2016: The year that defines the next century

2016: The year that defines the next century

Last time, we looked at the possible reasons why the experts got 2016 wrong. It is now worth looking at what place 2016 may end up having in world history.

One of the few people to correctly predict that Donald Trump would win the election was Allan Lichtman, a professor at The American University. He uses his own methodology for predicting elections, built in the style of earthquake prediction. The reason, he says, was that the language we use for significant political events is mostly geophysical in nature: tremors, earthquakes, landslides, eruptions, and the like. I even used this language in my last post. Lichtman believed he could turn this into a system that would predict the winner a presidential election based on how stable the political climate leading up to the election was. Lichtman is yet to get an election wrong since creating this system.

If we were to take a similar approach to world history, 2016 could be considered a significant political-geological event. According to another university professor, it could well be the year of this century’s ‘Great Event’. Nicholas Boyle, a Cambridge historian, wrote in 2010 that world events were all pointing to an earth-shattering moment happening within the next decade. As proof of his thesis, Boyle pointed to similar ‘Great Events’ occurring in the second decade of each of the past five centuries.

The five events are: the publishing of Luther’s 95 Theses (1517); the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War (1618); the end of the War of Spanish Succession (1715); the Congress of Vienna (1815); and the beginning of the First World War (1914).

A town notice board has never been so important. Photo: Greg Copeland/Concordia Publishing

Each of these are mere moments in the span of history, but each one serves to conclude the events of the previous century, and setting the tone for the next one. The 95 Theses ended the hegemony of the Roman church in the society and politics of western Europe, ending the era of Christendom and creating differences between previously allied, feudal states, which were worked out over the next century. By the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, these differences had been more or less set in stone, and the period between it and the end of the War of Spanish Succession was marked by the return of political conflict, on a greater scale than ever before. With its conclusion in 1715 came the deaths of Louis XIV of France, and Anne of Great Britain, and with their deaths came the decline of the former and, with the House of Hanover rising to the throne, and the strength of the Whigs in Westminster, the rise of the latter to a position of strength.

That French decline culminated in the Revolution, and that with Napoleon, whose reign was brought to an end at the Congress of Vienna, which set in place British hegemony, demarcated the borders of all the European empires, and led to a century of almost total peace on the continent. It did not, however, manage to withstand the rumblings within it of the nation-state, and those rumblings came to a head with the outbreak of the First World War, which paved the way for the Second, and then that to the Cold War and the era of liberalisation which stemmed from it.

Boyle states the following in his preface to the 2nd edition of his book, 2014: How to Survive the Next World Crisis: “When my chapter on America was first drafted, the Tea Party was something that happened in Boston in 1773. Since then there has been a resurgence of the American exceptionalist thinking defined here as the belief, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, that America’s unique and God-given virtue is to be a people without being a state. There is now a heightened risk that when in the current decade American perceive a decline in their power and influence, they will be more willing to take military action, or at least to adopt an isolationist or hostile attitude to international institutions, and to commit their country to globally damaging financial or trade policies in pursuit of illusions of fiscal rectitude or economic self-sufficiency.” That is precisely what has happened. Donald Trump has become president of the United States on the back of one promise: Make America Great Again.

Boyle goes on: “As we have had more time to reflect on the bursting of the credit bubble that kept the long boom going and concealed profound changes in global terms of trade, it has become apparent that in America for over thirty years (as more recently in Germany) gains in productivity have been achieved by depressing the average wage, and that among the developed nations the future offers little prospect beyond a stagnating standard of living for the majority and continually rising inequality – a historically proven recipe for political unrest.” Again, this is what we saw in the US election, not only in the victory of Donald Trump, but also in the strength of Bernie Sanders, who basis for running was very similar, even if the language and solutions to it were different. They were candidates of political unrest, who made their strongest gains in areas of economic and social decline, which they blamed in no small part on economic liberalism.

And on Europe: “In Europe the political barometer is as obviously set to ‘Change’, perhaps even to ‘Storm’, as it is in the USA. The worldwide mismatch between financial integration…has had particularly damaging consequences in the European Union. As expected, the credit crisis has morphed into a debt crisis, which as I write is morphing into a political crisis. The currency union can be saved only by some variant of a fiscal union, and no doubt some at least of the signatories to the Maastricht Treaty foresaw that their successors would one day stand at such a crossroads. But they can hardly have foreseen that the circumstances in which a decision had to be made would be so unpropitious that they might threaten the entire project of European unification. However, if the danger of political will to an ever closer European union now seems in danger of being neutralised by the same nationalist and protectionist reactions to global economic change that are stirring in America, for that too Maastricht is responsible. The decision in 1992 to pursue the establishment of a single currency rather than the reform and reinforcement of political institutions – a decision which condemned the Parliament to irrelevance and the Commission to unaccountability – has left the Union with little hold over its people’s affections or their sense of identity.” This, too, is undoubtedly true, for the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union was, fundamentally, about sovereignty and identity.

Boyle wrote his preface in 2012, and the reasons he was pointing to for the occurrence of a Great Event can clearly be seen as having resulted in the votes for Leave and Trump. Both events were immense shocks, suggesting that they have the potential to be the Great Event, either collectively or individually.

The leaders of this era’s Great Event? Photo: UKIP

This is not merely because they are the end result of the right circumstances, but because of the kind of impact they can have in the future. A Great Event is all about how it upends an old order by being the culmination of all that has come before it, and replaces it with a new order. The 95 Theses upended Roman Catholic hegemony in all aspects of life, with new Christian denominations being formed. The Thirty Years’ War upended the fluidity of Christian belief in different parts of Europe, and crystallised the denominations of each ‘nation’. The associated events of the end of the War of Spanish Succession upended French dominance, and paved the way for British influence in the old and new worlds alike. The Congress of Vienna upended the back-and-forth of European empires, and set in stone where each would be, all with the knowledge that Britain was king of the pack. And the First World War upended the period of empires, allowing the United States to be the axis upon which world events turned. The election of Donald Trump (with or without Leave) has the potential to be the upending of the new world order first put forward by Woodrow Wilson, a period of liberalisation and globalisation, built around international institutions.

(Looking at these five events, I cannot help but wonder if they also go in pairs: 95 Theses with the Thirty Years’ War, ended with the end of the War of Spanish Succession, a period marked by the division of Europe into blocs, resulting in the emergence of the nation-state; War of Spanish Succession with the Congress of Vienna, ended by the First World War, a period marked by the absorption of states into empires, with Britain leading the pack; and First World War with the election of Donald Trump, ended by something else in a century from now.)

Of course, given we are living at the time of these events, we cannot know for sure what their impact will be for many years yet. But we should be aware that something had fundamentally changed about the world we live in, and that it is quite likely we are at the beginning of a new world order, one that is so far only defined by not being the same as that of the century before it.

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