Sunday, December 11, 2016
Brace For Impact
poll was taken asking Americans which year they believe to be the greatest in their country's history. The prosperous post-World War II years were popular, as were (inexplicably, I feel) the most recent years. But by far the most commonly preferred era, according to all demographics, was the year 2000.
Perhaps this had something to do with how 2000 was the year of the turn of the millennium, or the fact that it was the last year of Bill Clinton's presidency (which makes it more likely to appeal to Democrats) and the year of George W. Bush's election (which makes it more likely to appeal to Republicans). But I strongly suspect that 2000's popularity comes from how it could be considered a pleasant lull before the storm that ensued afterwords.
The years between 1992 and and 2001, in spite of their problems, where a relatively high point in history, with the end of the Cold War having created a period where world events were largely stable, the risk of economic collapse having been greatly alleviated because of the U.S. turning its national debt into a surplus, and a breakthrough in human progress having occurred with the sudden popularity of the World Wide Web. But afterwords, as we know, the situation would take a sharp turn for the worse, and even during those years certain people were predicting such a deterioration of events.
Specifically, Johan Galtung, William Strauss, and Neil Howe foresaw the current geopolitical, economic, and political crisis. Galtung, a Norwegian sociologist, predicted in 2000 based on historical patterns of how past nations have risen and fallen that the United States' military and economic empire would come to an end within 25 years. His view of the future correlated with the one presented by William Strauss and Neil Howe, who also reasoned in a 1997 book that, based on past trends in American history, world events would reach a climax around 2025.
I'll talk more about their predictions later, though. What this piece focuses on is how such a scenario is likely to transpire. And I'll lay out this model of the near future by assessing the current directions that all the major factors shaping history right now are headed in, namely politics, military conflict, economics, and ecology.
For the past several decades, public faith in established political institutions has been deteriorating, and not just in the United States. A prime suspect for this is the enormous redistribution of wealth and power that's taken place since the 1970's with the normalization of unrestrained, predatory capitalism throughout much of the world. Whatever the cause of this crisis of confidence in government, though, it's lately evolved into a crisis for the stability of government itself.
The author Umair Haque has developed a series of events which so often occur in the lead-up to the collapse of republics: stagnation, demagoguery, and tyranny. In the first stage, faith in traditional politics and the ideological center erodes as the quality of life goes down for most people. In the second stage, divisive and dangerous figures arise as political leaders by tapping into the crudely populist sentiments that many have come to hold amid an era of widespread economic unfairness. And in the third stage, the demagogues destroy or at the very least thoroughly demoralize the nations that they've taken control of.
We've recently entered that last stage.
While there's still a possibility that a demagogue even worse than Donald Trump will emerge in 2020, for now it looks like his election was the culmination of all the toxic, neo-fascist political energies that have been quietly gaining strength for the last few decades. His brand of fascism, though not anywhere near as frightening as that of Adolf Hitler, has the potential to develop into something resembling it as he and his equally dangerous transition team become tempted to adopt more authoritarian tactics after assuming power.
And they'll be joining a growing number of similarly reactionary world leaders. A great deal of democracies have devolved into tyranny throughout recent years, starting with the election of Vladimir Putin in 2000. This trend has been especially prevalent in the 2010's, with victories for Trumpist leaders having taken place in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland within the past three years. France, Germany, and other European countries are likely to soon succumb to fascism as well as ethnic nationalism surges in the region.
"I believe New Fascism is the single most important political development in our lifetimes," wrote Haque last year regarding this phenomenon. "It is a critical moment for global society — a turning point. Like every turning point, it is a test. A test of the best of us: whether or not civilized societies can in fact stay civilized, in the most essential sense of the word — or whether we risk plunging once again into an era of world war and genocide." And so far, it seems society is failing this test.
Speaking of world war, the current geopolitical situation seems to have as much in common with that of the early 1930's as does the current political situation. As world powers have built up their economic and military strength to unprecedented levels since World War II, they've unconsciously created the factors for World War III, with the structure of the world stage alone making conditions very friendly for the possibility of major conflict. Modern civilization is a tinderbox for a global military clash, and it could very well soon be lit.
While the long-feared threat of war with Russia has been alleviated by Hillary Clinton's defeat, President Trump will of course introduce a whole new set of risks for world war. Specifically, a great concern that I have is how Trump and his foreign policy aides will respond to a major terrorist attack. If a 9/11-like event occurs during Trump's term, the Trump administration, in addition to using it as a tool to push their authoritarian agenda, would likely react by starting several major wars as was the case with the Bush administration.
This scenario, which seems likely given the normalization of terrorist attacks that's occurred around the world in recent years, holds a good chance of leading somewhere very frightening indeed, as Trump's reckless foreign policy ventures inevitably set off a larger series of conflicts within the already unstable world stage.
On November 8 this year, it appears that when Americans were choosing between Clinton and Trump, they were making a choice between two different but equally destructive versions of World War III.
The transformation of the world's economic system in the past forty years into a tool to funnel wealth to the top, in addition to creating the political crisis that I discussed, has greatly increased the potential for financial meltdown. Income inequality has lead to collapse in the past as the unacceptably top-heavy nature of such economies stifled growth and made it harder for debt to be repaid, and the factors for such a disaster amid the current era of inequality are falling neatly into place.
Firstly, though I've made this point before, it can't be emphasized enough: our current banking system is not sustainable. Due to a series of irresponsible changes that have been made to America's financial sector in the past twenty years, namely the Wall Street deregulations of 2000 and the Wall Street bailouts of 2008, the economy now operates on a system of borrowing and accounting fraud which takes place for the short-term benefit of too-big-to-fail banks, and this order is expected to soon come crashing down. And when this crisis hits, it will likely be bigger than that of 2008, given the unprecedented global debt and stunted economic growth that's appeared since then.
But this will only be one of the earlier manifestations of the larger economic downturn that's certain to befall civilization in the years and decades to come. The mad scramble to exploit the earth's resources and churn out perpetually accelerating economic growth that's taken place in the last several centuries is finally coming to an end, and this next recession may be what officially ushers in the new economic age of stagnation, scarcity, and decline. And even that downturn will pale in comparison to the longer-term effects that the coming climate crisis will have on the economy and other aspects of civilization.
In the meantime, though, the downfall of the current economic, political, and geopolitical paradigm will be a spectacle to behold. And the most important date that this shift seems to be associated with is 2020.
The breaking point
Returning to the predictions made by Galtung, Strauss, and Howe, while their forecasts seemed far-fetched at first, given all the factors I've mentioned it's looking more and more like they were spot on.
According to Strauss and Howe's book, American history behaves in eighty-year cycles consisting of peaks and collapses, with the latest point of collapse having taken place in 1945 and the next one being expected to take place in 2025. And according to Galtung, empires tend to rise and fall in respect to a similar timetable of events, with the current global empire being set to have its day of reckoning at a similar time. But with certain recent developments, chief among them the election of Donald Trump, this process of collapse appears to have accelerated, with Galtung now naming 2020 as the end date.
The survival of the American republic in its current form before modern-day state successions, constitutional crises, and the deterioration of political discourse into tribal warfare tears it apart, estimates Galtung, will end by 2020. The same is the case, he also says, for the existence of the post-Cold War status quo of global military power as major world conflicts end the U.S.'s dominance in that area by 2020. And though he doesn't focus on when the current economic paradigm will meet a similar fate, those who have view 2020 as a pivotal year for this aspect of world events. According to said sociologists, the recession that I mentioned, along with a period of social upheaval as a result of massive wealth inequality, is also expected to emerge by 2020.
In short, crunch time is fast approaching.
"I am nervous," said Neil Howe in 2013 regarding the state of the world as it enters into the next climax of historical events. "I am nervous about the future right now. I think we have a lot more deep issues, deep crises, to save in the economy. I am also very nervous about what I see geopolitically. We cannot possibly afford the government we have promised ourselves. And, that will be a painful process of deleveraging, and it is not just deleveraging the explicit debt that we have already actually formally borrowed, it is all the implicit debt. And, I think we will deal with it, because we have no other choice. But, my point is this: No one simply solves a terrible problem on a sunny day when they can afford, at least for the time being, to look the other way. Problems like that are faced when people have no other choice, and it is a really grim day. And, it is white-knuckle time, and horrible things are happening with markets around the world, or horrible things are happening, at least historically; we have seen that geopolitically around the world. And, that is when people are forced to act."
It's the factor which Howe talks about in that last sentence, though, that provides us with hope. Because aside from the supporters of Trump and other demagogues, polls show that at least in the U.S, most people recognize the problems with how civilization has been conducting itself in relation to economics, geopolitics, social issues, and ecology. And if, as Howe recommends, they react to the coming crises by taking action to fix the system that created them, the post-2020 world could turn out to be a considerable improvement on past eras.
Regardless of the final result, though, we're certainly in for a wild ride throughout these next few years.