In Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, written in the invented language “Nadsat,” the degenerate hooligan Alex ultimately resolves to settle down. “Tomorrow is all like sweet flowers and the turning vonny earth,” wrote Burgess, “and your old droog Alex all on his oddy knocky seeking like a mate.” Burgess’s US publisher thought this ending too happy, and axed the final chapter.
I have come to the conclusion that Burgess was right and his publisher wrong. Most delinquent youths do eventually grow up, usually without the brutal aversion therapy inflicted on Alex. The same may be said of countries.
Take Greece, which for a century and a half after regaining its independence in 1830 had a dire political record marked by three top-level assassinations, two uprisings, the depositions of three kings, three coups d’état, five military conflicts, occupation by the Nazis and subsequent civil war. The remarkable thing about the current Greek crisis is not that it involves a financial default, which is the Greek norm; what is remarkable is how narrow the range of political outcomes is, compared with what it would have been in the past.
Yes, it is quite possible that, in this weekend’s theatre-of-the-absurd referendum, the Greek people may vote “No” to a programme that is no longer available, and that this (despite their prime minister’s protestations to the contrary) may ultimately lead to their departure from the European monetary union. But as recently as the 1970s we would have had to worry about much nastier scenarios. There would have been a real communist left, poised to proclaim the dictatorship of the proletariat. And there would have been a real military right, ready to crush the left by imposing martial law.
Neither of these things is now conceivable. There might be some demonstrations. A few punches might be thrown. But there will not be a revolution or a coup, much less a civil war. As for the economic options that Greeks face, they do not include the expropriation of private property or hyperinflation, which was how populist governments used to solve their fiscal problems. Welcome to the world of the Clockwork Olive, where even Greece, Europe’s bolnoy veck (“sick man” in Nadsat), has cleaned up its political act.
So what has happened? The obvious but wrong answer is the magic of European integration since, in 1981, Greece joined what became the European Union. The problem with this argument is that it cannot explain the decline of political delinquency in other parts of the world. For it has not only diminished in Europe. It has gone down in Latin America, east Asia and even sub-Saharan Africa. From the 1940s to the 1980s, assassinations, revolutions, coups and civil wars were commonplace, from Chile to Cambodia. Today there are only a few bad-boy countries left in these regions: the likes of Venezuela and Thailand — and even Thailand’s recent political instability has produced little violence.
Politically, most of the world has never been more boring. Instead of the alarms and excursions of the past, we now have technocrats versus populists. Any violence is verbal and the technocrats nearly always win. Even in the US, despite what you might glean from television news, the real story of our time is the decline of violence. With their cities far safer than they were in the 1970s and 1980s, Americans can peacefully ponder such questions as: “Can a man become a woman?” (Yes.) And “Can a white woman become a black woman?” (No.) Will a civil war ever be fought over same-sex marriage? It seems unlikely. Does a president risk assassination by reforming healthcare? I think not.
To explain these trends, the psychologist Steven Pinker has revived Norbert Elias’s idea of a long-run “civilising process”. But other explanations are possible. Perhaps globalisation, by expanding the reach of supranational institutions and multinational corporations, has raised the costs of delinquent behaviour. Perhaps the ageing of populations has played a part, as it is generally young men who make revolutions and fight wars. Maybe some credit should go to technology, too. It is harder to stage a coup in the age of the internet and social media than it was when each capital city had just a handful of broadcasters.
Yet any serious explanation for the Clockwork Olive must include ideology. As the convoluted rhetoric of Syriza has reminded us, we in the west no longer have credible alternatives to liberal democracy. Francis Fukuyama was right about that in 1989.
One reason ideology looks crucial is that in parts of the world where a violent alternative does exist — namely, radical Islam — the civilising process, globalisation and technology do not seem to be working. The real challenge facing Europe today is not the doomed attempt of Greek populists to retain the euro while losing their debts. It is the radicalisation and population displacement unleashed by the forces of jihad to the south and east. And note to whom this violent ideology appeals: the young.
A central theme of A Clockwork Orange is generational conflict. Yes, Alex grows up and settles down. But the reader is left to wonder how long it will be before a freshly minted teenage delinquent kicks his head in. Greece, too, has grown up. But the new Alexes are just a boat-ride away.
Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at
Harvard and senior fellow of the Hoover Institution