The first decade in history
I have many fond memories of the end of history. Not the bestselling book of that name by Francis Fukuyama, whose attempt at a Hegel for Dummies was published when I was 2 years old, but the actual historical and economic conditions he was describing. In the 1990s, you did not need to be a Harvard academic or a Davos attendee to understand that following the Cold War the United States had achieved a degree of peace and prosperity unknown in human history. You could see and hear and feel it: the clean, packed malls in which it was impossible to find a parking spot; the KMarts with row upon row of Nintendo cartridges in their stolid-looking cardboard boxes; the multiplying subdivisions in which all your friends seemed to live; the platinum-selling CDs that everyone owned, including ones that were meant to assist those displaced by history's very last war, which was happening far away in a place no one in particular cared about; the radio jingles promising even more wealth ("If you need a loan and own a home / Call First Finance / You could be sitting on a fortune!"); above all, the World Wide Web, which was going to make us all smarter, healthier, richer, and probably save the Amazon and plug the hole in the ozone layer too.
This sense that history itself had reached its fulfillment was not limited to these shores or even to world leaders. In the relentless glad-handing optimism of the late Pope (now St.) John Paul II, there was also the clear implication that after the upheavals of two world wars and the chaos of the years that followed the Second Vatican Council, even the Catholic Church, the world's most ancient institution, had arrived at a final synthesis.
Not everyone subscribed to this thesis. On the fringe continental left, a handful of postmodernists decried the hubris of mainstream political theorists who were not even conscious of the absurd premises underlying their arguments; much closer to home and from the opposite end of the political spectrum, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot in their different ways argued that the future of abundance secured by globalized neoliberal hegemony was a mirage, beyond which lay more of the violence and immiseration from which human society is never more than a generation or two removed. Nor was this pessimism the exclusive province of maverick politicians and French philosophers. In the orgy of violence and rapine into which Woodstock '99 descended, one can see something like a definitive, if unwelcome, answer to "Peace, Love, and Music" from the children of those who had seamlessly transformed the revolution into an Apple commercial. (One could argue that earlier in the decade both West Coast gangster rap and grunge gained cultural currency precisely because they rejected an unquestioned optimism about race relations and the virtues of consumer capitalism, among other things.) In the Church, both traditionalist followers of Archbishop Lefebvre and antinomian liberals questioned the permanence of the John Paul II synthesis.
In world affairs the question of history's continuation was answered definitively on September 11, 2001. At the beginning of what would be 10 or so years of transition between the end of history and its revival, Osama bin Laden and his followers reminded the world that there were forces more powerful than neoclassical economics, atavistic ideologies more intoxicating than liberal democracy, and billions of people yet to be persuaded of the merits of either. For all his faults, George W. Bush understood this. The failures of his presidency were at the level of decision making, not of ideological disposition toward the reality of evil. In the Church, too, history would be revived almost single-handedly by Pope Benedict XVI, who, with a single phrase ("never lawfully abrogated"), not only restored the traditional Latin Mass but reconvened debates about ecumenism and the fundamental nature of Church-state relations that his predecessor insisted had been answered decades ago.
During his eight years in office, Barack Obama seemed unwilling to acknowledge that history was undergoing a not-so-soft reboot. Despite the rhetoric of world-historic transformation that defined his first presidential campaign, he seemed to govern as if the only thing that prevented America and the rest of the world from returning to the golden path was a minor technocratic fix here or an unenforceable arms control treaty there. While he lectured his opponents on the virtues of civility, decaying industries collapsed for good and seemingly robust ones were allowed to lay the seeds of their doom. Picture websites and an online bookstore became trillion-dollar concerns while heavy industry receded further into the economic horizon. Instead of a restored peace, the Middle East found room for more misery and destruction. Millions of us killed ourselves with drugs and alcohol, and many more became mentally ill. The Information Superhighway became a terrifying purveyor of misinformation fatal to democracy and a haven for terrorists both foreign and domestic.
Where does America and the world find itself at the end of this first decade in the newly revived history of the world? I am tempted to say in a position curiously similar to that in which it arrived. Instead of teeming malls and the latest Britney Spears disc, we have Amazon Prime and Billie Eilish on Spotify Premium, but otherwise we have succumbed again to the old delusions. The reality behind our techno-commercial republic of leisure is globalized wage slavery, addiction to pornography and drugs, and, if chiliastic prophets are taken at their word, the imminent doom of the planet itself. While we speculate about the NFL draft and gobble up recaps of our favorite prestige streaming dramas, history screams from the void into which we have attempted to banish it.
We cannot remain in this comfortable senescence. President Trump does not believe in the end of history. Nor do Xi Jinping, the prophet of a Chinese empire that spans from from Taiwan to Mauritania, or Narendra Modi, who dreams 10,000-year-old dreams of subjugation, or the leaders of the populist movements of both the left and the right who are destroying the last vestiges of Cold War-era Christian democracy in Europe. The late Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi obviously believed that history was far from over.
If we do not wish to see its second decade written by some (or any) of these figures, we must accept that they have been right all along about history.