Given that today is the 20th anniversary of a pivotal event in history, perhaps some reflections on history are in order. But “optimism” is not the right word for it; neither is “pessimism”.

Certainly, if we emphasise the world wars, utopian thinking seems like hopeless naievete. If one is to consider what human nature is capable of, the lower bound is barely imaginable: Holocausts, pogroms, pillages, rape, torture, assassinations, massacres, genocides, and war upon war upon war — these are the fodder of history. It seems to me this is less appreciated than it should be. Among conservatives and capitalists, for instance, we often hear the argument that human nature is so bad that we cannot hope for anything else. But if they really appreciated how bad human nature can be, they would live in perpetual astonishment that we have what we have today. Those who truly understand the horrors of the human species and think they are unavoidable should not be conservative, or capitalist, but Hobbesian, monarchist, or fascist. I would agree that human institutions are established and upheld by fallible and corruptible humans — but more: by murderous, vengeful, aggressive, malicious humans.

On the other hand, the range of freedoms, level of civilization, and social development achieved today would be scarcely imaginable half a century ago — and entirely alien to society a century ago. This is not merely a statement about technology, but about attitudes and general social progress. And so on: the general position a century ago would be unimaginable a couple of centuries before that. For most of human history, any notion of governance other than absolute tyranny would be considered a naive pipe dream; any notion of individual freedom an unattainable and indulgent luxury; and any notion of social equality pure treason to the tribe, or caste, or class, or race, or nation. And more, we see a steady growth in the range of beings considered worthy, or “us”, or worth defending: from the family, or tribe, to the village, the nation or race, to the civilization, to the entire world. Of course there are exceptions — exceptions spelt out in destruction and broken lives — but I find this identifiable.

A generally positive trend of course does not imply that we are approaching utopia. One may easily note that some of the greatest advances follow the greatest catastrophes — the UN after the Holocaust and the second world war; government stabilization of the economy after the Great Depression; socialist revolutions erupting out of war; monarchies overthrown out of hunger; right back to the Persian invasion uniting the ancient Greeks and further. The next catastrophes which, on a sober analysis, seem quite likely to occur — vast global climate change and the end of oil — and those which are still highly possible, like global nuclear war — are of such an order that we barely know if the human race will come out of it with any civilization intact. If we do, I would imagine that an improved social and political order would follow; but this seems to me by no means a likely outcome.

To ask what the human race is capable of, it seems to me not a complete answer to say we are horrible. We are, but we got this far, somehow. I see no reason why we cannot go further. Moreover, it’s trite to point out how fast society changes today, and that society is changing ever more quickly. The only thing we can say about the world a decade or more from now is that it will be vastly, even unimaginably different.

At least as far as economic institutions are concerned, the general pessimism has a clearly identifiable historical cause: indeed today it is the 20th anniversary of it. The horrors of the systems and governments that claimed to be “socialist” and offer the better alternative to capitalism are well known. Their collapse means that no alternative to capitalism appears to exist. (It does, but we have to look harder.) And their (false, in my view) claim to the label of “socialist” means that even to talk about a better system than capitalism is to enter a linguistic, definitional, and substantive political minefield.

The only scientific response we can give (if one were at all possible) to the question of what social systems are compatible with human nature is that we have no idea. We know some lower bounds but have no clue as to upper bounds. It seems clear that human tendencies and potentials may or may not flourish depending upon the environment, the institutions in which they develop — we do not know how far. We can say that human nature is capable of supporting vastly morally and politically better systems than have been thought possible for most of history. Moreover we have multiple previous instances of false announcements of the “end of history”. It would be extraordinary if that were actually the case today.

Can our “collective egoism” be transcended? Of course we all hope so. But we have no idea. All we can say maybe is that the collective of the egoism does seem to be historically broadening in scope — and, probably, largely due to social movements against war and for international solidarity. In truth we have very little evidence as to how human beings would live in a democratic, participatory economy, free of the authority of the boss, of the shareholder, greed, the profit motive, the authoritarianism of property, and all the deadening and infantilizing pressures and incentives that come with a market system. Such a situation has barely ever existed. We have some evidence that it is possible, from a few isolated historical examples, usually crushed by military force at the disposal of power.

And so it does not seem that history has foreclosed on us yet. I would say there is still a light upon the hill.

But still I would say that human history is not necessarily a staircase to utopia. It does not automatically progress; on the contrary. It is made by women and men, who make choices about how they act and how they live their lives. The trajectory of a society can be changed, or perhaps, perturbed from its orbit; existing habits and institutions exercise a stranglehold over much of how people act and think. Marx seems right when he says that “Men [and Women!] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” But they must make it; it is not done for them, and it is their struggle to do so.

In the case of those seeking a better economic system, reflecting on the 20th century, and its culmination in the events of 20 years ago today, again to paraphrase Marx, the weight of history hangs like a nightmare over the brains of the living.

Of course we can only be glad at the fall of the authoritarian communist regimes. We are glad they are gone. But today, a day of capitalist triumphalism, relentlessly repeating that greed has conquered the earth, is not a day for optimism. And, on any rational analysis, optimism is hard to find. Rationally speaking, the human race usually appears (and is) headed towards disaster.

But if we do not force ourselves into an optimistic orientation, we guarantee the worst. This is Gramsci’s optimism of the will.

Looked at another way, the potentials are clear. We have the technology to avert catastrophic global warming; we just need to implement it. We have technology progressing beyond our comprehension. We have a world fed up with capitalism, and yearning for something more: everywhere we look, in mainstream thought but even in popular culture, figures of power are demons and their system is leading us to doom. The institutions of global capitalism are no more than a few decades old, they are historically young. We have increasingly unified movements to oppose them, in spite of a vast propaganda apparatus to the contrary. We need a vision of what we want to achieve in this wondrous, still-young world, and then we can go out and build it for all the world.

if we make it out of this century intact, who knows what we may achieve? It seems to me, therefore, imperative to ensure that we do.

Reflections on history
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