Fintan O’Toole: We should imagine the abyss so we don’t fall into it
We live in a post-postwar world but the lessons of history must not be forgotten
Rwandese refugees, 1994: the genocide in Rwanda was somehow glimpsed in peripheral vision. Nothing much changed because of it. Photograph: Jeremiah Kamau/Reuters
We used to live in the postwar world. And now we live in the post-postwar world, a world in which anything can happen. The war in “postwar” was the long and catastrophic global conflict that ran from 1914 to 1945 and brought humanity to the great abysses of the western front, Auschwitz, the Siberian gulags, the Maoist death camps. And the postwar world was the set of arrangements that evolved as ways of containing this obvious capacity for self-destruction.
Some of these arrangements were positive: the United Nations, the European Union, international financial institutions, pacts to free up global trade. Some were negative – the threat of “mutually assured destruction” (with the apt acronym MAD) that gave the cold war its weirdly apocalyptic stability. These arrangements were not idyllic – if you lived in Vietnam or El Salvador you would not have recognised the idea that the horrors of the long war had been contained. But they gave some shape to things.
And it seemed that, over time, this shape would become ever more uniform. As the world became a single marketplace, political systems would cohere around some version of liberal democracy, cultural differences would be subsumed into a consumerism that could satisfy all desires and aspirations, and national identities would be mediated through and sterilised by supranational institutions and affiliations. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seemed that the big war really was over, that the stars of technology and politics were aligning to create the possibility of an integrated planet in which enlightened values and mutual interests would gradually reduce the chances of chaos and conflict. Even when the abyss opened up again, in the breakup of Yugoslavia or the genocide in Rwanda, it was somehow glimpsed in peripheral vision. Such things were reminders of a dark past, not warnings of a dark future. Nothing much changed because of them – the United Nations, whose impotence was hideously exposed, was largely unreformed.
This last phase of the postwar world was not unreal. In Ireland, it felt very real indeed. The Northern Ireland peace process was both a product and an exemplar of the mood of optimism, a living embodiment of the cliche of “putting the past behind us”. The apparent economic miracle south of the Border also seemed globally exemplary: if Ireland could be transformed from basket case to poster child by cutting taxes and regulations and opening itself to an extreme form of globalisation, everybody else could do likewise. There was a time – how long ago it seems! – when Bertie Ahern could charge top dollar on the international lecture circuit for two talks – one on conflict resolution, the other on the Irish economic model – both showing the way forward for more benighted nations.
Likewise, if you were Polish or Czech or Hungarian, the notion of being postwar at last, of no longer being dragged along in the long wake of the first World War, the Bolshevik revolution and Hitler, really meant something. But if the long war was finally over and the West had won, it misunderstood its own victory. It subjected the collapsing Soviet Union to the shock therapy of a raw struggle for control of resources, creating both an oligarchy and a mafia state to which Russians reacted with a desire for order cunningly exploited by Vladimir Putin.
The consumerist identity it projected was inadequate to the human need for belonging. Without the need to compete with communism by delivering benefits to workers, the fruits of globalisation were instead increasingly delivered to a global super-rich class that in turn used its wealth to corrupt democracy and make ordinary people feel less powerful. Those left behind by technological change and market competition were blithely written off as collateral damage. The Utopian fantasy of turning the whole world into a greater America led neoconservatives to create a new frontier by bombing and invading the recalcitrant. The European Union turned its mind to hubristic projects such as the euro and forgot its essential dread of social instability.
And so we’re not postwar anymore. The victory has been squandered. The institutions that emerged in the first phase of reconstruction after 1945 are in deep trouble. Nato is regarded by the incoming US president as “obsolete”, and he may not be wrong. The impotence of the United Nations in the face of the Syrian catastrophe has made it seem more like a concerned lobby group than the voice of the “international community” – a phrase that itself can longer appear outside quotation marks. The European Union has struggled with the euro crisis, the banking crisis and the refugee crisis, even before Brexit turned its dream of “ever closer union” into a pale fantasy.
But these crises must not be an excuse for amnesia. “Anything can happen” is, in our post-postwar predicament, an expression of deep anxiety, a warning that should be heeded. History tells us that when things fall apart, there is no obscenity that is not possible – the slide from civilisation to barbarism can be steep and precipitous. But “anything” also includes the positive possibilities of humanity. We have the power to imagine the abyss rather than fall into it, and thus to step back from the edge.