The end of the Universalist nightmare will be intrinsically perplexing:
Whether the emerging global system becomes multipolar or a-polar remains unclear, but universalist and messianic ideology is on the wane. The Western-led world order is in crisis, but no messianic ideology has yet offered an alternative. Instead, a drift towards regionalism has increased the influence of small powers amidst the chaos of a profound geopolitical transformation. The post-Western world looks to become post-ideological, too. Even Donald Trump’s administration has embraced a form of American exceptionalism shorn of globalizing and messianic goals. […] A century after their birth, Wilson’s and Lenin’s messianic geopolitical visions have passed into history, but their disappearance has also greatly complicated making sense of a world in the process of rapid fragmentation.
Thinking in pieces and patches begins.
The idea that European political fragmentation, despite its evident costs, also brought great benefits, enjoys a distinguished lineage. In the closing chapter of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789), Edward Gibbon wrote: ‘Europe is now divided into 12 powerful, though unequal, kingdoms.’ Three of them he called ‘respectable commonwealths’, the rest ‘a variety of smaller, though independent, states’. The ‘abuses of tyranny are restrained by the mutual influence of fear and shame’, Gibbon wrote, adding that ‘republics have acquired order and stability; monarchies have imbibed the principles of freedom, or, at least, of moderation; and some sense of honour and justice is introduced into the most defective constitutions by the general manners of the times.’ […] In other words, the rivalries between the states, and their examples to one another, also meliorated some of the worst possibilities of political authoritarianism. Gibbon added that ‘in peace, the progress of knowledge and industry is accelerated by the emulation of so many active rivals’. Other Enlightenment writers, David Hume and Immanuel Kant for example, saw it the same way. From the early 18th-century reforms of Russia’s Peter the Great, to the United States’ panicked technological mobilisation in response to the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, interstate competition was a powerful economic mover. More important, perhaps, the ‘states system’ constrained the ability of political and religious authorities to control intellectual innovation. If conservative rulers clamped down on heretical and subversive (that is, original and creative) thought, their smartest citizens would just go elsewhere (as many of them, indeed, did).
Political disintegration combined with cultural-market integration was the key.
In 18th-century Europe, the interplay between pure science and the work of engineers and mechanics became progressively stronger. This interaction of propositional knowledge (knowledge of ‘what’) and prescriptive knowledge (knowledge of ‘how’) constituted a positive feedback or autocatalytic model. In such systems, once the process gets underway, it can become self-propelled. In that sense, knowledge-based growth is one of the most persistent of all historical phenomena – though the conditions of its persistence are complex and require above all a competitive and open market for ideas.
Timothy Garton Ash on Europe today:
Had I been cryogenically frozen in January 2005, I would have gone to my provisional rest as a happy European. … […] … Cryogenically reanimated in January 2017, I would immediately have died again from shock. For now there is crisis and disintegration wherever I look …
Some basic realism from John Gray:
In Europe, the impact of Trump’s election can only be to accelerate disintegration.
As Donald Trump’s shock election victory reverberated around Silicon Valley late on Tuesday night, some high-profile technologists were already calling for California to secede from the United States. …
Why did the Industrial Revolution happen in Europe, rather than China? Joel Mokyr thinks fragmentation was the key:
In Europe, no one ever succeeds in unifying it, and you have continuous competition. The French are worried about the English, the English are worried about the Spanish, the Spanish are worried about the Turks. That keeps everybody on their toes, which is something economists immediately recognize as the competitive model. To have progress, you want a system that is competitive, not one that is dominated by a single power. […] I think that is the major difference. It isn’t just that China doesn’t have an Industrial Revolution, it doesn’t have a Galileo or a Newton or a Descartes, people who announced that everything people did before them was wrong. That’s hard to do in any society, but it was easier to do in Europe than China. The reason precisely is because Europe was fragmented, and so when somebody says something very novel and radical, if the government decides they are a heretic and threatens to prosecute them, they pack their suitcase and go across the border.
Unity is a decelerator.
Kevin Rudd in The Guardian:
The slow, but steady decline of the UN, and the wider multilateral system which has the UN as its foundation, would be catastrophic for an increasingly unstable world. The peoples of the world, in one way or another, are increasingly asking the question: “Is anybody in control anymore?” when they see growing disagreement among the great powers, the re-emergence of old inter-state conflicts, terrorists on their streets, chaos in their markets, and jobs disappearing with nothing to replace them. People are questioning whether we are beginning to see the beginning of a deeper crisis in the foundations of the overall post-war order itself.
[Sarcastically derisive editorial comment deleted]
Leftism isn’t going to stop. (Best to give it places it can do Utopia with that won’t get in the way of anything important.)
This is basically right:
The television era was about globalism, international cooperation, and the open society. TV let people see for the first time what was happening in other places, often live, as it happened. We watched the Olympics, together, by satellite. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Even 9-11 was a simultaneously experienced, global event.
Television connected us all and broke down national boundaries. Whether it was the British Beatles playing on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York or the California beach bodies of Baywatch broadcast in Pakistan, television images penetrated national divisions. I interviewed Nelson Mandela in 1994, and he told me that MTV and CNN had more to do with ending the divisions of apartheid than any other force.
But today’s digital media environment is different. …
More on Internet-driven reality shopping, and ideologically-loaded cultural speciation:
It is the beauty and the tragedy of the Internet age. As it becomes easier for anyone to build their own audience, it becomes harder for those audience members to separate fact from fiction from the gray area in between. As media consumers, we now have the freedom to self-select the truth that most closely resembles our existing beliefs, which makes our media habits fairly good indicators of our political beliefs. If your top news source is CNN, for instance, studies show you’re more likely to be liberal. If local radio and TV figure prominently in your news habits, you’re more likely to be conservative. […] Meanwhile, since the early 2000s, the American National Election Studies show that partisanship in the US has spiked drastically, with Americans on either side of the aisle harboring ever colder feelings about their political opponents. It’s hard to prove the country’s increasingly polarized media habits had anything to do with that, but it’s also hard to believe the two trends are unrelated. The country is being fed wildly different stories, all from media outlets claiming the other side is biased.
Media revolutions break things up. At least, the printing press did.