The Slow Death of Progressive History and the Fading Promise of the Liberal Future
Premodern historians did not believe that human society and politics were subject to general forward progress. Things happened. There were good and bad kings, there were abundant seasons and famines. There were heresies, insurrections and heroes, and ancient chroniclers never hesitated to pass moral judgment. Some might have suspected that things had gotten worse, or that their contemporaries had forgotten past virtues. Yet they did not, as a rule, have a directional view of history. In the West, the Christian liturgy encapsulated their highest, most formal conception of human time. This was a seasonal cycle of saints’ feasts, punctuated by the commemoration of Christ’s life on earth, and culminating with the Easter Resurrection. It repeated every year.
Now, this is a broad claim and subject to qualification. It is true, for example, that Christian writers had some teleological conceptions in the religious sphere. Pious and good nations would win; military defeats represented just punishment for sin. Christianity would triumph and the pagans would be baptised. This was, however, a very limited understanding of historical development compared to our own. Christian nations were not expected to advance towards ever higher states of virtue and piety. Human society remained fundamentally of this world, and humans were flawed and sinful regardless of their confession. The future transcendental moment, the Second Coming, would happen from outside, and not via any purely human achievement.
Since the eighteenth century, Westerners departed from these ancient views and began to suspect that the story of humanity was one of progress. This new view reflects many intertwined forces, among them the increasing pace of industrialisation and technological development, the rise of liberal politics and the associated progressive historical understandings of thinkers like Hegel. Most decisive, though, was the pervasive secularisation that occurred alongside the Enlightenment. Westerners did not abandon their eschatological views as religion retreated; they merely relocated them. The “kingdom” which (in the words of the Nicene Creed) “will have no end” was now to be realised not by the future return of Jesus Christ, but by the perfection of human society. A new directional scheme descended upon history, inspiring in the political sphere what Rolf Peter Sieferle has called a move towards “Realtranszendenz”, or “transcendence in reality.”1
The communists no less than the fascists developed programmes of Realtranszendenz, placing their faith in redistributive economic schemes and the delimitation of national ethnic identities to achieve the desired future state. The Marxists hoped for a future utopian state of communism; the National Socialists promised a millenarianist thousand-year Reich. Neither came about, and so it is only liberal transcendence that survives today. As I write this, the standard view is that things are always getting better, that society is always becoming more free, and that human government is always trending towards greater wisdom, justice and representativeness. At the end of the Cold War, many Western liberals asked whether they had finally arrived at their own transcendent moment. In a famous 1989 article, turboliberal Francis Fukuyama proposed that the West had achieved its own “thousand-year reich”:2
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
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