Rapid change has rendered invalid many of our expectations, so that today’s reality often contradicts them. Their uselessness is evidenced by the big shocks that few foresaw: Brexit, the global financial crisis, the rise of ISIS or the collapse of oil and other commodity prices. This discomforting state of affairs is reflected in the utter failure of political pundits worldwide to predict the viability of the reality TV “demagogue” Donald Trump as a United States presidential candidate.
Few foresaw the rise of the far-left Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party, or of “The Punisher,” Rodrigo Duterte, as President of the Philippines. As a result, uncertainty reigns supreme, so much so that the boardrooms of many Fortune 500 companies have decided to punt. According to American economic analysts, instead of investing, which they are supposed to do in order to grow their businesses, they are collectively holding onto a record wad of cash. They simply lack the confidence to make bold investments.
Ian Goldin, Director of the Oxford Martin School and professor of globalization and development at the University of Oxford argued that, whether as citizens, policy makers or business leaders, going about our life in a tumultuous time without a reliable way to make sense of surprises is downright dangerous. Why? Ian Goldin suggested two reasons. First, because rapid change usually demands rapid responses, and, as the cash accounts of big companies show, when people lose all confidence in their judgments, they hesitate when instead they need to act. Second, because, as present-day surges of anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain, anti-trade agendas in the United States and ultra-nationalism in India suggest, it’s when ugly surprises leave people grasping for the big picture that they are most likely to adopt the wrong picture for the wrong reasons.
Can we prevent surprises? No. But, according to Ian Goldin, we should aspire to do a better job of shaping their consequences than we have done in the past few years. To that end, almost 500 years ago the Italian philosopher, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) wrote: “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events have been, and ever will be, animated by the same passions. The result is that the same problems always exist in every era”. At the time, Machiavelli was schooling the leaders of Italy, who were struggling to navigate a similar time of unrelenting surprise. First, Copernicus upended their God-given notions of heaven and earth. Then, voyages of discovery by Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan tore up millennia-old maps of the “known” world which, as it turned out, hadn’t depicted even half of the whole.
Immense riches were generated from trade for some, the happy few, while also intensifying the spreading of conflict, economic collapse and pandemics, the prices that the countless others had to endure. Gutenberg’s printing press flipped knowledge production and exchange from tight scarcity to radical abundance. It also put most scribes out of business and enabled a single disillusioned friar, Martin Luther, to ignite a century of religious wars. New communication technologies allowed individuals to challenge mighty authorities. Gunpowder shocked the once-invulnerable: Ottoman cannons toppled Europe’s eastern bulwark, Constantinople, and shoved Venice’s mighty merchant fleet out of the eastern Mediterranean.
Ian Goldin stated that the present moment is our age of discovery, our Renaissance, akin to Machiavelli’s own in both the crescendo of change taking place across the full range of human endeavor, and in the interdependence, instability and fear that accompany it. Contemporary historians may point out that it is impossible to predict future events by looking backwards. After all, details matter, and usually differ by enough to frustrate time travel. But that’s missing Machiavelli’s point. Learning from history isn’t about divining precise predictions; it’s about regaining perspective. Technologies change, but human nature is more stable. When the events of the present stop making sense for us, we can clarify the personal choices and social conflicts to be expected by looking back at how humanity coped in similarly historic circumstances.
Ian Golding argued that Machiavelli and his fellow citizens knew this crisis well. His own city of Florence suffered a shocking popular power-taking when Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), a mid-level friar from Ferrara, exploded from obscurity in the 1490s to enthrall Florentines who felt left behind economically or culturally with sermons that lay blame upon the misguided policies and moral corruption of their leaders. He and his zealous supporters, though a minority by far, swept away the Medici establishment and seized control of the city’s councils.
Chris Kutarna, Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow of the Oxford Martin School with a doctorate in politics from the University of Oxford stated that from there, Savonarola launched an ugly campaign of public purification. He radicalized laws against sin, prostitution and homosexuality, and highlighted them by an act of intimidation that history still remembers as the Bonfire of the Vanities. He noted that similar, parallel uprisings played out across Western Europe: the Comuneros Revolt in Spain, the Grand Riot in Lyon, the Revolt of the Straccioni in Tuscany, the Pilgrimage of Grace in England and the German Peasants War. The German Peasant’s War was the biggest public insurrection Europe would ever see up until the French Revolution.
In hindsight, all fed on the same discontent. The distribution of gains and losses brought about by economic, social and technological upheaval was bitterly uneven. The strain of that contradiction, coupled with the availability of new technologies, mobilized indignation and gave it a powerful voice. That broke the bargain that held many communities together. Political analysts today are rushing to lay the same analysis upon our contemporary experience. A Renaissance lens could have brought this risk into focus much sooner.
Now, it sharpens the lessons. Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna in recently published book entitled “Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance” stated that, most urgent among them is that the very real and dramatic gains humanity as a whole has made over the past 25 years of opening and connecting up will be lost if we don’t help those who, so far, have been excluded. According to them, the hollowed-out middle needs to find its collective voice, roll up its sleeves and reshape society’s distribution of unwarranted gains and blameless losses. Or wait for the times to shape it for them. Renaissance Florence was famously liberal-minded until a loud demagogue filled in the majority’s silence with rage and bombast.