In a recent article on Medium Tobias Stone argued that we could be sleep-walking into World War III. Humans recurrently stumble into periods of mass blood-letting. On the eve of war, few of its victims recognise the gravity of what is upon them. Small events can trigger a chain reaction that leads to a major catastrophe. At the time, they appear thoroughly unexceptional, but to historians they mark the beginning of huge, world-changing periods.
“My point is that this is a cycle. It happens again and again, but as most people only have a 50–100-year historical perspective they don’t see that it’s happening again. As the events that led to the First World War unfolded, there were a few brilliant minds who started to warn that something big was wrong, that the web of treaties across Europe could lead to a war, but they were dismissed as hysterical, mad, or fools, as is always the way, and as people who worry about Putin, Brexit, and Trump are dismissed now.”
“Brexit — a group of angry people winning a fight — easily inspires other groups of angry people to start a similar fight, empowered with the idea that they may win. That alone can trigger chain reactions. A nuclear explosion is not caused by one atom splitting, but by the impact of the first atom that splits causing multiple other atoms near it to split, and they in turn causing multiple atoms to split. The exponential increase in atoms splitting, and their combined energy is the bomb. That is how World War One started and, ironically how World War Two ended.”
This kind of catastrophizing is increasingly common. Fortunately, it usually rests on very shaky ground.
Fearing the Worst: Brexit and Trump
Stone claims that the world is teetering on a knife edge, and that even the slightest touch could send us spiralling into the abyss. On the one hand, I and lots of others have felt the same anxious twinge, as if events were outpacing the world. I agree that there are lots of possible events on the horizon which could seriously destabilise the status quo:
1. The election of Donald Trump (significantly increases the likelihood of a major power war)
2. The disintegration of the EU (fractures the main vehicle for post-war peace in Europe)
3. The migration crisis (climactic and demographic pressures will intensify migratory flows)
4. The impact of climate change (the net cost and indirect, destabilising effects)
5. The economy (volatile, unequal and profoundly anti-human; conditions everything else)
6. A polycentric world (the transition from U.S. hegemony could be dangerous)
7. Destructive power is increasing and becoming more decentralised (think 3D printer WMDs)
Some of these are more probable than others, but all have a certain apocalyptic plausibility. But there is a long tradition of doom-mongering. As much as I might think of these possible crises as omens of a coming dark-age, large numbers of people have proffered exactly the same kinds of predictions across history. I am humble enough to recognise that I might be wrong. Stone talks of the world sleep-walking into World War III, oblivious of the portent of Brexit and Trump, but myopia works both ways: people across history have predicted that catastrophe was right around the corner, and have proven unable to imagine how future generations would overcome great societal problems, or how some problems seamlessly become non-problems. And the numbers are on the side of hope. There are far more false predictions than actual, world-changing calamities.
Until recently, most people believed that a nuclear exchange between the USA and USSR was virtually inevitable. Ever since Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population, we have heard that population growth would soon outstrip food supplies — to the death of millions. Experts have estimated that we would reach peak oil (the point of maximum oil production, from which there is only a decline) every decade since the 1960s. Every generation since at least Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West has lamented the collapse of civilisation itself. Nietzsche complained that the Western world had taken a wrong turn at Plato, some 400 years before the death of Christ. Once it was said that the USSR would spread its communistic tentacles to ensnare the world, for a brief period — after the Cold War but just before Japan’s demographic troubles — it was widely touted that the USA and Japan had entered into a deadly rivalry, a privilege now bestowed upon China. Suffice it to say that fear often prevails at the expense of our better judgement.
That is not to say that we should be complacent. Clearly, the prospect of Trump becoming President, or Bangladesh disappearing underwater, should terrify us. Fear can be a powerful impetus for action. But we should not automatically assume the worst.
Stone is right that small-scale events can trigger a chain reaction leading to big consequences. The archetypal example is the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Yet small events only have big consequences when history creates a ‘window of opportunity’. The assassination of Ferdinand only set in motion the cogs of WW1 because of the big, sweeping events of the time: the Second Industrial Revolution, the scramble for colonies, and the arms race in which Germany and Britain had been embattled for decades.
There are always a huge number of potentially disruptive events. But very few of them actually yield an effect. That’s because the world has to be so fragile that a single individual can topple an entire historical edifice. Think of it like a domino effect. The pieces have to be lined up in exactly the right way.
If what I am saying is true, we cannot make historical predictions on the basis of the actions of a few reckless events — because there will always be reckless events. Instead, we need to zoom-out and look at the socio-historical context. What is and is not possible at a point in time? Could the disintegration of the EU really bring an end to the Western world?
Crucially, Stone does not make this kind of detailed, historical argument. Instead, he relies on the outdated idea of a cycle of war: that no matter the historical context, war will always reappear with a vengeance.
Cycles of War: Time to Die
The idea that history whirls round in pre-determined cycles is wrong. It is wrong if we look at the statistical evidence, and if we look at the nature of history itself. It is neither the case that huge catastrophic events are evenly spaced across time, or that those events have any great similarity to one another.
Statistically, we have the benefit of huge data-sets which record every single war in modern history. That means that we can statistically analyse exactly when wars stop and start, and figure out if there is any underlying pattern.
When academics did this, they came across a startling discovery: complete randomness. War does not come in clusters or cycles. There is no statistically significant effect of the onset of one war on the onset of another. It neither increases nor decreases the likelihood of a successive war. When Stone says there are cycles of war, he is simply wrong.
Historically, there are good reasons to believe that there cannot be cycles in any domain of human life whatsoever. Not only are there not cycles of violence, there are not any re-occurrences in human history. As soon as you begin to weave a grand narrative, you begin to lose sight of the radical kinds of differences that exist between different historical ages. The Black Death, the Thirty Years War, and World War Two are irreconcilably different events, which need to be appreciated in their particularity.
This does not mean that we shouldn’t try to identify generalisations: there are important macro-level trends, when things point in one direction or another (think Moore’s Law), and commonalities in the kinds of situations and processes which people and groups find themselves in (think arms races).
Yet the relevance of even these kinds of generalisations is questionable: there is always a super-abundance of new variables, a quantity and quality of change which no one can ever understand the full significance of. The replication of a scientific experiment requires that every variable is the same as in the original experiment. In human history, virtually every single variable changes. This means that we can predict, well, almost nothing.
Why is history random and contingent, rather than cyclical and predictable? Because it is radically open. Humans are both the objects of historical study, and the subjects of history itself. Unlike plants or bacteria, we make our own history. We are not simply observers ‘looking in’, but actors ‘driving’ history.
Nothing is foregone, because everything depends on the choice of humans. Yet those choices are not made in a vacuum, but in a definite socio-historical context. In the words of Marx:
“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.”
There is a world of difference between learning from the past, and simply expecting the past to repeat itself. History is harder than that.
*Stone cites a webpage which he says ‘shows all the wars over time’. In fact, it contains ~150 wars since 1200 BC. The most authoritative list of wars used by scholars lists over 940 wars since 1816 alone.