What can history tell us about the emerging world order?

A book from the 1950s can shed light on current events, writes Shaukat Qadir

Events like the September 11 attacks on the United States might have hindered mankind’s quest for a better world, but are those impediments permanent?

It is in this context that the book, The Coming Caesars, written in 1957 by a Frenchman, Amaury de Riencourt, came to mind. My attention was drawn to this book – which was republished by Trestle Press earlier this year – while discussing the emerging world order.

In terms of political philosophy, de Riencourt contends that people need a figure of authority from whom to draw confidence. Consequently, while initially people seek greater liberty, once they achieve it they become uncertain, because excessive liberty generates uncertainty. That uncertainty then makes man yearn for a more authoritarian form of government.

The author draws parallels with ancient Greece and Rome which, having started as republics with representative senates, fought for increased liberties. The Greeks did it relatively slowly compared to the Romans. But as Rome approached its zenith, it voluntarily opted for an authoritarian form of government, giving in to Caesars; hence the title, The Coming Caesars.

The book has been described as a “remarkable prophecy” of America’s modern political scene. It predicts the rush towards Caesarism that became evident to the author by the midpoint of the Eisenhower presidency. In essence de Riencourt’s work is a musing on political philosophies and a thought-provoking journey through the often cyclical nature of history.

His prediction is laid out as this: “Since the bastion of modern liberty and the concept of human freedom is America, which is also moving at the fastest pace towards increasing liberty to mankind, it is America that will give rise to the return of the Caesars. They will be the first to return to authoritarian rule, and rebuild the Caesarean empires around the world.”

To a large extent, current events seem to prove de Riencourt’s point. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the world became unipolar. We have seen a growing American unilateralism with Washington trying to assume control over areas it considers its vital national interests.

The process in many ways has resulted – and will continue to result – in a decline of human rights at home and a corresponding increase in “state rights”.

One incident that exemplifies this concerns a young Caucasian man who entered a shopping mall in the US sporting a T-shirt with the words “No to war in Iraq” inscribed on it. The security personnel asked him to remove the T-shirt or leave the mall. When he refused to do either, he was arrested for trespassing.

De Riencourt’s arguments seem to be convincing as international organisations are systematically undermined (which may, at least in the foreseeable future, slow down the process of globalisation).

While the uncanny prescience of his prediction is indisputable, if his hypothesis is considered accurate, it would imply that political philosophy grows not to an insurmountable peak, but in a circle. In that case, on a philosophical plane, it would apply equally to the growth of knowledge. In other words, mankind and knowledge move in a circle, with the wheel coming full circle at exactly the point where progress is supposed to have reached its ultimate point. This point, precisely because of its cyclical nature, cannot be called the high point.

This would also imply that knowledge is finite. And in order to satiate human thirst for knowledge, or better still the desire to create a surplus, the final point also becomes the point of regression. The quest begins anew.

This postulation, while uniquely interesting, is equally difficult to accept. There is little doubt that in the study of history, one discovers human beings repeating the same mistakes today that were made thousands of years ago and repeated thousands of times by our ancestors.

Should we then infer that mankind has not progressed?

I would rather think that events like 9/11 – of which there are many parallels in history – put back the growth of mankind’s quest for a better world, but the slip back is temporary.

And while the effect might last, philosophical growth remains within a circle for a brief span of time, during which individuals strive to break out of the cycle. An example of this is the fact that the process of globalisation, like the growth of political philosophy, has almost certainly been put on the back burner for some time to come.

That said, I find the hypothesis and its implications sufficiently interesting to attempt to comprehend it better, based on what the future has in store for us all.

It would be a matter of immense satisfaction for me if, on reading this, someone better versed with political philosophy, in particular, and knowledge in general, would explain to lesser mortals, like myself, what the truth is.

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer

Published: March 16, 2014 04:00 AM

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