Is this the end of “The End of History” ?
The 2020s started off with a global pandemic and now a major war, two black swan events. Could this be the official end to “The End of History,” a political concept that is most often associated with the book that Francis Fukuyama wrote after the end of the Cold War? Fukuyama argued that not only was liberal democracy ascendent, having achieved total hegemony, but that its success was because it was the perfect system that could stand the test of time and triumph over historical cycles. There was a moment in the 90s where this seemed to be the case and politics felt like a side note.
One could make the case that illusions of an “End of History” were shattered by 9/11, but for the most part, the first two decades of the 21st Century were more stagnant than chaotic. Most Americans did not feel directly impacted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even with the 2008 financial crisis, a potential depression was diverted by the bailouts, and the economy was propped up by stock buybacks, printing by the Fed, and quantitative easing. The same applied to politics with Occupy Wall Street fizzling out to be co-opted by woke politics, and later Bernie Sanders’ leftwing populist movement being co-opted by woke politics and MAGA becoming conservatism with edgier rhetoric.
The prophet of despair, Michel Houellebecq, predicted that post pandemic life would be “the same but worse.” Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have alternated between feeling that society was headed towards collapse and agreeing with Houellebecq, in that post pandemic life would just be a worse version of the 2010s. Basically that inequality and societal ills would get worse but society would remain semi-functional. While the early stage of covid and the following civil unrest felt apocalyptic, by the fall of 2020 and into 2021, even taking into account January 6th, there seemed to be some semblance of normalcy. Even prior to the pandemic, Trump bringing the US close to conflict with Iran ended up deescalating.
There was talk of a pandemic economic recovery, despite soaring income inequality, and the election of Biden was a sign that the establishment had consolidated power. Now Biden appears ineffective as a leader in time of crisis, with plummeting approval ratings. The talk of a return to normalcy after Trump and covid was insulting to those who were disaffected or in despair, even from a leftwing standpoint of social justice. Trump was neither a hero or savior nor a tyrant but rather a symbol that there is no return to normalcy.
There are measurements of historical cycles, such as the Fourth Turning theory introduced in the book by Neil Howe and Bill Strauss, that American history unfolds in boom-to-bust cycles of roughly 80 years. The book predicted in 1997 that the 2020s would be an extremely chaotic and volatile decade. Besides the Fourth Turning, evolutionary anthropologist, Peter Turchin, has extensive research on how cycles of societal crisis can be measured by a number of factors and also predicted that the 2020s would be chaotic. The 80s and 90s were eras of prosperity, then the first two decades of the 21th Century were an era of stagnation, and now it seems that we are entering an era of extreme chaos.
There is a psychological component to how people respond to these boom and bust cycles. There is an element of excitement during chaos, which reflects upon the human psyche and the way media cycles exploit and profit from crisis. We are living in Jean Baudrillard’s Simulation, experiencing the world via media, where the perpetrators and victims of war exist as NPCs in a videogame simulation. Empathy is in short supply and what is reality is questionable. Unlike Fukuyama, “Baudrillard averred that this end should not be understood as the culmination of history's progress, but as the collapse of the very idea of historical progress.”
However, this goes beyond morbid entertainment derived from the suffering of others. Crisis can be good for mental health, as US suicides declined during the pandemic, after peaking in 2018. In crisis there is a sense of shared suffering and sacrifice. There is also the ideology of accelerationism which has both a political and psychological component. Hoping for a societal collapse can be a cope, as many peoples’ lives are so empty. If one’s own life is in chaos, there is a psychological need to find solace in the world also being in chaos. There is something really depressing about stagnation on the human psyche as we saw in Japan, after their financial crisis in the late 90s. Japan’s financial crash was followed by stagnation, a lost decade, rather than collapse and suicide rates accelerated. There are parallels to what happened in the US during the 2010s when deaths of despair accelerated. It is despair but without the dopamine hits that come from chaos. Tragedies and crisis such as wars can, unfortunately, psychologically and spiritually rejuvenate a civilization.
While there is declining trust in institutions and in a stable society, the masses are conditioned to believe that history can’t happen to them. War, famine, and economic collapse only happen in history or to people in far off lands. What is significant about the Ukraine conflict is its proximity to wealthy western nations. Regardless of whether collapse is a cope or not, all the major signs are pointing to a chaotic next decade. Besides the Ukraine War itself, there are expected to be severe supply chain shortages in wheat, fertilizer, natural gas, oil, and mineral resources. This will have a ripple effect on the rest of the world with dangers of famine in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. These shortages could spark conflict in volatile regions such as the Middle East, as wheat shortages from Ukraine contributed to the Arab Spring. We could also see civil unrest in Europe, which is impacted by fuel shortages from Russia. There are also immense economic ramifications from the potential of cyber warfare.
Despite there being prior signs of economic volatility, the media is conveniently blaming the economic crisis on Russia, with CBS News stating that “The U.S. economy has been hit with increased gas prices, inflation, and supply-chain issues due to the Ukraine crisis.” As recently as January, JP Morgan Chase’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, was bosting of the best economic growth in decades. The narrative about the Biden boom is no longer viable and there has been a shift to demanding that Americans must accept higher prices and inflation as a patriotic and moral sacrifice.
While Financial Youtubers can be overly sensationalistic for click bait, there are clear signs that we are facing an economic catastrophe. Inflation is at a 40 year high, the stock market is in a super bubble and has already entered a bear market. The Ukraine conflict and the massive increase in the military budget could mean more inflation, a delay in the Fed raising interest rates, which could cause a short term rally in stocks, further expanding the bubble. The bigger the bubble, the worse inflation gets, and the longer the Fed keeps delaying raising rates, the worse the crash will be down the road. Also hyperinflation means that the stock buybacks, printing and quantitative easing that propped up the economy after the 2008 financial crash and the very brief covid crash, won’t be an option. This plus the food and fuel shortages mean a heightened probability of a severe recession, and possibly a depression. Just look at how homelessness and crime dramatically rose when the economy was supposedly doing great. If an economic collapse were to happen, expect chaos, as levels of social trust are much lower than they were during the great depression.
Different political groups naively assume that they will benefit from the incoming collapse. However, those who have the most power and resources under the existing order would clearly have the upper hand in a crisis. As we saw with covid, the establishment could take advantage of mass panic and hysteria to restrict the rights of citizens and to justify their power. The draconian crackdowns to control the narrative and the collective punishment against Russian civilians symbolize that liberal democracy needs illiberal means to maintain hegemony.
We can speculate the many hypothetical post-collapse scenarios, ranging from the elites consolidating power in a Great Reset, to hypothetical populist, nationalist or socialist uprisings, or to a breakdown of mass society into neo-tribalism and enclavism, which is what I would hedge my bets on. The rise in conspiracy theories are often a sign of the winter of civilization, going back to the fall of Ancient Rome. Perhaps we might see a return to the center-left center-right consensus of the Clinton and Bush eras, as war tends to benefit the establishment. War can be used as a distraction from domestic problems but America is too divided and disaffected for there to be any kind of unified patriotism, like there was during the Cold War and after 9/11. While war can benefit the establishment, economic crisis tends to lead to populist sentiment, and we could very likely see both war and an economic crisis. Crisis generally brings about major paradigm shifts, for better or for worse. For instance, the pandemic fast-forwarded history and the same is likely with the war. While we can’t predict the outcome of the war or the economy, it is clear that we are entering a new era, and an end to the post-Cold War geopolitical consensus of globalization and liberal democracy.
Collapse theory is the opposite of the End of History but is also naïve. Accelerationism is not inherently bad, as long as it is a passive accelerationism. For instance just sitting back and watching political leaders screw up the world. America has been in the 21st century version of a civil war for the past 5 years, and now could be the beginning of a 21st century version of a world war. The old tensions but with no climaxes or resolution, but who knows. Perhaps Houellebecq was right and we are in for “the same but shitter,” a decade of stagnation or a managed decline, or will we see the world fall via the simulation?