Friday, May 4, 2007

History: Past, Future, and Fake IV

As Bernita noted in reply to my last post, pronosticating the Fall of the West is dicey, since it involves us so directly. In the perversity of human nature, we find it easy to believe that the godawful stuff in the news is the worst ever, and that future historians will date the West's going to hell in a handbasket from roughly last week.

Toynbee, as I recall, originally thought that the "breakdown" of the West - the beginning of its long, 800-1100 year slide to fall and dissolution - came in 1914. As Decline & Fall years go, that one has shown some lasting power; it still evokes "colossal blunder" nearly a hundred years later. Later on, though, Toynbee decided that the West was nearer the climax than the beginning of its Time of Troubles. He was enough of a late-Victorian liberal optimist never to hit on 1789, but eventually he pushed the Breakdown clear back to the wars of religion.

I forget what particular benchmark event or events he suggested, but let's go with 1618, the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War. It has generally gone down as combining everything awful about the World Wars, within the limits of the available technology, with none of the cool stuff like battleships and fighter planes. By the time it was over everyone had learned to be jaded and cynical, and the last dwindling sense of "Western Christendom" as a unity was gone - this is what Toynbee gets most worked up about.

As history this is a stretch - the Thirty Years' War was fun for no one, but where was the unity of Western Christendom during the Hundred Years' War? What good did it do anyone during the Crusades?

As future history, though, it will do fine; it gives a starting point for an 1100-year cycle, carrying us from 1618 to sometime around 2700 - and how cool is this, that our history of the future has its roots in a social disaster already centuries past? The West is toast, but it has been toast for centuries, for reasons that have nothing to do with any recent US election.

Growing civilizations, said Toynbee, are unpredictable, but broken-down ones follow a regular timetable. About 200 years after a civilization blows a Seldon Crisis and goes into breakdown, it experiences a "rally" - a serious but unsuccessful effort to put together the pieces. 200 years from 1618 takes us within orbit-matching distance of the Congress of Vienna in 1815: Metternich, the Concert of Europe, and all of that. In fact, Europe went almost a hundred years without a full-on, take-it-to-the-mat coalition war.

So far, pretty good; using Toynbee's theory for our future history we've managed to predict a few hundred years of the past. Not a bad way to bench-test your history.

But the next big benchmark - the establishment of a Universal State, the West's answer to the Roman Empire - is now looming us in the face, somewhere around 2018, just eleven years from now. Well, maybe the EU hits the big time, or the UN turns real. Even US hegemony could make a comeback, as unlikely as it seems at the moment. I'll go with the EU to avoid parochialism and for sheer coolness, because there's something about a European Union that has just the faintest whiff of Rome.

So, sometime in the next couple of decades, we will say, is the the point that future eras will point to as the foundation of the West's Universal State. It may not be obvious at first, in fact may be disguised, the same way that Augustus was merely, ahem, first citizen. Anyway, we won't say anything more about it, because we don't want our future history to be overtaken by events too quickly.

We thus discreetly lower the curtain on the 21st century, at least its first half, to rejoin our adventure in progress sometime past 2050 ...

2 comments:

Nyrath said...

A revitalized UN? Reminds me of Sweden as the nuclear weapon watchdog from Poul Anderson's classic Tau Zero:

She rose to stand beside him, laying one hand on his arm. The thick muscles stirred beneath her fingers. "Don't call us rulers," she begged. "We aren't. That's what the whole idea was behind the Covenant. After the nuclear war… that close a brush with world death… something had to be done."

"Uh-huh," he grunted. "I've read an occasional history book myself. General disarmament; a world police force to maintain it; sed quis custodiet ipsos Custodes? Who can we trust with a monopoly of the planet killer weapons and unlimited powers of inspection and arrest? Why, a country big and modem enough to make peace-keeping a major industry; but not big enough to conquer anyone else or force its will on anyone without the support of a majority of nations; and reasonably well thought of by everyone. In short, Sweden."

Rick said...

There is a certain logic to it ...