The hardest thing, Orwell once said, is to see what’s right before one’s nose. It should be apparent to any reasonable person, by now, that we’re living through an eerie, lethal rerun of the 1930s. A fallen empire, in which people who expected lives of plenty now live at the edge of ruin, wracked by inflation and debt. A bellowing demagogue, who promises to make fallen middle classes great again. Nazis rising to power — while being glorified, legitimized, and by media, who coddles and promotes them, in the guise of “questioning” them. Demonization and scapegoating. Dehumanization and expropriation. Pseudoscience. The wheels of the state becoming machines to cleanse away the impure — so the soil belongs only to the pure, the strong, and the true.
The plot line is just the same — only the characters have changed. America is Weimar Germany. But the story has changed not one single bit. All that is left to see is whether the ending will rewrite itself just the same way, too. Perhaps you are right, and America will stop short of the unthinkable — but that, my friends is the very lowest of bars. And there’s Steve Bannon, being applauded in Canada and Australia. What the…? Has the world lost its mind? Perhaps, perhaps.
The 1930s are repeating themselves. Could there be a more urgent lesson from history? And yet here we are. How often do you see this story told, explained, discussed, or illuminated? Why isn’t it? Have you ever wondered? I do. Every day. And here is what I think.
The first reason we haven’t learned from the 1930s is ignorance. Of the soft kind — negligence, let’s say. Today’s leaders, in their 40s and 50s and 60s, are just old enough to have forgotten all these lessons — and the one that followed them. That after the war, we finally understood that sudden poverty destabilizes democracies into fascism, and therefore, we built a global order to prevent exactly that. The explicit goal of the post-war world was to end war forever. Yes, really. Can you imagine a greater ambition that that? That is why the UN and World Bank and so on dedicated themselves to eliminating global poverty — not as a moral crusade, but as political imperative. We built a world to end violence, by ending poverty. And the truth is that until recently, when neoliberalism mounted something like a soft coup, after the financial crisis of 2008, we were succeeding, too — poverty fell dramatically, and violence, with it. But success is not the point — understanding is.
This was history’s greatest lesson, ever, period, full stop — that poverty is the greatest bad known to humankind. (In the same way that we speak of books or healthcare as “goods.”) Until the second world war, we didn’t have an explanation for war, violence, ruin — and hence, we had no power over it whasoever. Human history was therefore just a long cycle of violence, repeating itself forever. War, violence was imagined to be a thing unto itself, which no one could explain or predict. Only following the war did human beings understand, for the first time, that it was poverty which ignites violence, tribalism, and regress. We gained the power to stop and prevent war, for the first time in human history. That is why under the global consensus of the 1950s, war and violence finally began to slow, as poverty began to fall.
Only one nation didn’t seem interested in learning this lesson — and my second reason we haven’t learned anything from the 1930s is hubris. That nation was America. American, paranoid about communism, instead of devoting itself to ending war, began starting them. Korea, Viet Nam, Nicaragua, and so forth. Wherever the specter of communism appeared, there was America — shooting guns at it. But you can’t kill a ghost with bullets. And so America fought needless war after war — instead of building the systems to end poverty within its own borders — only to end up losing the Cold War, as Russia, laughing, destabilized it without firing a bullet, because it had no working democratic institutions left. I’ll come back to that.
But there was a truer price of the Cold War, too — not an economic one, but an intellectual, even a moral one. America never really came to believe in any of the above. That poverty causes violence, by sparking despair, division, spite, and resentment. Instead, the Cold War was a way for America to go on believing what it always had — that poverty is a moral just dessert. If you are poor — you must deserve to be, because you are lazy, indolent, and weak. If you are rich, you must be courageous, bold, resourceful, and honest. Now — has any of that ever been true, in human history? Is a rich man an honest one? Is a poor man a lazy one? The story of kings and peasants alone tells us this moral theory is as false as a black sun. And yet America was founded upon a kind of blinding ignorance to history’s greatest lesson.
Why? Because it needed to be, to justify slavery, if you think about it. Blacks had to be imagined to be inferior, in order to provide a moral justification for enslaving them. So every kind of vice was assigned to them. They were sinful, foolish, empty-headed, only fit to be put to work, and even then watched over with whips. They were beyond redemption. Hence, today, America is the nation in which an academic can make a career publishing bizarre theories about some “races” being inherently inferior, whether in terms of IQ or strength, and call it “science.” It’s not exactly a giant leap from there to fascism, is it?
Now. Do you see the problem here? The moral philosophy that it was born with made it impossible, more or less, for America to learn history’s greatest lesson. Poverty causes violence, and organized mass violence is just fascism. Poverty is the greatest bad the world has ever known — it is the prime mover, the true cause, of ills. But for America, poverty was not unjust — it was just: not a bad, but a good. The true bad was eliminating poverty — because the poor, who were weak, were parasites, upon the strong. Again, do you see how fascism is hardly a giant leap away from such a belief?
As a result, what came to be celebrated in America was greed, gluttony, avarice, pride, and a kind flamboyant egotism. If one became rich, one could prove one’s self virtuous, humble and resourceful and charitable and so on. But one can hardly get rich without being greedy and gluttonous in the first place. Do you see how strange and backwards this moral logic is? What kind of bizarre, twisted contortions it leaves us in?
The consequence of supposing that poverty wasn’t a bad, but something more like a good and just punishment for the lazy and weak, was that in America, the point of society didn’t become to eliminate poverty — it simply became to get rich. By about 2000 or so, by any means necessary. And if millions were left poor along the way, that was perfectly fine, because poverty was not inherently bad to begin with — but deserved. Hence by the 2010s, while there was less poverty in the world — in America, it was growing, like a hidden cancer.
Can you see the inevitable outcome of not learning history’s greatest lesson? America was doomed to repeat it. Instead of becoming a truly rich nation, America become something like a gladiatorial arena. The last few left standing became unimaginably rich — Bezos, Gates, Buffett — but everyone else’s life withered, shrank, and receded. Poverty grew, swelled, and exploded — until 80% of Americans were living paycheck to paycheck, and couldn’t scrape together $1000 for an emergency. What did history’s greatest lesson say would happen next? Fascism, of course. And that is exactly what did. At the precise instant that the American middle class imploded, and poverty exploded, fascism ignited. Within just two years, it had set fire to the house of democracy.
Do you see how ironic and funny all this is? And how tragic, too? America never learned history’s greatest lesson — through ignorance, both explicit and implicit — and the inescapable, obvious, thoroughly predictable result was that it ended up repeating it. Only at light-speed.
And now the country that repeated the history of the 1930s, because it never learned history’s greatest lesson, is spreading fascism across the globe. License — that is the third reason history’s repeating itself. What’s America doing now? Well, it’s exporting fascism. There’s Steve Bannon, on his speaking tour. He’s being welcomed with open arms, by media and pundits in Canada and Australia and Britain. There’s Facebook and Twitter — where would global fascism be without them? It’s worth an essay of its own — but today, America’s greatest export is fascism.
What happened in the 1930s? People treated fascism like some kind of intriguing, seductive new idea, worthy of studying like Plato, Aristotle, or Kant. Fascism for elites today is something just like that — which is just another way to say: they haven’t learned a damned thing from history to begin with. But that was a crucial part of the story before, too. Instead of asking: “isn’t the denial of personhood, isn’t supremacy, isn’t dehumanization, something that should repel and disgust us, as fundamentally immoral and backwards?”, elites are treating such propositions like alluring, clever intellectual games. But they are not games. They are forms of violence — malice, spite, abuse, hate.
American hubris and ignorance are spreading, like wildfire, across the globe now. America has legitimized fascism, and is now exporting it. That has given society after society a kind of license, to pretend as if the 1930s never happened — and to imagine that fascism is something new and interesting, seductive and promising, bold and brave. Thus, whether in Sweden, Canada, or Australia, we see extremists soaring and surging — having been licensed and legitimized, every kind of ignorance is now proudly permitted to masquerade as deep insight, wisdom, and truth.
And all that teaches us: history’s greatest lesson has gone unlearned. Instead, you and I are surrounded by thwarted, frustrated men who wish, all over again, to do violence, and place everyone else at their feet, in order to earn the power and glory they were told all their lives long is rightfully theirs. Kings and fuhrers, serfs and peasants. It’s an old story — the oldest one of all. Why haven’t we learned it? Because ignorance, hubris, and license combined, radiating outwards from America — and shattered the mind of the world. Bang!
Yet history’s greatest lesson is in many ways the simplest of all. Poverty? Violence. It took human beings millennia to learn it. If this feels like an age where imbeciles rule, my friends, that is because imbecility is now what passes for intelligence, wisdom, and insight. And that is because we have forgotten — both on the left and the right — history’s greatest lesson. To teach it. To speak it. To learn it ourselves. Where else, then, could we end up, but like America? Repeating history, not just without even knowing it, nor even because we do not know it — but because, puffed up with hubris, indignant with ignorance, we do not care to.
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