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Andrew Potter: The real end of the 20th century
Mass society has fragmented, globalization is going backwards, and America is largely AWOL. It's time to say goodbye to the past and face our problems with new eyes.
By: Andrew Potter
When did the 20th century come to an end? That’s easy: December 31, 1999 (or if you’re a stickler for this sort of thing, December 31, 2000).
But that’s just when the calendar ticked over, from one 100-year segment to another. There’s another sense, though, in which the 20th century as a concept for organizing human development and evolution continued well past the year 2001.
This is because projects and movements and trends have their own internal logic and momentum (for example, cultural critics have been arguing for ages that the era we call “the sixties” actually ended around 1973). The past always influences the present, anchoring us in what came before by setting the norms and establishing the framework in which we think about the human project, and there is no reason they should map cleanly onto the parts of the calendar that end in zeroes.
So when did the 20th century, as a defined unit of analysis, finally end? It was a process, not an event, but it began with the election of Donald Trump in November 2016, it accelerated in March 2020, the day the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, and the final stake was driven into the corpse last November, with the release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot.
The three three most important forces of the 20th century were massification, globalization, and American leadership.
Massification was the earliest and pervasive phenomenon. It is the set of social transformations that increasingly saw entire populations treated as a uniform, homogenous mass. The main driver of this was the clutch of economic, political and technological developments that we call modernity — capitalism, liberalism, industrialism.
But it is also important to understand the way we responded to these forces, namely, by building mass institutions. The mass media is the big one, but other institutions of mass society include the education system, large corporations, political parties, government bureaucracies, the health-care system, and so on. Wherever there was a group of people to be found in the 20th century, they were promptly gathered up and funneled into a mass institution.
The overlapping and self-reinforcing nature of all these institutions is, for the most part, what made possible the single great development of the century, the welfare state. But the state system itself proved subject to massification, particularly in the aftermath of the Second World War. The middle decades of the century saw the construction of a large number of global or regional coordinating institutions, such as the GATT (later the WTO), the EEC (later the EU), the UN, the World Bank, NATO, NORAD, the OECD … and so on and so on.
All of these institutions of trade, security and governance at the international level were conceived as responses to the way that the forces of liberalism, capitalism and technology had created an increasingly globalized political, economic and information environment.
Finally, this whole process was largely underwritten by American leadership. The 20th century was the American century, a time when American political, economic and military power combined to push a global agenda of democracy and liberalism (sometimes regardless of whether the recipients liked it or not).
That fundamental framework, of mass national and international institutions responding to the demands of mass society, in a broadly liberal and democratic manner, led by the Americans, is the meaning of the 20th century for the West. And it remained the framework for understanding society and governance, and coordinating our actions and responses to crises, well into the 2000s (think of the war in Afghanistan, which was run by NATO under a UN Security Council mandate).
But that all feels like a lifetime ago. If it seems like the global order is broken and liberalism is on the back foot, it is because it is. If it appears that governments have lost their grip on things, it is because they have. If our cities look like hollowed out relics of their former glory, it is because they are. And if we’re all retreating out of the mulishly toxic public sphere into more private walled media gardens, it is because we must.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 kick-started retreat of American global leadership, a process that has only become more acute under the Biden regime. Biden is making a show of being back in the game, but he doesn’t have the energy, and even if he did you can tell his heart isn’t in it. America today is insular and afraid, NATO is divided and adrift, our friends and allies are anxious.
A polarized and isolationist America was bad enough, then the pandemic hit. Deglobalization had been underway for a while, especially in the aftermath of the Great Recession, but the geopolitics of the pandemic hammered the accelerator. The technology was already there to reconfigure our relationship to work and to home, but the lockdowns forced the issue. And our governance institutions were already suffering from a crisis of trust, legitimacy and capacity when the pandemic partisanship took a jackhammer to our existing divides.
It’s possible — just barely — to imagine a world where all of this ended up being manageable. Political winds can shift rapidly, globalization waxes and wanes, good institutions go through periods of obsolescence followed by adaptation. But as early as we are into the AI era, it is already obvious that its widespread use is going to be like pouring universal acid onto the established order.
Think of every single institution of mass society — the education system, health care, media, government, you name it — and it is impossible to see how it won’t be utterly disrupted by cheap, open and customizable AI. But more than anything, it is going to utterly transform democratic governance, which will have huge knock-on effects for the global system. How that happens remains an open question — the battle lines between the techno-utopians and the neo feudalists are already being dug.
What is clear though is that we’ve cast loose the ballast of the 20th century. The old framework is gone. The problems we face have fundamentally changed; so must our solutions.
If you’re feeling nostalgic, you should subscribe to Andrew Potter’s newsletter Nevermind: The forgotten history of Generation X.
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