How does knowledge of the past help prepare us for the challenges of the 21st century?

James – Year 12 Student

Editor’s Note: The New College of Humanities (NCH) organise an annual essay competition open to ambitious and talented students from around the world who are in their penultimate year of secondary education (equivalent to Year 12 in the UK). This is an opportunity to show both academic potential and passion in the humanities and social sciences. As the NCH note, “[o]ur selection of essay titles engages across a broad range of humanities and social sciences topics and we look forward to receiving entries from talented and intellectually curious students who show passion and academic potential in the humanities and social sciences.” Each year, entrants can choose one of the essay titles listed. This persuasive essay by James was written in response to History: ‘How does knowledge of the past help prepare us for the challenges of the 21st century?’ CPD

Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Winston Churchill (1948)

“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it” stated Winston Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons in 1948. Indeed, current affairs at the moment seem like deja-vu. Our 2019 General Election was reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher vs Michael Foot in 1983, with the contest between a free market fundamentalist and an ardent socialist being refought, and the similar resounding defeat for the Labour Party. The rejection of mainstream politics within mainland Europe and the rise of both far-right and hard-left parties in the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis: Alternative Fur Deutschland, the Austrian Freedom Party, National Rally, Left Bloc; imitates the rise of fascism and communism during the 1930’s in the wake of the Wall Street Crash. History is repeating itself in our politics, and thus an intimate knowledge of our past is crucial if we are to tackle the issues of political extremism and anti-establishment rhetoric, which currently plague our society (and inevitably will do so in the future). Analysing historical trends will enable us to prepare for the political challenges of today and tomorrow; by allowing us to recognise what has caused rampant political extremism in the past and thus not make the same mistakes. Economic turbulence, caused by market deregulation, has increased the risk of people becoming disenfranchised with the establishment, as the status quo hasn’t benefitted them and thus they are more likely to support extreme parties to enact change. However, in lieu of the fact we have had the 2008 financial crash, and witnessed the subsequent rise of political extremism, it is clear that at present we are not recognising the impact financial instability has on politics and so we are currently not utilising knowledge from the past.

Firstly, why is extremist politics bad? Extremist politics rejects the fundamental values of our post-enlightenment western society, and so notions of plurality, democracy and tolerance are replaced by hate, division, anti-immigration and anti-diversity sentiment. For example, Poland is governed by the Law and Justice Party which is staunchly right-wing and ultra-conservative, and has created a hostile environment for minorities within Poland. MP Dominik Tarczynski argued “We don’t want Poland being taken over by Muslims, Buddhists, or someone else…” and when asked about pluralism stated “Multicultural society. It’s not of value”.

Multiculturalism encourages the dissipation of ignorance towards other cultures, widening one’s perspectives and enriching the culture of host nations.

This simply isn’t the case. Multiculturalism encourages the dissipation of ignorance towards other cultures, widening one’s perspectives and enriching the culture of host nations. By meeting people from a plethora of ethnicities, we naturally engage with them on a human level and inevitably attitudes of fear and suspicion are broken down. This leads to greater social harmony between people from all cultures, benefitting wider society as the possibility of race-riots and complementary tension is reduced, improving mental health by reducing stress and anxiety. Furthermore, greater social cohesion incentivises an increase in economic output, as the populace feel more inclined to contribute to society. When people feel included (in this instance minorities feeling welcome in their host country), they are more willing to contribute to the collective and thus likely to work more productively.

Secondly, why does a weakened economy lead to extreme politics? A struggling economy reduces business investment due to a lack of investor confidence, leading to a reduction in both short-term aggregate supply and aggregate demand. This is bad as economic growth is hampered due to less consumption and innovation, leading to an output gap between potential economic growth and actual growth: thus living standards don’t improve at the maximum rate possible. Improving living standards is a fundamental goal as it draws people out of poverty and enables them to lead a better quality of life.

The 2008 Financial crisis led to a spiral of economic decline i.e. negative multiplier effect, in many areas across the country. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, jobs in the north of England were lost at 4 times the rate of job losses in the rest of the country, and 7 of the towns with the most businesses folding in 2011 were in the North-East, North-West, Yorkshire or around the Humber. The status quo of centrist politics, which is inextricably linked with deregulation and liberal values, brought the north poverty and deprivation. Free-market fundamentalism precipitated the death of most heavy industry, with globalisation causing the closure of the mines after the strike of 1984-85 and the closure of steel plants after foreign competitors undercut British wages.  With the status quo having a detrimental impact upon working class communities, the working class sought to change the status quo in a plea to reverse the decline of their areas. For example 70.8% of people in Bolsover voted for Brexit, 70.9% in Mansfield, 68.3% in Barnsley and 69.6% in Hartlepool. The opportunity to reject the status quo was clearly seized. A significant factor for voting leave was the rise of immigration and subsequent loss of ‘British’ identity in urban areas across the country. In areas reeling from deindustrialisation and the 2008 recession, where unemployment was, and remains, high, there was genuine fear that immigrants could undercut local wages and fuel greater poverty and unemployment for the local population.

Improving living standards is a fundamental goal as it draws people out of poverty and enables them to lead a better quality of life.

Having shown the modern link between economic depressions and extremist politics, interestingly this narrative is true for the 1930’s as well.

Economic depressions have consistently fuelled extreme politics throughout history, and the Great Depression was no exception. The Weimar Republic had been paying reparations with American loans, but after ‘Black Thursday’ (October 24th 1929) these loans were recalled by American banks; leading to a vast reduction in liquidity in the financial sector, and thus a number of German banks collapsed, leading to people losing their savings. In addition to this, the German government was forced to implement austerity measures in order to shoulder the cost of reparations, and so social programmes were drastically reduced at a time of great need. Indeed, the downturn caused such a dramatic reduction in aggregate demand that by 1932, German industrial production was at 58% of the level of output in 1928, perpetuating a spiral of economic decline and subsequent poverty and unemployment levels – which reached 15.3% in late 1930. This caused the German population to seek extremist politics in an effort to resolve the dire economic situation, as the democratic establishment appeared inept at tackling the issue. Popularity for the Nazi Party rocketed, as they promised greater employment and better living standards, in stark contrast to the Weimar establishment which could only offer more misery and suffering. Nazi voter share pre and post-recession highlight this as, in 1928 the Nazi’s received a mere 0.8 million votes but in 1932 received 6 million indicating that the recession was the catalyst for Nazi popularity. Indeed, as Hitler was ferociously tackling economic issues (e.g. unemployment by expanding the size of the army to 300,000) public sentiment towards the Nazi’s warmed. Average weekly income increased by 19%, indicating most Germans had greater disposable income and henceforth living standards had improved. German support for Hitler rose because he was bettering their lives, and this granted him with the opportunity to begin to stir up widespread anti-Jewish sentiment because the population were more susceptible to Nazi propaganda. Hitler’s economic successes induced more of the population to believe he was a good leader, and thus trustworthy, meaning more were willing to accept that the Nazi prerogative that the Jews had caused Germany’s decline 

The narrative for the rise of extremist politics is repeated over and over again through history. Just as the Nazis grew in popularity in the 1930’s, Alternative Fur Deutschland are making headway in German politics today on the back of heavy immigration and a stagnating economy. Or an example closer to home; Tommy Robinson wants to blame Muslims and immigrants for Britain’s seething social problems in the same way Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s.

History provides us with evidence that economic decline fuels extremist politics, with events of the 1930’s and present day corroborating this. While the 1930’s had: Oswald Mosley; Hitler and Franco, we have: Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson, Jeremy Corbyn, Viktor Orban and Marinne Le Penn. In the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis, global politics has fractured and dramatically polarised, with for the status quo of liberalism and centralism becoming increasingly unpopular. If we are to tackle the issue of political extremism then we must solve the economic problems that facilitate its rise in the first place. It should have been evident that economic downturns must be avoided by ensuring effective legislation is in place to prevent reckless lending (which caused the 2008 Financial Crash), and that these downturns need to be resolved swiftly by an increase in government expenditure – and not with austerity measures as shown by the calamitous recession of Greece under Troika-enforced austerity. It is clear from historical experiences, such as the Wall Street Crash, that these measures should have been implemented, however at the moment they haven’t been, indicating we have not utilised these experiences in preparation for future political challenges. Knowledge of the past is only of use when people choose to apply it, and in our current economic and political climate, this knowledge is ignorantly forgotten. JH


The Price of Inequality: Joseph Stiglitz

James 740167

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