Where have all the leaders gone? So much has happened in 2011, but there is precious little evidence of world events being guided by a few great men and women. From the social revolution in Egypt's Tahrir Square to the impact of the Tea Party on American politics, and on to the Occupy movement, loose-knit, largely leaderless networks are exercising great influence on social and political affairs.
Networks draw their strength in two ways: from the information technologies that connect everybody to everybody else, and from the power of the narratives that draw supporters in and keep them in, sometimes even in the face of brutal repression such as practiced by Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. Aside from civil society uprisings, this is true of terrorist networks as well. The very best example is al Qaeda, which has survived the death of Osama bin Laden and is right now surging fighters into Iraq -- where they are already making mischief and will declare victory in the wake of the departure of U.S. forces.
The kind of "people power" now being exercised, which is the big story of the past year, is opening a whole new chapter in human history -- an epic that was supposed to have reached its end with the ultimate triumph of democracy and free market capitalism, according to leading scholar and sometime policymaker Francis Fukuyama. When he first advanced his notion about the "end of history" in 1989, world events seemed to be confirming his insight. The Soviet Union was unraveling, soon to dissolve. Freedom was advancing nearly everywhere. Fukuyama knew there would still be occasional unrest but saw no competing ideas emerging. We would live in an age of mop-up operations, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- for which he had initially plumped -- and this year's war to overthrow Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi. As Fukuyama noted in his famous essay, "the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world."
Fukuyama is only the latest in a long line of wise people who thought things were "over." From humankind's historical beginnings, a very lively interest in endings has always been apparent. The unknown author of the epic of Gilgamesh, a ruler of ancient Uruk (modern Iraq), was the first to focus on the mortality of the individual. He explored questions that were picked up on later by Aristotle, Lucretius, and Aurelius -- about the meaning of existence and what happens after death -- and that have continued to puzzle the thoughtful up into our time. Others have looked at "the end" from a wider, world-encompassing perspective -- most dramatically depicted in the "revelations" envisioned by Christian Apocalyptic literature. The Mayans, too, thought very much about endings. Their "long-count" calendar is famously set to terminate on Dec. 21, 2012.
The larger sweep of world events has often been incorporated into these "endist" views as well. Genghis Khan's Mongol hordes, the "Tatars," were so named by Christians who believed that these all-conquering riders had come from the nether world, Tartarus, to announce the looming end of times. Tolstoy's character from War and Peace, Pierre Bezukhov, spent a lot of time and effort attaching numerical values to Napoleon's name -- to see whether the Corsican had the "number of the Beast" (666). Hitler also had his turn in the dock as a candidate anti-Christ. All of them proved false, however, and the end never quite came.
Many have expressed doubts about the latest "end of history" thesis, and even Fukuyama has mused that, even if some kind of inflection point has been reached, history could well continue on in some new vein. In this he might be right. For it is possible -- indeed, more appropriate -- to look at world events from a point of view that considers "endings" as not so final.
Instead there are historical turnings after which what was recedes and what is and will persist flourishes -- a world less driven by the apocalyptic, one more attuned to the epochal. It could be argued that the Bible takes this view: The Flood in Genesis ushers in not the end but a new beginning; the Second Coming in Revelation features travail, but also a 1,000-year era of peace. Even J.R.R. Tolkien's saga of Middle-earth sees "the end" as a new beginning -- as does the Mayan long-count calendar.