Timothy Snyder Speaks, ep. 14: Politics of Eternity, Politics of Inevitability

Timothy Snyder Speaks, ep. 14: Politics of Eternity, Politics of Inevitability



hey hi it's a 15th of May 2018 this is the latest in the series of little talks that we're doing under the heading Timothy Snyder speaks what I'd like to talk about today are ideas the ideas of the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity these are the ideas that I use at the end of on tyranny and then at the beginning of road to unfreedom to try to describe where we're coming from mentally politically ethically and where we're going so what I thought I'd do today is take a breath and try to explain what these ideas are let me just start with a basic claim that ideas matter and that they matter a lot if you don't think ideas matter well that's also an idea the idea the ideas don't matter is also an idea and it matters to you I'm gonna venture to say that the idea that ideas don't matter is a bad idea in fact it's an idea which suggests that you're under the spell this thing that I'm going to call the politics of inevitability or the year under the spell of the thing which I'm going to call the politics of eternity now these ideas inevitability and eternity are very tempting because what they do is they allow us to move forward through time without really thinking too much what the politics of inevitability says is that we know the rules of history one thing leads to another there's going to be progress and this is a very tempting idea because it suggests that what you do or what I do doesn't matter too much we don't have to really look too hard at what's going on around us we don't have to make difficult choices because things are going to flow the way they're going to flow and they're flowing in the right direction so in the u.s. the politics of each of inevitability have looked something like this we say history is over after 1989 there are no alternatives capitalism is going to lead to democracy everything is going to be fine and we spend 25 years saying things like this and we educate a whole generation in those ideas now that's an idea and because it's an idea it then tends to influence what we actually do and it tends to bring about situations which eventually make the idea impossible to sustain so at different points for different people in different parts of the country this idea of progress this idea that we know the rules that everything's going to get better starts to come unhinged time starts to seem like it's out of joint and this I think is why the present moment is not only threatening it's it's weird it's uncanny because it's not just that things that we didn't expect are happening it's that our whole sense that things are automatically going to get better has been challenged or undermine or overthrown let's look at a couple of ways that this has happened so one part of the American politics of eternity says that capitalism leads to democracy okay sure but if you think that that means that you don't then intervene in capitalism with the kinds of policies that you would need to make sure that there is economic and racial equality if you don't have those kinds of policies then you're not going to have social advancement you're not going to have a sense among parts of the population that they can join into this story of the future and of course people are right to doubt that if you were born in the u.s. in 1940 your chances of doing better than your parents economically were about 9 and 10 if you were born in 1980 your chance of doing better than your parents or about 1 in 2 from 1980 to the present inequalities of wealth and income have only gotten worse so people are right to think that the future doesn't automatically hold something better for them and so this idea of inevitability starts to crack and it starts to break another example is technology I'll talk about this in another segment but we had the idea again beginning in the early 1990s that the internet could only bring enlightenment that is simply not proven to be the case the Internet has rather tended to bring not always but it tended to break stupefaction um the internet is the thing which for example brought us the current president of the united states again i'll talk about this more in other places but one thing we can say for sure is that technology has not automatically proven to be enlightening it can be divisive and it can make people less educated even as they think they're more educated a third example is globalization so in the American politics of Eternity Nevitt ability the idea was that America is a democracy there are no alternatives to democracy after 1989 Afghans of communism everyone as can become more like the United States in fact the opposite has happened in the last in the last decade or more what's happened is that countries have moved away from democracy towards authoritarianism including our own and no one and I mean no one looks at the u.s. as a model of democracy the US has become less democratic and enemies around the world in particular the Russian Federation see the problems of our democracy as a way to make things worse so the larger point here is that the politics of inevitability is is a bad idea for a couple of reasons the first is that it dulls our sensibility it dulls our sense of responsibility it means it tells us that we don't really have to be citizens we don't look around be able to think because everything's going in the right direction the second the second reason why it's a bad idea is that it eventually breaks and when it breaks we then feel lost we feel vulnerable we we don't know quite what to do because it turns out there aren't any rules and so what we tend to do is we tend to shift to this other idea the idea that in the books I call the politics of eternity so what's the politics of eternity and the politics of eternity there is no future so you stop believing that the future is automatically going to be better and you forget about the future entirely instead you're lulled into a different sense of time where things were better in the past where America was a good place in the 1930s 40s or 50s a and all it has to happen is we have to make America great again you have to loop back as some kind of a Hoff's um you stop thinking about the future you think that the only problem is the past and then you think well why is in America today like it was back in the good old days and the answer is well because we have enemies those enemies who are broad those enemies or at home the immigrants the Muslims the Chinese the Jews the blacks whatever it might be but these people broader at home who have taken away those things that we used to have and so politics then stops being about what we might all do together for a future and starts being about a kind of eternal present where people have some people have a vision of the past where everything was great other people can't agree with that and you get into a politics of us and them which it really takes place in the eternal present if you like this sort of thing you're gonna be nostalgic you're gonna go for this big loop you're gonna think about making America great again for example you're gonna think the slogan America first makes sense if you don't like it you're going to hit by a different loop which is the loop of the daily news cycle the loop of the daily tweet the loop where you're so outraged or incensed by what happens at a given moment that you can't think about the future either either way everybody's trapped in a politics of eternity now the dangers the politics of eternity are that first of all like the politics of inevitability nobody has any responsibility right and the politics of inevitability nobody hasn't your responsibility because we all think everything's gonna be fine no matter what we do in the politics of eternity nobody has any responsibility because we think things are gonna be bad and conflictual no matter what we do so the politics of eternity is attractive precisely because it allows you to move from optimism to pessimism from a sense of hope to a sense of despair whatever it might be without ever taking responsibility yourself but the other reason may be more fundamental why the politics of eternity is threatening is that it allows leaders governments to govern from a position of economic and also racial inequality if everyone accepts the politics of eternity if people are thinking not about the future but about the past if everyone is caught in these various loops loops of decades or loops of the daily news cycle that means that govern no longer has to promise policy government no longer has to talk about the future government then just becomes a kind of arbiter in this struggle between us and them defining external enemies and defining internal enemies and people forget to ask the government for Policy what that means in the long run is that you can govern from a position of extreme inequality right no one's going to challenge that you're gonna forget that the whole point of government was to give everyone a chance so that's that's the issue now how do we get out of this I hope that I've described this well enough if not here then in the books that you can feel or sense how all of us were many of us and most of us are have shifted at one point another from this idea than having ability to this idea of eternity how can we stop this this is what I mean when I call the book the road on freedom that you know the road on freedom is from inevitability to eternity how do you stop that or how do you exit how do you get off this road and freedom the answer is is history this is why I wrote the road to on freedom as a history book even though it's about the present what history does is it allows us to break out of ideas like this because it allows us to say oh that's not true this idea of time but I'm living in that surrounds me it's just an idea it's gonna come it's gonna go you can say that about inevitability you can say it about eternity history gives you some distance on it where you say oh those are ideas they're reasons why these ideas work but they're not true right they're just ideas like like other ideas history allows you also to see where you are in certain structures unlike inevitability and unlike eternity history forces you to take responsibility because if you if you try to figure out what's going on around you in the past flowing into the present you can see what you can do and what you can't do and once you see that then it's up to you whether you do something and that forces you to ask the question what can I do and the related question what should I do so the reason why I wrote the road to unfreedom the road unfreedom is meant to show how to get off the road to unfreedom how to exit it the reason why I wrote the road on freedom as a history book is precisely encouraged this kind of politics of responsibility where we accept that the politics have not been a bill allows us to be contented sleepwalkers and the politics of eternity allows us to be angry sleepwalkers sleepwalkers are having a nightmare but the whole point is not the sleepwalk the whole point is to be awake to what the actual possibilities are Thanks

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