"The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime" - Edward Grey, ominously, at the outbreak of WW1.
The century started energetically. In 1902, with Queen Victoria died an era. The Wright brothers took off and the world started switching on its new-fangled electricity. Social movements fermented - socialists, suffragettes, nationalists, reformists, ‘Young Turks’ of many descriptions. Aristocratic power-holders kept the political brakes jammed on, whether in Austria, Russia or China. Capitalists pushed a relentless agenda of profit, large-scale modernisation and power. A tension was in the air.
The world was ripe for revolution: in China, Mexico, Portugal, Russia, Turkey and Ireland it soon happened. A multidisciplinary scientific-technical revolution proliferated too. Population rose dramatically and societies changed, racing time itself. This potent brew brought us the ‘war to end all wars’. Except it wasn’t.
WW1 exposed the dark shadow of the century: at whatever cost, the ruling order wanted its way. This rather pointless total war cost 10 million dead and 20 million wounded. So weakened was humanity that a further 22 million died worldwide in an influenza epidemic just after peace came. At root, WW1 fought against the century’s good-hearted, promising, progressive new possibilities.
Something fundamental happened between 1905 and 1945. The old-fashioned Habsburg, Romanov, Ottoman and Ch’ing empires fell. The world bifurcated into two systems, capitalist and socialist, both with upsizing, materialist, inherently violent and controlling intent.
USA and USSR grew in might. Totalitarian fascism flourished. Nationalism grew across Asia. In the Depression, brought about by a speculator-driven crash on Wall Street, capitalism nearly collapsed. Everywhere, it seemed, the state was taking over.
WW2 was a fight for Europe and Asia. More millions died, and the collateral and environmental damage was enormous. The world could have inherited four superpowers: German Europe, Japanese Asia, USA and USSR, lasting decades. However, it didn’t – it inherited a Cold War between two superpowers instead.
Enormous changes surged forward: nuclear weapons, mass-production, family ethics, technical breakthroughs, colonial independence, American expansionism, mass media, covert operations.
An entirely new context had dawned. Jazz, movies, radio, telephones, automobiles, gadgetry, skyscrapers and the mass market became new everyday realities. In the late 1940s, the newly-founded UN and World Bank meant global institutions had finally landed on Earth. As had the first reports of ETs, quickly suppressed.
Social welfare systems, high-tech industries, massive investment and big government characterised the postwar times. After WW2 everyone wanted just to forget, to earn money, shop at supermarkets and watch TV. Meanwhile for many people in the client ‘Third World’, there was hardship, famine and oppression on a new scale, duly reported by the now world-spanning media.
Something was missing. ‘Progress’ had ricocheted momentously through history, forgetting the point of it all and its meaning to people. Relative affluence provided soil for new, young impulses. Rock’n’roll, rebellious imagination, new realism and utterly new awarenesses broke out, pointing fingers at the Orwellian, war-weary, polluting, harsh and colourless world of the 1960s.
Humanity’s undernourished heart welled up in a multiplicity of nascent movements expressing every need and dream the world could muster: conservationists, feminists, spiritual seekers, hippies, Arab nationalists, black power, new left activists and Red Guards all ripped up their past, peering anxiously at the future.
Ongoingly, population, environmental impacts, military might and social intensity multiplied. Each decade brought a torrent of mixed developments - liberating breakthroughs and escalating evils. Humanity both progressed and blinkered itself. Brilliant evolutionary leaps in space exploration, computers, social experiments, natural sciences, globalisation and daily life all had their overlooked down sides.
Humankind was in a hurry. It didn’t want to look at deeper, bigger agendas. Increasingly, the stick was giving way to the carrot: in the 1980s, in a last rush to get rich before anything else happened, capitalism, marketed as the pinnacle of freedom and prosperity, extended itself worldwide. The socialist dream turned tragic, collapsing from within – not, in truth, out of greater wrongness, more out of sclerotic inflexibility.
When Fukuyama declared the ‘End of History’ in 1989, he implied that most that could be done in the modern world context had been done - well, his claim sold lots of books, and sales were the name of the game.
Breakthroughs were indeed happening, yet they represented more of the same. A change loomed, and few dared mention it. This remarkable century, bringing a global village and a new future, was not yet ready to make the necessary decisions to initiate that Mother of All Changes.
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