At the turn of the second millennium, humanity seemed set on a steady upward course. How did it all go wrong in just 200 years? This is a memo on the fall of homo sapiens, 2000-2200 CE, written for the crew of the third interstellar colonising mission, 2759 CE, as a record and a warningby Anatol Lieven / January 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
Now his wars on God begin;
At stroke of midnight God shall win.
WB Yeats, “The Four Ages of Man”
The bigger they come, the harder they fall, said a poet long ago; and liberal capitalism climbed so high and fell so hard that it split humanity in two. Civilisation on Earth is a wreck; civilisation on the planets shows signs of losing its humanity altogether. Perhaps what is still most human about the immortals on the satellites and space stations (apart from our cultivation of the traditional aristocratic vices) is our endless lament about what might have been, if humanity had been a little wiser, its leaders a little more far-sighted, the system as a whole more restrained in its gobbling ambitions.
But this is foolishness. Many social systems have been founded on deliberate restraints, from the abstinence of hunter-gatherers in order to suppress their birth-rates, to Tokugawa Japan’s abandonment of firearms to preserve the samurai order. But liberal capitalism by its very nature could know no limits on technological advance, and few on social behaviour.
If there was any chance of such restraint, the combination of capitalism with democracy undermined it. Human society in its latest, capitalist form, joined earlier societies—like the aborigines of Tasmania or Anglo-Saxons after the fall of Rome—which experienced a big technological and cultural regression. In the case of the Saxons, the regression was voluntary. They could have imitated the Franks and gone to live in the Roman cities, but they didn’t want to. Capitalism’s regression was not, however, voluntary. And, because by the start of this millennium capitalism was the world, it took the world with it. There were no Byzantines or Arabs to cherish civilisation.
Every cultural, economic and political system ever created by mankind sooner or later met a challenge which it could not overcome, and which led to the creation of something new. (The alternative is atrophy—which is what we immortals now face, as our lives stretch beyond the human capacity for love, for loyalty, even for basic human reactions.) Most systems were defeated by the defects of their strengths. For the capitalist system to have accepted severe restraints on wealth creation, so as to slow down social differentiation and climate change, would have been to defy its own nature. It would have been as impossible for capitalism to do this as it was for the Confucian system in China to accept western liberal capitalism in the 19th century.