In 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War snapped to a close, the American historian Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history. His argument was essentially that the end of the soviet option and of the viability of socialism signified an end to the ideological battle, or dialectic tension, which had generated history. For Fukuyama, history was over because Western liberal democracy was the only viable option left for mankind.
Many historians seemed to buy into this idea, implicitly or explicitly, to a greater or lesser extent. The end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s witnessed the rise of a new type of history: global history. Global history was often narrated as the history of globalisation, which often presented itself as a thinly concealed ‘spread of the west’ narrative. Yet, despite the ways in which the phenomena associated with globalisation inscribed power asymmetries across the global landscape, globalisation was often packaged as something positive. Globalisation was the process of becoming more and more connected. Globalisation was the process of becoming. And this becoming was happening on a greater scale and with a greater speed every day.
This process of becoming had another guise, that of modernisation. Modernisation narratives have taken many forms but are best known for their appearance as progress. The sophistication of the increased connectivity, from telephone pylons to fibre optic cables and satellites, was a sure indicator of progress. What was flowing through these voracious networks of connectivity? You might look up at the comfortingly familiar face of Ronald McDonald in Bangor, Bangkok, or Beijing, or eat your Korean bibimbap in Berlin, and shrug your shoulders, resigned to your lack of agency in this age of super-human networks. You might look down and melt into your smart phone, that little chip of connectivity that ensures you are plugged into the world and not left out of the flows surging ever onwards to the rapidly approaching future – a future so hybridised with the present we can practically be it already.
Yet, increasingly (to use a loaded word), the world is waking up to the ambivalence of globalisation. A glance at any of the headlines in Europe and America this week would reveal the awakening to the acute awareness that connectivity may equal vulnerability. Despite globalisation narratives depicting the ‘great convergence’, or the increase in the homogeneity of the world due to the spread of capitalism and Western models of consumerism, the Western world has realised it does not control global flows. In fact, it is not Western liberal democracy that is spreading around the world but, more likely, Ebola. And modern medicine and modern technologies have not got the instant antidote to hand.
And ‘Western Liberal Democracy’ does not have a monopoly on the ideology flowing through the networks of progressive interconnectedness either. As ISIS extends its territory in the Middle East, it also conducts a successful advertising campaign on social media to extend its number of recruits amongst disaffected youths in the Western world.
The recent conjunction of fear factors reported in frantic flashes on the news apps on our smart phones and desktop have a message for Europeans: globalisation might be bad. Not in the way that Westerners always knew but seldom acknowledge – its contribution to global inequality, modern forms of slavery, and loss of local cultures – but bad in an ideological way. It tricked Westerners into thinking that they were at the centre, creating and controlling the networks, and sedated Westerners into believing that they did not need to think or act as they had already bought a ticket aboard the train of progress.
So, as the intelligent (if historically problematic) article by Pankaj Mishra reported this week, ‘the Western model is broken’. Yet here is a little secret: the Western model never worked. The discipline of history grew up in Europe and was permeated by egoisms of European centrality and the mythology that the spread of European cultures, ideas, and political solutions, equalled progress. Although notions of the superiority of Europe and its role as the leader on the path to progress were dented by events on the 1940s, by the end of the century ideas of progress had found new currency and been repackaged and re-sold in narratives of globalisation.
The current crises are threatening the way in which globalisation can plausibly be presented as progress and any notion of the power or centrality of the Western world in the global system, which, Mishra observes, still appears in contemporary histories. Recent events must prick the historical consciousness, puncture the mythology of progress, and cast doubt on notions of the centrality or agency of the Western world, both now and in the past. We may not be experiencing the end of history, but hopefully we will see the end of narrations of progress and Western arrogance which have often hidden in discourses of modernisation and histories of globalization, and which have generated global problems.
Julia McClure completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield and is a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI. You can follow her on Twitter: @DrJuliaMcClure
Cover image: Map of Ebola’s possible spread, from http://www.mobs-lab.org/ebola.html