Is this the best of times, or the worst of times?
Historian Michael Burleigh introduces his new book, The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: A History of Now.
Readers will be relieved to learn that the cover of my new book exactly reflects the content. So does the title. Though it derives from the long opening sentence of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, in fact I am drawing attention to this being cited by China’s president Xi Jinping when he spoke at the Davos summit in January.
As 2017 closes, Xi’s power has been consolidated and China’s economic and soft power is advancing by the day. He feels confident enough, with the erratic Trump and the wild card Putin, to suggest that China’s authoritarian Communist-capitalist model could be for export, at a time when the democracies are in disarray.
Dickens’s novel was nominally about the world-changing French Revolution, but he wrote it in 1859 when the first Industrial Revolution was at its height.
Xi knows that geopolitics are making China the next pre-eminent global power, and that advanced societies (which China is rapidly becoming) are feeling the effects of Industrial Revolution 4.0, the move towards AI and robotics.
This could be ‘the best of times’, in eliminating repetitive labour, with humans in a complementary relationship with ever more sophisticated machines, or in the ‘worst of times’, many of us could be the equivalent of horses, which after the first Industrial Revolution, essentially vanished as a source of power or mode of transport as old agricultural societies were transformed.
Some claim that when a rising power meets a declining one, conflict is as inevitable as the crunch of tectonic plates in geology. Maybe that will be the case, as it was in 1914 when an ascendant Imperial Germany bumped into a declining British Empire, though the earlier rise of the US did not result in such a clash with Britain.
For sure there are flashpoints where such a war could erupt, notably the multiple maritime disputes in the East and South China seas. But the Chinese are smart people, and they prefer to use economic and soft power, to draw others into their orbit, whether in Asia-Pacific or Europe, where freight trains (and container ships) arrive every day. By contrast, Donald Trump is destroying US power with almost every Tweet. When he pulls out of, or subverts, international agreements – from the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership and NAFTA, to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran – he effectively does Beijing’s work for it, almost propelling the EU and China closer together as powers interested in maintaining norms and rules governing the world order.
A re-assertive Russia is another complicating factor. Though it operates in tandem with China, which it fears too of course, it is also trying to subvert every rival bloc (subversively encouraging a divisive populism in the EU and US) while playing a weak hand well in such theatres as the Middle East, where Moscow is becoming the ‘go-to’ power. The book charts the rise of Putinism as a political phenomenon – a fusion of Russian nationalism, social conservatism and cutthroat capitalism - asking whether such an idiosyncratic system can survive when Putin finally decides to leave power.
My depictions of both the US – the ‘Noisy Nation’ – and the EU – ‘Empire of Virtue’ - are pretty bleak, though for many, but not all, of us life is pretty good in material terms. I argue that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the financial crash of 2008 were epochal events, undermining the credibility of swathes of our elites, especially among those who lost out from globalization. Many countries have regions that in Poland they call ‘Polska B’, in other words neglected, decaying and resentful rustbelts. These provide plenty of scope for charlatans and demagogues like Trump.
A raucous populism (whether on the anti-capitalist left or the nativist right) amplified by an online ‘mobocracy’ has no solutions to these problems beyond increasing taxes or expelling migrants. But I see few attempts to reimagine mainstream politics, which is why attempts at reinvigoration will ultimately fail. They do not even begin to address technological change which will destroy hundreds of occupations, and which could result in graduates leaving college straight into retirement. Who will pay them? What will they do with so much enforced leisure time?
Finally, a word about how one writes a ‘History of Now’, which sounds like a contradiction in terms, for history is the study of the past. In fact, I have included many reflections on how much deeper historical factors have shaped our bewildering present, and the thinking of the most powerful historical actors of our times. I have turned each country round like the segments in a Rubik’s Cube to see how they look out on their world. Sometimes I pause too to explore a particularly salient theme, like the brokering of TV celebrity into political power or how one magics up an island in the sea, to illustrate the broader themes on a human scale.
This prompts me to reflect throughout the book that history should be our teacher, often regarding what we should consciously avoid or forget, and never our master, in the sense of trapping us into ways of thinking that do not reflect what we need to do now. Maybe that’s the main ambition of the book. The first duty of any citizen is after all to be well-informed.