History Not Repeating Itself

by stephenpalmersf

“We think as progress being a straight line forever upwards,” said Atwood. “But it never has been so, you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then – bang – you’re Hitler’s Germany. That can happen very suddenly.” – Margaret Atwood, The Guardian, 13 February.

In this blog post I want to write about a couple of the points made above – (i) that progress is a ‘straight line upwards’ and that (ii) a fascist dictatorship could suddenly appear. Margaret Atwood is of course the highly lauded author of such classics as The Handmaid’s Tale (in which context she was speaking in the above quote), The Blind Assassin, Oryx & Crake, and other excellent books.

A “bubbling up of Puritan values” as Atwood put it in the Guardian article isn’t quite the same thing as preparing for the arrival of a fascist dictatorship, but I don’t think she was necessarily saying one will lead to the other. What interests me is the notion – widely discussed and widely believed in liberal, free-thinking democracies – that it is possible for a new fascist dictatorship to arise. I think the chances are massively against this.

Admittedly, I was thinking of the West when I began pondering. China is hardly a model of democratic values, as are many other countries around the world. But Atwood’s outstanding work The Handmaid’s Tale is American through and through.

I think there is one main factor stopping a new fascist dictatorship from getting power – the post-war shrinking of the world and the subsequent arrival of the internet.

In other blog posts I’ve been quite negative about the internet, but I don’t think it’s all bad. What makes the big change for the West since 1945 is the improved condition of politics, media and social life. We as individual nations are much more intimate with one another than we used to be. In the 1920s and 1930s the internal state of Germany or France was far less knowable to the average British or American person. There was no television and little radio, the main news source being newspapers, all of whom were as biased (or opinionated) as they are today. But now any small political event in France is immediately known around the world. We have billions of photographs of such countries, of their landscapes, peoples and cultures. As individuals we know far more about France or Germany than we ever did when Hitler was consolidating his position. There are more words, more images, more video clips, more webcams.

I think this is why a fascist dictatorship will never again rise in the West, unless there is some catastrophic event like a nuclear war involving us. In this post-1945 case, I do think the lesson of history has for once been learned. The irony is however that the increase in ‘national intimacy’ has been accompanied by a reduction in individual, human connection – with other individuals, with communities, with societies; and this I think is to do with the increasing role of technology, not least the internet, in our lives.

Could Atwood’s first point be wrong though? If progress is not a ‘straight line upward’ then a new Dark Ages (not that the original Dark Ages were dark, but let’s use the term generally) could lie in the future. But might that be the case?

In my opinion progress is a straight line upward if you look over a long enough time scale. The time scale I’d like to suggest is 40,000 years.

That may not seem a particularly relevant time scale, but hold on a moment… The aspect of human cultural development that I want to focus on is how we interact with the real world – what sort of relationship we have with it. 40,000 years ago this was likely a shamanistic, animistic, magical-thinking kind of relationship, when human beings imagined that objects, aspects of the environment and imaginary places were full of spirits. Much later, after the end of the Ice Age and with the arrival of agriculture, animal husbandry and settlements in the Near East, those religious notions changed. Later on they changed again, to the Abrahamic monotheistic religions of the modern West. Then, about half a millennium ago, the crucial change occurred, as the scientific method led to an understanding that the real world is independent of human imagination. This change freed human beings at last to view the real world as it is – through their own filters, yes, but on the assumption that the real world is independent of human beings and has to be tested in order to find things out about it.

This is what I mean by a line of progress. We’ve gone from imagining that spirits exist in trees, rocks and rivers, through imagining that gods live in the skies and beneath the ground, through imagining one god somewhere in the universe, to realising that the universe came about regardless of our myths and legends. We know that the universe is independent of us.

We can apply this progress to thinking about the long-term future. I personally don’t think cultures, when taken over long periods of time, do revert to more primitive (eg fascist) states, though I think that might, perhaps, be possible in some limited circumstances such as nuclear war. But in a nutshell – we can’t unlearn what we know now. We know too much, even though what remains unknown is vast. We know too much to revert to imaginary concepts. We know too much about human biological evolution and human cultural evolution – and most importantly of all, we are at last beginning to understand the true nature of consciousness and the human condition. All this, I think, can never be unlearned.