The Great Malaise continues


At PJ Media, my old friend Richard Fernandez muses about the current upheaval:

Bloomberg editors have noticed that the world is on fire. There are demonstrations and unrest in Lebanon, Chile, Spain, Iraq, Sudan, Russia, Uganda, Peru, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and others. That “other” is Iran, where the Internet has been shut down and rampaging protesters are burning down the Central Bank.

Hong Kong at least deserves a separate mention. It is really the bellwether for the fate of China. The Chinese government may be edging toward their Tienanmen moment in the former British colony. Bloomberg’s survey of the global world disorder omitted the two biggest trouble spots: Britain’s Brexit crisis — of which no more need be said for now — and the simmering political conflict in the United States…

The media are missing the biggest story since the fall of the Soviet Union. Something strange is upending the world and it’s almost as if they’ve made up their minds to be the last to know.

As reluctant as I am to defend the media, if they are missing the story it’s because the story is so difficult to tell in a way that makes sense. It’s safe to say that no one really knows what’s actually happening around the world, except that a lot of people seem to be disillusioned and angry. The fall of the Soviet Union was a simple tale by comparison: there was a clear villain, the people fighting for democracy and freedom were the heroes, there were few ambiguities and the narrative was quite straight-forward, aiming as it was towards “the end of history”.

By contrast, the 21st century, post-9/11, post-GFC slow-burn political earthquake, what I have elsewhere called the Great Malaise, escapes easy generalisations, starting from the most basic one: are we even talking about one distinct phenomenon or a series of only tenuously connected trends and events?

At “The Guardian”, Simon Tisdall looks at the protests around the world and sees one unifying factor: young people. But this is a truism; young people have always been at the forefront of social, political and economic unrest throughout history – they have the time, energy, idealism and higher tolerance of risk to go out onto the streets and riot. Tisdall argues that there are more youth than ever before, they are more affected by inequality and dearth of economic opportunities, while at the same time being better educated and better connected – all true, to a point – before ending with a dream:

Perhaps these protests will one day merge into a joined-up global revolt against injustice, inequality, environmental ruin and oppressive powers-that-be.

He’s far from the only one currently looking at the people in the streets in all corners of the world and hoping it’s finally that long promised socialist revolution. The problem is that terms like “injustice” are too vague to provide a meaningful description here; those in Chile might indeed be fighting from the left (while also robbing and burning Catholic churches), but the students in Hong Kong are very much fighting against socialism. “Distrust of politicians, and resulting public alienation, is the common ground on which stand France’s ‘gilets jaunes’, Czech anti-corruption marchers and Extinction Rebellion,” writes Tisdall. Well, maybe, but other than that, the French “yellow vests” and the far-left hipsters of Extinction Rebellion are actually on the opposite sides of the political (not to mention socio-economic) spectrum. If the “yellow vests” were around in Brisbane, Melbourne or London, they would quicksmart clear the streets of the green extremists, with many thanks from everyday commuters.*

Herein lies the rub: people around the world are angry at the political status quo and business-as-usual, but the old elites and the establishments vary in nature from location to location. The Chinese Communist Party, the EU technocrats, corrupt Middle Eastern theocrats, crony capitalists and tinpot strongmen have very little in common with one another except for the fact that their people are getting tired of them.

You can call it all “populism”, but that itself doesn’t say very much, since “the people” out there have all sorts of different demands and visions of a better world (to the extent they have alternatives as opposed to just grievances), many of them contradictory. What seems to be clear is that political and economic systems, which have managed to survive the Cold War and the three decades afterwards, are under growing strain, with increasing proportions of the respective populations losing faith in the system’s ability to deliver – and indeed in whether those in power actually care about them. It might indeed be, as Richard writes, the biggest story since the fall of the Soviet Union, but what it actually is escapes at the moment any clear explanation, as does any speculation as to the ultimate destination. Unlike the shining hope of the liberated masses thirty years ago, this time around the picture appears in much darker hues.

* Coincidentally, and to blow my own trumpet, more than three years ago, when analysing public opinion research on public trust, I wrote this: “If you think that the United States and Great Britain have been experiencing considerable political upheavals, France will at least match if not surpass the dreaded Anglo-Saxons in the chaos stakes.”