Fear not pessimistic liberals: history may be repeating itself

Taqwa Sadiq 22 November 2016

Amidst the din of good food and amiable company at an interfaith dinner recently, I was struck by the peculiarity of the context in which I was seated. In a place as ‘progressive’ as Cambridge, one does not expect to come across people for whom progress doesn’t necessarily equate to the future. The experience of sitting amongst individuals who mostly look to the abrahamic past as the closest that civilisation can ever get to perfection prompts a reassessment of the relationship between time, change, and advancement.

Concepts such as evolution and the technological revolution do not entirely necessitate but have encouraged a linear attitude to time and progress. However, this idea that the future is always ahead of the past seems to have been shaken by recent world events. Correspondingly, the reverse, but equally horizontal, attitude that the pious past was a superior era of human history is called into question by the very existence of toilets and next-day delivery. As is always true of our complex and intricate world, the reality is rarely black and white. An alternative view, developed throughout the centuries by the likes of Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Twain, and Toynbee, is the rather hackneyed ‘history repeats itself ’ paradigm.

Despite its banality, this particular perspective provides presently pessimistic liberals a whiff of hope. Montesquieu would not have you fear that the resurgence of the right-wing across the globe signifies humanity’s penultimate step into the pit of despair. Rather, this last gasp of white- dominance is the penultimate stage in the cycle of glory and decline that makes the world and civilisations go round. In other words, things have to get worse before they get better. Perhaps Trump will lead the ‘first world’ forth into apocalyptic self- destruction, whilst Europe flips us Brits off into an economic and social downward spiral. The hope lies in the idea that after we fall, we get the chance to build it back up again, but better.

What has become clear from the democratic debacles that have lately devastated the United Kingdom and the United States is that something has to change. The fatal flaw of democracy has not only been exposed but realised through this whole affair. By democratic means, the ‘people’ have elected a leader that some believe may become a dictator. At the very least, a man who seems intent upon taking away the rights of many of those to whom he is supposed to be accountable. If democracy has come to an orange 70-year-old comb-over holding, arguably, the most influential position in the world, the need for a restructuring seems unavoidable, and according to the historic recurrence camp, inevitable.

Worse has happened in the land of the free, from President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 to the Willy Brown incident in 1919. And yet, it is the same America which, after Roosevelt dined with Booker T. Washington, the senator of Mississippi complained that the White House was now “so saturated with the odour of nigger that the rats had taken refuge in the stable”, saw a Black President in the Oval Office. America has been through unimaginable horrors, but it has also survived them.

There are a multitude of interpretations concerning what this election says about human progress, and what the future holds. Whatever view one chooses to take, although we seem to be regressing at present, this does not necessitate that the future holds nothing but the beginning of The End. This may just be the storm before the calm.