Plum in the middle of the FT’s comment section, Simon Schama has his chance to reach a verdict on the world at the end of 2009. If any of your younger relatives ever need to ask what is meant by ‘overwrought, melodramatic prose’, go to this column:
Long ago, we were told by the French historians of the Annales School that spectacular events were but spume on the crest of history’s waves; that what really shaped the shoreline was the invisible pull of deep tides and currents far beneath the surface. Long-term influences are what change the world. It does not take analytical genius to see historical forces of this kind engaged in their relentless impoverishment over the past 10 years.
What relentless impoverishment, you ask? The great historian answers:
Give me a sceptic and I will take him to Shanghai or São Paulo on a day of ripe smog and see how sceptical he remains while coughing his guts into a mask and peering at brown sunlight as if through a dome of begrimed glass.
So environmental, then – the problem is waste management and resources in the Third World – something that used to alarm and depress me as an Isle of Wight fourth former in 1985, learning endlessly about the favelas. (ironically, Brazil is meant to be a beacon of hope). But no, it is more than that:
pandemics have returned: in which, like some as yet unwritten scripture, the animal kingdom – avian, porcine, bovine – is a bellwether of human perishability. All of which seems to put the nail in the coffin of a collective optimism born 200 years ago, when the Enlightenment envisioned a world illuminated by reason, banishing the afflictions of ignorance, poverty, war and disease.
Here you start to wonder: where is the historian? You would have thought that the Depression, World Wars, Cold War and possibility of nuclear annihilation might have popped that particular bubble of optimism sometime before 2009. And is Schama really sure that Lagos rubbish heaps and swine flu are the final blow for optimistic progress? He surely knows all about previous famines and pandemics. Does he know how few people have died of swine flu? As is often the case with miserabilism, it rests of temporarily forgetting proportion – particularly historical – and opting for colourful language. On the subject of which, here is his argument for Marx, Ford and capitalists in general being wrong:
none of those prophets could have anticipated that the main obstacle to their respective programmes for social felicity in the third millennium AD would be a war to restore a theocratic caliphate and extend Sharia over the face of the earth. Nor that the most formidable weapon of this campaign would be the ecstatic embrace of mass death,
Huh? Now I am winging it, but if I were Marx and were told that in 150 years an enemy of capitalism so weak and desperate should emerge that the only weapon it possesses is the suicide bomb, I would conclude that capitalism has won. As the Japanese showed, the suicide bomb, while being terrible and inhumane, is the spasm of weakness of a defeated enemy. It is not a solid step on the road to a Caliphate, for which you need to keep your soldiers alive. 19th century imperialists would not have blinked at such behaviour, because their standards were so brutal – you shoot at us, we raze your village – that the casualties would have seemed trivial. The difficulties we have in wars right now are as much a reflection of the higher standards modern armies have, than any terminal weakness. But for Professor Schama it is somehow the final nail in the coffin of capitalistic optimism, despite the method having claimed a tiny number of Western lives.*
Further cliches abound. As well as ‘theocracy on the march’ (it seems in retreat in Iran, by the way), we have the Oligarchic Chinese, who might actually protect us from ‘theocratic delirium and capitalist fecklessness’. Never mind that it is by finally indulging in such fecklessness that the Chinese have been able to grow at all to the semi-developed state they are in. China: 200m people on half-European standards of living, attached to another billion or so still in deep impoverishment. And the West is terrified, because they run an export surplus.
There then follows some naked pretension about the Web: “the most paradoxical polarity to have opened up in the past 10 years may not be between anarchy and authority so much as between solipsism and community; between the iPod with its headphoned sovereignty of Me Alone and its apparent opposite: hunger for networking”.
I loved Citizens, and have always wanted to set aside time to I had read the Embarassment of Riches. Schama is clearly a brilliant historian. But this article is a strange hotch-potch of ideas, that use little of this skill. I agree to some extent with the environmental concerns, but for the rest, it is so weak that it could be a spoof.
(I had hoped to effortlessly swing over to Hamish McRae’s optimism about economic growth, the Economist’s excellent demolition of that classic of the miserabilist canon, the ‘we don’t make things any more’ fallacy, and Brad De Long’s concern that the public does not get what it has gained from the bailouts. But I lack the finesse, this late in the year).
*What of other lives? Well, even in Iraq it has not managed to push the country’s mortality rate above . . . Britain’s. See Wiki figures. No matter what grabs the headlines, access to sanitation, and age structure, are a bigger factor for Death than the violence of the misguided young, which is in long-term decline. Oh, and alcoholism. I could understand Russian miserabilism . ..