The World before The World Before

the world before AVV-VVK museum aan de ijzer
Yser Tower Museum, Ypres Belgium

March 2020. A weather so balmy, yet most of us locked up. It did not take long before many came up with grand plans for the future. All would be well in the “world after”. Certainly, a sound intellectual exercise during an enforced pause in our life plans. At least, a good way to pass time. At its best, this world after is not only even a greyer version of the world before. Darker even. The world after is for sure not the world of the boomers, this post-WWII world order that led into 2020. Across Europe, it is not even back to the 30s. All the pillars of stability seem to slowly erode. They didn’t collapse yet. But it’s definitely not the Roaring 20s either.

It looks to me like we are in the world before that. Maybe 1910? We are in the world before the “world before”.

Let’s check.

1910 is heralded as the culmination of 50 years of stability

We come out of an unprecedented period of peace in Europe. The unprecedented period of peace we experienced is strangely redolent of the years 1871-1914. These are the years between wars. A period often looked upon with fondness in Europe as the Belle Epoque, Victorian England or Wilhelminian Germany. The contemporary contentment and the retro nostalgia of the time is quite telling.

World Expos, stability and peace within a certain global system? Yes, certainly. But at the same time the knowledge that it was the prelude to a global collapse. A picture of self-satisfaction about a world order that was going to last forever. An eternal order of things.

Then, 1914 happened.

Europe sleep-walked into what was an “impossible” world war. In its wake, it dragged the rest of the world, and 50 years of stability ended in unprecedented death and destruction.

Does 2022 start to look like 1910?

The international system of today is nothing new

We live in a globalised world. At its heart, an international system. Yet, despite what we are told, this system is nothing really totally new.

Back in the 19th century, the aim of these international systems was to foster peace and global dialogue. Think Mouvement pour la Paix, Universal Congress of Peace, or simply Peace Congress. This goes back to 1889. These were neither marginal nor anecdotal movements. They involved intellectual elites. It was regular global conferences and sustained dialogs. And it all collapsed without a whimper in August 1914.

Much of what we think of as “international organisations” existed in one form or the other before 1945. The global language called Esperanto was invented in 1887 to delete cultural appropriations in dialogs. Today, Esperanto only survived as a cultural oddity or a cross-word reference. Take the Red Cross as another example. Founded in 1863 to alleviate suffering in the world in the wake of the battle of Solferino. 160 years later, one is left to wonder why so little is solved. Obviously, there is the Nobel Peace Prize, set up in 1901 for “the abolition or reduction of standing armies..”. No words needed.

By 1900, we had the will and intent, organisations, conferences and personnel. And speeches. Yet, global crises went without solutions, issues stacked up. The 1911 Agadir Crisis (Panthersprung) followed the 1905 war between Russia and Japan, the warnings ever louder.

Same as today.

Congrès de la Paix
Souvenirs from the Congrès de la Paix, by Honore Daumier published 1849, @ WikiCommons

International organisations seem primarily NOT successful at preventing wars

Already then, the Belle Epoque was a hotbed of international tensions. Scramble for Africa, suffragettes, Boer war, Boxer war, anarchist terrorism are just a few evocative events. Their mere mention should throw doubt and shadows on the idyllic picture painted by the words Belle Epoque.

The organisations, movements, conferences of the day were as successful in preventing wars as all of their successors.

After WWI war, the League of Nations (Société des Nations) was set up. Its primary goal was to create more transparency in international relations. The triggering of secret treaties in August 1914 was then seen as a core reason for the seemingly unavoidable spiral into WWI. It did seem like a good starting point. Yet, even in its very basic role, the League of Nations failed. Discreet, if not secret, bilateral discussions were obviously not going to disappear, ever. At best, they got replaced by blatant engineering of casus belli as go-to tactic. Such as the Marco Polo Bridge incident. When there is a will…

Again, the current International system stubbornly addressed the flaws of its predecessor. Obviously. Ultimately though, then as now, it remains a globalised world without a globalised leadership, system or interests. What we sometimes take as immanent international authorities are at heart just subsidiary entities trying to address the errors made in the 20s and 30s. As a structural solutions however, how successful were they at preventing wars? The Balkan crises in the 90s, then Afghanistan and any war NATO was involved in, from Kosovo to the Middle East, Ukraine 2014.

15 May 1886 The Haymarket Riot @ WikiCommons

What is the role of International organisations today?

International organisations seem to be very useful in the benign role of promoting awareness, leading advertisement campaigns and organising collection rounds, when not busy providing titles and positions for politicians in between jobs. For example for Gordon Brown. Or providing assignments for politicians who need a momentary safe haven away from the lime light, such as Hancock, Buzyn or De Block. There is no denying that, if this is the intended role, they are successful. Now about finding solutions, that is another question.

The generous overlay of global initiatives and global sentiment of unity in the 1900s hardly hid the underlying rise of nationalisms, back then as now. Globalisation, exchange and dialog did not cancel out local, regional and national identities. On the contrary. It seems to have increased it.

At the turn of the 19th century, it was irredentist claims, perceived loss of identity, or a new sense of nationhood. You had as much pull from Alsace Lorraine and Trieste, the Meiji movement in Japan or the Boxer Rebellion in China than you can sense around the world today. Today, whether Taiwan, Transnistria or the Kuril islands, the sense of self, of cultural belonging, is just as strong. National feelings still generate the same sparks that they did in Sarajevo in 1914. And with eerily similar results. After all, the Russian-Japanese war of 1905 started just because Russia refused to vacate Manchuria as promised.

Echoes of yesterday.

Ultra-left and ultra-right were born in a world that thought it had reached its zenith

This individual sense of belonging to a culture still drives the world today, however much we think it obsolete, a flaw of the past. Nations, then as now, are still relevant to understand the world, even with TikTok and the rest of the digital world.

And they are still strong in the real world. Look at the last elections in Europe. Ultra-left nor ultra-right doctrines have been updated. But their core message and beliefs were laid out at the end of the 19th century. Back then, as now, on the other end of the spectrum, the establishment, whether politicians, leaders, industrialists and financiers thought that the world as it was had reached some kind of ideal.

Compare 1900 and 2022. You see that the policies, systems, societies, mentalities, and dominant impression of colour was grey. Established powers were content, self-satisfied. And dull. Why would they not? It was the Belle Epoque, after all. The system was amoebaean enough to accommodate any radical and draw her/him in. And so, over the 50 years 1870-1914, the political cycle was a centripetal flow where successive hard left and right ended up dredged to the same inchoate social-democrat centre.

The pent-up exclusion, anger and rejection at the system would only be released after the shake-up of WWI. By then, these were so deep that the shockwave lasted throughout the 1920s until the 1950s. They were world shattering. No need to watch Downton Abbey to know that.

We live again in the years of the Robber Barons

Business wise, the 1900s were the years of the Robber Barons. A few names owned most of the raw materials, as much as transformations, etc.. until it was necessary to reform. The most famous names were Americans, Carnegie et alii.

Sounds familiar?

Today we have Gates, Musk, Bezos, among others. They don’t have just yet the legendary quality of a Rockefeller. But they are getting close. After all, Rockefeller himself became a brand name more famous than his antique predecessor Croesus, which had remained on top of the celebrity charts for several millennia.

Is Globalisation truly new? Globalisation probably did not look as different to a 19th century citizen that saw the explosion of business as we know it today. Obviously there use to be not much in terms in instantaneity or “press of a button reactions”, but the world was connected by the stock exchange ticker tape machines since the 1870s. Travel was possible. Communication, exchange and awareness existed. What changed is speed, not connection.

Commercial World expos? Check. It existed then as well as now. From London 1851 to Dubai 2020. In between? 1913 in Ghent for Progress, Peace and Arts. Less than a year later, German troops visited it.

So, yet again, it sounds like proximity, interdependency nor transparency are not really anything specifically new to our brand new world-after, nor really in the world before, nor the world before the world before. We seem to be hell-bent to find our period unique. It just may not be so much.

World expo
World Expo 1913 Ghent, Belgium @ WikiCommons

We are pretty much similar to these pre-WWI people

We need escapism. We heavily consume coping drugs. We yearn for significance.

The 19th century was the boom period for tobacco, opium, gin or absinth. To the extent that national campaigns were waged against the social vices. Same as tobacco, marijuana, scotch and opioids today. The effects of both sets of evils appear similar: to cope with a dreary day. It seems that both sets of drugs are just endemic to our civilisations, then as now.

Sci-Fi reached mass status in the end of the 19th century as mainstream popular escapism. Edgar R. Burroughs’ Mars chronicles are an eery echo to the latest Space X claim. Albert Robida invented the visual landscapes for tomorrow. Then as now, science-fiction was an escape from the grey surroundings. A need for superhuman existence. No surprise that the archetypes for the superhuman heroes we are familiar with today have been laid out in these years.

Then it was spiritism that made the table spin, literally. The 19th century searched for hidden truth. Today, we are more likely to try and find it in shamanism and mushrooms. The same. We try to reach out to parallel universes, other existences.

The world after?

To me, the “world after” does not look like the world before Covid anymore. But it seems more like the world before that. A modern version of the early 1900s. The world before the world before.

We have similar intents and well-meanings today as back then. We have similar organisations and systems. And we believe that somehow our societies, countries, regions have reached a peak performance and efficiency. Yet we live on top of political, social, financial cracks that only wait for the smallest movement to erupt.

A Belle Epoque with a handful of golden names, many smug and self-righteous grey clerks, great empires and small lives.

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