The Latest Age

Even as the twentieth century of the Christian era began to close, it was already easy enough to agree that great and startling changes had come about since, say, 1945. Today, that is even more apparent. But the problems which arise as we try to pin them down as part of the world’s history do not go away. They may even become more difficult to solve. The mere narrative of events seems to thicken up suddenly, unaccountably, and of its own accord. It is harder than ever, under the strong impression of recent events, to get our perspective right in treating the last fifty or so years of history in relation to the preceding six thousand or so.

Bart of the trouble lies in our reasonable expectations. When we read about times through which we have lived, we expect to come across events we recall, or recall hearing about at an impressionable age, and there is then a sense of disappointment if they do not turn up in the story. But all history is a selection; it is, in the strictest sense, what any one age finds remarkable in an earlier period, and expectation, legitimate or illegitimate, is only a part of it. Nor is it the only source of challenge in the history of recent times. The pace of change poses another difficulty. It was only a few centuries ago that the notion of human cultural evolution began to get some grip on writers of history. It is really only very recently, moreover, that historians have begun to take it for granted that generations will differ culturally, that the societies they live in are always changing in very deep and determining ways, and that basic attitudes change with them. Yet any adult alive today has almost certainly lived through examples of radical adaptations which are now taken for granted, absorbed into our consciousness and often go unremarked, though they may be far more profound and far more strikingly rapid than any experienced by our predecessors. The growth of population is the exemplary case; no earlier generation has lived through anything like such a rapid increase in human numbers. Yet few human beings have been conscious of it.

It is not just as a succession of events that history has speeded up. The rapidity of the changes it has brought has often had wider and deeper implications, and more influence than in the past, just because of the speed with which the changes came about. To take one example, for all the dissatisfactions still felt by many over the extent of advance, the opportunities and freedoms available to women in western society have grown at a quite different rate and by an order of magnitude dramatically greater than in the previous century or so. As yet, they have not begun to exhaust (or in some places even to exercise) their full effect. The same could be said of many more narrowly technological and material changes, some of which are far from exercising their full potential effects.

If the history of the last few decades is - because of the rapid and radical changes they have brought - quite different from any earlier history, that makes it harder to write about as part of the same story. In entering it, we seem not merely (in some sense) to have to change gear, but to need to take up a different viewpoint. More explanation is required in order to show the special influence of this or that fact or event, especially when it involves technical innovation. More detail is needed to unravel the crumbling and rebuilding of a world political system in the context of the first truly global economic order, or for the weighing of questions about how much irreversible change can now be identified as the outcome of human intervention with nature. Such matters, of course, demand consideration in earlier history, too. But in former times the deep and far-reaching implications of the events which embodied them tended only to reveal themselves slowly and at times almost imperceptibly. Now they do so with sometimes surprising, even explosive rapidity, and this, too, makes a steady perspective much harder to achieve.

Then there is chronology, the bedrock of history. Reflection that history marches into a new and distinctive phase somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century leaves many of us looking about for what we might treat as turning-points, punctuations, indispensable milestones of chronology, such as we take for granted in earlier history. In thinking of these matters, though, whether 1917 is a more meaningful turning-point than 1919, or whether what happened in Manchuria in 1931 marked a more striking new departure than what happened in Poland in 1939 may not within a few decades seem to matter so much as once we thought. Possibly neither of those dates should be regarded as more noteworthy than, for example, that of the patent filed in 1931 for a compound effective in controlling fertility in women and capable of being administered safely by mouth. That was a landmark in the development of what soon became known, ten years later, as ‘the Pill’, whose effects have already been immense.

In what follows, I have tried consciously to face such problems and to make them somewhat less intimidating by setting out first - even at some length - the most important general developments which embody or represent long-term themes and influences operating over the last fifty years or so. Only then have I tried to outline a narrative of the events which usually made more of the headlines, divided roughly into short chronological periods. From this, I hope, will emerge the main chronological markers of ‘contemporary history’ - the moments when things might have gone otherwise had history not been history and been therefore ‘bound’ to go the way it did.

Of course, there are some general points which we can be fairly sure will emerge, even before we start. It is not difficult, for example, to see that the days of domination of world affairs by Europeans are over; and that we can call the age since 1945 post-European. But there are even more general and sweeping changes to register. The world is now one as never before. This is one of the ways in which the world has, in a few years, changed faster and perhaps more fundamentally than ever in earlier history. A common civilization is now spread and in many ways shared more widely than any civilization hitherto, but even as we discern that fact, it is changing before our eyes into something else. Indeed, it is a civilization uniquely committed to change, and therefore often of revolutionary impact. We can have far less firm ground for confidence in making guesses about what life will be like in even a few decades than our predecessors had. Greater economic and technological independence and, above all, a hugely increased supply of information and better means of tapping it are among the most obvious reasons for this. Almost anything that happens anywhere in the world can now in principle rapidly produce effects elsewhere; more and more, even if not yet all, political leaders seem to recognize this, whether they are prompted to do so by ideology, calculation or simple fear. Even if sometimes too slowly, most of them come around in the end to recognizing the path history has taken. For convenience, the processes involved are often talked about as ‘modernization’ and the symptoms of it have now spread to every part of the globe, even where they are as yet apparent only as aspirations.

Long ago in prehistory, humanity began its liberation from nature through primitive technologies. During thousands of years it then followed different and diverging paths, which provided it with different ways of life and created highly individual and particular cultures and civilizations. A few centuries ago, those paths began to converge, as there began to spread from one part of the world the processes of modernization. Now we can sense that they are in some senses coming together the world over, even if we cannot say very much that is precise about something happening at so general a level. What we must (and, fortunately, can easily) recognize, though, is that even the most recent history has still to be seen in the light of older history. To do so makes the chance of securing a just perspective on even the greatest changes just a little better.

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