Monumental moments in history often follow great conflagrations. Four-hundred years ago Europe, exhausted of her wars, and seeking to put an end to the 30 years war which was only the latest in the conflicts which had stretched back forever signed the Treaty of Westphalia. In doing so, they set our planet on a trajectory toward great prosperity. They took away the political power of the church, which had corrupted her making her carnal and base; they ended (or at least began the end of) empires, putting in place geographical limits upon plots of land which defined national interests and limited what could be done outside those confined – and purposefully confining – spaces.
In the aftermath of the Second World War the League of Nations (and then the United Nations) also attempted to define a “world order”; not only limiting national geographies but introducing restraint into what could be done even within national boundaries. “Absolute monarchy” was over. Breton Woods setting in place monetary and fiscal guidelines to guarantee world economic order, to be followed by poor and rich alike.
These of course are not the only examples. The industrial revolution which both led to and ended the previous world order – that of serfs and their lords – and which led the world into World War the first, the war to end all wars, which didn’t. That war, finding an enfeebled and corrupted monarchy in Russia set in her ways and resistant to even basic change found a perfect toxic mix of ‘modern’ economics and ancient resentment, a corrupted church which no longer inspired and a bright, shiny new idea – socialism!! – which plunged the world into another seventy years of wars and famines. Until that too was over.
It is said the Black Plague before this ripped Europe from her malaise in the Middle Ages. The death of so many enslaved peasants risked pushing the gentry into poverty, and they were forced to transition from slavery to innovation to retain their wealth. The upward distribution of wealth as property was consolidated in a third (maybe half?) fewer hands created prosperity which allowed for an overflow into the patronage programs of Renaissance (starting in Italy) but which led us directly to the reformation and a rediscovery of God.
Does our current pandemic rise to the bar of these epic events? For to be sure, there have been others. The Spanish Flu of 1918. The HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80’s and 90’s. It is said that COVID is the re-enactment of the great Russian pandemic of 1889, which too was a corona-virus although that one of bovine origin. Maybe the Indians are onto something… SARS, MERS, the list goes on. I myself have been Ebola quarantined, making COVID not my first rodeo – not a lot of people can say that…
But none of those pandemics was world-altering. Stressful, catalytic, to be sure but nothing like the plague. Except that these types of things do not happen in a vacuum, and therein lies the threat – and the opportunity. COVID has arrived at a moment of great Western angst and exhaustion. Our model, declared to be the “End of history” (no, I will never stop picking on Fukuyama. He might have destroyed the world, and with that Pied Piper the children who found his message so appealing, for it was soft and easy – and who doesn’t love that?) is unraveling. Breton Woods has been dead a long time, replaced with “Good faith and credit” first and now just “Let the presses roll!!!!” The United Nations has been unable to solve conflicts between the great powers, nor serve as a forum for collective dispute revolution in a world become small. To say nothing of her agencies, bloated and corrupt. Whose idea were those?
People’s faith in democracy is low, because people’s faith in each other is at an all-time low. They blame “fake news”, do those who refuse to recognize their own role in the mayhem. Without restraint they lash out, blaming their abandon upon others. We have become obese, addicted to Opioids, loose of lips and quick to insult and take offense. We have ceased reading, the study of history to know the experiences of those who came before and the great wisdom of those who invented it, before they too lost it. We have no more great men and women, no names which resonate, none who can stand tall and look into the face of the almighty and ask “What is now to be done?” Instead we have put our faith in scientists, weaselly little men in lab coats as a bait and switch, to no longer consider a great God in our contemplation of what man can do without the corresponding question of what we should do. We have forgotten that while our gadgets might improve, following Moore’s law, humanity itself remains the same.
A pandemic reminds us of all this. As we watch the numbers tick up the chart, the deaths mount and we realize that even our greatest minds are powerless against an invisible little bug – and at the end we just have to let nature take her course, a nature that is as old as our ancient planet – we rejoin the river of history.
So what will happen next? Will we just hold ourselves in suspended animation, floating atop a river of “stimulus” payments and red ink? Or will this be a reset – and if so, towards what? Roman England, which collapsed along with the empire, hosted great roads and epic cultural events and tremendous prosperity. A population of over four million. By the time King Alfred returned history to that ancient isle, four hundred years later, the population had halved. Not by plague, though there was that, but by hardship, of lives lived with no protection from the weather and the petty violence that mars lands no longer governed. Is that our future? An unraveling, hitting the ‘pause’ button for a season while those who still have guns lord over us and those who have means safeguard our precious antiquities for the days when they might again be of value to a world that wants to remember?
Or perhaps we can recognize our hubris and our foolishness, that which brought us to this moment, and take steps to rectify our precarious position. Not new steps, there is nothing new under the sun. Old steps – a return to communities, a shuttering of our ‘social media’ accounts which gave us only envy and hate. A compassion found as we care for those in our midst. Instead of demanding from a corrupt institution dealing itself favors from atop an old swamp, we realize that all the power we give them returns to be used against us – shackles fastened upon the slaves marching down the “Road to Serfdom“, the chains of which are very difficult to break, especially to the weakest of these – who we are said to want to protect.
Maybe we can even think beyond that, not a return to prop up structures which no longer serve us. But we can re-think governance. Not the dominion of the technocrats and the tyranny of their ‘experts’, who have given us only war and pandemic. But instead a new Renaissance of men and women who see the world and all her glory and potential in full color.
I once entered a contest for a group called Global Challenges Foundation. They were offering $5,000,000 for an innovative idea to reshape our world order, specifically a new model for the United Nations – which we can all agree no longer responds to the functions for which it was intended though the forms do continue, and those in triplicate. My idea was a “Council of Humanity” which recognized the sclerotic nature of world government and divested the power of peacemaking from them, for peace is rarely in their interests, while adding a new pillar to the governing body of humanity – the Council of Industry. AKA, those who make our food and the clothes which we wear. I wrote my idea in the form of a short story, because I am a storyteller. I didn’t win, shocker – though the effort was fun. I was superseded by our world’s worship of technocracy, and somebody who thought to try and use blockchain as a magical solution to the problems of humanity won the prize. But of course a little virus doesn’t care about blockchain.
When it was clear World War I would change everything, President Woodrow Wilson called together a council of elites, business moguls and media personalities and academics, to envision a new world order. This institution was called the Council on Foreign Relations, with offices right beside the Eisenhower Building in DC (I myself was a visiting fellow at CFR, a remarkable institution). Now, I am not Wilsonian, to be sure. There is very little utopianism left in my soul after so many years fighting our world order’s forgotten wars. But I do acknowledge the remarkable effort and the enduring legacy of a group of people free from politics and hashtags who can begin to consider what comes next. It is from such councils that new orders are born. I’m also not saying that will be a solution – rarely do solutions of the future emerge from the institutions of the past.
A parting thought. In the run-up to the 2016 American election, there appeared an online publication called the Journal of American Greatness, which hosted some of the great minds who were willing to see that the world order represented by the “Stronger Together” crowd were only ushering the world toward destruction. Writing in aliases, they explored the problems with the order as we knew it and offered solutions to arrest the entropy. In the fullness of time, I think that it is apparent their efforts came too late – the decay was too far advanced, laid bare by a pandemic. But it was at least nice to know there are still great minds who know who Edward Gibbon is and still can think realistically about our world. Maybe now is again a moment to reassemble them.