30 May 2024

“Age of Revolutions”: An Exercise in Reading History Backward

Mr Horvat reviews yet another desperate attempt to justify the liberalism of moral indifference, maximized freedom, and unending progress.

By John Horvat

Fareed Zakaria’s book is a defense of liberalism in the European sense of a regime of limited government, free markets, rule of law, moral indifference, maximized freedom, and unending progress. He turns all those who support the conservative cause into resentful, racist individuals left behind by progress.

Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash From 1600 to the Present, by Fareed Zakaria (400 pages, W.W. Norton & Company, 2024)

Some books can give the impression that everything is backward. The author holds as true all the theses that you affirm as false. The course of events that the author finds positive, you read negative.

Fareed Zakaria’s Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash From 1600 to the Present is one such book. To anyone linked to tradition, it reads wrong from beginning to end. There is no other way to describe it.

The book is a defense of liberalism in the European sense of a regime of limited government, free markets, rule of law, moral indifference, maximized freedom, and unending progress. The author, a Washington Post columnist, tries to explain how this great Enlightenment experiment has gone awry and what is needed to keep it afloat.

Keeping Score

His take on the present crisis is that everything has gone just fine up to this point. The problem is the various backlashes, especially the present one, which ruin everything. He blames fearful and over-nostalgic conservatives throughout history for their inability to adapt to changing times.

He also blames liberals who want to take the process of Revolution too far, too fast. They should tone down the rhetoric but not change their goals.

For anyone who is keeping score, the left ends up winning. The right is supposed to be content to be good losers by following not “the science” but “the history.”

Following “The History”

Mr. Zakaria’s book is “the history,” a scholarly and even compelling collection of facts that support his simplistic and rather standard reading of modern history.

Indeed, he presents “two competing plotlines: liberalism, meaning progress, growth, disruption, revolution in the sense of radical advance, and illiberalism, standing for regression, restriction, nostalgia, revolution in the sense of returning to the past.”

That’s it. There is nothing else. There’s no going back, only forward. There are no principles to defend, no restraining traditions to uphold. The only matter to be decided is the level of violence of the coming disruption.

To illustrate his point, Mr. Zakaria outlines a reoccurring cycle of these two competing plotlines applied to historical events—“the history.” He divides modern history into four main revolutions: the Dutch Commercial Revolution (1588), the English Glorious Revolution (1688), the bloody French Revolution (1789) and the Industrial Revolution. Each Revolution had its radical advances and significant backlashes, but, save for the French Revolution, things ended up well, all things considered.

Thus, he puts the present troubles in the context of this cycle, which should also end well if conservatives behave and lose graciously.

Simplistic and Fatalistic

There are three things wrong with the author’s reading of history.

The first is that it is simplistic and fatalistic. Like many modern authors, Mr. Zakaria has a Hegelian fatalism that rules his historical processes, calling for unending progress through struggle.

For him, progress represents ever-greater states of what he believes to be freedom and equality. Thus, backlash is opposing abortion or the LGBTQ agenda. It is promoting the traditional family and marriage. These are inconvenient disruptions that must be overcome with time. They must be suppressed not because they are right or wrong but because the process demands it.

Thus, his explanation for the present crisis must follow the narratives he has constructed. The author deconstructs any other narratives to fit this skewed framework. He ignores, for example, valid appraisals of the advances of Christendom and the West. There is no attempt to insert moral or other considerations into the equation, as everything in the final analysis is about the manipulation of power.

The Prism of Power and Money

A second problem with the book is that it presents history as a manifestation of power and money. This demonstrates a misunderstanding of what motivates individuals. The Marxist understanding of reality is through the prism of economics. Thus, Mr. Zakaria follows the Marxist playbook in his analysis. He tends to minimize factors like religion in history. God is omitted from history, save as a human construct supporting power structures.

Everything is reduced to naked self-interest. For those motivated by higher causes like religion, this perspective is what makes the book read so backward. The spiritual side of the soul is ignored—and it is the higher side from which all that is good, true and beautiful springs.

A Forced Narrative

One benefit of the book is that it clearly demonstrates what the liberal left thinks about the right. The left has created its own narrative of the right that Mr. Zakaria reproduces with almost textbook precision.

He turns all those who support the conservative cause into resentful, racist individuals left behind by progress. They no longer belong to a racial class that once held so many privileges and now fight back against progress. Thus, they cling to the remnants of power found in their “deplorable” identities as expressed in religion, old morals, populism and guns.

His distorted portrayal is almost convincing to anyone other than the countless conservatives who refuse to fit this straitjacket narrative. These Americans fighting for moral principles are offended by seeing their selfless defense of family values and love of God reduced to a construct in this crude, class-struggle portrayal.

Liberalism in Crisis

Perhaps one of the best merits of the book is that it admits that liberalism is in grave crisis. It is experiencing one of the greatest backlashes in its history, caused by an unexpected reaction to the aggressive, woke absurdities of today’s cultural wars. The left fears those who resist.

His aim is to tranquilize his public by affirming that these revolutions have weathered other storms in the past. Like all liberals, he recommends more liberalism, albeit moderately applied, as a solution. In the end, the process will win, he assures the reader, as it always has, if liberals stay the course and act with moderation.

However, beneath the surface, Mr. Zakaria harbors some doubts about the liberal cause. He admits that “the rational project of liberalism is seen by many as a poor substitute for the awesome faith in God that once moved human beings to build cathedrals and write symphonies.”

Liberalism leaves a vacuum of community, loyalty and meaning that it cannot fill. But, Mr. Zakaria quickly points out, populism and illiberalism will not fill it either.

Indeed, he is right. These postmodern substitutes will fail because they are the fruits of liberalism, not its opposite. They suffer from the same lack of substance.

An Appeal to Permanent Things

What is needed is something that appeals to a supreme power, higher laws and transcendent values that liberalism officially denies. It is a system of values that resides outside the sterile liberal universe and catapults souls to more marvelous regions.

Indeed, there exist what Russell Kirk referred to as the “permanent things,” those norms of courage, duty, courtesy, justice and charity that owe their existence and authority to a power higher than the markets—indeed, to a transcendent God. These permanent things and so many others, once embedded in Christian civilization, will ultimately prevail.

The featured image is “Episode La révolution de 1830” (1830) by Adele Kindt, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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