The false fatality of historical events

And yet, these “inevitable” explanations of historical events thrive. And they sell a lot of books.

For example, you may have read in many places, the economic chaos in Germany after its defeat in World War I obviously sowed the seeds for the second cataclysm that followed. More recently, the rise of populist-nationalist political movements around the world is said to be an inevitable consequence of the dislocations created by globalization.

Without a doubt, such arguments make it a compelling read. Still, it’s always best to take these accounts of “inevitabilities” with skepticism – for several reasons. Let me highlight two.

First, many of these “inevitable” sequences of historical events tend to ignore the possibility that each step of these sequences may have unfolded in different ways. . If this had happened, would the account of the discontent caused by globalization among white working-class voters have as much weight as it does today? Clinton’s post-gender society.

Sadly, the fine margins of real-life events rarely justify such grand narratives of inevitability.

Second, these accounts of “inevitable” events often depend on arbitrary beginnings and endings. Look at the United States again. The next US election could cut short the Donald Trump era, bring someone else to power – Oprah Winfrey, The Rock, Jeff Bezos, Raghuram Rajan, Stan Lee, thus triggering a thousand new confident narratives as to why Trump has lost and why the Winfrey-Rajan ticket was an inevitable revival of modern American society.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that many historical narratives only seem inevitable because we make them up after the fact. But enough theory. Let me illustrate this with a few examples.

Two years ago, I attended a series of lectures and seminars on “Islam and politics”. It was a fascinating glimpse into how the Islamic world came to grips with political ideas and institutions. Arab state. Would things ever change, one of the students asked. Will the Saudi nation one day be able to free itself from the clutches of religious leaders?

Our speaker seemed skeptical. State and religion had a deeply symbiotic relationship in the kingdom, he said. While the king depended on the clerics for religious legitimacy, the clerics derived their power and livelihood from the office of the king. It would take something remarkable to break an equation that had held the Saudi state together for generations.

Barely two years later, Mohammed bin Salman seems to rewrite this equation with ease. A house arrest, it seems, has dispelled many theological doubts. Lo and behold, we now have accounts of why Salman’s “reforms” were inevitable. Eventually the Saudis will run out of oil, we are told, and something had to be done to anticipate Saudi discontent. And Salman, according to a BBC story, wants the Saudis to work as hard as before, follow the same line of loyalty as before, but also have fun for a change, which is why a stadium in Jeddah will host this Friday. a mega pro wrestling competition: WWE Greatest Royal Rumble. The main sponsor of the event is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself.


My second example is the case of Bangladeshi women. While attending these conferences, I purchased a used copy of the 1973 edition of Readings In World History, Volume 6: The Islamic World. Inside was a newspaper clipping from an October 1976 issue of The Guardian (I admit the clipping was half the reason for my purchase). The story of Bangladeshi women was titled, “Despised and Rejected, Miserable Women on Earth”. illiterate, and nothing more than a thread-making machine. She lived, it was said, on the verge of a Malthusian nightmare.

Yet earlier this week, Kaushik Basu wrote in a Project Syndicate column that Bangladesh was becoming a “tiger” economy in the making. And that this “was largely due to social changes, starting with the empowerment of women.” Education, Basu wrote, has given women “a greater voice, both in the home and in the public sphere.” Basu goes on to say that because of this and other reasons, and with good leadership, Bangladesh is poised to be the next Asian success story. So the Malthusian inevitability of 1976 has passed, and the Booming Bangladesh of 2018 is upon us.

Taking these inevitable historical narratives at face value is to assume that the historian is some sort of post-facto prophet rather than what she really is: an undertaker of human events. But there is another problem. To impose inevitable delays on human affairs is to deny human beings their unlimited capacity to do the most surprising and unpredictable things.

Beware of painting targets around random arrows and calling it fate.

Deja View is a bi-monthly conversation about history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint Chronicles at

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Patrick F. Williams

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