British soldiers during WWI in Ypres, Belgium
Looking at events in the world today I can feel the tectonic plates of history shifting beneath my feet in ways I have rarely felt. What is happening does not seem to be the usual tumult of world affairs, but something different and deeper.
As I mentioned on the eve of the Brexit vote, we appear to be heading to the end of the post post-Cold War world. Plenty of folks, including yours truly, have mocked Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis over the years, but now we seem truly to be at the definitive end of a world where someone could think that global capitalist democracy was the only ideological game in town. Nationalism and Islamism (and nationalist Islamism) are driving world events, and the Left has been reawakened in countries dominated by neoliberalism in recent decades.
The old political consensus in the West simply is not holding. Brexit may very well lead to the end of the UK, and the vote has shaken the major political parties there to their core. The EU's validity as an institution is in serious doubt. In Germany nationalism has crept back into the political mainstream for the first time since 1945. A far right candidate may very well achieve the presidency in Austria, and nationalists with an undemocratic bent have taken over in Hungary and Poland. In America a nationalist television personality gained the Republican nomination, and a socialist (well, at least he calls himself that) came close to getting the Democratic nomination. Congress has refused to even consider the president's nominee to the Supreme Court, an unprecedented act that would have spurred a constitutional crisis in less tumultuous times.
I look at all of this, and wonder if we are at a historical crossroads, or a breaking point. It is definitely one of the other. In terms of a crossroads, perhaps we are seeing something similar to the early 20th century, when the strains of laissez-faire capitalism and fear of worker uprising led to reform. In America this is referred to as the Progressive Era, but similar changes occurred in Europe as well, when voting rights and worker protections were expanded. We seem to be at a similar point, where forty years of neoliberalism and globalization have drained resources from the masses and funneled them to the wealthy. If you look at the income gap in the United States, it currently resembles that of the Gilded Age more than it does the postwar period. I doubt that the political status quo can be maintained under such economic conditions. There's a chance that in fifty years the Occupy movement of 2011 will be seen as the harbinger of a new era.
Unfortunately, the forces for political change in the West on the right are currently much more powerful than those on the left, as Brexit, Trumpism, and recent elections in Eastern Europe have shown. These forces also seem to have little use for the current world order. The lack of credibility possessed by the elite maintaining the global order only gives more fuel to the fire of the likes of UKIP, Trump, and Victor Orban. I can very well see a breaking point on the horizon, a world of closed borders, diminished or shredded international institutions, and perpetual war. The film Children of Men may turn out to be quite prophetic.
That might sound alarmist, but historically people have not been aware of the changes building up around them, until they explode. Few predicted the collapse of Communism in 1989. Few if any foresaw a world-altering revolution when the Estates General were called in 1789. When the guns of August of 1914 sounded, most did not anticipate a political and cultural earthquake that would level empires and engender revolutions.
I have been avidly reading Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, her memoir describing her experiences in World War I as a nurse. She talked about how the news of the coming war barely registered with her in the summer of 1914. By the time it was over, she lost her fiancee, brother, and two of her closest friends, and everything seemed to have been changed forever. Obviously no war on the scale of the Great War is currently raging, but I do wonder if we are indeed stepping into a new political world. Are we too sleepwalking into the abyss? Time will tell, I guess.