Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124

History for Tomorrow by Roman Krznaric: A Review of Past Insights for Future Progress

History for Tomorrow by Roman Krznaric: A Review of Past Insights for Future Progress

Civil rights activists at a Ku Klux Klan march in Selma, Alabama, 1979. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
Civil rights activists at a Ku Klux Klan march in Selma, Alabama, 1979. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

We need lessons from history now more than ever. Mothers with young children sit isolated in their own homes, oblivious to 1970s experiments in communal child-rearing. Broadcasters justify populist content on the grounds that it’s what “ordinary people” want, despite the rich 19th-century tradition of working-class intellectualism. The current Labour leadership’s adherence to strict “fiscal rules” disregards past successes of borrowing to invest and taxing the highest incomes at 90%. These histories allow us to see that contemporary evils such as austerity and inequality are contingent, not inevitable: it doesn’t have to be this way.

The mindfulness mantra to ‘live in the present’ distracts us from the real problem: we are not living enough in the past. The perpetual ‘now’ of online life erodes our collective memory. Historical novels and TV series are in demand, but often as vehicles for escapism. History for Tomorrow could not, therefore, be timelier or more welcome. Roman Krznaric’s books include The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long-term in a Short-term World, and this latest is similarly focused on addressing global heating, social division and runaway AI in order to build a better future; this time mining history for precedents and paradigms that might offer forgotten solutions.

We begin in Jamaica in 1831, when 20,000 slaves lost patience with the high-minded gradualism of white elites, setting fire to plantations and seizing control of land: a revolt which proved to be “a crucial tipping point” in the history of abolition. Krznaric makes a broader case for this “radical flank effect”, where activists instigate a political crisis that accelerates the pace of change: see also Black Power and Extinction Rebellion (though whether the latter will be decisive in averting climate disaster remains to be seen).

Populist politicians like to associate anti-immigration sentiment with tradition rather than racism (at least in public); calling for more tolerance looks like an attack on established communities. Krznaric cites the counter-tradition of multiculturalism in medieval Andalusia, where Jews, Muslims and Christians rubbed along pretty well (though some scholars regard this view as rose-tinted). The forced proximity of city life facilitates conviviality: a phenomenon known as “contact theory”.

As overconsumption depletes planetary resources, Krznaric holds up the Japanese city of Edo, now Tokyo, where, from the 17th century onwards, the ruling shoguns responded to scarcity by instituting a strictly regulated zero-waste “circular economy” (one of many buzzwords in this book). Almost everything was reused, repaired or recycled: “drippings of candle wax were remoulded, old metal pots were melted down, human hair was sold to wigmakers”. The challenge now is how to simulate scarcity in an age of apparent consumerist abundance.

While top-down measures like Edo’s can be effective, Krznaric prefers grassroots, decentralised self-government, such as the water tribunal (Tribunal de las Aguas) established by Islamic rulers in medieval Valencia and still operating today, with local farmers coming together to enforce the fair allocation of this precious resource. It’s a system that challenges the pervasive idea that, left to their own devices, people will grab more than their share: the so-called “tragedy of the commons”.

There are cautionary tales here too, such as the eugenics movement that haunts the development of commercial gene editing technology. Better to look to the development of the polio vaccine and its proto-crowdfunding initiative (the “March of Dimes”) that raised enough cash to fund the largest medical field trial in American history, led by the virologist Jonas Salk. After his discovery of the vaccine in 1955, Salk was interviewed on TV by Ed Murrow, who asked him who owned the patent. “Well, the people, I would say,” Salk replied. “Could you patent the sun?” There is a message here for the vast, privatised biotech industry.

One key to avoiding civilisational collapse was offered as early as 1375 by the Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun

With efforts to reduce wealth inequality seemingly stalled, what can history tell us about what works? The economic historian Walter Scheidel has argued that greater equality is usually brought about by violent disruptions of the social order, such as war or revolution. More optimistically, the economist Thomas Piketty believes it is social and political struggles that make institutional change possible, such as the introduction of progressive wealth taxes. Krznaric identifies another such route in early 20th-century Kerala in southern India, where communists organised pay strikes, set up a network of “fair price” shops and public libraries and supported women to start collective enterprises.

Against the dystopian ravages of platform capitalism – Google, Microsoft, Uber and the rest – Krznaric pits the cooperative tradition that has long flourished in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region: the University of Bologna was run by its students for its first three centuries. Or we can remember the American farmers who formed electricity cooperatives during the Great Depression with help from government loans under the New Deal (the most successful models, perhaps, combine the bottom-up with the top-down).

One key to avoiding civilisational collapse was offered as early as 1375 by the Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun in his book The Muqaddimah, an attempt to account for how once great north African cities had fallen into ruin. In 1400, the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur (or Tamerlane) laid siege to Damascus. Hearing that Khaldun had been taken captive, Timur had him lowered by rope in a basket over the city walls into his camp to tell him his insights. Khaldun explained that fallen empires lacked asabiya, “collective solidarity”. The contemporary researchers Luke Kemp and Peter Turchin agree, arguing that the concentration of wealth and political inequality are the biggest drivers of social disintegration.

Solidarity has in the past been strengthened by the presence of an external threat, and unfortunately climate change doesn’t really feel like that. Some hope lies in identifying enemies within (fossil fuel companies and billionaires). Or we can rekindle “biophilia”, love for the natural world, expressed in John Evelyn’s 1664 book Sylva, which kickstarted a tree-planting craze, and in the explosion of nature poetry, Linnean botany and recreational gardening in the 18th century.

Despite abundant portents, we still harbour a residual Enlightenment belief in automatic progress (one idea we should jettison), leading, Krznaric notes, to dangerous complacency and what ecologists call the shifting baseline – or “boiling frogs” – syndrome: a tendency to underestimate long-term decline. Tech corporations claim that their products have created unprecedented opportunities for social connection and the sharing of information, but cosmopolitan coffee houses were already serving that up in the 18th century.

History buffs may be distracted by their own counter-examples that complicate the “lessons learned”, but Krznaric readily admits to cherrypicking: his aim is to lay out a smörgåsbord of ideas to choose from. The problem for me is the selection is a bit thin. Too much space is devoted to establishing well-trodden arguments that are surely already accepted by the book’s probable readership (climate change bad, multiculturalism good, consumerism bad, equality good), and too many of the examples are easily Googleable staples of left-green thinking. I wanted this book to dig deeper into the historical record, engage more thoroughly with debates about what makes change happen, and work harder to demonstrate how these precedents can be stitched into the here and now. Krznaric is fighting the good fight: he needs all the ammunition he can get.

• History for Tomorrow: Inspiration from the Past for the Future of Humanity by Roman Krznaric is published by WH Allen (£22).

Source: The Guardian, Particle News