The most important history lesson of 2011

From the Japanese tsunami to the economic crisis, many believe mankind is ‘dwarfed by phenomena beyond our control’. But we aren’t.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

Everyone is talking about what a tumultuous year 2011 was. And ‘tumultuous’ – meaning a ‘disorderly commotion or disturbance’ – is indeed the most apt adjective to describe the past 12 months. For this was a year in which many important things happened, yet no one is quite clear why or how or who was ultimately responsible. History was made – lots of it – but often it appeared as if nobody was in the driving seat. If you want to know what historic breakthroughs look like at a time when the history-making human subject has been talked down for years and effectively put out to pasture, behold 2011.

Marx famously said, ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past’. Today, man not only continues to make history in circumstances that are not of his choosing – he also doubts or denies that he is making history at all, preferring instead to see himself as the victim of forces beyond his control, the plaything of some sentient thing called History rather than the master of history.

This was a year in which agency was accorded to events that had none, and was denied in other events that truly were driven by human ingenuity and heroism. So the catastrophe in Japan in March, when an earthquake and tsunami flattened towns and villages and killed 20,000 people, was discussed by many as an example of ‘Nature’s fury’, as if she (they always see Nature as an angry woman) made a decision to punish hubristic mankind. ‘Nature suddenly decided to go “Thwack!”‘, said one observer, almost with a sense of glee, and she revealed that mankind is ‘hopelessly irrelevant… dwarfed by phenomena beyond our control’.

Yet the Arab Spring, which kicked off in Tunisia and Egypt in January before spreading to Bahrain and Syria, was talked about as an ‘earthquake’, a ‘flood’, a ‘storm’, an inexplicable thing which spread from one country to another like a ‘virus’. Former Republican presidential candidate John McCain came in for some flak when he said the Arab Spring was ‘a virus spreading throughout the Middle East’, but he was only expressing in un-PC lingo an idea that has become entrenched: that the Arab uprisings are a weird and contagious, almost malarial phenomenon (liberal observers prefer to say ‘meme’ rather than ‘virus’).

So we anthropomorphise natural disasters, and naturalise manmade political upheaval. We see agency in what are in truth the amoral whims of nature, with commentators calling the Japanese tsunami an ‘all-conquering aquatic bulldozer’, yet we see strange viruses at work in something human like the Arab Spring, as if that rebellion of millions against their rulers was born of some kind of herd mentality. The personification of the tsunami, the idea that we’re ‘dwarfed by phenomena beyond our control’, speaks to mankind’s increasing meekness and view of himself as the object rather than subject of history. And it has very real consequences. In response to the unhinged panic-mongering over the Fukushima nuclear-power plant in ‘thwacked’ Japan, Germany promised in May to shut all its nuclear power plants by 2022.

Also this year, political agency was conferred on the August riots that rocked English cities, yet was withheld from the European masses’ continuing disgruntlement with the oligarchy in Brussels. Observers decreed that the looting and burning in London and elsewhere were ‘highly political’ acts, carried out by ‘rebels with a cause’. Yet the same observers bent over backwards to delegitimate European peoples’ permanent, sometimes unspoken rebellion against the institutions of Brussels and Strasbourg, referring to such opposition as ‘Europhobia’, as if it were a disease of the mind (‘phobia: a persistent, abnormal and irrational aversion to a specific thing’). Small mobs of shoe thieves are talked up as rebels taking a stand against the Liberal-Conservative government, while masses of Greeks and Irish and Italians who communicate their fury with the illiberal, anti-democratic Brussels regimes through referenda or graffiti are branded ‘phobic’; once again, instinctual events are historicised while political feeling is pathologised.  

One of the most striking things about 2011 is how even political actors themselves disavowed responsibility for their actions, preferring instead to see themselves as reactants in a kind of a great experiment rather than potential authors of their destinies. That was the most tragic thing about the Arab Spring: the disconnect between the heroism and organisation that was required to get tens of thousands of people on to the streets to chase Ben Ali and Mubarak from office and how the protesters conceived of themselves – as people with no political authority, possessed only of a Twitter-style emotional angst. The Arab rebels have celebrated the fact that they are leaderless and bereft of ideology and goals (one Egyptian writer noted the ‘complete absence of ideological rhetoric’), which means they weirdly deny their own history-making potential even as they demonstrate it physically.

Indeed, across the world this year, there has been a widespread unwillingness to clarify political problems or articulate political demands. In the Spanish ‘Indignados’ movement and the Occupy movements in New York and London – laugh-out-loud caricatures of the Arab Spring – activists openly celebrate the fact that they are ‘independent of any democratic structures and party hierarchies’ and have ‘no political programme’. They even use McCain-like language about viruses, claiming their movement consists more of ‘unthought’ than thought, where creeds emerge ‘without much articulation as to why they’re necessary, almost as [reflexes]’. What we have here is people making a virtue out of vacuity, where the denigration of the human subject and of the idea that man might remake his world is turned from a negative into a positive: apparently, not knowing how to clarify crises and pursue goals is not a bad thing – it’s ‘liberation from dogma’.

What these radicals seem not to realise is that their disavowal of grubby politics in favour of myopic process (the Occupy movement is now entirely devoted simply to keeping itself chugging along) almost exactly echoes the outlook of the political elites in 2011. For our rulers, most notably in Europe, have likewise made it their aim to decommission politics and replace it with technocracy, because apparently things like the economic crisis are better dealt with by experts rather than through engagement with hoi polloi. Indeed, the economic crisis is now also looked upon as a kind of tsunami that dwarfs mankind – so it apparently isn’t appropriate to have a democratic debate about it, or even to treat it as a political issue, and instead what we really need is ‘expert’ firefighting. In the ousting of democratic governments in Greece and Italy, and their replacement by unelected, Brussels-approved gangs of alleged know-it-alls, 2011’s sidelining of history-making man in preference of apolitical, lifeless managerialism reached its nadir.

This has indeed been a tumultuous year – yet while much has happened, all sides deny historic responsibility for having made it happen and eschew historic responsibility for pushing it in a certain direction. Everywhere we look, historic man is being muted and mocked, whether he’s viewed as a victim of Nature or is forcibly elbowed off the political stage (as has happened to the peoples of Greece and Italy) or is voluntarily elbowing himself of the political stage (as threatens to be the case in the Arab world). Yet the fact is that man did make history this year: Japan rebuilt itself; the Arab people got rid of tyrants; and even in Athens, so thwacked by Brussels, there is graffiti everywhere saying ‘Fuck the EU’. If we can find a new language in which to express and celebrate people’s desire for political change and historic impact, 2012 could be an exciting year.

spiked will be publishing its review of 2011 on 29 December. Don’t miss it!

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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