Paul Valéry, 1931

Every habitable part of the earth, in our time, has been discovered, surveyed, and divided up among nations. . .The age of the finite world has begun. . . .

The effects are already immense. An entirely new, excessive, and immediate interdependence between regions and events is the already perceptible consequence of this great fact. Henceforth we must see all political phenomena in the light of this new situation in the world; every one of them occurs either in obedience or in resistance to the effects of this definitive limitation and ever closer mutual dependence of human actions. The habits, ambitions, and loyalties formed in the course of earlier history do not cease to exist but being insensibly transferred into quite differently constructed surroundings, they there lose their meaning and become causes of error and fruitless striving. . . .

Henceforward every action will be re-echoed by many unforeseen interests on all sides; it will produce a chain of immediate events confused reverberations in a closed space. The effects of effects, which were formerly imperceptible or negligible in relation to the length of a human life and to the radius of action of any human power, are now felt almost instantly at any distance; they return immediately to their causes, and only die away in the unpredictable. The expectations of the predictor are always disappointed, and that in a matter of months or a very few years.

In a few weeks, the most remote circumstances can change friend into foe, foe into ally, victory into defeat. No economic reasoning is possible. The greatest experts are wrong; paradox reigns.

There is no prudence, wisdom, or genius that is not quickly baffled by such complexity, for there is no more duration, continuity, or recognizable causality in this universe of multiple relations and contacts. Prudence, wisdom, and genius can be identified only by a series of successes; once accident and disorder are predominant, an expert or inspired game is in no way different from a game of chance; the finest gifts miscarry.

Hence the new politics are to the old what the short-term calculations of a stock market gambler the nervous spurts of speculation on the floor of the exchange, the sudden fluctuations and reverses, the uncertain profits and losses are to the old patriarchal economy, the slow, careful accumulation of a patrimony. . . . The long-pursued schemes and profound thought of a Machiavelli or a Richelieu would today have no more reliability and value than a “stock market tip.”

Our challenge is to push Valéry’s truth further by finding the positive in the nine decades of complexity since then and now ahead.

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