Fifty years ago, the American historian Barbara Tuchman wrote an interesting book called The March of Folly, about how some very important and significant historical events, from the American Revolution to the First World War, actually happened in a way that nobody at the time foresaw, and nobody intended.
This is something which will be familiar to everyone who has ever lived through a major political crisis. Historians looking back on events can often find patterns (or perhaps impose patterns) which nobody at the time was conscious of. In reality, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to tell how a given crisis is going to play out, because it will depend largely on decisions that have not yet been made, in response to things that have not yet happened.
These reflections were set of by all of the frantic speculation and heavy breathing going on at the moment about the political crisis in the United States. I’m not an expert on American politics, which I find complicated and not very interesting, but there’s a consensus that, if things go badly over the next couple of weeks, the consequences could range from the very serious to the totally catastrophic.
But in a sense there is nothing new all in this. With its dysfunctional political system, high level of violence and gun ownership, massive disparities in wealth, and political and religious extremism, the United States fulfils all of the main criteria of what is now called a “fragile state”. But of course it has been in the same situation for many years, and, like lots of fragile states elsewhere in the world, it has yet to fall over the edge of the precipice.
This could, nonetheless, happen, and it may happen very soon. The potential for an extremely violent political and economic disintegration of the United States has been recognised for a long time. We simply do not know when, or if, it will actually happen.
The famous cliché about prediction being difficult, especially when it involves the future, is particularly true when you’re trying to predict large scale and important historical events. If such events always have deeper causes, which historians can happily debate later, they also have immediate causes, which are often the products of ignorance, stupidity and even blind chance. The end of the Soviet Union, for example, at the time and in the way that it happened, was impossible to predict even a year before. Likewise, it’s instructive to stand by the famous bridge in Sarajevo where Archduke Ferdinand’s chauffeur made a fatal turn of the wheel in August 1914, and reflect on what would have happened had he kept going.
Is there, somewhere in the United States, the equivalent of that 1914 incident in preparation? Probably, even those who might be involved don’t know. Even if it happens, we won’t necessarily recognise it for what it is. The real lesson of history, I’m afraid, is that prediction is only really possible when it involves the past.