Monday, May 20, 2024

Age of Revolutions

I've finished reading through Fareed Zakaria’s recent magisterial book: “Age of Revolutions Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present.” I was so impressed with the concluding pages of the book, titled "The Infinite Abyss" that I have re-read it several times, and was about to attempt a summary of its main points before checking and finding, sure enough, that Chat GPT4 and Anthropic Claude saved me at least an hour of work by performing their quite adequate responses to my prompt: "Writing as professional historian please write an approximately 1000 word summary of the conclusion of Fareed Zakaria’s recent book..." Claude generated 466 words, and ChatGPT 622. I pass on this slightly edited version of Claude's response: 

Zakaria reflects on how revolutions and rapid social change, despite bringing progress, have also generated widespread anxiety and backlash throughout history. Even the most successful revolutions like those in the Netherlands, Britain, and America faced deep resistance. The failed French Revolution instilled a lasting fear of radical change.  

Today, this dynamic plays out with populist leaders like Trump, Orban, and Bolsonaro pushing back against globalization and liberal values out of a desire to reassert national culture. However, Zakaria argues this crisis of global liberalism stems from rapidly transforming societies upending traditional ways of life, leaving many feeling unmoored despite material progress.  

Freedom and autonomy have come at the expense of eroding the authority and traditions that once bound communities together. This vacuum has allowed populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism to offer an "escape from freedom" by subjugating the individual to a higher cause like nation or religion. But Zakaria doubts such ideologies can truly fill the "hole in the heart" created by modernity, as human beings still fundamentally desire freedom for themselves.  

The liberal democratic state avoided the pitfalls of revolutionary excess and top-down imposition of change by gradually reforming within the fabric of society. Change unfolded more organically rather than being abruptly imposed. Zakaria calls for continuing this approach - persuading and educating people rather than forcing change upon them.  

He argues both the left and right have become susceptible to illiberal revolutionary impulses - the right's outright rejection of liberal democracy, and the left's desire to discard liberalism's rules like free speech to immediately achieve their vision of justice. Zakaria warns such extremism, convinced of its virtue, inevitably leads to coercion, violence and destruction.  

Instead, Zakaria advocates gradual, compromising reform that takes into account the whole of society. He points to past examples where conservatives eventually accepted previous liberal advances they had opposed. Like the British Conservatives after 1832 who made peace with democratization under the idea "reform, that you may preserve." Today, Biden has modestly pivoted to address some populist economic concerns to preserve the overall liberal project.  

Ultimately, Zakaria argues liberalism must imbue itself with moral meaning and instill a sense of pride to fill the void left by eroding tradition and religion. Its ideals of freedom, rights, and democracy should inspire the same passion as past causes that built civilizations. Without recovering that confidence in its driving vision, modern liberal civilization risks declining into cynicism and disillusion, paving the way for a new "dark ages" as its predecessors did when they lost faith in their animating principles.  

Human history's greatest tradition liberated the human spirit and mind. Zakaria urges not losing sight of its unfinished project amid the inevitable struggles of politics and social change. Liberalism's greatest achievements, he asserts, still lie ahead if its sublime vision can be reclaimed.  

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