The return of history

Written by Ellen Halliday on . Posted in Current publications, Publications

Return of History by Jennifer WelshIn 1992, Francis Fukuyama famously claimed that end of the Cold War and demise of Communism meant the end of ideological dispute. Liberal democracy had triumphed, and history as we knew it had come to an end. A quarter of a century later, liberal democracy is in crisis around the world. In The Return of History Professor Jennifer Welsh explains how the unthinkable happened.

As a young graduate student drawn to the ‘attractiveness of liberal democracy and the absence of rival with global appeal,’ Jennifer Welsh revelled in the heady optimism of the 1990s. In those years, the number of democracies rapidly increased, and the UN entered a period of tangible success. ‘I wanted to be part of the spread of that model,’ Welsh admits. Yet when war erupted in the Balkans in the 1990s it was already clear that Fukuyama had underestimated the fragility of the liberal democratic model.

It isn’t hard to understand why one might be worried about the state of liberal democracy today. In recent years European territories have been invaded and annexed, home-grown terrorism has erupted in the continent’s capital cities, and millions of desperate refugees have crossed mountains and seas to escape starvation, chemical attacks and systematic persecution. Meanwhile, inequality continues to grow and political language becomes ever more inflammatory.

By unravelling some of the external manifestations of history’s return over the past 25 years – mass flight, barbarism, cold war and inequality – The Return of History paints a compelling picture of how and why this has happened.

According to Professor Welsh, the cost of post-1989 euphoria was that people lost their ‘collective stake in the continual regeneration of liberal democracy.’ The idea that liberal democracy ‘could withstand any shock’ became commonplace. In short, liberal democracies and their citizens grew complacent. As a result, great chasms have grown from little more than the occasional ‘chink in the armour’ of liberal democracy.

After decades of complacency opposition, not only to the institutions of liberal democracy but also its values, is ‘very threatening,’ says Welsh. 21st century warfare seems medieval: sieges, beheadings feature on our newsreels and sovereign states as well as groups like ISIS are responsible for huge civilian casualties. Although the bipolarity of the Cold War remains a thing of the past, international relations are once again dominated by espionage, intervention and a lack of cooperation. Russia’s sovereign democratic model has, for Welsh, led ‘a move towards a form of illiberal democracy in places like Indonesia and Thailand.’

Yet perhaps the most interesting chapter of The Return of History is that on inequality. Inequality may always pose a threat to liberal democracies since they are always based on capitalist economic systems. But for Professor Welsh the return of history can be marked, in large part, by the fact that ‘the contours of inequality have exploded’ over the past few decades. ‘It doesn’t have to be this way,’ she says. ‘Predatory capitalism is not the only form of capitalism…this is the result of particular choices, or trends.’ The cost of the economic choices which have brought us to this point are large. The effects of inequality have ‘diffused through institutions right down to the individual level’, ultimately resulting in a politics devoid of kindness, driven by hatred and rapidly farther away from the values which underpinned the post-war ideal.

The Return of History is not a sentimental or uncritical defence of liberal democracy. Rather, its serves to act as a wake-up-call. It is a call-to-arms to protect those liberal democratic values that are worth defending but which are crumbling, and not only in far-flung places. Inequality has fed ‘a disenchantment with representative institutions that is deeply, deeply corrosive,’ Welsh told the EUI Times. In Europe and in the United States of America – surely the heartlands of liberal democracy – values of liberal democracy have all but vanished from political rhetoric, let alone government policy. ‘Arguments about the malleability of rights can take hold quickly at home,’ Welsh argues. ‘We are beginning to see that happen.’ Today that seems more true than ever.

On the 9th November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The Cold War trundled to a close and Francis Fukuyama started to wonder if we had reached End of History. On the same day just 27 years later, the United States of America elected a President who has demeaned minorities of all kinds, threatened to lock up his opponent and, most famously of all, promised to build another wall. Friends of liberty, it’s time to roll up your sleeves: ‘history is back, with a vengeance.’

The return of history : conflict, migration, and geopolitics in the twenty-first century. (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2016, CBC Massey lectures)

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