As much fun as it may be to discuss, alternative history is total bullshit. What would have happened if the Nazis won the war? What would the world look like if it was the Chinese, as opposed to European, settlers that made their home in North America? What if Napoleon never marched on Moscow? What if Sir Francis Drake never stopped the Spanish Armada? What if Charlemagne fell off a horse and broke his neck at the age of ten?
The greatest thing that such pondering can achieve is leading us to the (correct) conclusion that practically nothing in history, except perhaps the sun dying out in a few billion years and finally wiping out human civilisation, is inevitable. After all, how can anything be inevitable once we consider the sheer amount of branching paths affected by the seemingly smallest possible catalysts? While now we may have the benefit of retrospection, it is impossible to determine the potential consequences of something happening at the precise moment when that thing is actually happening.
Think about it this way – In the later half of First World War, a random British* soldier stood guard in a random trench at a random point somewhere along the Western Front. On one day, he aimed his rifle and opened fire at a random German corporal scurrying among a mass of similar looking Germans. When his bullet missed its target, I highly doubt that our random British soldier immediately reflected upon the global implications which his ineptitude has sowed. With hindsight, it is easy to ponder as to what would have happened if Adolf Hitler was killed there and then in 1918.
Some would say that, without his leadership, the organisation known as The National Socialist German Workers’ Party would never have moved beyond a largely irrelevant extremist movement harassing the good people of Bavaria. Some would passionately argue that his absence would instead have allowed the Communists to seize control of the Weimar Republic, or that the lack of Hitler’s strong leadership would have paved the way for Germany to fully recover. Others will point out that instability was bound to return to the country anyway as a result of the Wall Street Crash, and Germany’s heavy reliance on American loans, and so it goes on.
Unfortunately, the problem with all of these theories is their default assumption that everything besides Corporal Hiter’s death would have stayed more or less the same. It’s an interesting paradox – in order to properly speculate on the consequences of both big and small historical events, we must practically disregard the butterfly effect and trillions of branching paths that make alternative history possible in the first place. Ok, Corporal Hitler died, but what if two years later the Red Army wasn’t stopped at the Battle of Warsaw, the newly formed USSR dominated Eastern Europe, and marched into Berlin twenty years earlier than it did in our own universe? In order to explore a supposedly non-linear historical theory, we must, therefore, force ourselves to adopt an entirely linear perspective.
The same problem which prevents accurate speculation about the past has a similar effect on our speculation with regards to the future. Was there anyone, and I do mean anyone, alive in the year 2008 AD who genuinely predicted that Donald J Trump would win the 2016 Presidential Election? While we love to analyse the impacts of big social, economic, and political trends (e.g. disenfranchisement following the housing crash, the rise of populism across the Western World etc) no one can reasonably predict the seemingly minuscule factors that only become apparent when the chain of events they spurred have borne fruit. Many such factors are developing right now, but we likely won’t know anything about them until they’ve started to change the world.
I recently finished Tim Shipman’s excellent book about the course and aftermath of last year’s EU referendum, which comes highly recommended, and one thing that particularly struck me was that the failure to send a single 50 or so word tweet likely changed the outcome of who became Britain’s next Prime Minister. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom were all at one point supposed to run for the Conservative Party leadership on a single ticket (Johnson as PM, Gove as Chancellor and Leadsom as Chief Brexit negotiator). The evening before Johnson’s team was to announce their bid, they were supposed to send a tweet publicly confirming that the three aforementioned actors were to campaign together. However, due to a failure in communications, the tweet was never sent. As a result, Leadsom got cold feet and decided to run on her own, sending Johnson’s campaign into chaos. Combined with a certain late epiphany, that prompted Michale Gove to withdraw his support, stab Johnson in the back, and also run on his own.
Before this episode unfolded, many expected Boris Johnson to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister. Several major factors seemed to point in that direction: Johnson’s own popularity, the fact that he (unlike Theresa May) supported Brexit and therefore better represented the change that the country (and the largely Brexit-supporting Conservative Party membership) wanted to see, and the backing of Michael Gove was likely enough to ensure Johnson had enough parliamentary support to appear on the final ballot.
These were all sensible factors to take into account, but what commentators could possibly have predicted that Johnson’s team would be incompetent enough to mess up something as simple as sending a single tweet and as a result losing their two most essential backers? We love to analyse big societal shifts and patterns, but few seem to consider the potential and largely unpredictable actions of individual people. As obvious as this may be to point out – people aren’t perfect, people act irrationally, people fuck up. When bookmakers dish out odds on different potential political outcomes, what numbers do they assign to the likelihood of certain people screwing up? How on Earth can you even quantify human incompetence?
Many like to claim that there is, in fact, a science associated with making political predictions, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that this is little different than betting on the stock market. Both are merely a somewhat informed type of gambling. You can take the time to learn a little more about the trade, and that will likely improve your success rate, but it’s certain nowhere near a science.
95% of our most highly regarded pundits were absolutely wrong about Trump, which perhaps speaks to the media’s potential to create an intellectual bubble than anything else. No pundit is right 100% of the time, although some (like Dan Hodges) certainly seem to be wrong 100% of the time. Personally, I thought Brexit was going to happen, at least I did in the final two or so months leading up to the vote (which I guess makes me more accurate than the majority of Westminster journalists). However, I got Trump almost entirely wrong so perhaps my random flinging of crap against the wall just happened to be slightly luckier (I say “almost” because I predicted that if he was to win, it would be while losing the popular vote, which is what happened).
Right now I’m growing more and more convinced that Emmanuel Macron will be the next President of France. All observable factors seem to suggest so (I recently wrote about the French election here), although more and more “experts” seem to think that Le Pen will win just because Trump did and they’re both representatives of a (in my opinion highly overrated) right-wing populist shift. Personally, I think that Macron has a very good chance of making it to the final round of voting by mobilising the centre-left to centre-right group of voters that all the other candidates have seemingly abandoned.
I think that this theory has grown much better after yesterday’s first round of the Socialist Party primary, which seems to be on course to nominating someone from their left (Benoît Hamon). Therefore, just like when Fillon becoming the Republican nominee allowed Macron to capture centre-right voters loyal to Alain Juppé, Hamon securing the Socialist nomination will give him the chance to seize the centre-left as well (who previously preferred Manuel Valls, the current PM). This should carry him through the first round of voting. After that, if he faces Le Pen, Macron will almost certainly win. If instead Le Pen comes third and we’re down to Macron/Fillon, I’m not so sure. Theoretically, he should be able to successfully rally everyone to the left of Fillon’s relatively far-right position, however, I also think Macron’s lack of backing by a major party could prove to be his Achilles’ heel when faced with the well prepared Republican machine. I’ll probably write more in depth about this if (as I suspect) Macron gets through to the second round come April 23rd.
All that being said, what if all of this speculation is made totally redundant by some spectacular individual fuckup that turns the entire race on its head? What if two thousand people are massacred by terrorists in central Paris and Le Pen wins the election based on the fear factor alone? What if what if what if what if what if…
*Correction: originally said American, but turns out that was inaccurate (happy now, Joe?)