A new politics: the age of revolutions

Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present
by Fareed Zakaria | Penguin, 2024, 380 pages

Fareed Zakaria ranks among the world’s most influential journalists and thinkers.

Not only does he host a CNN show, his Washington Post column reaches up to 100 million readers every month.

His newly published book, Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present, provides an erudite and absorbing assessment of the revolutionary age in which we live, where champions of liberal democracy such as Zakaria find their views being increasingly challenged.

As the author shows while echoing Tony Blair, modern political debate is no longer really about the Left-Right divide, but is more a question of “open versus closed”. The debate is not about a bigger or smaller state. 

“Those who celebrate markets, trade, immigration, diversity, and open and free-wheeling technology are on one side of this divide, while those who view all these forces with some suspicion and want to close, slow, or shut them down are on the other,” he writes.

Zakaria’s account of modern liberalism is somewhat rose-tinted at times, but it would be hard to find a more balanced advocate of the political philosophy that has been practised throughout much of the developed world from the mid-20th century at least.

A political and social system that emphasises individual autonomy is dear to Zakaria, who freely states that his own background helps to explain this.

Born into an Indian Muslim family, he has seen the darker side of community in a country where the rigid caste system remains evident and where Hindu nationalism poses a constant threat to minorities.

At the same time, his liberal worldview is not blinkered, and he recognises the dangers posed by rapid societal change, which has now become the norm and is fuelling the populist revolt. 

“[T]hree forces – technology, economics, identity – together almost always generate backlash that produces a new politics,” he writes, explaining that these interlinking forces are contributing to an upsurge in populism, nationalism and authoritarian rule internationally.

Historical developments

Age of Revolutions begins with a fast-moving account of four previous revolutions: the advent of liberalism in the Netherlands in the 17th century; the advancement of this liberal idea in England after William of Orange’s Dutch invasion in 1688; the failed French Revolution; and most importantly of all, the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain and reshaped the entire world.

After providing the historical context, Zakaria then explains the various changes that have been occurring in recent decades: globalisation; the information technology revolution; the growth of identity politics; and geopolitical developments, which have seen unipolarity give way to multipolarity.

While Zakaria’s account is similar in some ways to the classic Whig view of history, he is careful to differentiate his approach by stating that liberalism’s advance was not inevitable, and that it could have been derailed at any point – as it still could be now.

He is also not an uncritical observer of the efforts which have been made to ‘liberate’ those living in conservative societies.

Rather than celebrating the French Revolution for its lofty ideals, he condemns it as a bloody failure.


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Aside from the guillotines, Zakaria reminds the reader that many French peasants felt that their lives were destabilised by the reforms, including the revolutionaries’ vicious war against the institution that had been at the centre of French people’s lives for centuries: the Catholic Church.

Zakaria’s command of history is as impressive as his command of the pen. At times, his account appears tendentious: for example, in explaining the decline of the Dutch vis-à-vis the British in the 18th century, he places too much emphasis on political decisions and not enough on geographic realities: Britain was an island after all, whereas the Netherlands was a small country with few natural defences to shelter behind.

Where Zakaria really excels is his accessible description of the changes now underway in areas like biotechnology or AI.

Though a technological optimist, he has a clear ability to see and understand the ethical issues involved, and he manages to relate them effectively to the broader disruptions that are being experienced, particularly by those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

Similarly, his description of the contemporary geopolitical environment is superb. America’s overall influence has declined to the point that the author asserts that this is “a post-American world,” albeit one where the political and economic institutions that America ushered in in the 1940s remain crucial.

Zakaria succinctly identifies the key question that will determine future global political and economic developments: “Does China want to destroy the system, or simply get rich and powerful within it?” If the answer is that China desires a new world system, then the survival of Western liberalism is surely in jeopardy.

Disruption and loss

For a progressive voice who has built a leading career in left-of-centre media outlets, Zakaria is also noticeably frank about the “cultural extremism of the modern Left” on topics such as race, immigration and gender.

He also points out the scale of the ethnic change that mass immigration has brought about in America, which has seen its proportion of foreign-born residents almost triple since 1970.

Most impressively of all, Fareed Zakaria recognises what many of the brightest political and social commentators fail to see.

What the post-Christian West has experienced is at its core a religious and social transformation: from religious to secular, from community to individualism, from we to I.

This has been the greatest factor when it comes to societal fragmentation. As with his assessment of the French Revolution, the secularist Zakaria clearly recognises the deeply felt “yearning for normalcy and order”, which has convinced many culturally conservative working-class voters to support populist political figures.

“With all the change and transformation that has occurred, people are overwhelmed, anxious, and fearful of a future that could mean more disruption, dislocation, and the loss of the world that they grew up in,” he writes.

This does not have to be a binary choice. In describing the successful 20th-century transformation of Singapore into a shining example of modernity, Zakaria notes the concern of its great ruler Lee Kuan Yew that inter-generational family and community ties be maintained.

Possible solutions

Pointing to the work of Robert Putnam (and the criminally overlooked Alan Ehrenhalt) on the breakdown of community in America, Zakaria not only recognises the benefits of community, he also recognises the necessity of authority in order for community to exist, and he points out an unfortunate cost of liberal progress in loosening social ties.

“As the binding forces of religion and custom face, the individual gains, but communities often lose. The result is that we may be richer and freer but also lonelier. We search for something, somewhere, that will fill that sense of loss, the emptiness that the French philosopher Blaise Pascal called ‘the infinite abyss’,” he writes.

For many, that something is now the often crude and ill-thought-out offerings of anti-establishment politicians or strongmen.

Zakaria is adamantly opposed to such forces. To counteract their influence, he advises his fellow liberals on how to ameliorate changes that cannot be stopped.

His general advice is good. He suggests that progressives resist the temptation to “treat the nation as a guinea pig”, that they refrain from pushing top-down solutions and that they resist identity politics.

His practical solutions are comparatively weak, like his suggestion for strengthening communities and family life by way of more state-sponsored childcare, or his idea of boosting societal cohesion by reintroducing national service.

One piece of better advice would be to heed the lessons of liberalism’s history as described by Zakaria himself, who repeatedly makes reference to the benefits of competing centres of power.

On many contentious issues like abortion, America’s political debate at present is between Republicans who wish to allow the individual states to chart their own course and Democrats who insist upon a uniform one-size-fits-all solution to advance a radical social agenda. One path could lead to relative harmony; the other is bound to intensify the partisan divide.

More broadly, the unease generated by mass immigration could be decreased significantly by limiting the inflow, and (though Zakaria would surely object) by prioritising immigration from countries which are culturally similar to the host nation.

Considering the personal background of its irreligious author, it is remarkable how important religion is to this book. In his concluding argument, Zakaria recognises that for liberalism to continue its historical trajectory, the “greatest challenge remains to infuse that journey with moral meaning, to imbue it with the sense of pride and purpose that religion did - to fill that hole in the heart.”

So much of the difficulties that the West is experiencing come from this religious void, which few politicians recognise and many commentators choose to wish away.

Those who wish to see liberal democracy endure as an idea would do well to recognise the limits of politics and the degree to which humanity’s quest for meaning will never be fulfilled by any level of material prosperity or any type of earthly ideology.

Not even the most eloquent proponent of liberalism can fill that hole. Yet in writing this sublime and essential book, Fareed Zakaria has performed an enormous service.

Are Zakaria's analyses on point? Comment below.

James Bradshaw writes from Ireland on topics including politics, history, culture, film and literature.

Image credit: Pexels


Showing 4 reactions

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  • Michael Cook
    followed this page 2024-07-09 22:28:26 +1000
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-07-09 16:22:20 +1000
    One this is certain. We are about to experience disruption at on a scale and at a speed greater than anything that has gone before.

    And, inevitably, we’re going to mess up.

    Here’s Australian pundit Sam Evans on Tony Seba’s predictions about robots.

    Tony Seba just revealed why Elon Musk is no longer interested in EVs


    A bit. But one reality:

    Ready or not, the robots are coming.

    And this is only one of the many disruptions on the way.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-07-09 03:04:42 +1000
    Having read the article, I conclude that Zakaria is blind on one eye and therefore misinterprets some developments he sees with the other eye.

    He does not see the full picture.
  • James Bradshaw
    published this page in The Latest 2024-07-08 21:05:05 +1000