A Permanent Revolution

A Permanent Revolution
THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION OPENED up new ways to convert energy and to produce goods, largely liberating humankind from its dependence on the surrounding ecosystem. Humans cut down forests, drained swamps, dammed rivers, flooded plains, laid down tens of thousands of kilometres of railroad tracks, and built skyscraping metropolises. As the world was moulded to fit the needs of Homo sapiens, habitats were destroyed and species went extinct. Our once green and blue planet is becoming a concrete and plastic shopping centre.
Today, the earths continents are home to almost 7 billion Sapiens. If you took all these people and put them on a large set of scales, their combined mass would be about 300 million tons. If you then took all our domesticated farmyard animals – cows, pigs, sheep and chickens – and placed them on an even larger set of scales, their mass would amount to about 700 million tons. In contrast, the combined mass of all surviving large wild animals – from porcupines and penguins to elephants and whales – is less than 100 million tons. Our children’s books, our iconography and our TV screens are still full of giraffes, wolves and chimpanzees, but the real world has very few of them left. There are about 80,000 giraffes in the world, compared to 1.5 billion cattle; only 200,000 wolves, compared to 400 million domesticated dogs; only 250,000 chimpanzees – in contrast to billions of humans. Humankind really has taken over the world.1
Ecological degradation is not the same as resource scarcity. As we saw in the previous chapter, the resources available to humankind are constantly increasing, and are likely to continue to do so. That’s why doomsday prophesies of resource scarcity are probably misplaced. In contrast, the fear of ecological degradation is only too well founded. The future may see Sapiens gaining control of a cornucopia of new materials and energy sources, while simultaneously destroying what remains of the natural habitat and driving most other species to extinction.
In fact, ecological turmoil might endanger the survival of Homo sapiens itself. Global warming, rising oceans and widespread pollution could make the earth less hospitable to our kind, and the future might consequently see a spiralling race between human power and human-induced natural disasters. As humans use their power to counter the forces of nature and subjugate the ecosystem to their needs and whims, they might cause more and more unanticipated and dangerous side effects. These are likely to be controllable only by even more drastic manipulations of the ecosystem, which would result in even worse chaos.
Many call this process ‘the destruction of nature’. But it’s not really destruction, it’s change. Nature cannot be destroyed. Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, but in so doing opened the way forward for mammals. Today, humankind is driving many species into extinction and might even annihilate itself. But other organisms are doing quite well. Rats and cockroaches, for example, are in their heyday. These tenacious creatures would probably creep out from beneath the smoking rubble of a nuclear Armageddon, ready and able to spread their DNA. Perhaps 65 million years from now, intelligent rats will look back gratefully on the decimation wrought by humankind, just as we today can thank that dinosaur-busting asteroid.
Still, the rumours of our own extinction are premature. Since the Industrial Revolution, the world’s human population has burgeoned as never before. In 1700 the world was home to some 700 million humans. In 1800 there were 950 million of us. By 1900 we almost doubled our numbers to 1.6 billion. And by 2000 that quadrupled to 6 billion. Today there are just shy of 7 billion Sapiens.
Modern Time
While all these Sapiens have grown increasingly impervious to the whims of nature, they have become ever more subject to the dictates of modern industry and government. The Industrial Revolution opened the way to a long line of experiments in social engineering and an even longer series of unpremeditated changes in daily life and human mentality. One example among many is the replacement of the rhythms of traditional agriculture with the uniform and precise schedule of industry.
Traditional agriculture depended on cycles of natural time and organic growth. Most societies were unable to make precise time measurements, nor were they terribly interested in doing so. The world went about its business without clocks and timetables, subject only to the movements of the sun and the growth cycles of plants. There was no uniform working day, and all routines changed drastically from season to season. People knew where the sun was, and watched anxiously for portents of the rainy season and harvest time, but they did not know the hour and hardly cared about the year. If a lost time traveller popped up in a medieval village and asked a passerby, ‘What year is this?’ the villager would be as bewildered by the question as by the strangers ridiculous clothing.
In contrast to medieval peasants and shoemakers, modern industry cares little about the sun or the season. It sanctifies precision and uniformity. For example, in a medieval workshop each shoemaker made an entire shoe, from sole to buckle. If one shoemaker was late for work, it did not stall the others. However, in a modern footwear-factory assembly line, every worker mans a machine that produces just a small part of a shoe, which is then passed on to the next machine. If the worker who operates machine no. 5 has overslept, it stalls all the other machines. In order to prevent such calamities, everybody must adhere to a precise timetable. Each worker arrives at work at exactly the same time. Everybody takes their lunch break together, whether they are hungry or not. Everybody goes home when a whistle announces that the shift is over – not when they have finished their project.
42. Charlie Chaplin as a simple worker caught in the wheels of the industrial assembly line, from the film Modern Times (1936).
The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into a template for almost all human activities. Shortly after factories imposed their time frames on human behaviour, schools too adopted precise timetables, followed by hospitals, government offices and grocery stores. Even in places devoid of assembly lines and machines, the timetable became king. If the shift at the factory ends at 5 p.m., the local pub had better be open for business by 5:02.
A crucial link in the spreading timetable system was public transportation. If workers needed to start their shift by 08:00, the train or bus had to reach the factory gate by 07:55. A few minutes’ delay would lower production and perhaps even lead to the lay-offs of the unfortunate latecomers. In 1784 a carriage service with a published schedule began operating in Britain. Its timetable specified only the hour of departure, not arrival. Back then, each British city and town had its own local time, which could differ from London time by up to half an hour. When it was 12:00 in London, it was perhaps 12:20 in Liverpool and 11:50 in Canterbury. Since there were no telephones, no radio or television, and no fast trains – who could know, and who cared?2
The first commercial train service began operating between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830. Ten years later, the first train timetable was issued. The trains were much faster than the old carriages, so the quirky differences in local hours became a severe nuisance. In 1847, British train companies put their heads together and agreed that henceforth all train timetables would be calibrated to Greenwich Observatory time, rather than the local times of Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow. More and more institutions followed the lead of the train companies. Finally, in 1880, the British government took the unprecedented step of legislating that all timetables in Britain must follow Greenwich. For the first time in history, a country adopted a national time and obliged its population to live according to an artificial clock rather than local ones or sunrise-to-sunset cycles.
This modest beginning spawned a global network of timetables, synchronised down to the tiniest fractions of a second. When the broadcast media – first radio, then television – made their debut, they entered a world of timetables and became its main enforcers and evangelists. Among the first things radio stations broadcast were time signals, beeps that enabled far-flung settlements and ships at sea to set their clocks. Later, radio stations adopted the custom of broadcasting the news every hour. Nowadays, the first item of every news broadcast – more important even than the outbreak of war – is the time. During World War Two, BBC News was broadcast to Nazi-occupied Europe. Each news programme opened with a live broadcast of Big Ben tolling the hour – the magical sound of freedom. Ingenious German physicists found a way to determine the weather conditions in London based on tiny differences in the tone of the broadcast ding-dongs. This information offered invaluable help to the Luftwaffe. When the British Secret Service discovered this, they replaced the live broadcast with a set recording of the famous clock.
In order to run the timetable network, cheap but precise portable clocks became ubiquitous. In Assyrian, Sassanid or Inca cities there might have been at most a few sundials. In European medieval cities there was usually a single clock – a giant machine mounted on top of a high tower in the town square. These tower clocks were notoriously inaccurate, but since there were no other clocks in town to contradict them, it hardly made any difference. Today, a single affluent family generally has more timepieces at home than an entire medieval country. You can tell the time by looking at your wristwatch, glancing at your Android, peering at the alarm clock by your bed, gazing at the clock on the kitchen wall, staring at the microwave, catching a glimpse of the TV or DVD, or taking in the taskbar on your computer out of the corner of your eye. You need to make a conscious effort not to know what time it is.
The typical person consults these clocks several dozen times a day, because almost everything we do has to be done on time. An alarm clock wakes us up at 7 a.m., we heat our frozen bagel for exactly fifty seconds in the microwave, brush our teeth for three minutes until the electric toothbrush beeps, catch the 07:40 train to work, run on the treadmill at the gym until the beeper announces that half an hour is over, sit down in front of the TV at 7 p.m. to watch our favourite show, get interrupted at preordained moments by commercials that cost $1,000 per second, and eventually unload all our angst on a therapist who restricts our prattle to the now standard fifty-minute therapy hour.
The Industrial Revolution brought about dozens of major upheavals in human society. Adapting to industrial time is just one of them. Other notable examples include urbanisation, the disappearance of the peasantry, the rise of the industrial proletariat, the empowerment of the common person, democratisation, youth culture and the disintegration of patriarchy.
Yet all of these upheavals are dwarfed by the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market. As best we can tell, from the earliest times, more than a million years ago, humans lived in small, intimate communities, most of whose members were kin. The Cognitive Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution did not change that. They glued together families and communities to create tribes, cities, kingdoms and empires, but families and communities remained the basic building blocks of all human societies. The Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, managed within little more than two centuries to break these building blocks into atoms. Most of the traditional functions of families and communities were handed over to states and markets.
The Collapse of the Family and the Community
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the daily life of most humans ran its course within three ancient frames: the nuclear family, the extended family and the local intimate community.* Most people worked in the family business – the family farm or the family workshop, for example – or they worked in their neighbours’ family businesses. The family was also the welfare system, the health system, the education system, the construction industry, the trade union, the pension fund, the insurance company, the radio, the television, the newspapers, the bank and even the police.
When a person fell sick, the family took care of her. When a person grew old, the family supported her, and her children were her pension fund. When a person died, the family took care of the orphans. If a person wanted to build a hut, the family lent a hand. If a person wanted to open a business, the family raised the necessary money. If a person wanted to marry, the family chose, or at least vetted, the prospective spouse. If conflict arose with a neighbour, the family muscled in. But if a person’s illness was too grave for the family to manage, or a new business demanded too large an investment, or the neighbourhood quarrel escalated to the point of violence, the local community came to the rescue.
The community offered help on the basis of local traditions and an economy of favours, which often differed greatly from the supply and demand laws of the free market. In an old-fashioned medieval community, when my neighbour was in need, I helped build his hut and guard his sheep, without expecting any payment in return. When I was in need, my neighbour returned the favour. At the same time, the local potentate might have drafted all of us villagers to construct his castle without paying us a penny. In exchange, we counted on him to defend us against brigands and barbarians. Village life involved many transactions but few payments. There were some markets, of course, but their roles were limited. You could buy rare spices, cloth and tools, and hire the services of lawyers and doctors. Yet less than 10 per cent of commonly used products and services were bought in the market. Most human needs were taken care of by the family and the community.
There were also kingdoms and empires that performed important tasks such as waging wars, building roads and constructing palaces. For these purposes kings raised taxes and occasionally enlisted soldiers and labourers. Yet, with few exceptions, they tended to stay out of the daily affairs of families and communities. Even if they wanted to intervene, most kings could do so only with difficulty. Traditional agricultural economies had few surpluses with which to feed crowds of government officials, policemen, social workers, teachers and doctors. Consequently, most rulers did not develop mass welfare systems, health-care systems or educational systems. They left such matters in the hands of families and communities. Even on rare occasions when rulers tried to intervene more intensively in the daily lives of the peasantry (as happened, for example, in the Qin Empire in China), they did so by converting family heads and community elders into government agents.
Often enough, transportation and communication difficulties made it so difficult to intervene in the affairs of remote communities that many kingdoms preferred to cede even the most basic royal prerogatives – such as taxation and violence – to communities. The Ottoman Empire, for instance, allowed family vendettas to mete out justice, rather than supporting a large imperial police force. If my cousin killed somebody, the victim’s brother might kill me in sanctioned revenge. The sultan in Istanbul or even the provincial pasha did not intervene in such clashes, as long as violence remained within acceptable limits.
In the Chinese Ming Empire (1368–1644), the population was organised into the baojia system. Ten families were grouped to form a jia, and ten jiaconstituted a bao. When a member of a baocommited a crime, other bao members could be punished for it, in particular the bao elders. Taxes too were levied on the bao, and it was the responsibility of the bao elders rather than of the state officials to assess the situation of each family and determine the amount of tax it should pay. From the empire’s perspective, this system had a huge advantage. Instead of maintaining thousands of revenue officials and tax collectors, who would have to monitor the earnings and expenses of every family, these tasks were left to the community elders. The elders knew how much each villager was worth and they could usually enforce tax payments without involving the imperial army.
Many kingdoms and empires were in truth little more than large protection rackets. The king was the capo di tutti capi who collected protection money, and in return made sure that neighbouring crime syndicates and local small fry did not harm those under his protection. He did little else.
Life in the bosom of family and community was far from ideal. Families and communities could oppress their members no less brutally than do modern states and markets, and their internal dynamics were often fraught with tension and violence – yet people had little choice. A person who lost her family and community around 1750 was as good as dead. She had no job, no education and no support in times of sickness and distress. Nobody would loan her money or defend her if she got into trouble. There were no policemen, no social workers and no compulsory education. In order to survive, such a person quickly had to find an alternative family or community. Boys and girls who ran away from home could expect, at best, to become servants in some new family. At worst, there was the army or the brothel.
All this changed dramatically over the last two centuries. The Industrial Revolution gave the market immense new powers, provided the state with new means of communication and transportation, and placed at the government’s disposal an army of clerks, teachers, policemen and social workers. At first the market and the state discovered their path blocked by traditional families and communities who had little love for outside intervention. Parents and community elders were reluctant to let the younger generation be indoctrinated by nationalist education systems, conscripted into armies or turned into a rootless urban proletariat.
Over time, states and markets used their growing power to weaken the traditional bonds of family and community. The state sent its policemen to stop family vendettas and replace them with court decisions. The market sent its hawkers to wipe out longstanding local traditions and replace them with ever-changing commercial fashions. Yet this was not enough. In order really to break the power of family and community, they needed the help of a fifth column.
The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused. ‘Become individuals,’ they said. ‘Marry whomever you desire, without asking permission from your parents. Take up whatever job suits you, even if community elders frown. Live wherever you wish, even if you cannot make it every week to the family dinner. You are no longer dependent on your family or your community. We, the state and the market, will take care of you instead. We will provide food, shelter, education, health, welfare and employment. We will provide pensions, insurance and protection.’
Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them. The market provides us with work, insurance and a pension. If we want to study a profession, the government’s schools are there to teach us. If we want to open a business, the bank loans us money. If we want to build a house, a construction company builds it and the bank gives us a mortgage, in some cases subsidised or insured by the state. If violence flares up, the police protect us. If we are sick for a few days, our health insurance takes care of us. If we are debilitated for months, social security steps in. If we need around-the-clock assistance, we can go to the market and hire a nurse – usually some stranger from the other side of the world who takes care of us with the kind of devotion that we no longer expect from our own children. If we have the means, we can spend our golden years at a senior citizens’ home. The tax authorities treat us as individuals, and do not expect us to pay the neighbours’ taxes. The courts, too, see us as individuals, and never punish us for the crimes of our cousins.
Not only adult men, but also women and children, are recognised as individuals. Throughout most of history, women were often seen as the property of family or community. Modern states, on the other hand, see women as individuals, enjoying economic and legal rights independently of their family and community. They may hold their own bank accounts, decide whom to marry, and even choose to divorce or live on their own.
But the liberation of the individual comes at a cost. Many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives. States and markets composed of alienated individuals can intervene in the lives of their members much more easily than states and markets composed of strong families and communities. When neighbours in a high-rise apartment building cannot even agree on how much to pay their janitor, how can we expect them to resist the state?
The deal between states, markets and individuals is an uneasy one. The state and the market disagree about their mutual rights and obligations, and individuals complain that both demand too much and provide too little. In many cases individuals are exploited by markets, and states employ their armies, police forces and bureaucracies to persecute individuals instead of defending them. Yet it is amazing that this deal works at all – however imperfectly. For it breaches countless generations of human social arrangements. Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals. Nothing testifies better to the awesome power of culture.
The nuclear family did not disappear completely from the modern landscape. When states and markets took from the family most of its economic and political roles, they left it some important emotional functions. The modern family is still supposed to provide for intimate needs, which state and market are (so far) incapable of providing. Yet even here the family is subject to increasing interventions. The market shapes to an ever-greater degree the way people conduct their romantic and sexual lives. Whereas traditionally the family was the main matchmaker, today it’s the market that tailors our romantic and sexual preferences, and then lends a hand in providing for them – for a fat fee. Previously bride and groom met in the family living room, and money passed from the hands of one father to another. Today courting is done at bars and cafés, and money passes from the hands of lovers to waitresses. Even more money is transferred to the bank accounts of fashion designers, gym managers, dieticians, cosmeticians and plastic surgeons, who help us arrive at the café looking as similar as possible to the markets ideal of beauty.
Family and community vs. state and market
The state, too, keeps a sharper eye on family relations, especially between parents and children. Parents are obliged to send their children to be educated by the state. Parents who are especially abusive or violent with their children may be restrained by the state. If need be, the state may even imprison the parents or transfer their children to foster families. Until not long ago, the suggestion that the state ought to prevent parents from beating or humiliating their children would have been rejected out of hand as ludicrous and unworkable. In most societies parental authority was sacred. Respect of and obedience to one’s parents were among the most hallowed values, and parents could do almost anything they wanted, including killing newborn babies, selling children into slavery and marrying off daughters to men more than twice their age. Today, parental authority is in full retreat. Youngsters are increasingly excused from obeying their elders, whereas parents are blamed for anything that goes wrong in the life of their child. Mum and Dad are about as likely to get off in the Freudian courtroom as were defendants in a Stalinist show trial.
Imagined Communities
Like the nuclear family, the community could not completely disappear from our world without any emotional replacement. Markets and states today provide most of the material needs once provided by communities, but they must also supply tribal bonds.
Markets and states do so by fostering ‘imagined communities’ that contain millions of strangers, and which are tailored to national and commercial needs. An imagined community is a community of people who don’t really know each other, but imagine that they do. Such communities are not a novel invention. Kingdoms, empires and churches functioned for millennia as imagined communities. In ancient China, tens of millions of people saw themselves as members of a single family, with the emperor as its father. In the Middle Ages, millions of devout Muslims imagined that they were all brothers and sisters in the great community of Islam. Yet throughout history, such imagined communities played second fiddle to intimate communities of several dozen people who knew each other well. The intimate communities fulfilled the emotional needs of their members and were essential for everyone’s survival and welfare. In the last two centuries, the intimate communities have withered, leaving imagined communities to fill in the emotional vacuum.
The two most important examples for the rise of such imagined communities are the nation and the consumer tribe. The nation is the imagined community of the state. The consumer tribe is the imagined community of the market. Both are imagined communities because it is impossible for all customers in a market or for all members of a nation really to know one another the way villagers knew one another in the past. No German can intimately know the other 80 million members of the German nation, or the other 500 million customers inhabiting the European Common Market (which evolved first into the European Community and finally became the European Union).
Consumerism and nationalism work extra hours to make us imagine that millions of strangers belong to the same community as ourselves, that we all have a common past, common interests and a common future. This isn’t a lie. It’s imagination. Like money, limited liability companies and human rights, nations and consumer tribes are inter-subjective realities. They exist only in our collective imagination, yet their power is immense. As long as millions of Germans believe in the existence of a German nation, get excited at the sight of German national symbols, retell German national myths, and are willing to sacrifice money, time and limbs for the German nation, Germany will remain one of the strongest powers in the world.
The nation does its best to hide its imagined character. Most nations argue that they are a natural and eternal entity, created in some primordial epoch by mixing the soil of the motherland with the blood of the people. Yet such claims are usually exaggerated. Nations existed in the distant past, but their importance was much smaller than today because the importance of the state was much smaller. A resident of medieval Nuremberg might have felt some loyalty towards the German nation, but she felt far more loyalty towards her family and local community, which took care of most of her needs. Moreover, whatever importance ancient nations may have had, few of them survived. Most existing nations evolved only after the Industrial Revolution.
The Middle East provides ample examples. The Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Iraqi nations are the product of haphazard borders drawn in the sand by French and British diplomats who ignored local history, geography and economy. These diplomats determined in 1918 that the people of Kurdistan, Baghdad and Basra would henceforth be ‘Iraqis’. It was primarily the French who decided who would be Syrian and who Lebanese. Saddam Hussein and Hafez el-Asad tried their best to promote and reinforce their Anglo-French-manufactured national consciousnesses, but their bombastic speeches about the allegedly eternal Iraqi and Syrian nations had a hollow ring.
It goes without saying that nations cannot be created from thin air. Those who worked hard to construct Iraq or Syria made use of real historical, geographical and cultural raw materials – some of which are centuries and millennia old. Saddam Hussein co-opted the heritage of the Abbasid caliphate and the Babylonian Empire, even calling one of his crack armoured units the Hammurabi Division. Yet that does not turn the Iraqi nation into an ancient entity. If I bake a cake from flour, oil and sugar, all of which have been sitting in my pantry for the past two months, it does not mean that the cake itself is two months old.
In recent decades, national communities have been increasingly eclipsed by tribes of customers who do not know one another intimately but share the same consumption habits and interests, and therefore feel part of the same consumer tribe – and define themselves as such. This sounds very strange, but we are surrounded by examples. Madonna fans, for example, constitute a consumer tribe. They define themselves largely by shopping. They buy Madonna concert tickets, CDs, posters, shirts and ring tones, and thereby define who they are. Manchester United fans, vegetarians and environmentalists are other examples. They, too, are defined above all by what they consume. It is the keystone of their identity. A German vegetarian might well prefer to marry a French vegetarian than a German carnivore.
Perpetuum Mobile
The revolutions of the last two centuries have been so swift and radical that they have changed the most fundamental characteristic of the social order. Traditionally, the social order was hard and rigid. ‘Order’ implied stability and continuity. Swift social revolutions were exceptional, and most social transformations resulted from the accumulation of numerous small steps. Humans tended to assume that the social structure was inflexible and eternal. Families and communities might struggle to change their place within the order, but the idea that you could change the fundamental structure of the order was alien. People tended to reconcile themselves to the status quo, declaring that ‘this is how it always was, and this is how it always will be’.
Over the last two centuries, the pace of change became so quick that the social order acquired a dynamic and malleable nature. It now exists in a state of permanent flux. When we speak of modern revolutions we tend to think of 1789 (the French Revolution), 1848 (the liberal revolutions) or 1917 (the Russian Revolution). But the fact is that, these days, every year is revolutionary. Today, even a thirty-year-old can honestly tell disbelieving teenagers, ‘When I was young, the world was completely different.’ The Internet, for example, came into wide usage only in the early 1990s, hardly twenty years ago. Today we cannot imagine the world without it.
Hence any attempt to define the characteristics of modern society is akin to defining the colour of a chameleon. The only characteristic of which we can be certain is the incessant change. People have become used to this, and most of us think about the social order as something flexible, which we can engineer and improve at will. The main promise of premodern rulers was to safeguard the traditional order or even to go back to some lost golden age. In the last two centuries, the currency of politics is that it promises to destroy the old world and build a better one in its place. Not even the most conservative of political parties vows merely to keep things as they are. Everybody promises social reform, educational reform, economic reform – and they often fulfil those promises.
Just as geologists expect that tectonic movements will result in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, so might we expect that drastic social movements will result in bloody outbursts of violence. The political history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is often told as a series of deadly wars, holocausts and revolutions. Like a child in new boots leaping from puddle to puddle, this view sees history as leapfrogging from one bloodbath to the next, from World War One to World War Two to the Cold War, from the Armenian genocide to the Jewish genocide to the Rwandan genocide, from Robespierre to Lenin to Hitler.
There is truth here, but this all too familiar list of calamities is somewhat misleading. We focus too much on the puddles and forget about the dry land separating them. The late modern era has seen unprecedented levels not only of violence and horror, but also of peace and tranquillity. Charles Dickens wrote of the French Revolution that ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ This may be true not only of the French Revolution, but of the entire era it heralded.
It is especially true of the seven decades that have elapsed since the end of World War Two. During this period humankind has for the first time faced the possibility of complete self-annihilation and has experienced a fair number of actual wars and genocides. Yet these decades were also the most peaceful era in human history – and by a wide margin. This is surprising because these very same decades experienced more economic, social and political change than any previous era. The tectonic plates of history are moving at a frantic pace, but the volcanoes are mostly silent. The new elastic order seems to be able to contain and even initiate radical structural changes without collapsing into violent conflict.3
Peace in Our Time
Most people don’t appreciate just how peaceful an era we live in. None of us was alive a thousand years ago, so we easily forget how much more violent the world used to be. And as wars become more rare they attract more attention. Many more people think about the wars raging today in Afghanistan and Iraq than about the peace in which most Brazilians and Indians live.
Even more importantly, it’s easier to relate to the suffering of individuals than of entire populations. However, in order to understand macro-historical processes, we need to examine mass statistics rather than individual stories. In the year 2000, wars caused the deaths of 310,000 individuals, and violent crime killed another 520,000. Each and every victim is a world destroyed, a family ruined, friends and relatives scarred for life. Yet from a macro perspective these 830,000 victims comprised only 1.5 per cent of the 56 million people who died in 2000. That year 1.26 million people died in car accidents (2.25 per cent of total mortality) and 815,000 people committed suicide (1.45 per cent).4
The figures for 2002 are even more surprising. Out of 57 million dead, only 172,000 people died in war and 569,000 died of violent crime (a total of 741,000 victims of human violence). In contrast, 873,000 people committed suicide.5 It turns out that in the year following the 9/11 attacks, despite all the talk of terrorism and war, the average person was more likely to kill himself than to be killed by a terrorist, a soldier or a drug dealer.
In most parts of the world, people go to sleep without fearing that in the middle of the night a neighbouring tribe might surround their village and slaughter everyone. Well-off British subjects travel daily from Nottingham to London through Sherwood Forest without fear that a gang of merry green-clad brigands will ambush them and take their money to give to the poor (or, more likely, murder them and take the money for themselves). Students brook no canings from their teachers, children need not fear that they will be sold into slavery when their parents can’t pay their bills, and women know that the law forbids their husbands from beating them and forcing them to stay at home. Increasingly, around the world, these expectations are fulfilled.
The decline of violence is due largely to the rise of the state. Throughout history, most violence resulted from local feuds between families and communities. (Even today, as the above figures indicate, local crime is a far deadlier threat than international wars.) As we have seen, early farmers, who knew no political organisations larger than the local community, suffered rampant violence.6 As kingdoms and empires became stronger, they reined in communities and the level of violence decreased. In the decentralised kingdoms of medieval Europe, about twenty to forty people were murdered each year for every 100,000 inhabitants. In recent decades, when states and markets have become all-powerful and communities have vanished, violence rates have dropped even further. Today the global average is only nine murders a year per 100,000 people, and most of these murders take place in weak states such as Somalia and Colombia. In the centralised states of Europe, the average is one murder a year per 100,000 people.7
There are certainly cases where states use their power to kill their own citizens, and these often loom large in our memories and fears. During the twentieth century, tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of people were killed by the security forces of their own states. Still, from a macro perspective, state-run courts and police forces have probably increased the level of security worldwide. Even in oppressive dictatorships, the average modern person is far less likely to die at the hands of another person than in premodern societies. In 1964 a military dictatorship was established in Brazil. It ruled the country until 1985. During these twenty years, several thousand Brazilians were murdered by the regime. Thousands more were imprisoned and tortured. Yet even in the worst years, the average Brazilian in Rio de Janeiro was far less likely to die at human hands than the average Waorani, Arawete or Yanomamo. The Waorani, Arawete and Yanomamo are indigenous people who live in the depths of the Amazon forest, without army, police or prisons. Anthropological studies have indicated that between a quarter and a half of their menfolk die sooner or later in violent conflicts over property, women or prestige.8
Imperial Retirement
It is perhaps debatable whether violence within states has decreased or increased since 1945. What nobody can deny is that international violence has dropped to an all-time low. Perhaps the most obvious example is the collapse of the European empires. Throughout history empires have crushed rebellions with an iron fist, and when its day came, a sinking empire used all its might to save itself, usually collapsing into a bloodbath. Its final demise generally led to anarchy and wars of succession. Since 1945 most empires have opted for peaceful early retirement. Their process of collapse became relatively swift, calm and orderly.
In 1945 Britain ruled a quarter of the globe. Thirty years later it ruled just a few small islands. In the intervening decades it retreated from most of its colonies in a peaceful and orderly manner. Though in some places such as Malaya and Kenya the British tried to hang on by force of arms, in most places they accepted the end of empire with a sigh rather than with a temper tantrum. They focused their efforts not on retaining power, but on transferring it as smoothly as possible. At least some of the praise usually heaped on Mahatma Gandhi for his non-violent creed is actually owed to the British Empire. Despite many years of bitter and often violent struggle, when the end of the Raj came, the Indians did not have to fight the British in the streets of Delhi and Calcutta. The empire’s place was taken by a slew of independent states, most of which have since enjoyed stable borders and have for the most part lived peacefully alongside their neighbours. True, tens of thousands of people perished at the hands of the threatened British Empire, and in several hot spots its retreat led to the eruption of ethnic conflicts that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives (particularly in India). Yet when compared to the long-term historical average, the British withdrawal was an exemplar of peace and order. The French Empire was more stubborn. Its collapse involved bloody rearguard actions in Vietnam and Algeria that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Yet the French, too, retreated from the rest of their dominions quickly and peacefully, leaving behind orderly states rather than a chaotic free-for-all.
The Soviet collapse in 1989 was even more peaceful, despite the eruption of ethnic conflict in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Never before has such a mighty empire disappeared so swiftly and so quietly. The Soviet Empire of 1989 had suffered no military defeat except in Afghanistan, no external invasions, no rebellions, nor even large-scale Martin Luther King-style campaigns of civil disobedience. The Soviets still had millions of soldiers, tens of thousands of tanks and aeroplanes, and enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the whole of humankind several times over. The Red Army and the other Warsaw Pact armies remained loyal. Had the last Soviet ruler, Mikhail Gorbachev, given the order, the Red Army would have opened fire on the subjugated masses.
Yet the Soviet elite, and the Communist regimes through most of eastern Europe (Romania and Serbia were the exceptions), chose not to use even a tiny fraction of this military power. When its members realised that Communism was bankrupt, they renounced force, admitted their failure, packed their suitcases and went home. Gorbachev and his colleagues gave up without a struggle not only the Soviet conquests of World War Two, but also the much older tsarist conquests in the Baltic, the Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It is chilling to contemplate what might have happened if Gorbachev had behaved like the Serbian leadership – or like the French in Algeria.
Pax Atomica
The independent states that came after these empires were remarkably uninterested in war. With very few exceptions, since 1945 states no longer invade other states in order to conquer and swallow them up. Such conquests had been the bread and butter of political history since time immemorial. It was how most great empires were established, and how most rulers and populations expected things to stay. But campaigns of conquest like those of the Romans, Mongols and Ottomans cannot take place today anywhere in the world. Since 1945, no independent country recognised by the UN has been conquered and wiped off the map. Limited international wars still occur from time to time, and millions still die in wars, but wars are no longer the norm.
Many people believe that the disappearance of international war is unique to the rich democracies of western Europe. In fact, peace reached Europe after it prevailed in other parts of the world. Thus the last serious international wars between South American countries were the Peru-Ecuador War of 1941 and the Bolivia-Paraguay War of 1932–5. And before that there hadn’t been a serious war between South American countries since 1879–84, with Chile on one side and Bolivia and Peru on the other.
We seldom think of the Arab world as particularly peaceful. Yet only once since the Arab countries won their independence has one of them mounted a full-scale invasion of another (the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990). There have been quite a few border clashes (e.g. Syria vs Jordan in 1970), many armed interventions of one in the affairs of another (e.g. Syria in Lebanon), numerous civil wars (Algeria, Yemen, Libya) and an abundance of coups and revolts. Yet there have been no full-scale international wars among the Arab states except the Gulf War. Even widening the scope to include the entire Muslim world adds only one more example, the Iran-Iraq War. There was no Turkey—Iran War, Pakistan-Afghanistan War, or Indonesia-Malaysia War.
In Africa things are far less rosy. But even there, most conflicts are civil wars and coups. Since African states won their independence in the 1960s and 1970s, very few countries have invaded one another in the hope of conquest.
There have been periods of relative calm before, as, for example, in Europe between 1871 and 1914, and they always ended badly. But this time it is different. For real peace is not the mere absence of war. Real peace is the implausibility of war. There has never been real peace in the world. Between 1871 and 1914, a European war remained a plausible eventuality, and the expectation of war dominated the thinking of armies, politicians and ordinary citizens alike. This foreboding was true for all other peaceful periods in history. An iron law of international politics decreed, ‘For every two nearby polities, there is a plausible scenario that will cause them to go to war against one another within one year.’ This law of the jungle was in force in late nineteenth-century Europe, in medieval Europe, in ancient China and in classical Greece. If Sparta and Athens were at peace in 450 BC, there was a plausible scenario that they would be at war by 449 BC.
Today humankind has broken the law of the jungle. There is at last real peace, and not just absence of war. For most polities, there is no plausible scenario leading to full-scale conflict within one year. What could lead to war between Germany and France next year? Or between China and Japan? Or between Brazil and Argentina? Some minor border clash might occur, but only a truly apocalyptic scenario could result in an old-fashioned full-scale war between Brazil and Argentina in 2014, with Argentinian armoured divisions sweeping to the gates of Rio, and Brazilian carpet-bombers pulverising the neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires. Such wars might still erupt between several pairs of states, e.g. between Israel and Syria, Ethiopia and Eritrea, or the USA and Iran, but these are only the exceptions that prove the rule.
This situation might of course change in the future and, with hindsight, the world of today might seem incredibly naïve. Yet from a historical perspective, our very naïvety is fascinating. Never before has peace been so prevalent that people could not even imagine war.

Scholars have sought to explain this happy development in more books and articles than you would ever want to read yourself, and they have identified several contributing factors. First and foremost, the price of war has gone up dramatically. The Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have been given to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into collective suicide, and made it impossible to seek world domination by force of arms.
Secondly, while the price of war soared, its profits declined. For most of history, polities could enrich themselves by looting or annexing enemy territories. Most wealth consisted of fields, cattle, slaves and gold, so it was easy to loot it or occupy it. Today, wealth consists mainly of human capital, technical know-how and complex socio-economic structures such as banks. Consequently it is difficult to carry it off or incorporate it into one’s territory.
Consider California. Its wealth was initially built on gold mines. But today it is built on silicon and celluloid – Silicon Valley and the celluloid hills of Hollywood. What would happen if the Chinese were to mount an armed invasion of California, land a million soldiers on the beaches of San Francisco and storm inland? They would gain little. There are no silicon mines in Silicon Valley. The wealth resides in the minds of Google engineers and Hollywood script doctors, directors and special-effects wizards, who would be on the first plane to Bangalore or Mumbai long before the Chinese tanks rolled into Sunset Boulevard. It is not coincidental that the few full-scale international wars that still take place in the world, such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, occur in places were wealth is old-fashioned material wealth. The Kuwaiti sheikhs could flee abroad, but the oil fields stayed put and were occupied.
43. and 44. Gold miners in California during the Gold Rush, and Facebook’s headquarters near San Francisco. In 1849 California built its fortunes on gold. Today, California builds its fortunes on silicon. But whereas in 1849 the gold actually lay there in the Californian soil, the real treasures of Silicon Valley are locked inside the heads of high-tech employees.
While war became less profitable, peace became more lucrative than ever. In traditional agricultural economies long-distance trade and foreign investment were sideshows. Consequently, peace brought little profit, aside from avoiding the costs of war. If, say, in 1400 England and France were at peace, the French did not have to pay heavy war taxes and to suffer destructive English invasions, but otherwise it did not benefit their wallets. In modern capitalist economies, foreign trade and investments have become all-important. Peace therefore brings unique dividends. As long as China and the USA are at peace, the Chinese can prosper by selling products to the USA, trading in Wall Street and receiving US investments.
Last but not least, a tectonic shift has taken place in global political culture. Many elites in history – Hun chieftains, Viking noblemen and Aztec priests, for example – viewed war as a positive good. Others viewed it as evil, but an inevitable one, which we had better turn to our own advantage. Ours is the first time in history that the world is dominated by a peace-loving elite – politicians, business people, intellectuals and artists who genuinely see war as both evil and avoidable. (There were pacifists in the past, such as the early Christians, but in the rare cases that they gained power, they tended to forget about their requirement to ‘turn the other cheek’.)
There is a positive feedback loop between all these four factors. The threat of nuclear holocaust fosters pacifism; when pacifism spreads, war recedes and trade flourishes; and trade increases both the profits of peace and the costs of war. Over time, this feedback loop creates another obstacle to war, which may ultimately prove the most important of all. The tightening web of international connections erodes the independence of most countries, lessening the chance that any one of them might single-handedly let slip the dogs of war. Most countries no longer engage in full-scale war for the simple reason that they are no longer independent. Though citizens in Israel, Italy, Mexico or Thailand may harbour illusions of independence, the fact is that their governments cannot conduct independent economic or foreign policies, and they are certainly incapable of initiating and conducting full-scale war on their own. As explained in Chapter 11, we are witnessing the formation of a global empire. Like previous empires, this one, too, enforces peace within its borders. And since its borders cover the entire globe, the World Empire effectively enforces world peace.
So, is the modern era one of mindless slaughter, war and oppression, typified by the trenches of World War One, the nuclear mushroom cloud over Hiroshima and the gory manias of Hitler and Stalin? Or is it an era of peace, epitomised by the trenches never dug in South America, the mushroom clouds that never appeared over Moscow and New York, and the serene visages of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King?
The answer is a matter of timing. It is sobering to realise how often our view of the past is distorted by events of the last few years. If this chapter had been written in 1945 or 1962, it would probably have been much more glum. Since it was written in 2014, it takes a relatively buoyant approach to modern history.
To satisfy both optimists and pessimists, we may conclude by saying that we are on the threshold of both heaven and hell, moving nervously between the gateway of the one and the anteroom of the other. History has still not decided where we will end up, and a string of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction.
* An ‘intimate community’ is a group of people who know one another well and depend on each other for survival.

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