called – although that was never the intent. Anti-trade, elitist – new nobilities all over, fighting for their lives. Totalitarian religion – again. This time a different religion, but with the same problems. Replacing fact with feeling; debate with canons; investigation with doctrine – “nasty little orthodoxies” protected by thought police controlling our centers of learning. The death of truth and fact and objectivity – our Westphalian nation states are tired and burned out; political innovations that brought us democracy also brought us constipated congresses unable to make decisions and constituencies unable to think about the common good, the long game, or entertain the idea of sacrifice. And why should they? When it is always they who have been asked to sacrifice – to give their lives for the nobilities who prefer to eat in Paris, France than Paris, Idaho; of course within the ring, tourists snapping pictures of the Eiffel tower trying to ignore the soldiers.
None of this is a recipe for a successful period in human history. But nobody knows what will happen – how it will turn out, although if our new philosophers with their new philosophies are any indication, it will be a dark period indeed. “If the timeline leading up to Westphalia is even an approximate indication, the question of what the new world will look like is for people just being born today to explore. The Hobbes and Rousseaus of the internet era are still in diapers. The adults of today can at best provide live commentary for them to study in 2048.”
That commentary is being written online – and in tremendous quantities. While the nobles grasp white-knuckled to their crumbling institutions, their decrepit creaking countries, their debt-ridden under-performing services – their propaganda powering into high gear – the men and women who will remake the world, boys and girls really, have already begun. “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.” As John Perry Barlow has said in his “Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace” (sort of a 95 thesis for the digital age). The obvious problem with this is that cyberspace is a vehicle, a tool and a medium. It depends on the minds of those who engage in her. Those people – children now – need more than ever the perspective of history and civilization and culture, classical knowledge and education to understand their past so they can write the future.
Denied truth and understanding, what kind of world will they build? That, I suppose, is the real question.