I can’t help thinking that the twenty-first century is going to be one of general crisis. We’re seeing the start of it now, and on historical precedent of similar scale things in the past I imagine disruption will carry on for a generation or more, one way or another.
It’s not the first time such a thing has happened; the seventeenth century had the same problem. When I was doing my first post-grad degree at university, back in (cough cough) 1984, there was a good deal of discussion about the way Europe ran into trouble during the first decades of the seventeenth century. Economic downturn erupted across the continent and kingdoms fell, notably the English monarchy which engaged in a bloody civil war with its Parliament from the early 1640s. Meanwhile central Europe was torn asunder by a thirty-year long war that eventually featured a roaming ‘Swedish’ army – actually mostly a pack of self-interested mercenaries under the Swedish flag – which roamed the lands pillaging and looting.
Exactly why all this unfolded as it did, from around 1610 through to the 1660s, has exercised historians. The debate over the English experience has been a particular issue, which historians in the UK engaged in a remarkably intense debate that, at times, descended to ad hominem abuse. They couldn’t even agree on a name: ‘civil war’ or ‘revolution’. And if it was a revolution, did that make it a communist uprising, as Christopher Hill insisted, despite happening 200 years before Karl Marx came up with the idea? (This wasn’t quite as fatuous as it sounds. Marx thought he had discovered the universal ‘laws’ of social evolution, and the fact that he was flat out wrong didn’t stop a lot of people believing him and trying to force history to match the theory).
The other problem for historians was why the English Civil War – er – English Revolution – er – historical English thingy – had happened. Was it, as Eric Hobsbawm proposed, due to a socio-economic shift. Or was it, as Hugh Trevor-Roper insisted, an outcome of bureaucratic expansion that led to a rift between ‘court’ and ‘country’?
Into this then fed the notion that the century had brought a ‘general crisis’ across Europe. But then, of course, the problem was figuring out how such a widespread issue could have happened to so many different countries, each with their own individual problems. The problem was that nobody thought outside a ‘box’ defined by the concept that social change was always due to political, social, religious, ideological or economic forces within society. When the Little Ice Age was identified by climate historians and fed into the mix, a different picture could be drawn.
My take is that the climatic downturn of the early seventeenth century added strain to societies already under tension individually from their own blends of sociological issues, largely because it affected the agrarian production that underpinned the economies of the day. And eventually things broke, to a large part because societies and individuals alike, stressed by one factor, often responded by suddenly turning to another problem that had often been bubbling along, and making it a focus of fresh agitation, compounding the pressures.
On this basis, the selective approach to the historical English thingy of 1642-51 by Trevor-Roper, Hobsbawm and the rest, where the debate over the origins was around which factors applied and which to exclude, could not answer the question because the actual answer was ‘all of the above’. Furthermore, once events had begun to slide towards chaos, it was very difficult to stop the momentum. This has been noted historically many times – it was also an issue in late eighteenth century France, for instance.
What worries me just now is that while history doesn’t repeat, of itself, the underlying behaviours that drive events usually do. Humans, after all, are humans. I am worried by the fact that we have had two generations of structural economic inequity which has clearly reached use-by date. Into this mix has now flowed a pandemic which has thrown heavy stress across societies globally. History tells me that such a concatenation of social strains could very easily transform into a multi-generation ‘general crisis’, given persistence and depth by an economic collapse from which it is difficult to recover quickly. That sort of event doesn’t happen very often, historically – not in terms of everyday human lives, anyway. But this, I suspect, is one of those times.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020