Ordering Moments In History

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Image credit: 
Poster UK 2341, Poster collection, Hoover Institution Archives

At irregular and rare moments in history, something happens that fundamentally changes the economic, political, or societal order. These historical “ordering moments” are related to black swan events, seemingly unpredictable occurrences with extreme consequences. But all black swans are not created equal. Although one may consider the mortgage crisis that led to the Great Recession of 2008 a black swan event, it did not fundamentally change the global economic order. The same cannot be said of the bubonic plague that swept through China and then migrated along trade routes to Europe between 1331 and 1351, killing one-third to one-half of the population in its wake. The Black Death altered the relationship between labor and capital, giving much greater bargaining power to workers. The gap between rich and poor shrank; the cost of military expeditions rose as soldiers demanded higher wages; and rulers had to become more efficient at raising revenue, which furthered the process of state formation. The Church could not explain why God was punishing mankind, and so mankind sought other explanations, helping to usher in the Renaissance and Reformation—two other ordering moments whose ramifications echo down through the ages.

The great influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 was not an ordering moment, mainly because it occurred contemporaneously with World War I, which was. Because the Great War was so traumatic, undermining confidence in Western civilization and driving massive geopolitical changes such as the Russian Revolution, the collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires, and the rise of both pacifism and right-wing nationalism, the public quickly forgot about the pandemic in its attempt to return to normalcy. The Great Depression and World War II followed that brief interlude, and they in turn reordered global politics and economics—the creation of the Second World (the Soviet Union and its satellites) and Third World (largely the result of post-war decolonization), a forty year Cold War, and the transition from the industrial to the information age. Scientists only identified the influenza virus in 1931; the first history of the Spanish flu wasn’t written until 1974. Despite its lethality, it was a footnote in history.

The consequences of the COVID 19 pandemic are likely to be more substantial, even if it turns out to be not as lethal as the H1N1 flu that killed upwards of 50-100 million people worldwide in 1918-1919. Why would this be so? This current pandemic erupted during a period of change that was already reshaping the post-Cold War geopolitical and economic order. The transition to a digital economy, long forecast, may finally come to fruition as companies and workers get used to working from home via Internet conferences, video streaming, email, and text messaging. But the world could also fracture. Just as World War I drove a stake through the heart of the first major period of globalization at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, the age of globalization 2.0, already waning due to disputes over migration and trade, may be at an end. Viruses today spread at the speed of airline travel; open borders are likely to close, perhaps permanently, as governments attempt to check the spread of contagion. Governments will also be less enthusiastic to allow unbridled offshoring of manufacturing, especially for critical products such as medical supplies. In the United States and China, the pandemic is likely to strengthen the forces of nationalism and anti-Chinese/American sentiment, perhaps leading to the start of a Cold War in the Asia-Pacific region.

Furthermore, only older Americans understand what a world with untreatable disease looks like. A public used to a sense of security may become increasingly unmoored, spurred on by rampant falsehoods and conspiracy theories spread by social media. A similar anguish afflicted the German people after World War I. Brought low by defeat, hunger, and the Spanish flu, a gullible German public bought into the Dolchstosslegende, the myth that the Imperial German Army was not defeated on the battlefield, but rather was stabbed in the back by revolution at home fomented by Communists, socialists, and Jews. This myth gave rise to the political platform of the Nazi Party, made more potent by the orations of Adolf Hitler.

We are at a similar ordering moment in history today. We can only speculate as to what changes are in store, but history suggests that they will be significant and lasting.