Why We Need an Alternative History of the 20th Century
Talking to author John Higgs about his new book, which details the pivotal points in one of human history's most important centuries that you're not going to be taught about at school.
The 20th century – like most centuries, I suppose – was an eventful one. It had a couple of world wars, the advent of pop music, inconceivable technological advancements, huge advancements in human rights, unprecedented population growth and the relentless draining of our planet's resources.
All these things piece together to make one of the most peculiar, globe-changing centuries of recent history. But what we're taught about in school, and the historical occasions still written about today, only cover a slim portion of the people and events that shaped the world we live in now. What about the murkier, more confusing stuff – quantum entanglement, cubism, Alastair Crowley, relativity, psychedelics, "Emperor Norton" and chaos theory?
John Higgs, author of The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band That Burned a Million Quid, has decided to address some of these lesser-covered 20th century developments in his new book, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of The Twentieth Century, an alternative history of this weird and wild patch of time that we've just clambered out of.
I met up with Higgs recently to find out what else we should be concentrating on when it comes to the recent history of humanity.
VICE: Hi, John. How did you get round to re-writing the history of the 20th century?
John Higgs: I came to writing quite late in my life; it doesn't come naturally to me. I'm not a historian; I don't have a degree in English. My background is entirely wrong to be writing a history of the 20th century [laughs].
So where did the idea come from?
The idea behind the book is that we're very comfortable with all the innovations and discoveries up until the end of the 19th century; photography, electricity, agriculture, democracy – as a whole, we're fairly happy with these and understand how they work. Then we get to the turn of 20th century and we get relativity, existentialism, modernism, quantum mechanics and all these things that are fairly terrifying for many of us, so we back away from them. Which results in some of us in the 21st century looking at the world through 19th century eyes and not fully making sense of it all. We need to take on board everything we learned from the 20th century and not shy away from it all.
Many of the characters in the book – rocket engineer and occultist Jack Parsons, say, or Joshua Norton, the self-proclaimed "Emperor of the United States" – aren't historical figures you often read about. How did you choose who to focus on?
The story I wanted to tell was of the rise of the individual, so I was looking for characters that best encapsulated this main theme. They're the people that are right on the edge, the people that are so far out there that nobody understands them. These characters are often perfectly in tune with the direction that we're going. [The artist and poet] Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, for example, was one of the people that was truly surfing the change; I just had to write about her.
Yeah, in the book you write that the end of the 19th century marked the end of the hierarchical age of empires, and the 20th century was the age of the individual. Can you expand on that?
Pre-20th century, we lived in an age where large parts of the world were carved up by colonialism – where you were in the hierarchy was more important than who you were as a person. If you were a serf or peasant, then that's who you were, regardless of if you were a good person. It seems appalling to us now, but it was how people understood themselves. It was extremely harsh on the majority of people, but it was stable and it was the only model of society that we had. It was something that was so integral to all of history, so when it all disappeared almost in the blink of an eye when WW1 ended, it was a really big deal.
The 20th century was about seeing and understanding ourselves as individuals. In the first half of the century we were rushing in that direction, through politics and other areas such as fiction like Buck Rogers and cowboy films. [Occultist] Aleister Crowley is a recurring character in the book because I feel that his idea of "Do What Thou Wilt" crystallised that change towards the individual. It's the individual defined at its most explicit. It is shocking and also a bit problematic.
This was the period where we tried to come to terms with different perspectives and with not having a fixed point of society, or omphalos [an object of world centrality]. This deletion of the arbitrary omphalos happened in many areas, including art, politics and psychology, during this period. It was difficult, it was violent, but we kind of got there in the end.
What about elsewhere? Surely there are many countries and states that didn't change in quite the same way the West did during the 20th century?
In the East, it's slightly different. The Islamic world still has that fixed point in society. Mecca is the omphalos, and some elements of that pre-20th century hierarchical age still exist in that part of the world. These places have now been plunged into the modern digital age, where they're connected to people from all over the world that see the world in different ways and have different beliefs. It's sad, but it's no surprise to me that there's so much violence because of it.
I believe there's a war of the Certain going on; people declaring loudly that they're right and that everyone else is wrong. To me, this seems to be missing the lessons we learned in the 20th century. There are 7 billion people on this earth, and no two people will see exactly eye-to-eye on their beliefs, so to say that you're indefinitely right in your beliefs and that your point of view is correct in a way that the others aren't is, if anything else, a poor grasp of mathematics and statistics. We're all just different perspectives looking at things. I think that's one of the things we learned from the 20th century.
TRENDING ON NOISEY: Here's Every Annoying Person You'll Meet at a Festival
In the book you write of how we're just at the beginning of the Network Age.
Yeah, we've gone from the "know your place" pre-20th century structure to the individualistic "no such thing as society" Thatcherite structure, but it doesn't have to end there. Thinking of ourselves as individuals isn't enough to make sense of who we are.
For example, people born and raised in the 20th century, the age of the individual, see somebody taking a selfie and they immediately think of vanity and narcissism, but that's a dated perspective. The millennial generation would just see it as something to be shared in that person's networks, and the photo can only be understood – and only really exists – in that wider context. To them, it's just somebody smiling at their friends.
It's very easy to look at network society and think it's awful, and to be scared by it because it's arrived so suddenly and it's been traumatic for some people. In the hierarchical world, corruption would build up within institutions because of the way that information used to flow. Therefore, corruption became normalised, like in MP expenses, the Vatican child abuse, Fifa and so on. However, because information now flows round the world in a network, there are fewer corners in which the corruption can hide. The feedback loops that are now in place have put responsibilities on our freedoms; we can still do what we want and become who we want to become, but we can't act and be entirely free from repercussions.
Because of things like online mob mentality and public shaming.
Of course there are horrible, nasty people out there and people can get publicly shamed, but it's only because it's all so new. I can't help but think that all these feedback loops – this getting used to what other people think, and becoming responsible for your own actions, thoughts and words – has got to be positive at the heart of it. The age is in its infancy, and the teething pains can be quite terrifying.
There are still huge unsustainable imbalances in wider society; the global economy, climate change, these things can't go on as they are. We can't hide away and pretend we don't know about these things any more – we're much more aware. We won't be skipping into a utopian future just yet, but the network seems to be our greatest hope for overcoming the problems that we've built up for ourselves.
What do you think the future of capitalism might be?
I do fear that because neoliberal capitalism funnels wealth and therefore power upwards to an increasing minority, the people that have the power to change things have no desire to do so. They are just so heavily invested in the status quo. That's a very difficult problem to understand. The hope is that between where we are now and where we need to be, it doesn't turn violent. I can't see it continuing indefinitely on its current path peacefully. If the inequality continues at the same rate it has been, then I don't think CEOs will make it out alive.
In the book, you cover what you describe as "genuinely new, unexpected and radical" developments, like relativity, cubism and quantum mechanics. Do you think there's room for innovations and events of that calibre in our immediate future?
I think the book shows that genuinely new, unexpected and radical things keep coming, and that gives me hope. Things are changing in a different way. It used to be that a great individual would appear and put forward an idea. A figure like John Lennon, Sid Vicious or Bob Marley would crystallise a movement. We don't seem to have these great individuals any more, but we have these huge movements. It's no longer about leaders.
Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century is released on August 27th. There's a book launch party on the 28th at The Social on Little Portland Street.
More on VICE: