Friday, December 30, 2016

One of those years when the world changed

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, Dec 28.)

There have been a few momentous years in my lifetime. I don’t mean for me personally, although obviously there have been those too.

I’m referring to years when you got a sense that history had suddenly lurched in a different direction; that a new era was starting which would be significantly different from the previous one.

There was 1968. What a turbulent year that was.

America seemed a dangerously unstable place where anything could happen. All the post-war confidence of the Eisenhower and Kennedy presidencies seemed to have evaporated.

There were the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy. It was also the year when public discontent over the Vietnam War (dubbed the living room war because it was played out nightly on the television news) seemed to crystallise. Military setbacks – the Tet Offensive and the siege of Khe Sanh – were a profound shock to a country that was accustomed to winning.

In Chicago, the protest movement flexed its muscles at the infamous Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. To TV viewers watching the vicious police response, it must have seemed the American Dream was disintegrating before their eyes.

But the unrest wasn’t confined to America. Capitalism and authority was under attack throughout the Western world.

In France, student and trade union street protests brought the country to the brink of revolution. Neo-Marxist protest leaders – Daniel Cohn-Bendit (aka Danny the Red) in France and Rudi Dutschke in Germany – became household names worldwide.

The European unrest of 1968 gave birth to urban terrorist groups such as Germany’s Red Army Faction and Italy’s Red Brigades. America’s Symbionese Liberation Army – famous for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patti Hearst – would later emerge from that same ferment of protest and disorder.

The world had to come to grips with the new phenomenon of urban terrorism, fomented by alienated middle-class misfits striking out with extraordinary ferocity against the capitalist society that had nurtured them.

It was profoundly destabilising and continued to unsettle the world throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. In fact you could argue that it was instrumental in shaping the terrorism-attuned world we live in now.

Fast-forward now to 1989, an epochal year in a very different way. That was the year the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet empire began to unravel.

At the time – in fact even now – it scarcely seemed credible that the Soviet Union, which since World War Two had competed with the US for global domination, should collapse with barely a whimper, along with its repressive satellite states. But when challenged by people power, the Soviet bloc, economically exhausted after decades of trying to out-muscle its ideological enemy, had no fight left.

The American political scientist and economist Francis Fukuyama famously wrote that the defeat of Soviet communism represented “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution”. In future, he theorised, capitalism and liberal democracy would prevail unchallenged.

Already that bold prophecy seems to have been, er, a bit premature. America, so ideologically triumphant in 1989, is now weakened by self-doubt. The ascendant power is China – a capitalist country all right, but hardly a liberal democracy.

Russia, meanwhile, is again a force to be reckoned with – just not a communist one. Nonetheless, 1989 was unquestionably a watershed year.

So we come to 2016, and I’m wondering whether it too will turn out to be a year that changed the course of history.

In a June referendum, 52 per cent of Britons voted in favour of leaving the European Union. This was a stunning rejection of a long-established political consensus. Few people saw it coming.

Voting took place against a backdrop of unprecedented immigration levels as Europe absorbed millions of displaced people fleeing insecurity and instability in the Middle East and Africa.

Many commentators simplistically interpreted the referendum result as a racist backlash against immigration and free passage across borders, but the overriding factor was that British people had grown increasingly resentful of control by a remote and unaccountable elite in Brussels. They wanted their country back.

But Brexit was merely the appetiser before an even more cataclysmic political event: the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

This was such a momentous setback for the liberal agenda that the full consequences will take time to absorb. Some of those consequences will almost certainly be ugly, but many people will welcome what they regard as a long-overdue rebalancing in Western politics and culture.

The liberal Left, which has effectively controlled the political agenda in the West for decades, even when nominally conservative parties (such as National here, the Liberals in Australia and the Conservatives in Britain) were in power, is suddenly on the back foot. Political correctness is in retreat.

Some on the Left are hurt and demoralised. Others are buzzing like angry wasps. But they’d better get used to it. The balance of power in world politics has shifted profoundly and the dominant narrative has changed. We’re finishing 2016 a radically different world than when we started. 

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