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Historicism and the great beast.

By Anthony O’Hear.

The 'great beast' in Athens.

DRAMATIC EVENTS HAVE BEEN occurring in North Africa, the Middle East, and even in Africa itself. At the moment the only thing we can safely say is that we have no idea how things will eventually develop in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Bahrain, in Libya, in Côte d’Ivoire, in Syria, in Greece. (Yes, in Greece; I’ll come back to that.)

For all the accumulated wisdom of philosophers, political scientist, historians, politicians, journalists, respected commentators and ‘experts’, the most striking aspect of all this is its unpredictability. Recently there has been a lot of talk of something called the ‘Arab Spring’, as if that is something which we all understood and which could be neatly parcelled up and pigeon-holed under a categorial heading like ‘emerging democracy that isn’t Al-Qaeda’ or something of the sort. But this time last year – as with the USSR in 1987 – who, of all our experts, actually predicted significant threats to the regimes of Gadaffi and Assad, for example?  Even now we have little idea about how big a role the Muslim Brotherhood will play in the new Egypt, or indeed how that role might sit with our ideas of liberal democracy.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on the experts, except in one respect. What Karl Popper called the poverty of historicism actually goes far deeper than most of us like to think. Historicism is the idea that there is a direction to history and that we or experts can understand what it is, in advance of its unravelling. We – or self-proclaimed ‘experts’ – remain in thrall to the conceit that we know what is happening and what is likely to happen (historicism). Popper (and Hayek) have given theoretical reasons for thinking that historicism is bound to fail, due to the inherent unpredictability of human behaviour, focusing on such things as the reality of human freedom and the impossibility of foreseeing technological innovations and their effects. And time and time again, in the lifetime of some of us, events have proved expert understandings and predictions wrong – Iran after the Shah, fall of the Eastern bloc, the shift away from Keynesianism in the economic policies of the 1980s, the revival of fundamentalist religions – which demonstrates the poverty of our conceit.

My criticism of the ‘experts’ is not so much that they fail to predict what happens as that they fail to learn from these regular failures of prediction, and continue to act as if they could stand outside the events in which they are enmeshed and actually see what is going on. The last lesson most of us are prepared to learn from history is history’s unpredictability. Indeed history itself may mislead us here: in imposing a calm and rational narrative on events which are so often beyond any easy patterning or logic, the writing of history can look like a systematic conspiracy to distort what Clio’s multifarious and many-coloured patchwork actually tells us.

IT IS SAID BY those who profess to know about such things that many of the events we are witnessing to-day have their origins in the so-called ‘twitter’ generation – that is, through new means of communication, masses of uncoordinated and unled individuals come together to use their mass power to overthrow established regimes. Some may welcome the mass demonstrations we are witnessing as raw people power, as direct grass-roots democracy. I would counsel caution. What is the difference between what is happening in Athens currently and what has happened recently in Cairo and Benghazi? There is a difference, of course. I suppose that the forms of government in Greece, Egypt and Libya are all rather different, and that depending on what we think of each, we may take a different attitude to the crowds on the streets. While the crowds in Egypt and Libya may look ‘pro-democracy’, the crowds in Athens are rather more equivocal in their impact.

Plato, not without reason, referred to the populace as a whole, in its manifestation as a mass or a crowd, as the great beast, and he also speaks of its manipulability by those who can ride on its back and interpret and articulate its moods, ‘what provokes its typical cries, and what tone of voice makes it gentle or wild’. Given that people en masse are incapable of reasoning in a cool way about what is truly good or true or beautiful, what Plato refers to as the sophist, arrogating to himself the job of advising the crowd, will simply take and promote as commendable what the mass will accept as such at any given time.

‘When there’s any general public gathering, and the boos and applause of their criticism and praise (excessive in both cases) of whatever is being said and done make a terrible din – and the rocks and the surroundings double the noise of their approval and disapproval by echoing it – in a situation like this, how do you think a young man’s heart will be affected? How can the education he has received outside of the public arena stand up to it, without being swept away at the mercy of the current? Won’t he end up just like them, with the same moral standards and habits as them?’ [1]

IS PLATO TOO PESSIMISTIC here? What he says has an alarming plausibility about any political gathering, including, of all things, university senates and student union meetings; and, in my opinion, he actually underestimates the way that sophistical demagogues can lead crowds as well as following them. However, even if we were more sanguine about mass demonstrations and swirling crowds on the streets than Plato, clearly there is always going to be intense uncertainty as to outcomes; and (as happened in Teheran in 1979, to say nothing of Paris in 1789 and Petersburg in 1917, among countless other examples) an all too reasonable fear that the outcome may be a regime rather worse and more arbitrary than the one it replaced. It is, of course, the arbitrariness of decision making by and in crowds which is the danger, and the awful potential this unleashes for tyranny and terror. We might at this point bear in mind Aristotle’s warning about a state in which the people rather than the laws govern: ‘when government is not in the laws, then there is no free state, for the law ought to be supreme over all things’. [2] Decision making on the street – or even in a body like the French National Assembly of the early 1790s, in which speakers in what had been a riding school literally played to the public gallery – is hardly likely to respect the supremacy of law.

But perhaps, in conclusion, we should consider whether the extreme unpredictability of the crowds we are seeing to-day in quite a number of places (including even London, as it happens) is not just an extreme illustration of what is actually always the case. Beneath its apparently smooth surface and underpinning the leaders who appear to shape it, human history is built on shifting sands, on countless inherently unstable actions and decisions of millions of individual people. I have been reading Tacitus lately, and what is very striking is the extreme nervousness of the early Roman emperors (see, for example, Tiberius’s fear of the people of Rome). Machiavelli warns that a prince can never secure himself against a hostile people, as they are too many. [3] Of course, rulers will always seek to insulate themselves and protect themselves (and often actually be deposed by those they bring to protect them). But, built as it ultimately is on the submission of the many, whether this submission is secured by willing consent or by repressive violence, history is always potentially in flux; we are always in danger of being caught out by our ignorance of the mood of the great beast.


1. Republic, 492b-c.
2. Politics 1292a.
3. The Prince, Ch 9.

Anthony O’Hear is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buckingham, the director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, a co-editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, and the author of, among other books, Philosophy in the New Century and The Great Books: A Journey Through 2500 Years of the West’s Classic Literature.

This essay is the text of remarks made today to the XIX International Meeting in Political Studies, ‘The Future of the Free World‘ at the Estoril Political Forum 2011.

On this topic in The Fortnightly Review: On social disorder, by Gerald Gaus.

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