The general crisis of the twenty-first century

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.

Sack of Magdeburg, 1631. Via Wikipedia.

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’?

Battle of Marston Moor in 1644. Via Wikipedia.

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.

The execution of Louis VXI in Paris, 1793. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

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.

Any thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020

8 thoughts on “The general crisis of the twenty-first century

  1. That’s an interesting historical perspective. Something else that started around that time was the stock exchanges and the whole notion of making money by investing – and the first major crash over the price of tulips. I’m in agreement that we have a global crisis ahead of us and that Covid 19 is not really the cause. Events currently unfolding in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle say a lot as does the American president’s threat to send in the army. It does resemble 18th century Europe in many respects. Rentiers, plague and mad kings. At least we have the internet. For now…

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    1. That tulip bubble mania was crazy – it ended up with inflated prices being paid for pieces of paper representing shares in tulip bulbs, which themselves were unseen and not actually in the possession of those buying and selling the paper chits. Of course this whole edifice of paying ever-higher prices for imaginary value went bang in 1636-37. Luckily that sort of madness couldn’t happen again… er, could it.

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  2. Ah the joys of reading a blogging historian. I do believe in this article you are bang on and we are heading into an era of upheaval, potential revolutions or civil wars within our Western democracies.

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    1. I fear so. One always hopes that saner minds will prevail. Alas, as the seventeenth century shows us, the path to chaos is strewn with rational and sane decisions. Only the outcomes are mad.


  3. Gods I hope you’re wrong! Unfortunately, while we don’t have a mini ice age coming along, we do have global warming lurking in the wings. The pandemic and resultant economic upheaval may trigger global action to alleviate climate change before it reaches the tipping point, or it could do the opposite, and then there’ll be a real existential $hit storm to deal with.
    -sigh- I just wanted to relax and grow old disgracefully. :/
    p.s. that thingie made me laugh!

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    1. I hope I’m wrong too. History, alas, suggests otherwise. Back in 1600-40, economic stress (driven by natural climate change) threw up cracks in ideologies which were approaching their use-by dates, and – well, it all went from there. The proximate issues (including protests at King Charles I imposing ‘ship tax’ on inland towns) were manifold and became points of argument, but they were merely symptoms. Extreme religious and political movements emerged, and one outcome was that a fair number of the English religious extremists emigrated to the American colonies where they infused a particular flavour into the culture there at the time. I probably sound like James Burke doing ‘connections’, but of course this IS all connected, one way or another.

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      1. Yes, history does suggest you’re right. But when have we ever learned from history?

        On a good day I believe our capacity to create beauty, or even recognize that beauty exists, compensates for the destructive side of our nature. On bad days I just hope we don’t take the whole planet with us when we self-destruct.

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  4. Some time ago I read an article contending that the causes of historical events (the specific example was the October Revolution in Russia, 1917) are only apparent in retrospect, which I found very interesting. Your post sounds like “cause” could be related to the catalyst in a chemical reaction. The reactants could sit in the retort for however long, until the catalyst is tossed in, and bang! That’s probably too simplistic an analogy, and I haven’t the foggiest what might precipitate the reaction in the present context. Maybe, too, you don’t always need a catalyst for the reaction to go. I’ve been speculating in my own mind about the effects of economic parasitism, or neoliberalism, or neoconservatives, or whatever-the-heck-ism, involving the idea that if you suck up money and resources fast enough for long enough and concentrate same in the hands of a sufficiently relative few, eventually that system collapses. Perhaps dramatically, as during the French Revolution in the 1790s. (Which in many ways might be a good model, on a smaller scale, for the present world situation.)(Except of course for climate change.) Conclusion: looks to me like you have a point. PS re James Burke: loved his shows and books! Great man.

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