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The perennial fashion for catastrophe

Students at King’s Canterbury: still going after 1,426 years

The fashionable term among those keen to “come over terribly serious on the international conference circuit”, says James Marriott in The Times, is “polycrisis”. It is a “usefully impressive” way of saying everything is going wrong at once: “pandemic, wars, autocrats, AI, climate change”, you name it. Just glance at the “topical non-fiction” on display at Waterstones and you will see the “morose consensus” among our public intellectuals: End Times, The Uninhabitable Earth, How Democracies Die, Why Empires Fall, Doom. A recent survey found that 39% of Americans believe we are living in the “end times”.

But while it is vogueish to “eyeroll at naïve liberal fantasies of progress”, irrational faith in catastrophe is no more sophisticated than blind optimism. The history of our “prosperous and stable democracy” is haunted by fears of “collapse, revolution and crisis”. Those on the right who fear the “death of the West” through decadence or the rising East repeat century-old prophecies that have yet to materialise. On the left, dreams of a “final crisis of capitalism” are at least as old as Karl Marx. “The underrated force in human history is stasis.” Human institutions are far more resilient than we often imagine. The great fifth-century basilica church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome has been tending to its flock for a millennium and a half, only a little longer than the King’s School Canterbury has been educating children. Parliament is plausibly 800 years old and our monarchy 1,200. The fashion for catastrophe is really just historical narcissism – the equivalent of the self-pitying egomaniac’s cry: “Why does everything bad always happen to me?”