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Magazine / Vantage Point

When Big Ideas Die

In Europe, the Arab world, and, yes, even the United States, major historical eras may be coming to an end.

Arab Spring: Countering radical Islam.(SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Michael Hirsh
June 2, 2011

Can anyone identify the last hour of the Renaissance? Or the final month of the Middle Ages? No, human history can’t be sliced that fine. One era seems to flow seamlessly into the next, and the last people to know when one epoch ends and another begins are usually those who are living through them. But every once in a while, we get an opportunity to see history passing before our eyes. As we approach the halfway mark of 2011—which is already proving to be one of the most historic years in decades—it’s become more and more apparent that not just one but several big, society-altering ideas are dying around the world.

The question is only how long the death throes will last and what will come next.

In the Middle East, a grand idea that has sustained discontented young Muslims for a generation—radical Islamism—now exhibits every symptom of a terminal illness, at least as a dominant alternative ideology to the region’s autocratic regimes. The decline of radical Islamism has been quickened by the murderous overreaching of al-Qaida and then, last month, the sudden removal from the scene of its paramount leader, Osama bin Laden; by the alternative channels of self-expression gaining voice during this Arab Spring; and by the degeneration of the Islamic Republic of Iran into a virtual military dictatorship.


In Europe, an idea that has sustained three generations of policymakers also seems to be dying: the dream that a monetary union would be the decisive last word on the Continent’s millennia of strife, a kind of European End of History. The unity project that began with trade in the 1950s and then extended to currency sprang, after all, out of the 20th century’s world wars. Adolf Hitler was the ghost behind the Treaty of Maastricht. European leaders knew they had to unite and enfold the region’s largest but most troublesome nation, Germany, into their new union forever. But now, the huge group of countries that sometimes behaves like the United States of Europe and at other times devolves into nationalistic petulance is beginning to split at the seams.

In the United States, an idea that has dominated an era in Washington is also petering out in practice: the belief that promoting freedom, in politics and in markets, will solve all ills. This worldview dates roughly from the last time a global doctrine expired in a big way, at the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet bloc and of the communist ideology behind it—culminating on December 26, 1991, when the Soviet Union formally dissolved and Russia assumed all of its debts and treaties—was one of those rare moments when history suddenly and identifiably shifts course. The lessons of the Soviet failure (and China’s decision to also try capitalism, at least disguised as “market socialism”) seemed simple: The freer the society or economy, the more successful it will be.

This idea had been around since Woodrow Wilson, but after the West’s triumph in the Cold War it became an unquestioned article of faith for both Democratic and Republican administrations. Yet nearly 20 years later, we must acknowledge that the truth wasn’t that simple after all. As we’ve seen with the breakdown of “democratic” transitions from Russia to Egypt to Pakistan, democracy is no panacea. Nor have free markets solved our problems, as we learned during the financial crisis. Indeed, we seem to be floundering in an intellectual vacuum.

After the failure of Soviet-style command and statist economies in the last century, as well as the decline of the Keynesian Big Government idea that dominated U.S. policy-making until the Reagan revolution, Americans had little taste for government solutions. Today, after the collapse of the financial system and 30 years of misguided supply-side economics that have left us with record debt, Americans have little faith in market-only solutions either.

Yet despite the breakdown of these big ideas across the world, the death watches for all of them are likely to be prolonged. Some seem to be living on only in bizarre zombie form.

Radical Islamist groups in the Muslim world are unlikely to completely disappear. One of their driving tenets is crumbling—the rage against long-entrenched secular Arab dictators—but other ideological justifications persist, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which grows only more intractable. Still, other forces are eclipsing radical Islamism in many of these countries, moving it from the opposition mainstream to the margins. Jihadists will play a part in the governments to come, but their role remains unknowable.

In Europe, the inability of E.U. governments to contemplate either a partial dissolution or a greater political unification of governments has left an entire continent stuck in denial. A developing deal to pay down Greece’s enormous debt without restructuring it will only put off, yet again, the reckoning. The essential problem is that, politically, the Europeans can’t permit the euro zone to fail, and yet, according to the rules of economics, the euro zone should fail. Many experts now say that at least partial dissolution is inevitable.

And in Washington, a simplistic and superannuated philosophy that has little to do with our real economic challenges—the idea that Big Government has caused our problems—continues to dominate the discussion over budget and debt policy. Will another market crash finally bring us to our senses? What new ideas will fill the intellectual vacuum? We don’t know what the new era will look like. We only know that the previous one seems to be overstaying its welcome.


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