The struggle is ongoing

March 9, 2019 (842 words) :: Reflections on the oft-ridiculed liberal idea that we live in 'the end of history', and what that meant to me personally.
Tags: personal

This post is day 68 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

This is going to be another short one, partly because I spent the day working on a commissioned piece which has mostly emptied out my fuel tank for writing, and partly because of daylight savings time (which means it’s already past 3am and I should sleep).

I finally got around to reading Adam Tooze’s article in Foreign Policy from January: Everything You Know About Global Order Is Wrong. It’s not quite as controversial as the headline might suggest - if you’ve read any other left-wing accounts of the post-war liberal order (Bretton Woods, the rise of neoliberalism, etc), you will probably find it pretty familiar.

What I want to highlight is not the piece itself, but a particular response I had when reading it. Specifically, this paragraph:

The truth is that the postwar moment that the Davos crowd truly hankers after is not that of 1945 but the aftermath of the Cold War, the moment of Western triumph. It was finally in 1995 that the Bretton Woods vision of a comprehensive world trade organization was realized. A sanitized version of this moment would describe it as a third triumph of enlightened technocracy. After Bretton Woods and the defeat of inflation, this was the age of the Washington Consensus. But as in those previous moments, its underpinnings were power politics: at home the humbling of organized labor, abroad the collapse of Soviet challenge and the decision by the Beijing regime to embark on the incorporation of China into the world economy.

It’s weird and hard to explain, but reading this, it just hit me how much the world had changed since I was born (I was 2 years old when the WTO was founded, in 1995). And not necessarily for the better, I might add.

I don’t know if this was the result of playing too many video games or reading too many novels as a kid, but I grew up really truly believing that I was the main character in my own story and the rest of the world was just backdrop for me achieving my goals. Everybody else was an NPC, you could say. I could just focus on my own heroic journey: working hard, doing well in school, ascending to the professional-managerial class. Buying a house. Getting to the point where I could feel like I was making enough money and had a fancy enough title (as if I ever would).

Part of this worldview involved an implicit belief in Francis Fukuyama’s much-maligned thesis about the end of the history. I had never personally come across Fukuyama, but I guess I had independently come to the same conclusion. All the struggles I read about in history books - European colonialism, the first and second world wars, the civil rights movement, the Cold War - seemed like they were in the past. There was history, which had happened before I was born, and there was now. And the now entailed a pleasant, reasonably static background designed solely so that I could achieve the great things I thought I should achieve.

Things were fine, in other words. The world I had been born into was fair, or at least fair enough. Whatever I accomplished, I could put down to hard work and merit; whatever I didn’t manage to achieve, I could attribute to bad luck. All the difficult wars of the past had been won already, and so I could focus on my own life, and my own goals, without worrying about anything much broader than myself. The system I had been born into was the same underlying system I lived in now, and moreover, that system was good.

I don’t know what causes someone to tip over the edge - to stop believing the self-serving myths, no matter how comforting. The last 2+ years have been an educational experience, to say the least. Some of the things I learned a lot more about: the real (systemic) causes of the 2008 financial crisis; how the crisis provided a justification for austerity; the absolute brutality of the American criminal justice system; how neoliberalism took over the world; that class struggle is a real thing, and a good one. I realised that the system I was born into has changed quite a bit since then - in ways I hadn’t paid attention to - and that many of these changes had deeper structural causes, the roots of which no one had ever taught me.

Most importantly, I realised that these changes were not all good. The world is not fine. Things are on fire, and they’ve been always been this way - I just hadn’t noticed. In that light, the idea of optimising for the pursuit of personal wealth/power/glory along the neoliberal lines I had internalised no longer sounded especially appealing. It sounded like the most hollow fucking thing I could imagine.

As much as I wanted to believe otherwise, it wasn’t the end of history. History is, as always, still in the making. And the struggle is ongoing.

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