One of my favorite books about history is Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: From 1500 to the Present: Five Hundred Years of Western Culture Life. It’s an impressive career summation, published in 2001 when Barzun was in his nineties. I love how he looks telescopically at broad historical trends, while also zooming into the messy details of specific times and places along the way.
In the past two years, the long decline that Barzun observed has accelerated into a great unraveling of Western institutions—a breakdown marked by destructive monetary policy, increasing class conflict and geopolitical tension, rapid technological change and ecological collapse. We may or may not live to see a new Renaissance, and if we do, it will likely not be in the West.
My attitude towards the future, however, is still optimistic. One thing that helps me be more flexible in how I think, and more skillful in how I act, is to immerse myself in solid, provocative thinking about the past. Here are some works I’ve read or seen recently that shine a new light on our past century and suggest where we might go from here. Like Barzun, they are all studious and curious. Together and separately, they tell a useful story.
A quick note about structure.
In Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History, Joseph North writes:
[T]he term “postmodernism” no longer answers clearly to present concerns, and the 1960s, for all that they have continued to attract the enthusiasms of a generation, have come to seem merely the prelude to a much more significant crisis, best symbolized by the terminal crisis of Keynesianism in the 1970s and the subsequent turn to global neoliberalism in the 1980s. Thus nowadays thinkers addressing the history of the twentieth century more often tend to break it into three periods: a first period stretching from somewhere around 1914 or 1917 through to the Great Depression of the 1930s—a period continually haunted by the specter of an end to liberalism, riven and confused by the Revolution in Russian, the stock market crash of 1929, and the two world wars; a second, more stable period most easily discernible from 1945 to the early 1970s, but with clear roots stretching back to the New Deal and politics of the 1930s—a period in which forces of labor and those of capital reached a Keynesian or welfare-statist compromise not unrelated to the ideological pressure of the Cold War; then a decade of crisis in the 1970s leading into a third or neoliberal era, clearest in its outlines from the late 1970s/early 1980s through to somewhere in or around 2008—after which, a further crisis, still to be resolved. Naturally there is much disagreement about the details.”
I agree with and align to North’s three-part periodization below, slowing down to spend extra time on the most recent years of 2016 and 2017.
Prelude to WWII (1917 – 1945)
China Miéville is a fantastic author, consistently impressive for his ideas and formal inventions. His best works burn in the mind. My favorites—not directly relevant to this article—include the novels Embassytown, Railsea, and This Census-Taker and the short stories “The New Death” and “The Dowager of Bees.”
His historical novel October: The Story of the Russian Revolution is a departure. It’s essentially nonfiction with occasional literary flourishes. October covers the unfolding of the Russian Revolution, month by month, day by day, protest by protest, and committee meeting by committee meeting. It captures the whiplash changes and the making and unmaking of strange-bedfellow alliances as they happened in 1917. The details are highly reminiscent of what we see right now in the US Congress, in the UK, and across the EU.
Looking forward several years, in his simply-titled Modernism, Michael Levenson (my former teacher and thesis advisor at the University of Virginia) executes the difficult task of summarizing the modernist movement of the early 20th century and of connecting the dots between artistic experimentation, class conflict, and the rise of fascism.
Another Miéville novel, also recently published, The Last Days of New Paris, dramatizes the modernist movement right as it ends. The novel takes place in a counter-factual, Nazi-occupied Paris of 1950, where the detonation of a surrealist bomb has brought to life the major works of surrealist art and also opened the gates to hell. Living artworks now roam the streets amidst the poet-rebels, the Nazis, and the devils. It’s the kind of oddity that only Miéville would attempt. Here’s a sample passage that I find deliciously vulgar and strange:
“In the shadows and the mud of the Île aux Cygnes, human hands crawl under spider shells. A congregation of Seine sharks thrash up dirty froth below the Pont de Grenelle. Rolling and rising, they eye him as he approaches and bite at the bobbing corpse of a horse. In front of each dorsal fin, each shark is hollow-backed, with a canoe seat.”
If The Last Days of New Paris doesn’t succeed as brilliantly as Miéville’s very best work—a high standard—it does succeed in re-animating the context and concerns that made surrealism seem worthwhile. An elegy for a lost time, a lost way of being, and a lost way of thinking.
The scary Michael Haneke film The White Ribbon, set in rural Germany in the 1910s, but looking forward several decades, implicates the viewer in the mess of history, reminding us that the bombs, real and figurative, that explode and break historical continuity are often manufactured and lit many years in advance. The White Ribbon is an artistic work, ostensibly about the past, that is very much about the present.
WWII and its aftermath (1945 – 1980)
World War II and the Holocaust are challenging periods to look at directly. The facts are still in some ways too horrifying to apprehend, yet they must be.
I studied ethical representations of the Holocaust as an undergraduate, and one of the works that has stuck with me ever since is the short, oblique novel Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld. It’s always a timely and disturbing read. This year, I finally read Appelfeld’s excellent memoir A Story of a Life, which describes his experiences as an orphan during the war and his later emigration to Israel, where he slowly recovered from trauma and became a writer.
The pre- and post- war years in general are times of great emigration. Works that reflect on this diaspora, and its unexpected consequences, include Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, which follows psychologists and researchers like Bruno Bettelheim who fled the Third Reich, and links their stories to the later rise of geek culture and the stigmatization of autism in the West. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century by Alex Ross is likewise memorable for anecdotes like the following one:
“One day in 1948 or 1949, the Brentwood Country Mart, a shopping complex in an upscale neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, was the scene of a slight disturbance that carried overtones of the most spectacular upheaval in twentieth-century music. Marta Feuchtwanger, wife of the émigré novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, was examining grapefruit in the produce section when she heard a voice shouting in German from the far end of the aisle. She looked up to see Arnold Schoenberg, the pioneer of atonal music and the codifier of twelve-tone composition, bearing down on her, with his bald pate and burning eyes. Decades later, in conversation with the writer Lawrence Weschler, Feuchtwanger could recall every detail of the encounter, including the weight of the grapefruit in her hand. “Lies, Frau Marta, lies!” Schoenberg was yelling. “You have to know, I never had syphilis!”
For the full details, read Ross’s wonderful book. And then watch as a kind of sequel Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, which explores how famous émigrés like Irving Berlin and Kurt Weil settled in the US and had a major influence on American popular culture during and after the war. And then continue the story with the unlikely documentary Hava Nagila (The Movie), which travels to unexpected places—including 1950s suburban synagogues and Israeli kibbutzim—and into unexpected moments, like Connie Francis recording the top-selling version of “Hava Nagila,” and Harry Belafonte singing the Jewish anthem on-stage in post-war Germany. These works, like a China Miéville novel, succeed in making history new again, and weird again.
Fred Turner has made new sense of the post-War years, first with his From Counterculture to Cyberculture, and recently with the excellent The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties. In the latter, he writes:
“My last book argued that the counterculture of the 1960s shaped the cyberculture of the 1990s. This book demonstrates that World War II-era visions of a socially diverse American polity and a semiotically diverse media environment helped give rise to that counterculture and the visions of media’s political potential that informed it. In other words, this book is a prequel to my last.”
In a century of outsiders, Art Kleiner’s The Age of Heretics, which I’ve written about previously, charts how figures outside the mainstream shaped American business and the field of management consulting in the decades after the war.
Recurring characters like Stewart Brand, John Cage, and Steve Jobs appear across all of these books, sometimes crossing paths like Schoenberg and Marta Feuchtwanger in that Brentwood grocery store.
Racism is an inescapable part of 20th century American society. James Baldwin, in his classic The Fire Next Time, his later writings, and the recent Raoul Peck documentary I Am Not Your Negro, raises questions that fifty years later have not been answered. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson portrays African-American migration during this period against a backdrop of stark institutional racism, as does the widely-circulated Ta-Nehisi Coates essay “The Case for Reparations.“
The accessible CNN documentaries The Sixties and The Seventies perhaps break no new ground with insight or emphasis, but they do much to capture the period and reflect critically on some of its most important themes.
Neoliberalism (1980 – 2016)
The beginnings of neoliberalism are still so recent for some of us that it’s hard to see them clearly as the past. It’s a time that’s fetishized and represented constantly in the media, in shows like Stranger Things and The Americans, in the ongoing celebrity of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and in the echoes between Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign and MAGA. The CNN documentary The Eighties captures the look and most visible news stories from those early years.
One book I found particularly useful in the past year is Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History, which I’ve already mentioned. Like the filmmaker Adam Curtis in HyperNormalisation (another excellent work), North sees the rise of progressive “identity politics” in the late 20th and early 21st century as floundering before, and in some ways contributing to, an ascendant conservative ideology.
Additional works about this era that I have read recently and found valuable include the Alan Hollinghurst novel The Line of Beauty, set in Thatcher’s Britain, and Wayne Koestenbaum’s collection of essays My 1980s, both of which deal with the gay urban male culture of the time, before and during the initial AIDS crisis.
The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine, When Society Becomes an Addict by Anne Wilson Schaef, and Our Kids by Robert Putnam expose the costs to those on either side of a growing divide in socio-economic status during these decades—what Ta-Nehesi Coates with different emphasis in Between the World and Me depicts as the gulf between the white “Dream” and the reality of black bodies. The documentaries 13th and OJ: Made in America portray the still-present, and in some ways intensifying, racism in the US during the period, while HyperNormalisation and Requiem for the American Dream describe an accelerating plutocratic, conservative take-over of American institutions.
Which brings us almost all the way to the present.
The Great Unraveling (2016)
2016 felt for many people like The End of the World, if not the cosmic event, then at least like the Archibald MacLeish poem of that title:
Quite unexpectedly as Vasserot
The armless ambidextrian was lighting
A match between his great and second toe
And Ralph the Lion was engaged in biting
The neck of Madame Sossman while the drum
Pointed, and Teeny was about to cough
In waltz-time swinging Jocko by the thumb —
Quite unexpectedly the top blew off.
And there, there overhead, there, there, hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness, the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing — nothing at all.
The time before the US election in retrospect feels like MacLeish’s circus before the tent blew off. The unexpectedly-brilliant, and now instantly-dated, season 19 of South Park displayed the deep contradictions, moral corruption, and superficiality within the liberal left. The justly-praised musical Hamilton kept a flame alive for a progressive, inclusive, endlessly-mutating American experiment, while subsumed in an irony that to some extent, only robots and economic elites could afford the tickets see it.
Anil Dash railed against the fake markets of so-called disruptors like Uber, who rode decades of politically leftist tech optimism… into business models that decimate local government taxes and working class job security. In “The Rise of the Thought Leader,” David Sessions railed against collective willingness to follow billionaire-backed, simplistic gurus into subservience and solipsism. These two essays came out in 2017 but reflect the groupthink and reality-distorting illusions of the years immediately prior.
I think the two big news stories of 2016, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, are both terrible outcomes. At the same time, I accept that a renewed focus on the nation-state and perhaps the city-state is a helpful and necessary corrective to the decimating effects of hyperglobalization in the neoliberal era. Dani Rodrik makes the point in The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy that we can successfully combine the nation-state, democracy, and tightly integrated economies—but only ever two of the three. The utopian solution of a democratic world government with one shared economy is likely unrealistic, and probably not even desirable, given that in a global democracy, minority countries and groups would continue to be victims of larger players.
Giving up on an aggressively “flat world” is probably a good idea. The danger now is that in giving up tight economic integration, we will also throw out democracy, replacing it with plutocracy, theocracy, racist authoritarianism, or some combination thereof. China, Russia, and failed states throughout the world are all uneasy examples of where the US might be headed.
The marvelously concise and astute analysis Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century: An Introduction by Stephan Kaufmann and Ingo Stutzle obviates the need to read the entire Piketty opus, and incisively looks at the book’s thesis, its initial reception in 2016, and the dismissable and substantive arguments made against it. Joseph North, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and others likewise are making smart distinctions between inequalities that are the result of hundreds of years of capitalism; forty years of neoliberalism; and nine years of loose monetary policy since the 2008 crash.
The trial brought by Ellen Pao was a precursor to the virulent sexism of the 2016 Presidential campaign and the rebuke the following year to cultural and institutional sexism—a rebuke which I hope to see sustained and focused over time, leading to enduring change. The movie Elle examines gender, patriarchy, and sexual violence from a strange angle that ignores completely any conventional frames for the subject. It will likely stand for years as both a product and comment on its time, either retrograde trash or extremely uncomfortable satire.
Taylor Mac in his peerless 24-Decade History of Popular Music (covering the years 1776 to 2016) makes it clear that America has always been a community both coming together and falling apart.
Fred Turner, in his two books and in a recent interview, describes how fears about totalitarianism after WWII led intellectuals, artists, and politicians to create a diverse, “democratic” media environment… that was embraced by the youth of the 1960s… who fueled the personal computing and later Web revolution… which in turn gave rise to today’s juggernaut online platforms… which ironically contributed to the rise of an authoritarian candidate and later president.
What’s Now, What’s Next (2017)
And now, we arrive at the slow-motion present. Where, like in the soviet committee meetings of 1917, the changes come daily, the priorities shift on a dime, and the future is uncertain. Should we be fighting for universal basic income, worrying about the North Korean nuclear threat, saving Planned Parenthood, throwing all energy into the 2018 elections, arguing on or detaching from Facebook?
Today’s moment will make sense anew in the future, but the future we view it from depends on the actions we individually and collectively take today.
What now is base, and what is super-structure?
Venkat Rao in his essay “Malware is choking the world” connects social, technological, and political themes in a Barzun-like way, labeling our current world order a “Ransomocracy.” This is one of the my favorite pieces of 2017.
Monetary policy and economics are at the root of many of our current problems. There are many exceptional writers on financial markets and current economic conditions, but Howard Marks at Oaktree Capital deserves special mention, particularly for his memo “There They Go Again, Again” (July 2017) and his follow-up “Yet Again?” (September 2017).
Articles on unbundling, dead ocean strategy, over-served and debt-leveraged industries like retail and media are many, but worth tracking. Dmitri Orlov has been saying for years that the conditions in the US are echoing those in Russia under Putin. His perspective has quickly moved from fringe to mainstream. In many ways, we are all Russians now.
The Ta-Nehisi Coates essay “The First White President” is controversial, but I think it’s valid and provokes vital discussion. The movie Get Out deservedly lit the flame for conversations about race in 2017; the commentary about it, and popular culture generally, on the podcast Still Processing has been excellent. The popular Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, if imperfect, is grounded and prescient.
In high art, Mark Bradford’s exhibit at the Venice Biennale used scale to communicate angrily, warmly, and powerfully. Damien Hirst used scale as well in his Venice show, to lesser effect, commenting on vapidity by being vapid. (As I’ve written previously, I was not a fan of the Hirst project.)
There are reasons to be pessimistic about the future. The positive feedback loops of climate change are accelerating past what used to be doomsday predictions. William Gibson recently said that he found it telling and ominous that no one is talking about or positively imagining a 22nd century.
But, new technology can take us into new places, and as Carlota Perez, Leo Johnson, and Art Kleiner wrote recently in their article “Are We on the Verge of a New Golden Age?” there is reason for optimism that isn’t purely ideological or naive. Similarly, Jennifer Pahlka has continued to argue with informed passion for “Fixing Government: Bottom Up and Outside In.” As always, those who are doing things are the ones who are most hopeful and most informed about what can be done, and what should be done.
Joseph North notes at the end of his book that the future of his discipline depends on nothing less “than the question of the character of the coming social order.” He then paints three scenarios, including (1) an intensification of neoliberalism, (2) a breakdown of neoliberalism, and (3) a breakdown of capitalism. He mines each of these scenarios for broad and deep implications. Rather than repeat his analysis, I’ll simply again recommend his book.
He’s asking the right question, though: what will the coming the social order look like? That’s a question that will be answered by all of us, not just by the articles and books we write and read, the songs we sing, and the movies we watch, but by how we act.