The false inevitability of historical events
To take inevitable historical narratives at face value is to presume the historian as some sort of post-facto prophet rather than what she actually is: a mortician of human events
There are no inevitabilities in history. As much as we would like to think that there is an inherent logic of some kind in the course of human events, humans are in fact entirely bonkers, humanity is capable of anything, and it is often left to poor historians to make sense of it all.
And yet such “inevitable” explanations for historical events thrive. And they sell lots of books.
For instance—you may have read in many places—the economic chaos in Germany after its defeat in World War I obviously sowed the seeds of the second cataclysm that followed. More recently, one is told that the rise of populist-nationalist political movements all over the world is an inevitable outcome of the dislocations created by globalization.
No doubt such arguments make for compelling reading. Yet, it is always best to take such accounts of “inevitabilities” with scepticism—for several reasons. Let me point out just two.
First, many such “inevitable” sequences of historical events tend to ignore the possibility that each step in these sequences could have unfolded in different ways. A minuscule swing in voting patterns in the US, for instance, would have seen Hillary Clinton elected as president. Had that happened, would the narrative of globalization-led discontent in white working-class voters have as much weight as it does now? Instead, we would be talking of how America had inevitably progressed from the post-race society of Barack Obama to the post-gender society of Clinton.
Alas, the fine margins of real life events rarely justify these grand narratives of inevitability.
Second, these narratives of “inevitable” events often depend on arbitrary beginnings and ends. Consider the US again. The next US election could curtail the Donald Trump era, bring someone else to power—Oprah Winfrey, The Rock, Jeff Bezos, Raghuram Rajan, Stan Lee—thereby unleashing a thousand confident new narratives to explain why Trump lost, and why the Winfrey-Rajan ticket was an inevitable reflowering of the modern American society. Or something.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that many historical narratives sound inevitable only because we make them up after the fact. But enough theory. Let me illustrate this with a couple of examples.
Two years ago, I attended a series of lectures and seminars on “Islam And Politics”. It was a fascinating overview of how the Islamic world has grappled with political ideas and institutions. During one of the sessions, we began to discuss the modern Saudi Arabian state. Would things ever change, one of the students asked. Will the Saudi nation ever be able to break free from the clutches of the clerics?
Our lecturer seemed sceptical. State and religion had a profoundly symbiotic relationship in the kingdom, he said. While the king depended on the clerics for religious legitimacy, the clerics drew their power, and livelihoods, from the office of the king. It would take something remarkable to break an equation that had held the Saudi state together for generations.
Just two years later, Mohammed bin Salman appears to be rewriting that equation with ease. Some house arrest, it seems, has dispelled many theological doubts. And lo and behold, we now have narratives for why Salman’s “reforms” were inevitable. Eventually, the Saudis will run out of oil, we are told, and something had to be done to pre-empt Saudi discontent. And Salman, according to a BBC story, wants Saudis to work just as hard as before, toe the same line of loyalty as before, but also have fun for a change. Which explains why this Friday a stadium in Jeddah will host a mega pro-wrestling contest: the WWE Greatest Royal Rumble. The main sponsor of the event is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself.
My second example is the case of Bangladeshi women. Around the time I was attending those lectures, I purchased a used copy of the 1973 edition of Readings In World History, Volume 6: The Islamic World. Inside it was a newspaper cutting from an October 1976 issue of The Guardian (I confess the cutting was half the reason for my purchase). The story about Bangladeshi women was headlined: “Despised And Rejected, The Most Miserable Women On Earth”. The story is every column-inch as heart-breaking as the headline would have you believe. The Bangladeshi woman, it said, was poor, illiterate, and nothing more than a son-making machine. She lived, it said, on the edge of the Malthusian nightmare.
Yet, just earlier this week, Kaushik Basu wrote in a Project Syndicate column that Bangladesh was emerging as an aspiring “tiger” economy. And that this “was driven in large part by social changes, starting with the empowerment of women”. Education, wrote Basu, has given the woman “a greater voice, both in the household and the public sphere”. Basu goes on to say that thanks to this reason and others, and with good leadership, Bangladesh is on its way to becoming the next Asian success story. Thus the Malthusian inevitability of 1976 has passed, and the Booming Bangladesh of 2018 is upon us.
To take these inevitable historical narratives at face value is to presume the historian as some sort of post-facto prophet rather than what she actually is: a mortician of human events. But there is another problem. To impose timelines of inevitability on human affairs is to deny human beings their limitless capacity to do the most surprising, unpredictable things.
Let us be wary of painting targets around random arrows and calling it destiny.
Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview
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