THE BLOG

History Doesn't Repeat, But It Often Rhymes

But there is still time to change our tune.

19/01/2017 10:47 AM AEDT | Updated 19/01/2017 10:48 AM AEDT
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
"What would Samuel Clemens say if he were to return today? I think he would say that history is beginning another rhyme."

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes."

This quote is often attributed to Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), an American humourist and public commentator. Born in 1835, Clemens had a front row seat during one of the most exciting, dynamic periods of globalisation in human history -- the turn of the 20th Century.

His generation witnessed an explosion of wealth unimaginable even one generation earlier, as new industries rose up and productivity skyrocketed, as natural resources previously out of reach became easily accessible and as technological advances allowed seemingly instantaneous communication around the globe. These developments also facilitated, even required, increased interactions between and interpenetration of cultures, worldviews and political systems.

While these changes captured the minds and ambitions of people around the world, they also disrupted life on a scale unparalleled in history. New elites replaced old; time-proven traditions and institutions were superseded or wiped out; wealth and power became concentrated in a relatively small percentage of the population; and enormous social and environmental costs were born by the poor and powerless.

By Clemens' death in 1910, his globalised world was beginning to show signs of strain. Within a few years, a devastating war broke out in Europe and quickly spread via the same globalised structures to engulf the world. This was followed within a decade by the greatest economic meltdown ever recorded, generating a veritable tidal wave of populism throughout the Western world that toppled regimes, redrew the map and ignited the greatest war ever recorded.

What would Samuel Clemens say if he were to return today? I think he would say that history is beginning another rhyme.

Clemens would see a world eerily similar to the one he left a century earlier. He would see intimate interactions between and interpenetration of cultures, worldviews and political systems driven by seemingly miraculous technological and economic advances. At the height of all this, he would see a disastrous war impacting every corner of the Earth and a devastating global economic meltdown tied to the very structures that made our period's unrivalled prosperity possible. And he would see immense disaffection and fear manifested in a wave of populism that is toppling regimes and redrawing the world's map.

The second great war has not yet happened.

But he would also see differences. He would see that colonialism as a driver of globalisation has been replaced by capitalism and neo-liberal triumphalism. He would see that Social Darwinism as a socially and intellectually justifiable excuse for exclusionary policies, ethno-nationalist pride and cultural purity has been replaced by security concerns. And he would see that the second great war has not yet happened.

It is in this last observation that there is hope. The historical couplet begun at the turn of the 20th Century is being completed at the turn of the 21st, but hasn't yet rhymed.

There is still time to turn mistrust into understanding, still time to turn fear into respect, still time to turn division into cohesion. In short, there is still time to change our tune.

More On This Topic