The Lessons of History
by Sean Gabb
(First Published 22nd March 2003)
Whatever the more nihilistic historians may claim, history does reveal certain regularities in our behaviour. One of these is that, whenever large numbers of intelligent people agree that it can only get better, the world takes a turn decidedly for the worse. The poets of the Augustan age saw that the present was better than the past, and thought the good times would continue. Instead, the Roman world got Tiberius, Caligula, Nero and Domitian. When Constantine became a Christian, Eusebius insisted this would herald an age of peace and justice. Within a century, Augustine was having to write at immense length to show how this had only apparently not happened. The Enlightenment is famous for its optimism, and we all know it ended with the Terror and a quarter century of bloodletting across Europe. The Victorian belief in progress was knocked on the head at the Somme and Passchendael, and quietly expired in the extermination camps and the Gulag.
Then, after 1945, the unexpected happened. During the central decades of the last century, good writers competed to chill our blood with their predictions for the future. We were promised Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty Four, and Fahrenheit 451. What in fact we got was penicillin, birth control pills and the Internet, all of which have greatly—even if in the case of the latter two ambiguously—contributed much to the jollity of life. For much of Europe, and all those areas of the world settled by the European races, we have now had almost 60 years of spectacular progress. And if we like occasionally to frighten ourselves that this will be ended by AIDS, or global warming, or nuclear winters, or asteroid impacts, or whatever, hardly anyone seriously believes it ever will end.
Time, therefore, to start worrying—that is, if history does indeed teach anything.
As I write—and events do change unpredictably in such times – the war with Iraq is going rather well in the military sense. The Iraqis seem to be throwing down their weapons, and not too many civilians may have been killed. Perhaps the Allies will roll into Baghdad next week, and various unshaven thugs will crawl out of their bunkers ready to rebrand themselves as liberal democrats and to take American bribes for keeping the lid on things.
But this is not to say that the invasion was ever in principle a good idea in. Imagine, my dear readers, that you run a business. What would you think if your chief clerk raided the petty cash, placed the lot on some horse, won against terrible odds, and then offered to share his winnings with you? Would you slap him on the back and buy him a copy of The Racing Post? Or would you continue dialling the police? I think the answer is obvious. Just because Messrs Bush and Blair may—and I still use the subjunctive—have got away with their latest gamble, is no reason to suppose that they will continue their run of luck. And I do still doubt if it will really turn out, after a few years, that they have got away with it.
Unlike spots and bad breath, high civilisation is not something that comes about naturally for us. It is a product of depressingly unusual circumstances. These circumstances cannot be created by act of human will, though they can be destroyed; and they cannot be called back once they have gone.
Taken together, the Anglo-Saxon powers are undeniably the better part of mankind. We have most of the intelligence, most of the enterprise, and therefore most of the money and power. We can in the short term get whatever we firmly decide to have. But I do not believe that we have either the means or—just as importantly—the will to keep getting what our establishment intellectuals tell us we ought to be wanting.
To be specific, we cannot act more than spasmodically as the policeman of the world. We cannot because we are not the same as the Romans. We British tried to do it, and did sort of succeed for a time. But we managed only while no one else had railway trains or steel factories or big shipyards, and because we had a ruling class that had Vergil and Livy beaten into it generation after generation. But—while it was undoubtedly good for the world while it lasted – the Pax Britannica began to crumble at the first serious challenge. It was shown to be overtrading as early as the South African War. By the 1920s, it was looking for a genteel excuse to downsize. In 1940, the insolvency petition was filed; and the only question after that was which parts should be liquidated and which put into the administrative receivership of the Americans.
As for the Americans, they cannot even begin. The neo-conservatives in Washington may be delighted with the present turn of events, and I am sure are quoting Kipling to each other about the white man’s burden. But America is neither Rome nor even Britain. It is England without the old ruling class. It is the place to which people ran away to look after their own gardens—the City on the Hill, the nation of friendship to all but entangling alliances with none. To be sure, the American people will fight if they think they are attacked or are about to be. But they have not the virtues, or perhaps the vices, needed for settled imperialism. Their ideal is the detached house in the suburbs, the two cars in the garage, the barbecues in the sun. They will not, like the Spartan mothers, send their sons off to endless wars with the injunction to return with or on their shields. That is why they ran away from Vietnam and Lebanon and Somalia, and will probably not stay long in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This is not to pour scorn on the Americans, but just to say what sort of people they are. A nation aware of its weaknesses may be said to have no weaknesses—for it will avoid showing the need to display them. The Americans have created the greatest of all commercial civilisations—a place where the good life is within the reach of anyone who will work for it. But they are not the new Romans. The same, if with obvious reservations, is true of us. At best, we can act spasmodically as if we were. And to do anything spasmodically is generally worse than not to do it at all.
There is the danger to civilisation. Perhaps if it were the new Rome, America—or America-plus-Anglosphere—could settle down to remake the world to its own taste. But it is not. All it can do is make tremendous periodic messes, and then walk away from them at the first ebbing of enthusiasm. For all we may pity them, the lesser breeds without the law will be better off in the long term if we simply leave them alone.
If we do get out of this war without suffering most of the consequences we richly deserve, the lesson must be not to get ourselves into another one. Our civilisation will not survive a whole run of such wars. And this is why—always leaving Mr Bush to his own people—it is so important to remember the man whose vanity and lack of judgement got us into the war, and at the earliest opportunity to remove him. Ceterum censeo Antonium esse delendum.