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.
“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.