The Return of History

My standard refrain to my British friends who say India is poor and ugly is that the Seventeenth century British expats to India used to be told the same things about Britain. What I don't say, however, is that I am developing this belief that history has some sort of circularity. This is not to say progress does not happen. Individual human beings are irrepressibly innovative and they keep pushing the boundaries of thought through their behaviour and action. But, somehow, our social actions are much less progress-prone, as if bound by some sort of gravity or the necessities of collective naivety, and the circularity in our social action occurs in spite of individual innovation and progress.

Living in Britain in the twenty-first century, despite the many comforts and possibilities of life, it still seems that the history will re-occur. Not unlike the British visitors in seventeenth century in India, I see a society with great material progress and artistic and cultural achievements, but one which is losing its collective curiosity for the unknown and trying to find its path back to the 'British ways of life'. As if past matters, at least in collective conscience, more than the future. In a rather uneasy debate about the future, where I was passionately arguing about a multi-lingual world with shared value 'platform' [a common set of principles], someone told me that he would think English will rule the world and he does not feel the need to learn any 'Asiatic' language. While I am okay with the view from an argumentative perspective, I had to remind the person that, in the world, the future belongs to the curious, and just in case that statement indicates a loss of appetite for new things, that may become counter-productive.

This post is, however, not a thesis on Asian superiority, rather the dangers of the circularity of collective thinking. It seems that Europe is suddenly looking inwards, having created a political model which has settled, at least for the time being, old rivalries played out in the name of nationalism. It is on those terms history may have ended, or reached a permanent settlement. However, as we settle into prosperity, we let go off the curiosity and discontent, and history's pivot seems to shift back somewhere else. Old designs appear in new forms: A resurgent industrial China in the form of aspirational Germany of the Nineteenth century, a rich happy old Japan in the model of Edwardian England, and a curious, nationalist India in the model of the Modern Italy, which is unhappy to play the second fiddle to anyone. I am not in the business of historical prophecies and I don't expect these comparisons to be exact. However, patterns seem to suggest that, collectively, we are prone to gravitational pulls of history and it does not seem to go away.

It is possible to suggest that the imagination of circularity leads to the reality of circularity, and one should abandon history altogether to achieve a pure form of progress. So, don't bring the unnecessary comparisons with Chicago and quote Upton Sinclair while reflecting on Dubai, do not talk about the Great Depression and the unfinished First War of 1914 when talking about the recession today, don't talk about an European decline in comparison with Asia's decline two hundred years back - because these are different unconnected events without any connection whatsoever. History's lessons are not helpful, because they tend to force us to make the same mistakes.

One can possibly argue on the contrary, and point to the current recovery, 'bailout' initiatives, which were largely based on the studies of the great recession and this helped the Fed to take swift and bold counter-measures and not repeat the mistakes. However, this is almost using the history to foster innovation by a small group of people - a pattern we have seen over and over - but not history in the context of collective subconscious, which leads us back in time, over and over.

History's great apologists, who perpetuated the theory of eternal return, were the clergy and then the kings. Today, politicians have taken their place. In fact, it is possible to argue whoever feels comfortable with what was there in the past invariably turn to promote past over future - therefore, unleashing history's gravitational pull over progress. And, by that definition, all our institutions, unless they were built with a self-destructive or self-abandoning mode, always pull the collective thinking to past and restrict our ability to progress.

So, history will keep returning, and that's a warning. We have had to restart so many times again. Dharma did ask Yudistira what the greatest puzzle of the world would be, to which the wise king answered that it is the human being's urge to be immortal, with the full knowledge that death is unavoidable. In fact, one can see the pattern of progress sublime in the pattern of history, and a game of eternal escape and return played out in our lives.


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