Living in 'interesting times': Dickensian illusion and Orwellian nightmare

As one watches headlines that are of more than passing interest, the question thrusts itself forward: Are we living through the “interesting times” of the Chinese curse, with multiple and overlapping crises slowly coming to a head, in a manner that is beyond the capacity of existing systems and institutions to meaningfully tackle? Consider, for a start, the fact that climate change has caused heat waves and fires in (of all places) Siberia and north-western Canada. It has also caused unprecedented floods in half a dozen wealthy countries in Europe where people have been used to rea.....
As one watches headlines that are of more than passing interest, the question thrusts itself forward: Are we living through the “interesting times” of the Chinese curse, with multiple and overlapping crises slowly coming to a head, in a manner that is beyond the capacity of existing systems and institutions to meaningfully tackle? Consider, for a start, the fact that climate change has caused heat waves and fires in (of all places) Siberia and north-western Canada. It has also caused unprecedented floods in half a dozen wealthy countries in Europe where people have been used to reading about such events in only distant, benighted lands.

 

Then, we may be faced with a semi-permanent state of medical alert. Under a headline that talks of a “Forever Virus” that has spread to more than a dozen different species, even as herd immunity seems unlikely to be achieved, an article in “Foreign Affairs” magazine says: “Rather than die out, the (SARS-CoV-2) virus will likely ping-pong back and forth across the globe for years to come.” That translates into no early return to what was once considered a normal way of life.

 

Third, the age of democracy and liberalism, such as it was, is threatened by the growing power, opacity and non-accountability of national security apparatuses in seemingly open societies, and by autocratic leaders willing to harness new technologies to create surveillance societies. The intrusive tentacles of giant corporate entities are worry enough, but pale in comparison as a threat. Without corrective action, an Orwellian nightmare beckons.

 

Fourth, there is a global power shift under way as the US struggles to contain the multi-faceted rise of a China determined to establish regional hegemony and challenge what was briefly an American imperium. Such power shifts usually come along with military conflict. World War I, in its many proximate causes, had as an underlying factor the rise of Germany. A decade earlier the unexpected outcome of the Russo-Japanese war had signalled the rise of Japan.

 

A final addition to the causes of current neuroses is the growing inequality that threatens the future stability of societies in countries both rich, poor and middle-income. A spreading underclass consciousness seeks escape from harsh realities through a retreat into cultural identities and ethnic hostilities – substitutes for the brighter economic futures once dreamed of. Meanwhile, policy-makers risk both inflation and instability as they test the limits of fiscal and monetary experimentation.

 

These developments are driven by forces that have complex roots in economic systems, the vulnerabilities of networked societies, historical memories, the primeval urges for more power and wealth, and the relentless march of technology that defines the anthropocene age, creating a civilisation that (it would seem) needs to create bionic species and escape Plant Earth in the next stage of its evolution. Ironically, each of these developments once facilitated the illusion that (in the Dickensian summary) “We are all going direct to heaven”, only for the realisation to dawn, as the author put it, that in fact “We are all going direct the other way”.

 

How does one confront these trends? The world has come alive to the dangers of climate change, but the tipping point is probably long past and a price must be paid. The inequality in societies and the political dangers it poses need new social compacts where the wealthy look beyond their short-term self-interest. It is useful here to recall what a person rightly reviled for his racist imperialism did as a young British minister early in the last century.

 

Winston Churchill in the unlikely role of reformer introduced an eight-hour day for miners, the right to a minimum wage and meal breaks, employment exchanges, a state-subsidised unemployment insurance scheme, and not least a system to prosecute exploitative employers. He also campaigned for the taxation of wealth – not because he was a Leftist but to preserve the existing order by offering a fairer deal. A fairer deal is needed today, and would help to build new bulwarks for endangered democracies and institutions, without which we cannot address the deeper pathologies.


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