Saturday, April 11, 2015

Can Anyone Change the Course of History?

We alternate history aficionados know that one can, of course, but we also know that it's very difficult to predict what changes one's actions will lead to. There are stacks of such stories where attempts to change history via time machine lead to unforseen consequences and which bristle with irony.

Political assassinations, of course, damn well can change history. Think, for example, of all the civil wars in history that followed the death of a king or emperor. Had the guy lived, the war would have been almost certainly delayed, and in some cases, might not have taken place at all.

The speculation below is from

Can Anyone Change the Course of History?

Political assassinations are outsized, dramatic events. The murder of a political leader, even the murder of an heir to a throne can produce widespread repercussions.

Or so we think?

Some believe that the course of history cannot be modified, even by such large events as the assassination of a leader.

Benjamin Jones and Benjamin Olken define the issue in a New York Times op-ed:

Days after John Wilkes Booth entered the presidential box at Ford’s Theater and shot Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister, declared that “assassination has never changed the history of the world.” Was Disraeli right?

One view, the “great man” theory, claims that individual leaders play defining roles, so that assassinating one could lead to very different national or global outcomes. In contrast, historical determinism sees leaders as the proverbial ant riding the elephant’s back. Broader social, economic and political forces drive history, so that assassinations may not have meaningful effects.

One also recalls the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, event that has been credited with sparking the outbreak of World War I.

Had there been no assassination, one asks, would there have been a war? Had there been no assassination, one opines, would the war have been conducted or ended differently?

Was the European continent a powder keg waiting for a spark to ignite it, or did the assassination change the course of history?

It’s an interesting question, but, how can you know? After all, history only deals in what happened, in the facts. Alternative scenarios are counterfactuals. You cannot affirm or deny them by appealing to the authority of facts.

And yet, there is more to human life than assassinations. Human history is made up of a myriad of decisions taken by a myriad of human beings. It’s one thing to suggest that history was changed by an assassination. It’s slightly different to say that history was changed by, say, an automobile accident or your failure to get to a meeting on time.

One recalls what mathematicians and scientists call “chaos” theory. By that theory, a butterfly that changes the direction of its flight can influence the weather.

Wikipedia offers an apt description of this theory:

Chaos theory studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions—a response popularly referred to as thebutterfly effect. Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for such dynamical systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.[1] This happens even though these systems aredeterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved.[2] In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.[3][4] This behavior is known as deterministic chaos, or simply chaos.

I will refrain from pursuing this any further. Whether or not it applies to the unfolding of historical events requires far more evidence than I can muster in a blog post.

At the least, chaos theory tells us that we do not need assassinations, grand historical events, to change history. It does not tell us whether all of these myriad decisions and events are following a script.

For example, would World War I have turned out differently if Theodore Roosevelt had been elected president in 1912? We know from his own contemporaneous commentary about the Great War that Roosevelt would have had a foreign policy that was radically different from the one conducted by Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan. We know that TR favored mobilization and intervention far sooner than Wilson did.

Would earlier American intervention have tilted the balance of destruction decisively in the direction of the allies? Would it have stopped the war before it turned into mass slaughter? If it had stopped the war earlier, would that have allowed the Russian Czar to defeat the Bolshevik insurgency? If Germany had not suffered a humiliating defeat would there have been Hitler and the Third Reich and World War II?

We can go on. You get the picture.

We may not have definitive proof, but it makes sense to believe that the person who is conducting foreign policy for a great nation can make a significant difference in the outcome of historical events.

But, if we are talking about an election result, those who are determining the course of history would be the electorate, not entirely the individual in charge. And, democratic elections need not give the best result.

Also, consider the role that many other actors play in the unfolding of the great game of history. Or is it the great drama of history?

Those who believe in historical inevitability argue that history is a great drama unfolding before us. We have been cast in different roles and play them well or poorly, but the drama has its own denouement and will arrive there, whether we like it or not.

Hegel presented the argument philosophically. In more recent times, Marxists have acted as though nothing much mattered because they were on the right side of history. To which Francis Fukuyama famously retorted that the outcome of historical development was indeed predetermined, but it would not lead to a Worker’s Paradise. The outcome was the apotheosis of liberal democracy.

Note that this theory relieves us of any responsibility for the historical outcome. We need but get on the right side of history. It is a perfectly amoral system.

On the other side, if you believe that human history advances like a game, the outcome is not predetermined. In fact, the various moves of the game are not predetermined.

If we consider the number of possible moves in a game of chess—apparently more than there are atoms in the universe—the notion that the outcome is inevitable, that one person will necessarily win or lose in this or that way, feels simplistic.

As opposed to the drama-based theory of history, the game-based theory grants to human agents the ability to change the course of events in a significant way. More importantly, it grants to human beings the free will to make decisions and to be responsible for the ensuing results.

As I discussed in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, rather than trying to discover whether history is a drama or a game, imagine how you would function if you believed that it was the one or the other.