The single greatest fact in modern political history

On being asked to name the single greatest fact in modern political history, Otto von Bismarck is reported to have answered: ‘The inherent and permanent fact that North America speaks English.

The Fence, a London-based magazine, recently asked a group of eminent historians what they thought was the single greatest fact in modern political history today. The collection of answers is fascinating - some focus on the rise of China, some on the difficulty/impossibility of democracy to address the longer-term issues we face, there’s climate change, Ukraine, Brexit, and the rest.

So: what would be your answer?

Interesting stuff.

Bismarck is probably still right, but as an alternative, I would say the triumph of corporate capitalism and greed as the driving force behind defining how people live and what is and isn’t possible for society.

Absolutely. I think that this, especially with what it implies about how the environment is being treated, is the most significant cause of most short-, mid- and long-term problems we face as a species.

If we want to be reductionist then, the concept of private property, or ownership over land, goods, and ideas, might be the main thing.

The collapse of the Soviet Union. The big issue here is that the divide across the world was economic as well as political. Effectively the world of multinational corporations and globalization would have not happened except in an extremely different way, corporations would have less power, international cooperation would have probably been greater, and would have likely not led to the China we see today.

Communism didn’t have a solution for “technologicism”, and it had two paths it seems - collapse or ideological renunciation. It’s possible a “third” kind of communism might have emerged in the third world / global south to replace the state-heavy models of Russia and China and provide some counterweight to the Growth Uber Alles and massive efficiency gaines provided by tech.

Another candidate, the First Gulf War (Desert Storm) marked and era of almost 30 years of continuous military action in the Middle East. Had that not happened the history of the world would have been quite different (no 9/11). Although I think the militarism of the Right in the US was so high that had Desert Storm not happened thr US would have almost certainly been in some kind of limited hot war with China in the early 2000’s.

A super speculative silly counter factual would be the assassination of JFK saved humanity. JFK was regarded as a loose cannon internationally and a hot head. I’m not well read enough on JFK at all though, but I imagine someone (not me) could make a specious argument that had JFK lived to see two full terms the odds of a nuclear war would have been some large double digit number.

Maybe, but I think you can have some kind of capitalism without e.g. the fiction that corporations are both people (when it comes to granting them rights) and not people (when it comes to granting them effective immunity from the law).

Edit: This reads as dismissive, which I didn’t intend, sorry. I find it hard to imagine such a world, but that’s probably my limitation.

This would be an interesting counterfactual to explore. It’s definitely tied in some ways to my answer. Probably you would have to start by imagining a different Soviet Union, one which was not destined to collapse because of its own internal flaws, contradictions, excesses. Might make a great alternative history / speculative history novel.

The odd thing was that the Soviet Union was filled with imagery about the betterment of humanity while at the same time oppressing humanity. That was both a pregnant contradiction but also a festering disease at the heart of the system, but it’s clear many people bought into the ideology and not the oppression. You can see this as the arc of the USSR was toward becoming less oppressive and murderous towards its own people.

I might argue, in that counterfactual, that the big problem the Soviet Union had was lying to itself. A Soviet Union not built on self deception might be able to handle its own internal economic crises much more effectively while also leaning into its hopeful propaganda. The issue today is that the successor states of the USSR almost to a country learned the lesson that it was control of the lies, not having control of the problem, that gives their regimes power.

Maybe the Great Bottleneck was figuring out how to navigate the irresistible appeal of Western consumerism, and the governments of old smoke-stale men with bad suits, giant eyebrows and knives in their cars just didn’t know what to do. The USSR never really figured out regime change.

I find it interesting the way the answers are divided roughly evenly between genuinely thought provoking observations and trendy far-left cliches, some with little grounding in fact.

…that’s not odd in the slightest.

No, the big problem was an economic system that doesn’t scale beyond a town-sized group of people.

Hey! Peter Adamson is on there

The blurring of the distinction between reliable and unreliable sources of knowledge.

— Peter Adamson, Professor of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy at King’s College, London

The existence of NATO potentially ending 1500 years or so (give or take a century or two) of civil war among European peoples occupying that continent.

This is also good. It could be seen as an extension of Bismarck’s answer.

This was thought provoking in that in the periods he studies culturally reliable sources of knowledge were very clearly distinct and almost always wrong. :)

I think this idea of a culturally distinct “reliable” source of knowledge and that source being accurate in hindsight is really an artifact of a relatively narrow period (maybe 1950-2000). But I don’t really have strong evidence for that - it’s an interesting topic.

I was talking about the article, not the responses here.

I don’t really find the preponderence of trendy left wing nonsense on QT3 is in any way interesting :).

While we often dismiss the idea of personhood for corporations, it gets tricky in practice because it’s hard to limit a group of people’s rights without limiting the rights of the individuals.

That said, the combination you describe here is indeed problematic. If we are to transition the rights from the individual to the collective, those rights need to come with some transfer of responsibility as well, and it’s exceedingly rare that the people running companies are held accountable for the decisions they make that harm society.

My understanding was the opposite, that during the Cuban Missile Crisis all the generals and “experts” were telling him to start shooting, and he didn’t.

The people running companies should be held accountable for breaking the law. They should not be held accountable on the basis of some vague yardstick that can be determined post-facto by political actors.

I would agree that this is not happening the way it should at the moment, either because of the way the law is written or it is enforced. I think most important is the way that outright fraud on the part of corporations is often transformed by some strange alchemy into a civil matter rather than a criminal one.

The idea that the European wars were “civil” wars seems very strange and somewhat of an agenda-driven post-facto reclassification.

The nature of a civil war is it is a struggle over control of the mechanisms of the state - it can be (principally) between different cultural groups but it fundamentally occurs within a state. That simply doesn’t apply to the majority of european wars.

The rise in global literacy from 20% in 1900 to about 85% now.

The historical entirely unprecedented increase in global per capita income by a factor of 6-10x during the 20th century.

The drop in global extreme poverty from 75% of humans in 1820 to less than 10% now.

Ah, I see. My bad, sorry!

Yes, this is part of what I was getting at.

I think Bismarck’s is an interesting answer in that it preceded the world wars, which might have shaped the world very differently if the US had somehow not aligned itself with England.

The corporate answer is a good one although you can go back much further and include the international bankers who most assuredly financed early exploration and European wars.

I think any speculation on JFK is basically out of the imagination of Oliver Stone.