Many people seem to think that Donald Trump’s Presidency and the Brexit vote together mean “the end of the world.” This strain of thought is particularly common on the left (vide the rather alarmist New Statesman cover above). Why is this so? Well, one answer might be found in a little book first published in 1931 called The Whig Interpretation of History. This book was written by a Cambridge don named Herbert Butterfield. Butterfield was a Methodist and a political conservative. He was interested less in history itself than in the ways in which history is told. His book about the Whigs has had a lasting influence on later thinkers – especially those who are skeptical of the idea of progress.
The Whigs were a force in British politics for three centuries. (In the early 20th century, they became the Liberal Party, and eventually disappeared altogether.) In the 17th century, the Whigs were anti-monarchist, anti-Catholic, and protectionist. But by the end of the 18th century they had evolved into something resembling contemporary liberals: they advocated free trade, the abolition of slavery, Catholic emancipation, and the expansion of suffrage. By the 19th century, the Whigs were firmly established as the party of middle class self-interest.
According to Butterfield, the key idea espoused by the Whigs was progress. History, the Whigs thought, was a process of gradual improvement, leading to a better world for all. The Whigs – and their partisan historians – believed that human reason would triumph, leading to liberal democracy, free trade, and scientific advancement. Whig historians, Butterfield argued, “studie[d] the past with reference to the present” – in other words, they saw the illiberal past as leading inevitably to the liberal present. In his preface, Butterfield criticised “the tendency in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.”
The great science fiction critic John Clute, in his brilliant collection of essays Stay (2014), summarises the Whig interpretation of history thus: “Reality is told by winners.”
For the last six decades of Western history – since the Allied victory in World War II – the “winners” have been contemporary Whigs: firm believers in liberalism, democracy, free trade, and human rights. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, The Economist – the house organ of Western liberal capitalism – confidently declared that “there is no serious alternative to free-market capitalism as the way to organise economic life.” This is the Whig interpretation of history writ large.
The vast majority of liberals in the West subscribe to the Whig interpretation of history. They believe that history is a gradual process of improvement leading to the triumph of scientific enlightenment and liberal democracy. For much of the last six decades, it has been possible to see this as a not unreasonable interpretation of history. The postwar decades in the West did indeed seem to tell a story of increasing enlightenment, prosperity, and peace.
This story has now been revealed as an illusion. The election of Donald Trump, and the Brexit vote, have disclosed the existence of a large class of people who feel that their lives have been destroyed by the very forces of progress that were supposed to be improving the world for everyone. According to the Whig interpretation of history – that is, according to the Western liberal consensus – events like Trump’s Presidency and Britain leaving the European Union were not supposed to happen. They feel like huge steps backward, into confusion, barbarism, and chaos. They feel, in other words, like the end of the world.
As John Gray points out in The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (2013), the Whiggish belief in progress “casts a glimmer of meaning into the lives of those who accept it.” When this idea is exposed as an illusion, the glimmer of meaning disappears. Seeking to describe a world no longer anchored by a firm story, people reach naturally for apocalyptic imagery. (It is in any case true that the popular culture of the West has been dreaming of the end of the world since Hiroshima. This is the dark side of the myth of progress: because if you believe that history is heading towards a particular destination, then you also suspect that it may one day come to a stop.)
It is, of course, possible that Donald Trump’s Presidency will bring about the literal end of the world – as envisioned by that New Statesman cover above. But until that happens, the rhetorical use of the phrase “the end of the world” will have, I think, another meaning: it will remind us that the Whig interpretation of history has been exploded, for now.