The Politics of Inevitability


I thought I would skirt around 2 concepts that are actually very important to Timothy Snyder’s thesis in the book The Road to Unfreedom. These are the closely related concepts of “the politics of inevitability” and “the politics of eternity” as he called.  I thought I would leave both of these concepts  out of my posts, but have realized I already  included a reference to these ideas without explanation.   I also decided that just because I had difficulty understanding them, did not mean my faithful readers would find them difficult. After all most of them are much smarter than me. So I am backing up here to explain them now.

I will first try to explain the politics of inevitability. As I understand it, Snyder describes the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity as 2 steps on the road to unfreedom.

According to Snyder,

“The politics of inevitability is the idea that there are no ideas. Those in its thrall deny that ideas matter, proving only that that they are in the grip of a powerful one. The cliché of the politics of inevitability is that ‘there are no alternatives. To accept this is to deny individual responsibility for seeing history and making change. Life becomes a sleepwalk to a pre-marked grave in a pre-purchased plot.”


Of course, if there are no choices there is no personal freedom, for we can’t do otherwise. We only have personal responsibility if we also have freedom. How could we be responsible for something we cannot possibly avoid? That is the sense in which responsibility and freedom are conjoined.

But freedom can be lost. First comes cynicism then comes tyranny whether in the form of authoritarianism, fascism or totalitarianism. That is the end of the road to unfreedom. The other two are stops along the way. At least this is how I interpret these difficult concepts.

In the United States the politics of inevitability meant that “capitalism was unalterable and democracy inevitable.”  Things could have been very different for Russia and Ukraine had the Americans not been under the spell of this illusion. That contented state did not last long. By the 1910s people were beginning to realize that his had been a pipe dream. Nothing was inevitable or unalterable. As Snyder said, “The twentieth century was well and truly over, its lessons unlearned. A new form of politics was emerging in Russia, Europe, and America, a new unfreedom to suit a new time.

Until then,

 “Americans and Europeans were guided through the new century by a tale about “the end of history,” by what I will call the politics of inevitability, a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done. In the American capitalist version of this story, nature brought the market, which brought democracy, which brought happiness. In the European version, history brought the nation, which learned from war that peace was good, and hence chose integration and prosperity.”


As Snyder posits: Before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 it too had a version of the politics of inevitability:

“nature permits technology, technology brings social change; social change causes revolution; revolution enacts utopia. When this turns out not to be true, the European and American politicians of inevitability were triumphant. Europeans busied themselves completing the creation of the European Union in 1992. Americas reasoned that the failure of communist story confirmed the truth of the capitalist one. Americans and Europeans kept telling themselves their tales of inevitability for a quarter century after the end of communism, and so a millennia generation without history.”


Americans thought they had achieved a new world order of which they were the sole superpower. The Americans believed they were the inevitable driving force of history that would push the world to the utopia of capitalism without rivals. That was an illusion—a deadly one at that. From that mistake a lot of misery for Russia and Ukraine was born.

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Inevitability

  1. John, I agree that the notion of “politic of inevitability” is a difficult one, but as I read your discussion, it reminded me of another doctrine that was extremely popular in the late 18th and much of the 19th centuries – that of mechanical determinism. This was a belief that developed on the heels of the impressive gains made by “natural philosophers” in that period in describing the mechanics of the universe through the tools of mathematics. It centred on the notion that the universe was an elegant machine, set in motion and fated to run by codifiable laws. Hence, the fate of the universe was entirely predetermined, and in theory if one had sufficient knowledge of the initial conditions and the ultimate calculating machine, then all things could be known for all time. And indeed, mankind was seen to have no ability to change the workings of the machine.
    The mot famous declaration of this belief was made by the French mathematician Laplace, who, after presenting a summary of his works to Napoleon, was challenged by the ruler, “M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace is said to have replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” (The words are possibly apocryphal, but the conversation is well documented to have occurred.)
    So, the concept of the absence to free will in the face of this determinism was a popular philosophical view in Europe in the period that saw the birth of the United States. Could it have spilled over into the political realm as well?

  2. Thanks for pointing this out. I am familiar with the doctrine of determinism but did not think how it was applicable to inevitability. You make a good point.

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